I’ll add this special issue of Sociological Research Online to my collection Sociological Imagination and UK Riots.


Saturday 15th October, 2011, Birmingham Midland Institute
£10 waged, £5 unwaged

The recent civil disturbances across a number of English cities have provoked much commentary and debate. However, there has been little sustained analysis of the events, their causes and likely consequences. This symposium is one in a series of unrelated endeavours to bring public understandings and sociological perspectives to bear upon the events of last month. To this end we have invited a diverse range of speakers to open up the discussion, and combine academics and members of the community on the stage and in the audience.  We combine speakers who will present sociological perspectives on the civil disturbances with a discussion of civic responses.

The event is organized by the British Sociological Association’s Theory Study Group in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, University of Leicester and the Social Theory Centre, University of Warwick.

Timetable

10-11 Registration
11-12.30 Panel 1:  Institutions  – Police, Politicians, Family, Media
12.30-2pm Lunch
2-3.30 Panel 2: Civic Responses – Young People, Community Organizing, Social Movements
3.30-4 Break
4-5.30 Roundtable: Learning from the past, looking to the future: What now?

Speakers

Dr Karim Murji
Senior Lecturer in Sociology
The Open University

Ajmal Hussain
London School of Economics

Dr Nina Power
Senior Lecturer
University of Roehampton

England’s riots shouldn’t be blamed on ‘moral decline’, says Tony Blair | UK news | The Observer.

Rather interesting. This is without doubt the most sensible thing I have ever heard this man say. My only point of contention is the apparent contradiction inherent in what he’s saying: he talks about ‘these people’ not being symptomatic of wider trends within society and yet also claims that you find them ‘in virtually every developed nation’. So perhaps he’s quite adroitly identified a pervasive trend in late capitalist societies (disenfranchised working class youth trapped between deindustrialisation, rampant consumerism, cultural individualization) but is unable and willing to identify its structural origins?

I’ve been reading Chavs by Owen Jones all day and I’m surprised by quite how broadly thought-provoking it is. From the reviews I was certainly expecting a good book but not such a sensitive and wide ranging engagement with the culture and politics of modern Britain. One thing that particularly piqued my curiosity was his references to Eden Lake, a horror film released in 2008, which tells the story of a ‘normal’ couple from Islington (intriguingly I can’t find any references to the man’s job, while the woman is a nursery teacher) who go on holiday for the weekend to a secluded spot in the West Midlands. An encounter with local kids, ‘feral youths’, sets off a chain of events which, as you can make out from the trailer below, doesn’t end very well:

Apparently when the couple first arrive, upon finding out that the titular lake is to be made into a gated community, utter some liberal platitudes about such things being bad… then they end up getting tortured and killed by the people such a gate would be keeping out. Sounds like subtle stuff. If it wasn’t for the fact I hate horror films (didn’t use to, not sure what changed) I probably would watch it though, simply out of morbid curiosity.

What’s bizarre and incredibly telling is the extent to which some have seemingly viewed this film as, in effect, a docudrama. This is my favourite of the reviews I read on IMDB:

I watched Eden Lake last night and now I’m angry.

Not because the film was bad (on the contrary, it was very good); not because the nastiest character was called Brett (when surely it’s common knowledge that all blokes named Brett are extremely nice); not because I had to watch the film on my portable DVD player while the wife watched ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Outta Here!’ on the telly; and not because a rather silly ending spoils what might have been an otherwise perfect piece of entertainment.

No…. I’m angry because, with Eden Lake, I’ve been shown the terrifying truth about one of the biggest evils currently plaguing the UK (I’ll give you a clue: it likes to wear Burberry and has lousy taste in music!).

That’s right: I’m talking about Chavs!

If, like me, you find that yob culture makes your blood boil, then you too will be absolutely seething by the end of this excellent film, which cleverly taps into the viewer’s fury, fear and frustration with loutish teenagers who are free to terrorise the innocent because the law lacks the power to punish them.

In Eden Lake, Director James Watkins presents a harrowing fictional account of one such incident in which a couple are subjected to unbelievable pain and humiliation by a gang of nasty young thugs. The sickening atrocities perpetrated by Watkins’ lawless delinquents are terrifyingly real (reports on similar real-life events can all-too-often be found in today’s tabloids) and serve only too well to highlight just how far our society has sunk in recent years.

So if the middle classes are doomed to be prey, cowering within gated communities as unavoidable refuges against the teeming hoards outside, the natural question is whether there are any agents of moral order left within society? Step forward Harry Brown, the protagonist in a film that came out a year after Eden Lake, with Michael Caine playing the militant embodiment of the ‘respectable working class’. I wrote about this at the time here:

This film tells the story of Harry Brown, a pensioner living on a decaying housing estate in South London. Formerly a marine, Harry now lives a lonely life, with his wife on death’s door in hospital and few friends in an area increasingly plagued by drugs and crime. The film tells the story of Harry’s stand against the anarchy he perceives around him and the events that forced him to take action. While his friend Len lives in a state of constant fear unknown to Harry, he himself is not immune to it. Time after time, fear of the ‘hoodies’ in the subway by his estate forces him into taking the long route over the dual carriageway. Over and over again the film bombards the viewer with this message that we live in a broken society where the criminal leave the law abiding at best inconvenienced and disgusted, at worst terrified and broken. At times it’s difficult not to wonder if the film was produced in alliance with the Conservative Research Department given its continual graphic illustration of the Tory ‘Broken Britain’ theme.

Basically when Harry decides to take a stand, refusing to live in fear of the ‘feral youth’ the viewer meets in Eden Lake, he puts his army training to good use and brutalises a whole string of young people with barbed wire, knifes and guns. I do think that this is actually a good film, albeit a nasty and mean-spirited one, whereas Eden Lake just sounds shit:

How many people viewing Harry Brown cheered him on as he went on his killing spree? A brave and respectable man with a cause, standing up to the violent nihilistic subhumans who are eviscerating what remains of the social fabric with each ‘good’ citizen they intimidate and/or make a victim of (as well as a litany of other such crimes which don’t feature in a film like this e.g. having children outside of a respectable family structure) – the film works dramatically because, it seems, swathes of its audience instinctively recognise the moral universe it portrays. Even those who might subsequently intellectually disown any experience of thinking that Harry Brown straight forwardly represents the pervasive reality of modern Britain.

Do films like this represent a return of the repressed? Is there an obsession with class, stalking consciousness and lurking in nightmares, because of its effective erasure from public discourse, as the Thatcherite project was solidified by New Labour’s re-articulation of the social democratic problematic as a matter of using capitalist growth to fund measures which increase ‘social mobility’ in order to help erode ‘social exclusion’ one newly minted middle class family at a time.

It’s hard not to wonder where this spectre might lead, as austerity begins to bite and a beleaguered radical right-wing government digs in its heels to push through its extreme legislative agenda. Perhaps this is also a crucial part of the socio-emotional topography of #UKRiots, as such an unsettling number of people were so quickly calling for the army to be sent in to the streets of London. When challenged over and over again on Twitter to justify myself for suggesting this was a bad idea, it did briefly feel like the world was going completely mad (though unplugging the wifi for a bit made this feeling go away).

There has been a moral panic brewing in the back of the middle class British psyche for a long time and I don’t think it has come even close to playing itself out yet. We live in strange and troubling times.

An absolutely superb letter in the Guardian from the British Sociological Association about the contribution sociology can make to understanding the UK Riots:

One of the first things that disappears when considering disturbances such as these is perspective. One loses sight of the fact that nine out of 10 local residents aren’t rioting, that nine out of 10 who are rioting aren’t local to the area, and that nine out of 10 of these non-locals aren’t doing it to commit crime. That is to say, it is a tiny minority who are participating and, of those that are, it’s a tiny minority who are doing so solely to commit crime. Crime is a motive, but crowd behaviour is a more complex process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour.

Crowds are irrational. Crowds don’t have motives – that’s far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move unpredictably. But has anyone made a connection with the two media events that dominated media coverage on the same day – the irrationality of crowds on the streets and of traders on the stock market? Both sorts of behaviour are moved by emotion not reason, passions not predictability, and reason disappears. Economists are lauded for their accounts of the irrationality of the market traders, but sociologists get criticised for suggesting that allegations of criminality are a poor account of the irrationality of crowds (Was this the mayor’s Katrina moment?, 10 August).

Sociologists seek to explain – not explain away – these events. An understanding of the impact of social inequalities and deprivation, youth unemployment, racism and ethnic conflict, and crime and policing forms a large part of the concerns of UK sociology. Since most politicians and the police seem to have been taken unawares by the events of the past few days, it seems we need more understanding and explanation, not less, if we are to be able to draw lessons from the current events and prevent their recurrence. The British Sociological Association would be happy to put London’s mayor and his staff in touch with sociologists who could add real understanding to the all-too-easy condemnations of these disturbing events.

Professor John Brewer President, BSA

Howard Wollman Vice-chair, BSA