Friday, 12 August 2011

Trashing cityscapes

Now for something a bit more ‘dark’, as film people love to say. And it’s not good.
Several English cities had areas trashed by their own dwellers and from some who’d come in to do this. Looting, burning including setting fires where people were living above shops, brutality and instrumental / opportunistic thieving were all in evidence.

'Explanations' are coming up. The ‘obvious’ ones are of individual psychology, or rather pop psychology (I don’t think many of my colleagues in the psychology section of our department will have much truck with them): criminal inclinations, poor 'parenting', lack of education (or poor teaching) and so forth; or the idea that social media create an ease of making riots. The YouGov poll fed into this, asking for people's perceptions of 'one MAIN reason' for the riots.

More sophisticated explanations take account of multiple factors, and from both psychology and sociology there are many: crowd behaviour, emergent norms, multiple deprivation, and notably from Zygmunt Bauman the idea that ‘These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers’ (

I can see several things working here, resulting in the destruction which the rioters – yes, ‘criminal’ rioters – effected. I’ve seen three things coming together which I posted on Facebook as (tidied up and edited/expanded a little):

  1. a general level of protest and disconnection, associated with issues of disrespect and underclass; but not - in the sense of many other areas in the world - 'poverty'. Yet these people may feel that their community, others where they live, are against them and that they are therefore oppressed locally as well as by the popular devils of our age, politicians, police, bankers…
  2. however, the issue of what Bauman calls 'defective and disqualified consumers' in the sense that they know they can't measure up to what they're presented with in the media or other 'lifestyle' things, other than through illegal means, the underground economy which exacts its own payments - and -
  3.  'group think' which is now much wider than local communities. FB and twitter play a part here, but only when related to the narrowness of exploration of some of those involved with the riots. Blackberry messenger is something about which I can't speak but seems to have been central, enabling individuals to communicate with a very small (relatively speaking) community which they feel is 'theirs'.
But what I think is missing – from all analyses, including mine above though it’s hinted at in (1), is the sense of place. These were people from many sections of their community. Teenagers, oh yes, but also others who could be expected to have more connection. How does a teacher-assistant come to be picked up looting? How many were ‘out of area’ – some were gang members, yes, but who did they see as enemy? Some others may have started out indignant about the previous Thursday shooting, then got swept up by the mood of the moment; some indifferent to the shooting, still swept up.  But thinking particularly about the young people, some only eleven and twelve, how do they become able to set fires and loot in areas that they know well?

 I don’t have answers. But there is a need to look at the places, not only as burnt-out scenes or as property of vandalised shopkeepers (to whom I give respect) but as streets, walking, driving, cycling and running places, spaces for living, as shopping centres for moving around in, as even individual shops with which some of the looters were already familiar; and to ask how or why these shops could become alien, targeted, or even sufficiently different to become a focus for local lads’ and ladettes’ acquisitiveness. And to my mind the possible answers will include those from a critique of architecture and planning, the structuring of our cities, just as much as from the sociological explanations of class, ethnicity, disprivilege, disparity and resistance, and the psychological ones of individual deprivation and indeed personal trauma.


  1. "‎If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth" [african proverb]"...

  2. Yes. Thanks Dave. And so many of them are not initiated into village, town or city, beyond a very small environment (postcode gangs..)