The riots: The Psychology and its management

Much of the discussion focuses on the legitimacy of the riots. But the situation is more complex than that. Why assume that if there is discontent among a community, a lash out will be ‘intelligently’ executed?
 
Yes, looting and mugging and burning is awful (support brave clean up) but it is so easy for me as a 38 year-old to sit here in my house on a 30K+ salary condemning it. As a lecturer of final year, mainly minority and foreign, students at a London University, I see their frustration and concern for the future with only few of them having a job lined up. And these are the educated youth!

We see people run into shops, grabbing televisions and setting cars on fire. It has become apparent that this is not a conventional protest. So is it a matter of judging all of them as thugs, call in the army and punish the thieves?

To mobilse such large groups of people means that a) they lack role models (where are the parents?) B) they lost hope (do not fear the consequence) and youth centres risk shut down due to cuts c) their social identity is defined by materialistic status symbols, which is a learned measure of self esteem (ie, they get ‘respec’ through bling not a good degree, a good job, a good skill, being an engaged citizen).

For sure, looters and aggressors need to be held responsible, but there are more questions to ask. It is very difficult because my initial reaction to the images too is that they deserve punishment (and we have created a society where police stands by for fear of ending up in court on a human rights charge), yet I know that it is more complex and I can’t ignore the difficult analysis of this societal crisis.

Much research on riots and collective action has taken place. Any social psychologist will tell you that racism is very much alive (Social dominance theory) and that collective action can spiral out of control through social identification, which becomes more prominent than the other identities (so people will think as themselves a protester, protect their ‘own’ and not self-criticise). Group polaristion radicalises this. They can tell you that people become depressed because they need a sense of belonging and not feel ostracised from society but that anger is fuelled by threat (one of us got shot while the rest of you were on your holiday).
 
Research also shows that riot-type behaviour globally peaks in summer – we need to look at past riots to understand the shaping of the rioters’ social identity while mobilised. Thugs can only get away with their theft if protected by their community, who give them a place to hide and who don’t tell. If this support is removed the thugs become vulnerable and the violence can be managed. But management doesn’t mean rubber bullets. The challenge of  good leadership is the ability to manage a conflict, not avoid it or dominate and suppress it.    Instead of tough talk, in the long-term our communities benefit from evidence based management.
 
Where are the social and political psychologists (Reicher, Drury, Klandermans, Huddy, Feldman, Kinnval and Sidanius)? – their 3rd voices of reason-behind-human-behaviour need to be heard. Where are management and leadership scholars (Brett, Herman, Van Dick, Euwema)? – non-partisan sources of guidance for policy makers and government are much needed now.  

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