The science behind a riot

Posted by Thomas Anderson

Since the 1960's, participants of group riots have been viewed as rational individuals driven by a sense of injustice. However, Dr. Christian Borch claims this approach is misleading, at least in today's world.

"During the so-called ’UK Riots’ in the summer of 2011, discontented young people set the streets of London alight and looted shopping centres," Borch explained.

"The initial strategy of the police which was to communicate with rioters soon failed. Instead they resorted to using batons and containment. Within a Danish context, the violent reactions to the clearance of 'Ungdomshuset' in 2007 show that a revolt can develop into serious criminal actions."

According to Christian Borch, these examples illustrate that group rioting are not solely based on righteous indignation and considered planning:

"The notion of the 1960s that social movements happened as a legitimate response to social injustice created the impression of riots as being rational. Crowds however do not have to be rational entities," he said.

"The riots in London demonstrate the existence of a lack of rational thought processes as the events had an entirely spontaneous and irrational character. People looted for the sake of looting, for many this was not necessarily born out of a sense of injustice.

Meanwhile, the riots surrounding the clearance of "Ungdomshuset" at Jagtvej 69 in Denmark illustrate that demonstrations are capable of creating a self-perpetuating sense of dynamics which accenture the irrational elements. Thus, setting cars alight and breaking windows became part of the rioting.

"During the Danish riots there existed on the one hand a sense of rationality within the young people’s protests, in so far as they were driven by a political motivated interest. However, other people who were normally not affiliated with 'Ungdomshuset' became a part of the conflict and participated in the riots without any shared purpose. They were having fun and the adrenalin kicked in," noted Borch.

"It is inner group dynamics which fuel pointless behaviour.Riots can assume self-perpetuating dynamics which is not driven by rational motives. When individuals form a crowd they can become irrational and driven by emotion which occur as part of the rioting."

Thinking of crowds as rational entities has since 2000 affected the way in which the British police have handled riots. The UK Riots serve as an example of this, says Borch. To be sure, the police worked on the promise that they were dealing with rational individuals with sensible objectives which is why their plan of action was based on communication rather than containment. This however, did not work in practice.

"The interesting aspect of the London riots was to ascertain that it was pointless to address the crowds through a communication strategy. The rational way of regarding the crowds came to nothing whereas the traditional form of containment did. This shows that at certain times a successful solution is not to handle crowds based on dialogue-oriented efforts," he added.