Spent the last hours watching the reports flood in on the London Riots that are fast becoming the UK Riots, should things continue on. As the first-gen Canadian child of a Brit, I have a special place in my heart for London and the UK. My great-grandfather fought in WWI for Britain. My voice slants into a British accent upon contact with my family, as if it were tucked away within my DNA, waiting to be triggered.
Watching London burn is heartbreaking. It’s also terrifying, because as much as American and Canadian media want to diminish coverage, they should be paying close attention. This is what’s coming very soon. The foundations of human behaviour that breed riots will always be there, a stack of kindling looking for a spark. It is the sociopolitical factors that are fuelling the fires within the citizens of the world, and the Conservative governments people have shortsightedly supported in North America and London will only worsen matters.
Collective behaviour theories: a brief discussion of how riots evolve
Collective behaviour theory seeks to understand precisely that: how we behave as groups – collectively – and why we do so. Despite the numerous articles on the subject, no one theory seems to be accepted as the be-all, end-all answer to riots, panics, and lynch mob mentality. I first examined collective behaviour as a course in my Crime & Deviance program, and it was by far one of the most fascinating and also frustrating topics I studied.
For those wanting a review of all of the key theories, you can start with this wiki-link that outlines most in brief, and this article, which goes into greater detail and covers more theories, including one of my personal preferred explanations, threshold theory. As threshold theory serves as a strong basis for the riots in London, given the facts, I’ll focus on it.
Threshold theory argues that within each of us is a personal threshold that dictates if and when we will engage in a form of collective behaviour. For some, the threshold is zero – meaning these people will engage in the action without anyone else starting things up. These are the instigators of a group. Some possess relatively low thresholds – for example, if two people begin to tip a car over and break windows, some may be duly motivated to join in and continue the behaviour. Some possibly have a 100% threshold – they will never act, unless the entire population is also acting.
Thresholds are theorized to be based upon a cost-risk analysis of sorts, making collective behaviour rational by this theory. If someone is a criminal with history who cannot find a job and is starving, he will have no threshold to stealing food because the risk (arrest) does not sway him. Someone who is wealthy and respected in the community will not steal food without a great deal of motivation, because she has a lot to lose and fear if caught.
But this isn’t the whole story, in my mind, because it fails to account for those who feel genuine shame after the group disperses, or who do suffer great costs for the behaviour later that could and should have been predicted. This is where we dash in emergent-norm theory. Put as simplistically as possible: the group becomes a new entity, an almost society in which norms ’emerge’ that may be the opposite of usual personal norms. It allows for ‘good’ people to be drawn in over time through pressure of the group; ‘disobedience’ becomes the ‘new normal’ and people inherently prefer to blend in or belong.
London Riots: theory applied
I’ve wrestled with explaining this on Twitter tonight, but basically, we have two unique groups within the rioters, who may be partially spurred by the same political and socioeconomic factors, but have a very different inherent set of norms and beliefs that come to the table. We have instigators, and we have the general masses who have merged in and joined the looting and destruction, to varying degrees.
In threshold theory, the instigators are people already prone to riots. The groups noted as organizing on Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and social media? The ones who dropped flyers like this?
These are the zero threshold people. They would riot as long as possible, no matter what the crowd did in response. Their motivations at present moment: to screw with the government, with societal structure and the law. Anarchy is their flavour of Kool-Aid. How they became anarchists with such low thresholds for the behaviour that they would not only organize, but lay in wait for opportune settings like the killing of Mark Duggan, one can wager many guesses. I’m going to go with a sense of disenfranchisement, hopelessness about the future, lack of connection with the law and government and being harassed for the sheer crime of being young/of a minority background.
Surprised? Why? Blaming youth has been a prime strategy of moral panics for decades now; for a thorough examination, locate the book Blaming Children by Bernard Schissel. Youth crime has overall been on the decline in Canada – crime in general has also been declining – but from the media and government, you would never know it. They are scapegoat du jour, the ‘asshole punks’ who steal things and ‘are up to no good’ on the street corner. In London, that has never been more apparent: youth centres were cut to save money, and peaceful protests went ignored by government and media alike. The city was ripe for the anarchy-minded, just waiting for that match to meet the kindling.
In an eerily prophetic article on July 29th in the Guardian, the warning signs are laid out:
Others worry that a perfect storm of unemployment, the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a squeeze on programmes to help disadvantaged youths could bring more than just a rise in crime figures and result in a “lost generation”.“The young people in Tottenham, they are not so much a community within a community, they are a community beyond the community, with their own rules, their own codes, their own hierarchy,” said Symeon Brown, 22, who helped run a campaign to prevent the cuts in Haringey. “How do you create a ghetto? By taking away the very services that people depend upon to live, to better themselves.”Professor John Pitts, who has researched gang behaviour for more than 40 years, says the “annihilation” of youth services, coupled with academies likely to favour middle-class students over disadvantaged children, could further disconnect young people from society and result in more entrenched gangs.“Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” he said.“At a simple level that could mean an increase in antisocial behaviour and vandalism. In the longer term, if you withdraw state protection then there will be ever greater reliance on the groupings that emerge in that vacuum.”
But that’s not even the whole story. Check out this article from the Guardian, outlining numerous other protests within the last year, and noting that since 1998 there have been over 300 deaths in police custody, with not a single officer charged for any of them of course, and the Mark Duggan incident becomes the clear straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back.
The protesting began peacefully outside a police station, demanding answers over Duggan’s death. Insert a few instigators who are angry in general at the police, shake with impoverished people who have little to lose and emotions running high, and serve over fiery police cars and broken windows.
The riots would be over by now, if the instigators were apprehended or felt dissuaded enough to hide away, waiting for their next prime moment to strike. The trouble is, with all of the anger, poverty and desperation felt by so many, the threshold lowers and people who may have never imagined looting are suddenly joining the masses. The fact that some are looting diapers and basmati rice of all things speaks volumes. Some are more enterprising and seeking items of value to sell later to survive. Some are just acting because, as emergent-norm theory predicts, when thievery becomes normalized in a group, they figure, “Why not?” and start grabbing their own TV or sneakers.
Wait, you ask: are you justifying these horrible actions? No, absolutely not. There are plenty of horrified Londoners who are sitting home, with no intentions whatsoever of looting. There is always a choice to make in group behaviour, although it is admittedly harder in a throng of people all doing the opposite of what is normally done. But we cannot excuse government, police and societal culpability. Police stopping and searching people – youth in particular – of race and in certain areas breeds contempt and a lack of respect and insulted dignity. Cutting programs aimed at engaging troubled youth or assisting impoverished youth in obtaining education that may hoist them out of their dreary cirumstances has a price, and London’s paying it.
Then again, those looting and protesting are not hurting the government or the structures that have created such a chasm between the haves and have-nots. Breaking into people’s homes and cars is disgusting and not remotely justifiable. All these people have done is further divide a people that now, more than ever, should be collectively resisting the government’s failures. For all of the genuine and understandable rage behind the actions of many over the last three days, they are accomplishing nothing for their cause.
Well, neither did peaceful protest, sadly. In an amazing and insightful blog posting from Laurie Penny, she quotes a telling NBC report:
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’
So what is the solution? How do we prevent this? How do we punish the guilty? These are the questions ringing out on Twitter tonight. I have no simple answers; there are none. In almost two centuries, sociologists have yet to agree on a theory of collective behaviour itself. But I do know this: more of the same is coming. And even if governments were to back up and desperately attempt to curb off the angst, it would be far too little too late to defuse the ticking time bombs. Our instigators are well-organized and waiting to strike, and there will always be people with too little to lose to resist. Such is the way of our capitalist system of purchased democracy.
A very detailed and academic look at Threshold theory
An article about the Mark Duggan shooting, which spurred initial protests that evolved rapidly.
Google map showing locations of all verified riot activity
Amazing moment by moment coverage of the rioting Monday (flip back for past rioting)
An article detailing how the youth ‘had nothing to lose’ – bringing it back to threshold theory…
A powerful blog from a past resident of Croydon, that asks a key question: why aren’t we giving the looters and rioters a voice?