University of Sussex
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Representing the riots: the (mis)use of statistics to sustain ideological explanation

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posted on 2023-06-08, 12:51 authored by Roger Ball, John DruryJohn Drury
This paper analyses the way that figures were used to support two kinds of accounts of the riots of August 2011 prevalent in media coverage and in pronouncements by government ministers. The first of these accounts suggested that the rioters were typically characterised by uncivilized predispositions. The second kind of account suggested that damage to property was typically irrational or indiscriminate. These accounts echo discredited ‘convergence’ and ‘submergence’ explanations in early crowd psychology. We show that the ‘convergence’ explanation – that the rioters were typically ‘career criminals’ or gang-members – was based on arrest figures, treating as unproblematic the circular way that such data was produced (with those already known to the police most likely to be identified and arrested). The ‘submergence account – the suggestion that violence was typically indiscriminate or irrational – was based in part on grouping together attacks on properties in different districts; those areas where 'anyone and anything' was attacked were affluent districts where the target was the rich district itself. Like their academic counterparts, the two types of accounts of the riots of August 2011 are profoundly ideological, for they serve to render the riots marginal and meaningless rather than indicative of wider problems in society.


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