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London Riots: poverty and prejudice

In our haste to explain the London Riots of August 2011, we missed asking some vital questions. Why did we automatically assume that the rioters were from underprivileged backgrounds? And why did we accept this stereotype unquestioningly?

Georgina Campbell

As those responsible for the disturbances last August begin to appear in court, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sweeping generalisation of a poor, out of control teenagers, whose looting was a declaration on the ever widening social gap, was an automatic assumption.

Amongst those that were involved in the free “shopping sprees” were a millionaire’s daughter, a law student, an estate agent and even a Baptist mentor. These individuals are a far cry from the hoodied youths, testifying that those involved came from a multitude of backgrounds, and not just a life of poverty and crime engulfed in gang culture. This isn’t a class “issue”, this is a social issue regarding people’s sense of entitlement, despite their upbringing and background.

Ayelet Fishback, a behavioural scientist at the University of Chicago, says that “people in a group follow the group’s norms”. A famous example of this is the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, where students selected for their healthy psychological state, were recruited to play the roles of prison guards and inmates. After 6 days the experiment was stopped because many of the “inmates” were at the point of emotional breakdown due to the “guards” behaviour.

Fishback explains that these middle class looters are “normal people that ended up in abnormal groups.”

Once part of a group, deindividuation means that people often give up their personal identity and values. “They lose their social responsibility and engage in antisocial behaviours” says Fishback.

However another contributing factor could also have been at play. If you witness others looting, getting wealthier, you see them getting ahead of you.

“It is not just the free reward value of looting that moves people; it is fear of falling behind” says Clarke McCauley of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

It is only really a shock that those caught up in the rioting were also from middle-class backgrounds, if you buy into the stereotype that rioting is the preserve of mindless members of subhuman underclass who demand retribution for their unfortunate social standing. Are we so blinded by our ideological beliefs, romanticising the riots to be exactly what Marx warned us of, that we brought this generalisation?

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