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Riots, meaning, and social phenomena

By P.A.J. Waddington

The academic long vacation offers the opportunity to catch-up on some reading and reflect upon it. Amongst my reading this summer was the special edition of Policing and Society devoted to contemporary rioting and protest. It was good reading. I was stimulated, challenged, and enraged by the articles in equal measure — I even agreed occasionally.

Long ago, a pioneer of sociology, Max Weber, drew a distinction between explanations at the level of causality and at the level of meaning. Explaining something — protest and disorder — at the level of causality involves finding that concatenation of conditions that enhance the likelihood that protest and disorder will occur and in the absence of which it will not. Frequently, the contributions to this special edition implicitly attempt to do precisely that. Many of them invoke the ‘usual suspects’ of economic conditions — globalisation, recession, public expenditure cuts, and so forth — as creating pre-dispositions for the occurrence of protest and rioting.

We are all agreed, I think, that the causation of social phenomena is complex and demands multi-factorial explanations. There is no shortage of factors that authors intuitively regard as important. The problem is that if the phenomenon demands multi-factorial explanation, then all the case studies in the world simply won’t cut it. It may seem intuitively obvious why the electrocution of two youths who sought sanctuary from pursuing police in an electricity substation was likely to ignite the banlieues of many French cities. Yet, sadly, deaths following contact with the police are not so uncommon; some of these deaths are intensely controversial, but still they only rarely result in rioting. In the 1960s, American cities were repeatedly convulsed by rioting. When Spilerman (1970; 1971; 1976) examined not just those cities that suffered disorder, but a wide range of cities, he found that economic deprivation, inequality, and other ‘usual suspects’ failed to explain why some erupted in violence and others didn’t.


If we really want causally to explain protests and disorder, we should hand the problem over to mathematicians who are good at detecting patterns and spotting aberrations, however rare their occurrence. It’s simple: collect all the information we possibly can on all manner of variables — social, economic, political, historical, and be sure to include environmental conditions (people rarely riot during winter time) — create a ‘big data’ dataset, and start the supercomputers churning. This could do for social science what ‘big data’ has achieved in meteorology and medicine. Nonetheless, I wager that it will not explain very much.

Why not? The answer lies, I believe, in Weber’s notion of explanations at the level of meaning. As Professor Body-Gendrot puts it in her contribution to this volume: “Inequality is a powerful social divider.” Yes, it is: but it needs to be accompanied by “a rising awareness of inequalities.” People can live peacefully in the most appalling circumstances, whilst their comparatively privilege peers erupt in collective disorder and violence. What would explain such perversity? Well, it would appear that when people are scraping a living, they have little time in which to ponder the conditions that govern their lives and their causes. It is when people do have the time to ponder that they reflect on their circumstances, draw comparisons between their own lives and those of the more privileged — and become angry. It is how people make sense of their deprivations that explains why they protest and become disorderly. Students of protest politics emphasise how issues must be ‘framed’ in order to translate personal woes into collective grievances.

Here too there are formidable problems. How do we know how people interpret and what they believe about, say, the deaths of two youths in a Paris suburb? Asking a suitable sample of rioters why they are rioting, would be hazardous. If we ask people after the event why they rioted, we are likely to obtain self-serving justifications. Another veteran sociological theorist, Thomas Schutz drew an important distinction between ‘in order to’ motives offered in advance of action and after the fact ‘because’ motives. Explanations after the event may well be justifications or neutralisations which were not in play at the time of their actions. Before the event, people may go into riots with few or very ill-informed motives.

There is also the question of ex post facto collective constructions of meaning: when people try to make sense of what they have done they may well rely on the arguments of others or negotiate meanings between themselves. They may be ably assisted in this by academics, who are prone to attribute their own preferred meanings to events like riots. Riots become political Rorschach blots eliciting otherwise hidden meanings, and most academics are clever enough to piece together some sort of persuasive narrative and find some convincing evidence to develop what they say.

Of course, all this is premised on the assumption that such events do have coherent meaning. Sometimes people embark on action without clear purpose or plan. Weber also drew the valid and valuable distinction between instrumental and expressive purposes. We should not, too readily, assume that rioting is instrumental, it may just be expressive: as Paul Rock observed (1981) rioting is ‘fun’. Even worse, it might be both.

We are, I fear, condemned to gaze upon this phenomena from the outside and imagine what might be going in people’s heads.

P.A.J. Waddington is Professor of Social Policy, Hon. Director, Central Institute for the Study of Public Protection, The University of Wolverhampton. He is the co-editor of Professional Police Practice: Scenarios and Dilemmas with John Kleinig and Martin Wright, and a general editor for Policing. Read his previous blog posts.

A leading policy and practice publication aimed at senior police officers, policy makers, and academics, Policing contains in-depth comment and critical analysis on a wide range of topics including current ACPO policy, police reform, political and legal developments, training and education, specialist operations, accountability, and human rights.

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Image credit: Riots – Cars on fire. © MacXever via iStockphoto.

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