Reading the Riots Reader…

As followers of this blog will know, I recently took part in Reading the Riots, a research project looking at the disorder that took place throughout England last August… Despite being part of the project, I found it hard to catch up with everything that came out of it, and if the conversations I’ve had over the last couple of weeks are anything to go by, so have many people.

So in a quick (if larger than anticipated) blog post, I thought I’d go through the main articles about the project and what we found. A bit like a Reader’s Digest of Reading the Riots I guess… I decided to focus mainly on articles from the project itself, although if you’re lucky (!), I might do another post about some of the reactions to it, and obviously any comments / suggestions in the comments are more than welcome.


A lot of the questions that came up when people asked me about Reading the Riots related to the actual research project itself and how we did it, how we found so many people to talk to, how we did the interviews and how we knew that they were telling the truth and not just trying to find an excuse to their actions…

You can read about the methodology of the research here and find out more about the team here. There is also a fascinating article by Philip Meyer on the relevance of the project for journalism and academic research, in contrast with the research he led on the Detroit riots in 1967 and which inspired the Reading the Riots project.

The interesting thing about the team of researchers is that we all had very different backgrounds: academic, social research, journalism, etc… The one thing we definitely all had in common was a personal interest in finding out more about what happened. We also were all very tired by the end of it and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when I say that the riots have been the subject of about 90% of all the social conversations I’ve had for the last 2 months (for which I apologise and promise to work on my conversation skills over the break!)…

And yet I’m also pretty sure that everyone’s experience has been unique and affected them in different ways. To find more about the researchers and what we did in those few weeks check out the following:

    • a ‘making-of’ video talking to some of the researchers about their work reaching rioters, complete with a reconstruction of an interview and a great driving sequence…

Various blog posts from researchers:

    • Rob Kazandjian’s experience talking to rioters and how it changed how he saw the riots,
    • Dave Atkinson on how he was moved to break his own rule and write about work for once,
    • Ben Ferguson on the great London divide he witnessed when working for the project,
    • and Tony Schumacher about how interviews that don’t happen were sometimes just as meaningful as the ones that did…

What and Who?

“What happened?” was the main question that the project set out to answer, to determine what actually went on in those few days in August, how things spread and who were really involved.

The work done by the data team at the Guardian is fascinating and covers everything from the ‘riot commute’ to what offences rioters were charged with, and the use of twitter during the riots. Check out the data blog about the riots here.

To get a better idea of what happened, you can also read this article, which tells the story of the riots through the rioters’ own words. And in case you were wondering who those rioters are, here’s an article that explores that very question.

Why? Or not…

Because of the nature of the interviews (in-depth, flexible, free-flowing) and the willingness of the interviewees to talk, we also found out a lot about why people took to the streets, rioted, looted and generally did what they did. The most important thing to point out is that the issues behind the riots are complex and not ‘simple’ in any way. Not only do they differ from one place to the next, even in London, but they also differ from one person to the next.

Here’s a quick overlook of the most striking ‘themes’ identified in the 270 interviews:

    • Interviewees’ opinion of and relationship with the police was probably the most overwhelming issue mentioned when discussing what caused the riots. Again, it is a complex question which doesn’t seem to boil down to “they’re criminals and therefore hate the police” and has more to do with how police are perceived in people’s everyday lives rather than the job they do in general. There are two very interesting articles on these issues, one on the riots and a general reaction against the police, and another more specifically on stop and search and its impact on communities.
    • Another important issue that we found when talking to ‘rioters’ was that of consumerism and materialism. And again, although a lot of people did candidly admit to just ‘wanting free stuff’, others did also show a more complex vision of things, as you will see if you read this article.

Many of the issues that were mentioned in the immediate aftermath of the riots as reasons behind the unrest did not materialise in the findings, or rather often took a different form:

      • Gangs do not seem to have played a prominent part in organising any of the riots, and in fact there was an effective 4-day truce in London and throughout the country between rival gangs.
      • Although race was a relevant factor in the unrest, the research found that these were not ‘race riots’ in the way previous riots might have been…
      • Another target in the ‘blame-game’ that took place in the days and weeks following the riots was the use of social media and facebook and twitter in particular. One particularly interesting finding of RtR is that although twitter was extensively used for the riot clean-up for example, it played almost no part in spreading the disorder However, other modes of communication played a vital part in spreading information and gathering people.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, this article and video highlight a sentiment that permeated many, and perhaps too many, interviews. A sense of injustice, of helplessness in the face of the current political, economic and social climate…

And if you want more…

Beyond the actual findings of the research as to what happened and why, there have been some thought provoking articles on the riots, both from the Reading the Riots team and other contributors. (again, I am aware that there are many other sources for great material on this, but this post is already long enough as it is, although suggestions in the comments are very welcome!)

For a different take on the rioters’ actions:

    • this short article focuses on the rioters’ morality during those few days and where some of them drew the line in terms of what they would and wouldn’t do,
    • another article looks at the role of women in the riots and whether it was any different from that of male rioters.
  • the riots have been blamed on many things and many events, one of which was the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham a few days before the riots started. In this article, Symeon Brown looks at another incident that was mentioned by many when explaining why they decided to ‘riot’, and what it really means…
  • two comment pieces are well worth a read too, one by the Archbishop of Canterbury on how we cannot ignore the voice of so many, and another looking at the political context of those events and whether it was, or could be called, a protest…
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