Leaving bookstores alone in the London riots

Some people have noticed that the rioters/looters in London have ignored the bookstores:

While the rioters in England this week have looted shops selling shoes, clothes, computers, and plasma televisions, they’ve curiously bypassed one particular piece of merchandise: books. The Economist observes that while rioters have a centuries-old history of book burning, “books are losing out to high-end jeans and Apple-made gadgets” in London, with the Waterstone’s bookstore chain emerging unscathed and the WH Smith chain reporting only one incident (some stores closed as a precaution). In explaining that the store would probably stay open during the unrest, one Waterstone’s employee even felt comfortable enough to issue a dare to the rioters: “If they steal some books, they might actually learn something.” The exception to the rule is the gay bookstore Gay’s the Word, which had its front window smashed and its shopfront splattered with eggs (notably, no goods were stolen). “Our impression is that there are certain people who have an issue with a visible gay business and are using the excuse of chaos to cause anti-gay damage,” an assistant manager told PinkPaper…

So where does that leave us on the question of why the rioters refrained from looting and burning bookstores? The most likely explanation appears to be that the rioters were more interested in high-end clothing and electronics than books, for economic and personal reasons. But a Guardian article yesterday suggests the rioters may have been more principled about what they stole and what they didn’t than one might think.

Interesting. The image many people might have is that the rioters act indiscriminately, breaking and smashing things at will out of anger. But these different possible explanations suggest rioters follow some sort of logic. Yes, their actions fall outside the normal bounds of civil behavior but they are acting upon not-too-unreasonable logic (go for the high-end electronic goods). This reminds me of the work of Sudhir Venkatesh who suggests that gangs follow logical paths even though their actions may seem chaotic or unclear.

Perhaps I only think this as a sociologist or as someone who teaches research methods but it seems like these ideas about bookstores could be tested. Researchers could take different groups of people, perhaps split by socioeconomic status, and then give them a variety of free items that they could take including electronics, clothing, and books. Then, researchers could see what people would take and then could question them about their choices afterward. Of course, some of the same information could be obtained by asking this is a question or series of questions on a large-scale survey. These sorts of options could help provide some insights into where books fall among other desirable consumer goods. If I had to hazard a guess, I imagine American teenagers or emerging adults (18-29 years old) would also put books toward the bottom of the list of things they would desire.

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