Understanding the causes of the summer riots in England in 2011: how different forms of research evidence can help.

London and other cities in England have been on fire for few nights in August 2011. Gary Young has described in an article in the Guardian Weekly how they resemble the one that took place in July 1967 in Detroit: ‘In the early hours of Sunday 23. July 1967, the police of Detroit raided an after-hours drinking establishment where 80 black mean and women celebrated the return fo two Vietnam veterans. This in itself was hardly rare. Police used to raid “blind pigs” all the time. What was extraordinary was what came next: an outpouring of protest, violence, looting, police brutality and, ultimately, full-scale federal military intervention. Before the week was out there were 43 dead, 467 injured, more than 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed: the deadliest riots in the history of Illinois.’

Young recalls how the blame for the Detroit riots was immediately given to immaturity and social deviancy. This, however, did not convince Nathan Caplan, a psychology professor at the University fo Michigan’s institute for social research, who decided to go for some field research with the help of some graduate students in the hours following the riots. He was also joined by Philip Mayer, a national correspondent of the Knight Newspaper, who had just returned to journalism after spending a year as research fellow at Harvard where he learned about social research methods. At that time Mayer was trying to break out the barriers of journalism and trying to apply social research methods to his reporter’s work. Interviews were conducted over a two weeks period, the data analyzed and written up in about ten days and the final report was titled The People Beyond 12th Street: a Survey of Attitudes of Detroit Negroes After the Riots of 1967. The report shows that, contrary to the general belief, there was no correlation between economic status or educational levels to the riots. The main grievances were police brutality, overcrowded living convictions, poor housing and lack of jobs.

From the point of view of gathering research evidence, the research by Caplan and Mayer, writes Young, has been an experiment to apply academic rigor to journalistic reportage.  It opened new ways to collecting data and present evidence merging the art and craft of the scientific community with the access that media and journalism have to the facts.

Forty-four years later, the research conducted in Detroit has served as a model for a research project, Reading the Riots, into the English riots of August 2011.  The study has been funded by the Joseph Rounder Foundation and the Open Society Foundation and has been implement through a close collaboration between the London School of Economics and The Guardian.  The demand for the study emerged from the seriousness of the civil disorders and the fact that there have not been attempts to systematically speak to those involved in the riots to understand the main causes. Similarly to the Detroit study, Reading the Riots has brought together a team of leading academics and expert and combined quantitative data with qualitative research methods. In terms of sources of evidence or types of knowledge I think it is interesting interesting to note that at the core of the research there is a database compiled by the Guardian with more than 1,100 defendants who have appeared in courts fo riot-related offenses and a second database of more than 2,5m riots-related tweets.  The media and social networks in this case have become key sources of evidence and actors in the research process and are not confined to the role of disseminating the research evidence to inform the public opinion and/or influence policy influencing.

As noted by Julian Unwin of the Joseph Rounder Foundation at the beginning of the research project in September 2011: “We believe that solid evidence has to be the driver of good policy. So, as policymakers develop responses to the riots, the need for solid evidence on the causes of the riots is crucial. Currently none exists.”

The results of the research have been presented last December. Two hundreds and seventy people who rioted in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and Salford  have been interviewed. The main finding of the study is that the driving force behind the participation in the riots is a deep seated almost visceral antipathy towards the police. Other finds that contradict initial widespread speculations are:

  • Looting has been the results of the perceived suspension of normal rules that gave the possibility to acquire what normally could not be afforded
  • Contrary to what the Government initially said, at the heart of the riots there were not gangs. Gangs had in fact suspended hostilities during that time
  • Contrary to widespread speculation the use of social media during the riots, the evidence shows that Facebook and Twitter were not used in any significant way. Texting and messaging have been the preferred way of combination by rioters.
  • Half of the of the interviewed were students. Of those who were not in education 59% was unemployed
  • The main political grievances related to the riots are related to social injustice in terms of access to money, jobs, opportunities
  • Policing was the most significant cause of the riots and was exacerbated by the  shooting in Tottenham that triggered the initial disturbances

In the case of the English riots, the alliance between the data and facts that journalists  can access and the rigor of quantitative and qualitative social research methods has showed that the initial widespread speculations of the causes of the riots can be challenged by solid evidence. This may complicate the work of policy makers as it provides a more complex picture of the underling causes that have led to the violence in the streets. However, it is by understanding and accepting this complexity that British policy makers, as well as elsewhere, can design better policies for attacking the causes of the riots and reduce the likelihood that they may occur again in the future.


Young, G. (2011). ‘Research into Detroit’s 1967 unrest holds important lessons for today’, The Guardian Weekly 23.09.2011

Lewis, P. (2011). ‘Guardian/LSE study will seek out the hidden causes’, The Guardian Weekly 23.09.2011

Guardian Reporters (2011). “Blame the police, say rioters”, The Guardian Weekly 09.12.2011

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