Beyond Contagion: Understanding The Spread of Riots

The ESRC funded Beyond Contagion project involved a three-year study (2016-2019) of the August 2011 riots in England. Its aim was to critically assess the concept of ‘contagion’, that is the supposed involuntary spread of behaviours between humans. The core idea is that, particularly in crowds, mere exposure to the behaviour of others leads observers to behave in the same way. ‘Contagion’ is now used to explain everything from ‘basic’ responses such as smiling and yawning (where the mere act of witnessing someone yawn or smile can invoke the same response in another) to complex phenomena like the behaviour of financial markets and, of course, rioting.

Through experiment and detailed studies of the 2011 riots the project demonstrated the flaws in the concept of ‘contagion’, exposed and refuted a series of myths about the riots and demonstrated the mechanisms for the spread of riots within and between cities and towns. Crucially the project provided evidence for why some areas riot and others do not, a fundamental question that the simplistic concept of ‘contagion’ fails to answer.

The following three podcasts produced by the academic researchers working on the project explain the basis of outmoded concepts concerning crowds and riots (Part 1), the content and findings of the Beyond Contagion project (Part 2) and some of the further research (including this 1831 reform riots project) that has resulted (Part 3).