Collective Violence and Relative Deprivation Theory. Examining the Correlates of the 2011 England Riots

Seminar Paper, 2011

29 Pages, Grade: 1,0



On 6 August, following the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old suspect by a London police officer, an initially peaceful protest turned violent, with protesters attacking the police and inflicting mass property damage. The riots soon spread across large parts of north and central London, including the districts of Brixton, Enfield, Hackney and Stratford, as well as other English cities and towns, most notably Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Liverpool. When the police had restored order on 10 August, $160 million in property damage had been inflicted, several people had been injured, including 186 police officers, and five people had been killed. The 2011 England Riots left the public paralyzed and sparked heated debates about the appropriateness of police actions as well as the state of British society. Shaken by the unpredictability and intensity of the disturbances, academics, authorities and journalists alike started searching for the contributory factors of the riots (No author 2011a).

This study can be seen in the same context, as it also aims at examining the underlying causes of the 2011 England Riots. In order to do so, we will proceed in six steps: this intro­duction, which lays out the design, merits and limitations of this study, is followed by a brief description of the 2011 England Riots. It demonstrates that the recent disorders in Britain are a prime example of rioting, and as such poses a perfect test for existing theories which try to explain the occurrence of collective violence. The third section consists of a review of the scholarly literature on the causes of rioting. Such a review reveals that the single most promi­nent explanation of collective violence has been relative deprivation theory, which therefore serves as a basis for deriving the hypotheses of this paper. In the fourth section, we lay out the methodology of this study; in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the unrest and its underlying causes, we employ a dual approach: this paper analyzes both the socioeconomic structure of the neighborhoods in which the riots occurred as well as the background of the rioters that had been arrested. The results yielded by this approach are presented in the fifth section. Our findings strongly support relative deprivation theory; however, some of the alter­native explanations controlled for in this study also seem to have played an important role in the occurrence of the 2011 England riots. This shows that collective violence is a multicausal phenomenon, one that cannot be sufficiently grasped by resorting to a single explanation. The sixth and final section summarizes the main findings of this study, connects them with the broader theoretical debate and indicates the direction for further research on this topic.

Why examine the underlying causes of the 2011 England Riots? What is the merit of such a study? Historian Paul A. Gilje gives a simple yet powerful reason for studying riots: because they are there (Gilje 1999: 1). For centuries, riots have been a way to express social discontent, and as such they have been important mechanisms for social change. Therefore, analyzing the contributory factors of popular disorder can point to the deeper problems within society and help us to comprehend the history of social change. On the downside, riots can be very costly in terms of material and human damage. In this respect, studying the underlying causes and thus gaining a deeper understanding of public unrest might help us to predict and better deal with the destructive consequences of future riots (Gilje 1999: 1-3). From a more theoretical perspective, studying the underlying causes of the 2011 England riots can contrib­ute to the ongoing debate between advocates and opponents of relative deprivation theory and enrich our understanding of the causes of collective violence in general. However, there are some limitations to this study: because of restricted resources, it was neither possible to con­duct interviews with rioters nor to take every single incident or ward into account. This might limit both the depth and generalizability of our findings. Yet, because of the general merits of analyzing the causes of riots mentioned above, we are convinced there is a certain value to this study. Moreover, as the 2011 England Riots are a rather recent phenomenon, only little research has been done on this specific incident by now. Therefore, this paper has a lot ex­planatory value and can serve as a starting point for further studies on the 2011 England Riots.

The 2011 England Riots: Sequence of Events

On 4 August 2011, a London police officer shot alleged drug dealer and gang member Mark Duggan during an attempt to arrest him. The incident, which took place in Tottenham, north London, led to rising tensions between London police forces and the black community in Tottenham, and the circumstances of Duggan's death remain suspicious up to today (Press Association 2011a). Following the fatal shooting, friends and relatives of Duggan organized a protest in order to assert a perceived unmet need for justice for the family. The protest was held on 6 August, with around 120 people marching from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham police station (Press Association 2011b). The protesters demanded that a senior local police officer come out and speak to them. However, as they were not satisfied with the seniority of the officers available at the time, they stayed in front of the police station for several hours. Around dusk, a younger and more aggressive crowd arrived at the scene, some of whom were carrying weapons. From around 22:30 p.m. on, attacks were carried out on local businesses, homes and transportation as well as police officers who tried to break up the violent mob, marking the beginning of the 2011 England Riots (Lewis 2011).

On the evening of 7 August, violence erupted again in Tottenham, as well as in neigh­boring boroughs. Despite the presence of riot police forces, the violence went on for several hours, resulting in the looting of several stores, the damaging of numerous facilities and the wounding of a number of people. On the next day, the violence not only continued but ex­panded, as the rioters became greater in number and increasingly organized by connecting through social media such as Facebook and technological devices like the BlackBerry Mes­senger. Moreover, news and rumors about the previous evenings' disturbances in London sparked riots in other English cities and towns, including Bredfordshire, Bristol, Leeds, Liv­erpool, Nottingham and Oxford. Following a greatly increased police presence (at this point, 16,000 police officers were deployed in the capital to prevent further violence), London re­mained largely quiet on 9 August, with only a few riots occurring (No author 2011b). Howev­er, copycat actions continued in other parts of England, among them Leicester, Manchester and Wolverhampton. On 10 August, British authorities were finally able to restore public or­der, with hundreds of arrests carried out by the police (No author 2011c).

The riots were characterized by rampant looting and arson attacks of unprecedented levels. Scotland Yard has recorded more than 3,000 crimes linked to the disorder, including the killing of five people and the battery of 186 police officers. In addition, the material losses were enormous: property damage was estimated at $160 million, and local economic activity was significantly stifled (No author 2011d; Smith-Park 2011). As of today, more than 3,000 people had been arrested for participating in the riots, and almost 2,000 of them had been charged. Because of the huge human and material damage, observers called the 2011 England Riots the worst ones Britain has faced in decades (Press Association 2011c). In the aftermath of the disturbances, police action was blamed for the initial riot, and the subsequent police reaction was criticized as being neither appropriate nor sufficiently effective. Moreover, the riots have generated significant ongoing debate among political, social and academic figures about the causes and context in which they happened. Among the suggested contributory fac­tors are social deprivation (Batmanghelidjh 2011), family breakdown (Odone 2011), as well as gang culture and criminal opportunism (No author 2011e; No author 2011f).

Literature Review: The Causes of Rioting

However serious the 2011 England Riots were, they were not a novel phenomenon. Whenever there has been authority, there have been people challenging it, and cities like Lon­don have a rich history of civil insurgence (Hernon 2006; Bloom 2003; Wood 2002). This is why for decades, social scientists and public authorities alike have tried to find the causes for rioting. In this intellectual quest for a systematic understanding of the etiology of political and collective violence, relative deprivation theory has emerged as the dominant explanatory de­vice (Miller, Bolce & Halligan 1977: 964). Building on the works of classics like Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, contemporary scholars like Robert K. Merton and, most prominently, Ted Robert Gurr have cited “relative deprivation” as the single most important cause of social movements, deviant behavior, and collective violence (Davies 1972; Gurr 1968a; Gurr 1968b; Gurr 1970; Gurr 1972a; Gurr 1972b; Gurr 1976; Haag 1972; Merton 1938; Rose 1982).

“Relative deprivation” can be defined as actors' perception of discrepancy between the goods and conditions of life to which people believe they are rightfully entitled and the goods and conditions they think they are capable of getting and keeping (Gurr 1970: 24). Or, in short: it refers to the discontent people feel when their legitimate expectations are not met by present actualities. Relative deprivation theory states that if an area is made up of a socioeco­nomic structure that fosters a feeling of relative deprivation among a critical mass of people, the chances are rather high that this area will face increased numbers of deviant behavior and collective violence. Thus, as it stresses the importance of social structure, relative deprivation theory belongs to the family of structural theories (Galtung 1972; Grimshaw 1972; Merton 1938; Merton 1963; Short 1972).

What kind of socioeconomic structure is it that fosters a feeling of mass relative depri­vation, which possibly leads people to riot? In order to answer this question, several scholars have tried to operationalize the rather vague concept of relative deprivation (Galtung 1972; Gurr 1968a; McPhail 1971; Mucchielli 2009; Muller 1972; Waddington & King 2009). Among the factors most often mentioned, there are poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment, and poor housing conditions. When multiple of these factors come together, the grievance felt by people is more likely to unfold as deviant or violent behavior. However, advocates of relative deprivation theory have stressed that even though such a social structure is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient for riots to occur. In addition to poor socioeco­nomic circumstances, there needs to be an especially emotive incident or event, which serves as a trigger for collective violence. In most cases, it is the killing or wounding of a community member which serves as such an incident (Waddington & King 2009: 254).

The operationalization of relative deprivation allows for the theory to be tested and to examine if it holds when applied to actual riots. Scholarly interest in rioting grew tremendous­ly during the second half of the 20th century, when numerous cities in the United States had to deal with severe racial violence. In order to find the causes for these race riots and prevent future rioting, the American government established a number of commissions. Their findings largely supported the relative deprivation theory, as these commissions identified poverty and despair as the main causes of the 20th century race riots in the United States (Miller 2001: 189-190). However, in the years that followed, several studies have challenged these commis­sions' findings, as they rejected parts of the relative deprivation concept or even the theory as a whole (Fogelson 1967; Miller 1999; Spilerman 1970; Turner 1994).

Even though intuitively convincing, the poverty argument has been rejected by multi­ple studies (DiPasquale & Glaeser 1998; Olzak & Shanahan 1996; Olzak, Shanahan & McEneaney 1996). Studies on the influence of poor housing conditions have largely yielded the same negative results (Lieberson & Silverman 1965; Olzak & Shanahan 1996). The un­employment argument also has not always held when applied to the 20th century United States race riots (Lieberson & Silverman 1965), yet there have been a few studies which stress the importance of unemployment as a cause of (racial) collective violence (DiPasquale & Glaeser 1998). Finally, empirical studies have shown only little support for the notion that low educational attainment has an influence on the occurrence of riots (Muller 1972).

These mostly negative results have caused scholars to search for alternative explana­tions, which might help us to understand, explain, and predict rioting. As the riots which oc­curred in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century were mostly racial in their nature, many scholars traced them back to ethnic diversity, racial tensions and/or racial com­petition (DiPasqual & Glaeser 1998; Olzak & Shanahan 1996; Olzak, Shanahan & McEneaney 1996). Another often cited explanation is poor relations with the police. Inappro­priate behavior by the police, insufficient communication between the police and the commu­nity, and ethnical homogeneity of the police forces can lead to grievances among a critical mass of people, which might unfold as collective violence (Lieberson & Silverman 1965). Moreover, communities seem to have something like a “collective conscience”, as cities that already faced riots in the past are more likely to experience further outbreaks (DiPasquale & Glaeser 1998; Miller, Bolce & Halligan 1977; Olzak, Shanahan & McEneaney 1996). A fourth and final alternative explanation broached here has been elaborated in detail by Edward N. Muller. Muller finds that structural theories like the relative deprivation concept are unable to sufficiently explain the occurrence of collective violence. According to Muller, individual traits like believe in the efficiency of violent protest and low degree of trust in authorities are far better explanatory variables (Muller 1972).

At first glance, these empirical results seem devastating for advocates of relative dep­rivation theory. Yet, it remains the most dominant explanatory device in dealing with collec­tive violence (Miller 2001), and there is ample reason to assume that relative deprivation theo­ry can help us understand, explain, and predict the occurrence of contemporary riots. First, relative deprivation as a theory is consistent in itself as well as logically convincing, and it provides a solid theoretical framework for approaching the phenomenon of collective violence (Gurr 1968a; Gurr 1970). Second, not only the commissions established by the U.S. govern­ment to investigate the causes of race riots find relative deprivation to be the driving force behind rioting, but so do other empirical studies on past incidents of collective violence (Da­vies 1972; Gurr 1968a; Gurr 1972b). Third and most important, relative deprivation theory has proved to be a valuable analytical tool for explaining the urban riots recently occurring in France and the United Kingdom. All riots occurring in England and Wales since 1980 as well as the 2005 French riots, which were not racial in their nature (Jobard 2009), yield strong support for the relative deprivation theory, as several scholars have identified poverty, unem­ployment, lower educational attainment, and decaying housing as the main underlying causes of these riots (Duprez 2009; Jobard 2009; Loch 2009; Mucchielli 2009; Waddington & King 2009). Thus, it seems reasonable to distinguish between race riots on the one side and other kinds of urban riots on the other side, with the latter being very well explained by relative deprivation theory. As there is no evidence for the 2011 England Riots being racial in their nature, there is ample reason to assume that relative deprivation theory should be able to suf­ficiently explain them.

Examining the Causes of the 2011 England Riots

The central questions behind the 2011 England Riots are: Why did the riots occur only in certain parts of England? What characteristics distinguish these areas from others? And what are the reasons that make people riot? The 2011 England Riots were not racial in their nature, as the physical targets singled out by the rioters were not self-evidently racial (as, for example, in the case of the Korean stores in Los Angeles in 1992 or white-owned premises in Bradford in 1995) (Jobard 2009). Thus, we expect the causes of the recent disturbances in Britain to be well explained by relative deprivation theory. The hypotheses tested in this pa­per, therefore, are the following: (1) The higher the degree of social deprivation in a neigh­borhood is, the more likely it is to experience riots. (2) The more socially deprived a person is, the more likely he or she is to engage in riots. Taken together, these two hypotheses pro­vide a solid test of relative deprivation theory. If our assertions are correct, we would expect most of the violence linked to the 2011 England Riots to have occurred in neighborhoods with a higher level of social deprivation and most of the rioters to have a lower socioeconomic background.

For our first hypothesis, the independent variable is the level of social deprivation in a certain neighborhood. As the literature review has shown, most previous operationalizations of relative deprivation theory have stressed four factors, which are therefore also adopted by this study: poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment, and poor housing conditions. Taken together, these four factors comprehensively capture the rather vague concept of social deprivation. For our purpose, poverty is measured by the claimant rate of income support. The higher this rate is in a certain area, the higher we consider the overall level of poverty to be. The measure for unemployment employed by this study is the rate of Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) claimants. The higher the rate of JSA claimants in a certain neighborhood, the higher we consider the overall level of unemployment to be. The third factor, low educational at­tainment, we measure by looking at students' performance in the General Certificate of Sec­ondary Education (GCSE). The GCSE is a standardized test taken by students aged 14 to 16 in secondary education in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and plays an important role in students' chances to continue and succeed with higher education. Therefore, the lower the average GCSE score is in a certain district, the lower we consider the overall educational at­tainment to be. The fourth and last factor, poor housing conditions, is measured by the per­centage of dwellings in council tax bands A or B. In England, there are eight council tax bands, A to H, with A and B being the categories with the lowest value. Thus, the higher the percentage of dwellings in council tax bands A or B in a certain neighborhood, the poorer we consider the overall housing conditions to be. The data for all these measures stems from offi­cial government sources (Greater London Authority 2011). The dependent variable for our first hypothesis is the occurrence or nonoccurrence of violence in a certain district during the 2011 England Riots. To determine whether a neighborhood experienced rioting during that time or not, this study resorts to the British national daily newspaper The Guardian, which provides a detailed list of every verified incident linked to the 2011 England Riots (No author 2011a). Based on the information provided by The Guardian, we compare the poverty and unemployment levels as well as the educational attainment and housing conditions in ten are­as which faced riots to ten in which civil insurgence did not occur. This is a rather small num­ber of cases; however, scholars such as Douglas Dion have demonstrated that for necessary conditions like relative deprivation, even such a small number of cases can yield significant results (Dion 1998). Therefore, we expect a sample of 20 neighborhoods to be sufficient for the purpose of this study.1

For our second hypothesis, the independent variable is a person's socioeconomic background. The factors which determine if a person's socioeconomic background is low or high are the same as those which we employed to operationalize relative deprivation theory: poverty, unemployment, and low educational attainment.2 However, the measures for these factors are a little different from the ones of the first hypothesis. Poverty is measured by a person's benefit status. We consider claiming benefits to be an indicator of lower socioeco­nomic status. Our measure for unemployment is whether or not a person claims JSA. For this study, claiming JSA is considered to be an indicator of lower socioeconomic status. Finally, our measure for educational attainment is whether a student has special educational needs or not. We consider having special educational needs to be an indicator of lower socioeconomic status. The data for all these measures stems from official government sources (Ministry of Justice 2011). The dependent variable for our second hypothesis is whether or not a person took part in the 2011 England Riots. By 12 October 2011, 1,984 people had appeared before the courts because of committing a crime linked to the public disorder (Ministry of Justice 2011: 3). By comparing the rates of benefit claimants, JSA claimants and students with spe­cial educational needs to the average numbers for the broader population, we expect to find whether or not people with a low socioeconomic status are more likely to riot.

As both the description of the 2011 England Riots and the review of the scholarly lit­erature on the causes of collective violence have shown, relative deprivation theory is not the only possible explanation for the occurrence of civil insurgence. In order to demonstrate that social deprivation is a necessary condition for the occurrence of riots, we therefore have to control for these possible alternative explanation. One of them is geographic proximity. As the vast majority of the disturbances in London were located in the central and northern parts of the city, an unbiased test of our argument has to focus on the wards in these areas. The city of London consists of 32 boroughs, and each of them is made up of several wards. The ten wards in our sample which experienced riots were randomly chosen out of all the wards in which riots occurred. In order to control for geographic proximity, the ten wards in our sam­ple which did not experience riots were therefore chosen according to the central and north London boroughs in which the other then wards in our sample are located (for a complete list of all 20 wards, see table 1). Other possible alternative explanations include family break­down, ethnicity, urban structure and gang culture/criminal opportunism. Advocates of the family breakdown-thesis claim that people in a less favorable family environment are more likely to engage in violent behavior. The ethnicity-argument suggests that districts with a high level of ethnic heterogeneity (or ethnic competition) are more likely to experience riots. Moreover, some observers of the 2011 England Riots and other incidents of civil insurgence have argued that areas with a higher density of shops and stores are more likely to experience riots, as they provide rioters with more suitable targets and greater possibilities for looting. A last possible alternative explanation is gang culture/criminal opportunism. Advocates of this argument suggest that people who tend to perceive of certain criminal actions as acceptable means to achieve their goals are more likely to engage in collective violence. We control for these four possible explanations by incorporating them in our model; thus, we have to analyze them the same way as our operationalizations of relative deprivation theory. Our measure for family breakdown is the percentage of lone parent households in each ward of our sample. Ethnic heterogeneity is measured by the percentage of non-Whites in the wards and among the convicted rioters. To determine whether urban structure has an influence on the occur­rence of riots, we look at the percentage of nondomestic buildings in each ward of our sample. Finally, gang culture/criminal opportunism is measured by looking at the crime rate in the wards and possible previous convictions of the convicted rioters. By incorporating these four measures in our analysis, we are able to examine if it is social deprivation or one of the afore­said alternative explanations that contributed the most to the occurrence of the 2011 England Riots.

Table 1: wards examined

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


1 All cases chosen for this study are located within London. There are two reasons for this: first, the vast majority of riots occurred in London, thus our sample choice is theoretically justifiable. Second, the data for London is the most detailed one available and the one which is easiest to access. The finest data available for London is on the ward-level. There is a total number of 628 wards in London, from which 20 have been picked for this study.

2 Housing conditions is not being considered as a factor contributing to a person's socioeconomic background, as there was no data available on the housing conditions of the convicted rioters.

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Collective Violence and Relative Deprivation Theory. Examining the Correlates of the 2011 England Riots
Eastern Illinois University
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collective, violence, relative, deprivation, theory, examining, correlates, england, riots
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Michael Neureiter (Author), 2011, Collective Violence and Relative Deprivation Theory. Examining the Correlates of the 2011 England Riots, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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