Understanding Why the Riots in England Occurred: An Academic Perspective by M. Rodwan Abouharb

By Elizabeth Milner, on 10 November 2011

The reasons why the riots took place are complex, but not complicated.  Likewise, explaining why the riots occurred needs a sophisticated response; it is not simply either poverty or criminality.  Such dichotomies serve to erroneously categorise a heterodox group of people and the reasons that led to the rioting.  Such different reasons for individual participation mean that if the government wants to take these issues seriously then it needs a multifaceted response. In many ways, the riots represent the culmination of a perfect storm of factors which have increased the probability of violence.  Understanding these factors does not mean condoning them, but provides some insight about how such events might be prevented in the future. A more nuanced understanding of these events comes not from ideological posturing, but through distilling a lot of the research in political science and sociology. To be sure, I think each of three sets of reasons listed below explains different motivations for why the riots took place.

Relative Deprivation & Violence:  Work by Robert Gurr, amongst others, has argued that when people are worse off, in comparison to what they expect, then this difference between expectations and outcomes will increase the likelihood of violence.  This concept is also described as self-regarding behaviour.  Perhaps the two clearest and most recent examples that may increase the likelihood that someone feels relatively deprived have been the government’s cuts to the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the increase in costs of university education.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats argue that the EMA cuts and the increase in educational costs are actually being carried out in a way that protects the poor and enables them to gain a university education.  However, even if is the case (and it is not clear that it is), it does not actually matter, since people believe that they will not be able to go to college or university anymore.  Whether we accept the interviewed rioters’ explanations also does not matter.  If their objective financial situation would lead them to believe that they can no longer afford an education, this will increase their perceived level of relative deprivation and also the likelihood of violence.  Though the riots exhibit some classic hallmarks of relative deprivation, or self-regarding behaviour, there is also an important related concept called other-regarding behaviour where individuals compare their own situation to the situation of others.

Other-regarding behaviour is also particularly important and speaks to a broader sense of malaise that governments of both the Left and Right are not governing in the broad interests of society.  This disenchantment also seems to be part of the underlying set of reasons for why the riots took place.  In interviews, rioters often compare their situation to others who have become wealthy, especially those whose ill-gotten gains seemed to have been achieved with impunity.  MPs expenses, and the financial crises caused by the selfish behaviour of the banks, have often been described in anger by the interviewed rioters.  Just because the rioters interviewed are not, for the most part, linguistically sophisticated or able to express themselves in the ‘Queens’ English doesn’t mean that they are not pointing to very legitimate concerns.

One of the standard responses to the relative deprivation arguments put forth by rioters has been that MPs and bankers have gone to jail.  This may be true, but it fails to recognize the culture of entitlement that has grown up around both these institutions.  The fact that some already very wealthy MPs believe it is appropriate for their moats to be cleaned on public expense seems incredible.  The only reason that this behaviour has (perhaps) changed is that it was blown open by investigative journalism.  Likewise, individual bankers are often rewarded for risk-taking behaviour.  Yet, is it really risk-taking if the gains are private and the losses are public?  The problem is more widespread and is one not limited to the Conservatives; it was under Labour’s watch that the City was effectively de-regulated.  The banks successfully lobbied the previous Labour government. The banks seemed to have convinced the previous government that they could behave themselves.  Moreover the banks argued that while other areas of society have effective regulation and oversight, that banks are better and can regulate themselves. Yet we are now surprised that selfish human behaviour takes place in these organisations as in any other?  In interviews, the rioters have repeatedly commented that society is all about making money and that the behaviour of bankers and MPs stealing with impunity is indicative of this larger societal issue.  They reason that if bankers and MPs are doing it why shouldn’t they be able to do the same?

One of the most surprising responses from some of the interviews with the rioters was the repeated response that taking part in the riots made them feel ‘powerful.’  This suggests that most of the time they feel powerless and unable to shape their future.  Indeed, a number of the rioters made explicit reference to what we might think of as very ‘little-c’ conservative values.  That is, what they wanted for themselves was not the glitz and the glamour of the vaunted rapper lifestyles, but actually more ‘wholesome’ values—being able to afford a house and having a job.

More generally, young people are increasingly aware that they are no longer able to afford to have what society considers the norm, such as buying a home and having a job (which is evidenced by the highest levels of youth unemployment in recent decades).  Not only do the adults in society effectively control access to these financial services and revenues in the employment world, but it is also adults that have created this situation. Now some of the basics that most people expect in an advanced industrialised economic, namely a home, and employment with sufficient income for a decent life, are now out of reach to many.  These facts are all well-known.  We shouldn’t be surprised if violence is a result, especially if previous demonstrations like those that took place earlier this year are effectively ignored.  More generally, the focus of politicians and the press on ‘rich kids’ who become involved in these demonstrations, or those who we might otherwise class as ‘professionals’ are red-herrings for why the majority of this particular group rioted. To be sure there are a number of other reasons too, and some would argue that this relative deprivation discussion does not explain why individuals were stealing trainers and TVs.  To this critique I turn next.

Rational Choice & Violence:  The second category of rationales for the riots might be labelled as rational choice and violence.  In these circumstances, individuals weigh the costs and benefits of engaging in the violence.  For example, for those who were looting with an aim to keep or sell these goods for themselves, they weighed the likelihood that they would be caught versus the ‘benefit’ of keeping or selling these goods. To be sure this set of choices can run concurrently with the feeling of relative deprivation, and in many ways, it would make sense that it does.  If someone feels relatively deprived, perhaps that feeling results from their EMA being cut or from college becoming more expensive.  Stealing, then, is a rational (if illegal) response.  Individuals might feel that they can make up the difference in their income, which has been affected by the cuts.   This is especially likely if other sources of income, such as proper employment, are not available, or the individuals are not qualified.

Sampson’s Paradox & Violence:  Finally, there has been consternation at the choices of some individuals to damage their own communities.  Mark Lichbach, in earlier research, has argued for the concept of Sampson’s paradox.  The biblical story of Sampson was one in which the title character would rather die with the Philistines than suffer at the hands of his foes.  Today, this translates to people who are deprived and rational—the ‘have-nots’ will choose to hurt the ‘haves’, even if it is at great cost to themselves.  In this case, the rioters chose to destroy what they could not afford, or, perhaps more worrying, they destroyed that which they did not have the ability to attain.

The policy choices are clear: return support for higher education, return support for EMAs, return support for Youth Centres, and provide educational and training opportunities that are not based upon the ability to pay.  It is these unglamorous ‘soft’ policies that keep society together.  We are the only industrialised country to make such cuts; they are both self-defeating and divisive. Such policy choices now will cost money.  But the riots cost a massive amount of money, estimated at £100M, which the tax payer will ultimately foot.  And this doesn’t consider the lost revenues from tourists and investors who have decided to go elsewhere.  The economic success story of countries like South Korea is long–term, sustained levels of support for education.  More generally, education has an intrinsic value in a liberal society, teaching people to think for themselves and, sometimes, to question authority.  This makes governments more accountable and enables individuals to realise their own personal talents and live their own lives to the fullest extent.

Perhaps the more important question, which will kill or facilitate these choices, is a societal question.  What do we, as a society, value?  Very few commentators have noted that these were English riots, not riots across the United Kingdom.  Is this a coincidence?  In contrast to Westminster, which effectively only governs education in England, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly have made affordable education and assisting poorer students a relative priority. Everyone understands the need to make cuts in financially difficult times, but if departments were cut on average 20%, why was support for higher education cut by nearly 82%? Some could rightly accuse these individuals of targeting and destroying what they don’t have, but perhaps those individuals were targeted first.


Dr. M. Rodwan Abouharb
Director MSc Global Governance and Ethics
Lecturer International Relations
Department of Political Science, School of Public Policy
University College London