CAN SCIENTISTS PREDICT A RIOT?
Dr Raj Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist
The term ‘mob mentality’ tells you that people commit acts when in groups, they wouldn’t consider on their own.
An unruly crowd is being driven by a number of powerful psychological forces that releases individuals from inhibitions. These drivers include anonymity, conformity and a diffusion of personal responsibility. In an emotional group atmosphere we also become more susceptible to suggestion, manipulation, and imitation. The strong emotions released become a powerful cementing force, creating a buzzing connection between rioters when sparked.
These potent psychological forces bubbling beneath the surface for many more of us than is realised, are unleashed into a riot, when the right conditions are shaken together, producing an explosive cocktail.
Civil unrest lies along a spectrum of progressively disruption to public order. This occurs whenever a group in
the community feels, accurately or not, that some aspect of society is unjust. Examples of civil disturbance include strikes, demonstrations, and at the extreme end riots.
A riot is a violent disruption of order that threatens public safety. Looting is when stealing occurs on a large scale through the activity of a crowd, as opposed to an individual. Looting is usually opportunistic – taking advantage of the breakdown in public order. It is difficult to reconcile as a central form of protest, unless the goal was more than personal benefit. In other words, was disruption to the function of the community the aim as a form of protest? If this is so then other contributors to chaos would be encouraged, like targeting transport links.
Some political organisers of riots may encourage looting in order to recruit more participants – it’s a kind of incentive scheme. But the masterminds may not be interested in the goods taken. Some riots in the past have involved looting because one section of a community was resentful of another’s tendency to run shops or be the ‘shopkeeping class’.
Disentangling what happened and why, in the midst of a breakdown in public order, may not be so clear, and different participants may have had contrasting motivations. The reason a riot started may not be the same as the causes for it continuing and escalating.
The academic research points the finger firmly in the direction of ethnicity, or community diversity, as being a crucial factor. This does not mean that one race or one community is more prone to riot than any other – but that when communities live close together which are divided by race or religion, then riots are more likely. The number one country in the world for riots is found to be India, followed by the USA.
What India and the USA share is large cities with groups separated by race or religion living close together. This may sound a bleak view of cosmopolitan society, but one of the favourite places for riots across the world is sports venues. This is because rival groups of supporters congregate in close proximity. In a sense some neighbourhoods are a kind of powder keg because they are a permanent home
Scientists who gather data on crowd behaviour and insurrection have also found that in fact the relative youth of a population and poverty have little to do with rioting. Yet these are the two favourite whipping boys of media pundits for the recent English riots. The danger is if the academic research is ignored, we won’t address the really important causes, leaving us vulnerable to more disturbances like these in the future.
For example, in one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, Denise DiPasquale from the University of Chicago, and Edward Glaeser Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research in the USA have analysed hundreds of recent riots across the last few decades, all over the world. Their research concludes with some surprising answers from the patterns they observed.
When they looked at countries across the planet, they found the nations most prone to rioting in descending order are India, the U.S.A, South Africa, Pakistan, and Italy. The authors of this research argue that most obvious common theme shared by four of these countries is ethnic or community diversity.
They started their research following the Los Angeles riots of 1992 where 52 people died, almost 2,500 were injured, over $446 million in property damage was sustained and overwhelmingly 94 per cent, the damaged buildings were commercial and 76 per cent of them were retail stores.
Those riots also resembled the recent crowd disturbances in England in the nature of the way they started. Four policemen accused of beating motorist Rodney King were found innocent in suburban Los Angeles, precipitating relatively peaceful demonstrations in front of the L.A. police department. These protests escalated over time into full scale riots.
DiPasquale and Glaeser note that previous significant riots in the USA, before LA 1992, all began with perceived injustice of ethnic minorities at the hands of white police officers.
These academics did not find, when they examined where and when riots occurred all over the world over many years, that straightforward poverty or inequality was a significant factor which explained rioting, but that a particular kind of community structure might be more important. They found instead that 36 per cent of the African-American households in South Central L.A. are headed by females, a much higher rate than in L.A. County or across the U.S. They wondered if this could be one of the crucial factors in the 1992 LA riots.
DiPasquale and Glaeser contend that it’s community structure which is more important than poverty. The high number of female headed households in the part of LA where the 1992 riots started, indicates that the adult male community there, is especially disengaged from parenting, the most basic social responsibility, the authors argue in their study published in the prestigious academic journal – The Journal of Urban Economics.
Whatever you may believe the causes of the recent frightening disturbances in England were, it’s imperative we pay attention to the scientific data on the subject and address the correct root causes. The danger is, if we don’t, that we will all suffer, even if we didn’t take part in the disturbances. This is because our rulers could implement ineffective or counterproductive policies.
DiPasquale and Glaeser, when they compared countries across the world, found that Dictatorships have, on average, 25 per cent fewer riots per year than non-dictatorships. Democracies don’t, as a rule, engage in the more repressive anti-riot techniques favoured by dictators. But they could become tempted by this approach, and indeed the whole country can get pushed towards a more dictatorial style of government, if civil unrest continues.