Thursday 14 November 2013

Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: A Special Section of Sociological Research Online reflecting on the English Riots of 2011

by Kim Allen, Sumi Hollingworth, Ayo Mansaray and Yvette Taylor

*Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI), Manchester Metropolitan University; Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research Centre, London South Bank University; Brunel University; Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research Centre, London South Bank University

In an autumn in which the New Statesman commissions Russell Brand to guest edit an issue on Revolution, and organised protest gets into full swing with the Bonfire of Austerity, a spate of public sector strikes, and the Anonymous linked Million Masked March on Guy Fawkes night, riotous resistance is the talk of Britain. What perfect timing then for a special section of Sociological Research Online on reflections on the English Riots of 2011. While in 2012 we saw the marketing of the London Olympics as an attempt to erase the troubled and troubling memories of the Riots, in 2013 unemployment rates continue to rise and welfare cuts deepen, and we have seen growing anger and political disenchantment amongst various sections of society.

Over five nights in the summer of 2011, as austerity measures were coming into full biting force, England witnessed riots across several cities including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, and Nottingham. Sparked by the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year old black man from Tottenham, North London, these five days saw unrest on the streets of England.   In this special section, with papers from academics across a range of disciplines and career stages, we consider how to 'reflect' on the dis-ordering and dis-orientating effects of recirculating inequalities which locate crime, blame and failure in the most disadvantaged places, while retrieving order, safety and resources for the most advantaged populations.

The papers in this special section emerged from a conference entitled 'Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: The Riots One Year On', held on the 28th September 2012.  Organized by the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research (London South Bank University) and the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (London Metropolitan University), the conference, and the resulting special section, sought to examine the English riots of 2011 and its relationships to (re-shaped) inequalities in contemporary Britain and beyond.

Our commitment to this topic two years on from the event is about keeping riots on the political and academic agenda. It is worth remembering that, two years later, we still do not know the details of that fateful sequence of events in which Mark Duggan was shot and many questions remain unanswered.  This is also about a broader commitment to public sociology.  Just as the British Sociological Association (BSA) launch a new ‘Activism in Sociology’ forum, this special collection reminds us of our responsibility as sociologists to place ourselves in public debates about inequality and injustice, to 'walk through' the places we inhabit, personally, politically and professionally (Back 2007; Taylor & Addison 2011). At the time of the riots, sociological analysis was criticized and dismissed by our political elites as offering an 'excuse' for something for which there was 'no excuse' (see Bassel 2013). Prime Minister David Cameron (2011) claimed that the ‘sickening’ events of that week were caused by ‘mindless criminality’ and a ‘twisted moral code’, rather than the consequence of social conditions generated by punitive government policies.

Just as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said there was 'no justification' for the 1981 riots, we are concerned that this discourse of 'no excuses' shuts down opportunities to understand why such events might have happened, casting sociologists – casting us – as 'kill joys' for dwelling on this melancholic event (Ahmed 2007). As sociologists, we are concerned that, if the English Riots are considered 'over', bracketed off in the summer of 2011, something is left lurking, still reverberating and still impacting. Attending to these questions necessitates a 'looking back' as well as an articulation of 'what next?', and these concerns form the focus of themes for this special section.

This section consists of four think pieces and seven full papers, covering issues as diverse as parenting, youth, racism, place and belonging, classification and the ‘underclass’ discourse, consumer culture, and public sociology.  There are several shared themes which cut across this rich collection of papers, detailed briefly below.

 Conceptualizing the riots - where to turn?:  From discourses of ‘feral youth’ to those of ‘apolitical rioters’, how sense was made of the riots is a key theme within this special section. Several contributors – including Jennie Bristow, Emma Casey, Harriet Cooper, Tracey Jensen, Lisa Mckenzie,  Antoine Rogers, Marisa Silvestri and Imogen Tyler – directly question the socio-political frames through which the riots and rioters were viewed. 

Race and the 2011 riots: Race was both present and absent in the interpretation of the riots. This complexity is discussed by Marisa Silvestri and Antoine Rogers, and other contributors, including Lisa Mckenzie, Leah Bassel, Emma Casey and Laura Harvey, Jessica Ringrose and Rosalind Gill, trace empirically the workings of race in shaping riotous events and subjects.

Protest? Looting? Shopping with violence?: A key issue addressed in this special section is the relationship between consumerism, identity, the riots and the imagined possibilities for political action. Analyses by Emma Casey, Tracey Jensen, Lisa Mckenzie and Laura Harvey and colleagues unravel the ‘politics’ evident in the implied consumer impulses of the riots.

Classification, marginalization and morality: Through analysis of media and policy discourse, a great number of contributors examine the perpetuation of powerful myths about poverty and disadvantage which divorce the suffering of the poorest from broader social, legal, political and economic conditions. This is part of a shared political and theoretical project that challenges the attempts of political elites to disassociate the riots from economic inequalities and social divisions which characterise the contemporary.

The riots and public sociology: attending, collaborating, speaking and listening: Finally, several of the papers – specifically those by Leah Bassel, Harriet Cooper and Ester McGeeney – engage with the relationship between the riots and public sociology; that is, the role and responsibility of academics to engage with contemporary ‘crises’. Collectively, we argue, the pieces in this special section are a fitting and explicit – but my no means unproblematic or complete – contribution to that project.

The effects of the 2011 riots will continue to reverberate and ripple in this landscape of deepening cuts, divisions, widening inequalities. We see these reverberations in both the continued and mounting suffering of populations who have been discarded by the state and in the forms of resistance and calls for revolution that are happening in the present. This collection provides no clear answers but rather carries an insistence on the importance of grappling with the complexity of the contemporary. Indeed, the collection calls on us all to be 'riotous subjects' – to keep listening, questioning, disrupting, revolting. In looking back as well as forward, it leaves us with many important questions: Where are we now? Where are we going? And, how do we make sociology 'travel' so that we can produce a more equitable and sustainable future?


Ahmed, S. (2007) 'Multiculturalism and the promise of happiness', New Formations, 63(1): 121-137.

Back, L. (2007) The Art of Listening. Oxford and New York, Berg.

This blog sets the scene for a special section of Sociological Research Online published in November 2013. To view the articles of the articles that make up the special section please go to: