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Dr Martijn van Zomeren: ‘Time for British politics to learn from the riots’

15 August 2011

Now that the dust has settled in the United Kingdom, British politics must learn from the tumultuous events of last week. ‘Dismissing the rioters as lawless louts who need to be punished as severely as possible won’t solve anything’, is the opinion of social psychologist Dr Martijn van Zomeren of the University of Groningen. ‘If Prime Minister Cameron wants to prevent more riots, he must enter into dialogue with the lower classes in society, which is where the rioters came from. He should also tackle misuse of power and unnecessary sabre rattling by the police. That was the direct cause of the unrest.’

Martijn van Zomeren
Martijn van Zomeren

The rioters who plundered shops and set houses on fire last week in the United Kingdom only wanted to vent their aggression. They filled their pockets and got their kicks from direct confrontations with the police, according to many concerned Brits last week in the media. Prime Minister Cameron called the rioters ‘thieves’, ‘vandals’ and ‘criminals’, and ordered the police to restore order by force if necessary. According to Martijn van Zomeren, that’s a very simplistic way of looking at the issue. ‘Of course you should punish people who break the law. However, the rioters definitely had a more deeply seated motivation that points to a structural social problem. The events have too many recognizable patterns just to brush off the rioters as lawless louts.’

Divided society

One important cause of the riots is the dead-end situation in which the lower social classes of the United Kingdom find themselves, according to Van Zomeren. ‘British society is strongly divided. The upper class can maintain its position with little effort, but the lower classes have hardly any opportunities to improve their fate.’ High unemployment, the economic crisis and far-reaching cuts in social security have increased the hopeless situation of this part of the population in general, and of the youths within this group in particular, says Van Zomeren.

Trigger effect

The spark that ignited British dissatisfaction was the death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan from Tottenham at the hands of the police, according to Van Zomeren. ‘In Paris in 2005, and in Los Angeles in the 1990s after the death of Rodney King, there were similar riots. If people get the idea that police officers are misusing their powers against their group then what you get is a trigger effect. People identify with the victim of what they perceive as unnecessary police violence, or see that their principles are being violated and are no longer able to ignore that fact. That’s how riots start; that effect is extensively described in the psychological literature.’

Enter into dialogue

In order to prevent riots in the future, the British leaders must learn from the unrest. Cameron must enter into discussion with the lower classes in society, which is where the rioters mainly come from, declares Van Zomeren. ‘Of course order must be restored and antisocial behaviour must be punished on an individual basis, but these people must be given the feeling that they are being listened to as a group. Politics must give them the hope that they can change something about their situation themselves.’ In addition, the police force must be better trained, in the social psychologist’s opinion. ‘The police represent the legitimate system that governs society. Officers must be absolutely fair in how they deal with the power they have been given so that they do not unwittingly set off the powder keg.’

Riots in the Netherlands?

Van Zomeren thinks that the chances of similar riots happening in the Netherlands are very small. ‘These riots were not caused by boredom or aimless aggression, as is sometimes being claimed. The social inequality in the Netherlands is nowhere near as widespread and structural as in the United Kingdom.’ In our country it’s hard to find social groups in a similar dead-end position as the lowest class in the United Kingdom, thinks Van Zomeren. ‘Although the far-reaching cutbacks of the current cabinet may well increase the social divide’, he adds. ‘It would be naïve to think that this kind of unrest could never happen in the Netherlands.’

Curriculum Vitae

Martijn van Zomeren (Linschoten, 1979) is Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences of the University of Groningen. He gained his PhD in 2006 with a thesis on group identity and collective behaviour, particularly protest behaviour among students, and in 2009 was awarded a prestigious VENI grant by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). His fields of expertise are collective and mass behaviour, identity, emotion and morality.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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