Why we need a (new) social psycho-history

Why did they riot? Answering a question like this means drawing upon both historiography and psychology. Scholars have long recognized this, but their attempts to combine the two disciplines have not always been successful.

The first ‘psycho-history’ was Hippolyte Taine’s monumental history of France (1876). He traced what he saw as the decline of civilization to the 1789 revolution and the psychology of the crowd. In his account, the psychology of crowds was more primitive than that of individuals, and was a function of simple mechanisms such as contagion and feverishness. This would explain what Taine saw as the (sans culottes) crowd’s mindless violence, irrationality, and stupidity. 

While Taine may be largely forgotten today, his examples and some of his concepts were plagiarised by the most famous of the early crowd psychologists, Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon claimed that in a crowd people become ‘barbarians’, losing their sense of self and being driven instead by a primitive ‘racial unconscious’. Le Bon’s ideas influenced not only academic psychology, but also the (coercive) practices of police forces, armies and emergency planners – practices that later research showed can produce the very crowd disorder they were meant to combat.

Historiography has helped psychology research and theory

Historiographical studies have been vital to social psychologists and others evaluating theories like those of Taine and Le Bon. An example is E. P. Thompson’s account of English food riots. In his paper, Thompson took issue with the then historiographical orthodoxy which had answered the question ‘why did they riot?’ by invoking a simple psychological model similar to that of Le Bon. In this ‘spasmodic’ view of history, food rioting was a function simply of dearth and hence hunger: as prices rose, the ‘belly’ rather than the brain drove ‘instinctive’ reactions, including violence and ‘plunder’.

The ‘spasmodic’ view is intuitively appealing – psychological states of actual or expected hunger in local communities were clearly necessary preconditions for the food riots in those communities. But it didn’t stand up to the research evidence. 

First, Thompson showed that food riots happened not at times of greatest dearth but rather when merchants, millers and others were seen to be transgressing local rules and customs for the distribution of flour and grain – for example selling it to the highest bidder elsewhere rather than prioritising local need. Second, the ‘spasmodic’ view was unable to explain the social form of the rioters’ actions. Rather than an inchoate explosion of violence, rioters’ actions were both strategic and discriminating. They sought to restore conformity to the appropriate local customs and punish transgressors, rather than simply stuff their bellies.

In the new social history pioneered by Thompson, Rudé and others in the 1960s, the mindless crowd of the ‘spasmodic’ approach was replaced by an emphasis on the agency, norms, and rationality of protest crowds. The new orthodoxy was that, even if crowds were sometimes violent, their action was targeted and selective: it was often exercised against property rather than people, and the conservative defence of custom was more often than not the trigger. Social customs and rules placed constraints on protesters’ actions, and crowd participants were able to consciously draw upon these rules and customs in considering legitimate targets. 

October 1831: A crowd breaks into the New Gaol in Bristol and sets it ablaze

The problem of the 1831 Reform Riots

While the ‘rational crowd’ of the new orthodoxy could easily be identified in the early modern and Georgian protests, the crowd of the 1831 Reform Riots seemed to be much less rational and reasonable. The riots occurred after the rejection of the Second Reform Bill in the House of Lords, and consisted of serious disturbances in the East Midlands, Dorset and Somerset. The wave culminated in Bristol, with the most serious riot in nineteenth century Britain. Lasting three days, large crowds burned down the Mansion and Customs House, Excise Office, the Bishops’ Palace, and toll houses, and liberated inmates from prisons, destroying some of them by fire. Many historians thought they saw working class protest progressing steadily towards formal organisation in the nineteenth century – moving from ‘collective bargaining by riot’ to forming trades unions and, by 1838, a coherent national movement in the form of Chartism. Therefore the 1831 movement which was characterized by rioting seemed a retrograde step. To add to the impression that these were senseless events rather than expressions of rational progress, the actors in the 1831 riots were apparently not expecting or demanding enfranchisement for themselves. Thus, in contrast to the food riots, Luddism, Swing and other crowd events involving damage to property, the events of 1831 have been dismissed as outbursts of criminality and their targets seen as random and a result of simple drunkenness.

The August 2011 riots in England: Hackney, London

Parallels with the present day

From the point of view of social psychologists interested in crowd behaviour, what is striking in the way the events of 1831 have been characterized (and neglected) by many historians is the parallel we can see with more recent events – namely the English riots of 2011. These events began after the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London. There were riots in 89 different locations over five days in August, with more than 4,000 arrests and costs of up to £500 million.

Media coverage, as well as statements by politicians and other commentators, tended to explain the events of 2011 in one of two ways.  On the one hand, the riots were presented as simply an outburst of selfish and illegal behaviour by people who were already criminals. For example,  there were claims about the inadequate family upbringing of those  involved,  their  alleged  membership of a distinct cultural ‘underclass’, their supposed gang membership, and their criminal records. On the other hand, the riots were presented as mindless, unfocused, and indiscriminate. The fact that rioters were supposedly ‘destroying their own community’ was put forward as evidence of this descent into mindlessness. 

Some academics and political activists were similarly dismissive. They compared the events of 2011 unfavourably with the similar waves of riots in 1981 and 1985, claiming that whereas the older riots reflected legitimate grievances or were ‘political’ in some way, the events of 2011 were not. The fact that some of the 2011 looting involved expensive trainers was part of the evidence used to argue that the modern day riot was meaningless and/or criminal.

Understanding the 2011 English riots

It was a notable feature of the 2011 riots that though there are very many published pieces on these events (over 150 journal articles, chapters and books), very few of them are based on any empirical research evidence. Our three-year research project examining how the 2011 riots spread across the country drew upon a comprehensive data-set of interviews, videos, official reports and other archive data. We sought to closely examine both what happened in the riots and the experiences of participants. 

It turned out that the only evidence that those who participated were overwhelmingly convicted criminals was the initial police arrest data – which reflected the fact that police basically trawled for known criminals. The notion that the rioters’ actions were typically indiscriminate was contradicted by the Home Office’s own data, which showed that in only a small minority of cases were small local shops attacked, few homes were attacked, and most of the looting was from chain stores. 

We found that anti-police sentiment among participants was a significant factor in who joined in and what they did. One reason participants gave for this hostility was repeated experiences of ‘stop and search’ in the community. Shared anti-police sentiment formed the basis of a common identity, superseding ‘postcode rivalries’, and enabling coordinated action against police targets. In addition, many people saw themselves in opposition to a societal system they perceived as unjust and illegitimate; this made looting acceptable to many of them. 

Destruction was sometimes a way of asserting power against the police, or even drawing them into confrontation. The looting phase – and the involvement of criminal gangs – came after the anti-police phases in all cases.

Rioting spread to locations where there had historically been poor relations with police. In these locations, local people were either angered by the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham or were empowered by the perceived weakness of police in face of spreading rioting.

Social identities and the dynamics of crowd events

The key concept that helped us make sense of many of the patterns of behaviour in the 2011 events was social identity. Social identity is the sense of self people get from group membership, along with the definitions of possible and legitimate action associated with this group membership. Social identity provides actors with an understanding of their social location, and can be evidenced in who they include as part of ‘us’ and who they exclude as ‘other’. One of the patterns found in a number of riot events involved a change in identity among participants. This was often the result of police actions, such as baton charges, that inadvertently brought together disparate groups – both confrontational and non-confrontational – around a new shared norm of retaliating against the police.  

By examining changing dynamics between authorities and crowd – including asymmetries in perceptions of legitimate action, and actions by authorities perceived as indiscriminate – we can begin to understand why some events (but not others) become violent. By exploring the nature of targets and what participants say about them, we can examine how identities (rather than ‘mob mentality’) shape actions. And by examining the connections (in the thoughts and beliefs of the participants) between the different events making up a wave of civil unrest, we can understand how they spread.

A new social psycho-history entails two fundamental steps. The first is to add to the close analysis of what actually happened in events such as the 1831 Reform Riots a focus on any changes in relations with the authorities over time, especially those involving power and definitions of legitimacy. A second step is to try to look closely at who participated, their targets, and their slogans, and relate this to their identities, aims, beliefs, and perceptions. 

For the social identity approach, the opposition in explanations of collective conflict is not between the irrational and the rational but between the irrational and the social-cognitive. This means we should pay attention to the meanings that actors give their behaviour, which might vary according to their changing social identities. We need a new social psycho-history to inform historiographical analysis to do justice to the complexity and variety of behaviour in the 1831 Reform Riots riots and other contentious crowd events.

John Drury – University of Sussex