The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association explain how sociology can help explain the London riots:
One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.
Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds.
Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.
Several things stand out to me:
1. I like the opening suggestion and make a similar argument to my Introduction to Sociology class: instead of asking why a few people commit crimes or are deviant, why not ask why most people are so willing to follow social rules and norms?
2. I like the comparison of the role of emotions in stock trading and crowd behavior on the streets. Arguably, emotions may a large role in social actions but generally get short shrift from commentators and researchers.
3. But, why suggest that sociologists are bitter because economists “are lauded” for their explanations?
4. I like the distinction between explaining and explaining away. I’ve seen some commentators suggest that we shouldn’t talk about the class status or alienation of the rioters because this may suggest that their actions are justified. But, at the same time, there is something that set off these riots and sociologists are often looking to understanding why something happened and not something else (to paraphrase Weber). We should not be afraid of explanations though determining how one should respond once the explanation is known is another matter.