Monday, August 08, 2011

Framing a riot

In Predicting a Riot, @DavidAllenGreen (aka Jack of Kent) points out that riots are used to validate and reinforce existing political opinions. Our political opinions influence how we read any given civil disturbance.

He also points out that a riot is a complex event, with many different things going on, and that to understand causes and effects, we need to be clear about which effects we are trying to explain. He attributes this point to the historian Conrad Russell (son of Bertrand).

Listening to the media reports of the riots in Tottenham over the weekend, I was struck by the amount of time devoted to looting. Although there were some police injuries, the media story was that most people seemed more interested in stealing televisions than attacking the police. Media coverage of other recent protests have been dominated by the unruly behaviour of Cambridge undergraduates and the children of pop stars.

It is difficult to find objective evidence about the causal relationship between the riot and the looting. Thus people will tend to form opinions that are determined by their general political stance. Some will regard the looting as an almost inevitable consequence of the riot, while others will regard it as accidental and opportunistic.

But maybe the looting serves some political purpose. If crowds can be easily diverted from legitimate political protest into pointless vandalism, egoism and self-interested thievery, this serves to discredit the original political agenda. So who benefits from this diversion? Right-wing bloggers such as @HolySmoke are already rubbing their hands with glee The looting is a PR disaster for UK Uncut (Daily Telegraph 8 Aug 2011). And politicians of all parties are distancing themselves from plans to cut police budgets.

Jack of Kent is viewing these events as a contemporary historian, and wondering how these events are perceived by people with different prejudices. But we can go further and ask how these events could be being orchestrated and framed in order to propagate a given set of perceptions.

In a Linked-In discussion A systems perspective on the riots in England, James Llewellyn says that a systemic approach "might ask us to consider whether there is a wider problem at work".

Some systems thinkers apparently don't stop to ask WHETHER there is a wider problem at work, they seem to take it as a guiding principle that there ALWAYS MUST BE a wider problem at work.

For the purposes of this discussion, James chooses to focus on a system he calls "the capitalist system", and (perhaps not surprisingly) finds some problems with this system. (Some systems thinkers follow a second guiding principle: that you can ALWAYS find problems with any reasonably important and complex system, if you look hard enough.)

Having chosen to focus on "the capitalist system", James asks ethical questions (values) as well as cause-effect questions (linear type solutions). He also asks a basic ontological question - does the category of "looter" include Bernie Madoff as well as the kids who stole televisions and trainers?

This ontological question may have some relevance for the aetiology of the riots. Some of the rioters have sought to justify their own behaviour by reference to the "looting" behaviour of the bankers, as well as a socioeconomic classification in which shop-keepers counted as "the rich". If the media are to be believed, some of those caught up in the riots do not appear to have been "have nots" or "underclass", but were middle class aspiring young people, who already had televisions and trainers and were apparently caught up with the fervour of "liberation" and "opportunity". Thus their way of understanding and framing the systems in which they were operating affected their ethical and instrumental choices; those who are convicted of various crimes will experience lasting change to their social identity. As has Bernie Madoff.

What I think this implies for systems thinking is that we are not just called upon to take a systems perspective for our own understanding of some series of events, but also to appreciate the range of systems perspectives taken by the actors in these events, as well as the various commentators upon them.

See also

The competing arguments used to explain the riots (BBC News Magazine, 11 August 2011) with commentary by two criminologists, Professor David Wilson of Birmingham City University and Marian FitzGerald, visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent.

England riots: 'The whites have become black' says David Starkey (BBC Newsnight, 12 August 2011), provocatively blaming the riots on the adoption of what he calls "black culture" by young people of all races, a point eloquently rebutted by Dreda Say Mitchell. "Very dangerous game to invoke the rivers of blood speech and Empire", comments @markhillary.

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