If you haven’t done so yet, you MUST read this article by Antonio Casilli and Paola Tubaro where they propose very interesting elements for a sociology of collective behavior in general, and riots in particular, with an eye on the use of social media.
What struck me was this:
This is a simulated model of collective behavior. The dots are agents. The red dots are the agents who have grievance and are about ready for some collective action. Whether or not they do so is based on the proximity of other aggrieved agents (other red dots) and the absence of agents of social control (blue triangle, cops). The greater the proximity of other aggrieved agents and the lower the proximity of agents of social control, the more likely collective behavior is to emerge.
That’s the model. The reality? Look at this map of London by James Cridland that correlates areas of social deprivation and riot points:
The red areas (see? everybody uses red to indicate social disorder, anomie and panic!) are the more socially deprived areas (as opposed to the green ones).
This seems to validate Casilli and Tubaro’s model. But thing could work in different ways: agents may be deterred from acting if there is strong social control proximity. But it may also be that agents of social control may decide to withdraw and contain collective behavior in the socially-deprived areas (that is, as long as the “nice” neighborhoods are unaffected, the other areas can burn, in the US, such a punitive strategy used to be called
depolicing”). If the riots had spilled out of the red areas, social control response might have been stronger.
And this points to the larger question of state legitimacy. What if the blue triangles are considered illegitimate agents of social control or one that can be ignored or ones that are not fulfilling their social control functions for whatever reason. On this very topic, Ian Welsh goes all Max Weber on us:
“One of the interesting things happening in Britain is the formation of ad-hoc groups for neighbourhood defense. People have noticed that the police can’t defend them, and have decided to defend themselves.
This it is not a good thing for the State, which is why the police are strongly against it. This is potentially the beginning of the breakdown of the monopoly of state violence, and the beginning of the creation of militias. Normally, of course, I’d be aghast at the creation of militias. They lead to nasty sectarian strife, etc… and if they take off, that’s exactly what will happen.
But what they also are is a crack in the social contract between state and citizens, an acknowledgement that the State can’t defend its own ordinary people. And as you walk down this path, citizens start questioning their support for the State, period — whether in taxes, or in obedience to the State’s law.
Normally, again, this is a bad thing. Heck it’s a bad thing here, but just as with the riots it is a natural reaction to the current situation. When the State doesn’t do its job properly, whether that’s running the economy for everyone’s benefit, not just a few; or whether that’s maintaining the basic monopoly of violence (which includes basic social welfare so that the designated losers of the system don’t resort to uncontrollable violence), people start opting out.
States which don’t perform their basic functions become failed states. There are a lot of ways to get there, but one of them is to allow the highest inequality in the developed world to exist in your capital (sound familiar?). Those people lash out, you can’t repress them effectively anymore, others step up to do what should be your job.”
As Ian notes, this should not be interpreted as the civil society stepping up to the plate as we know that there were elements of the extremist EDL involved. And one has to seriously consider the possibility of failing Western states (a deliberate trajectory for the US Tea party folks).