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England’s riots and the lessons for policy and behaviour

An English shop in the wake of the riots. AAP

As the streets of England have calmed, the political debate over what to do with the rioters has been brought to a boil. A steady stream of individuals continues to flow into the court system, some being processed in overnight shifts. Initial criticism that sentences were too lenient has now shifted to a public debate over whether they might be too harsh.

Several simultaneous impulses drive disputes over the forms these punishments should take. The fear felt during the events has transformed into a public sense that those who turned the world upside down, even if briefly, should be punished.

This impulse goes beyond a desire for revenge – one rather frequent refrain by interviewed rioters was that nothing would happen to them as a result of their actions. There is a drive to show them they were wrong, and to establish deterrent examples for others.

Calls for strong punishments have even taken the form of eviction notices for those families living in public housing, if just one of their members was a riot participant.

Other forms have involved a proposal that not only should public benefits be ended for such families, but also that this removal should be retroactively applied. Prime Minister David Cameron and the Tory party have quickly become advocates of these ideas, invoking moral breakdown and a “sick” society as needing strong medicine.

More left-leaning voices have emphasised the general social context behind the riots. In this view, a lack of individual responsibility is understood to be linked to collective social conditions, such as poverty and shortages of employment or social opportunity.

Another background influence is seen as that of consumerism – as advertising bombards a population that cannot afford the glittery items they are told they must have. It has also been noted that in a context in which bankers and politicians have made off with millions unscathed, it should not be surprising that rioters express doubts that there could be consequences for their actions.

These individualist versus collectivist orientations reflect long-standing differences in philosophy regarding influences on human behavior. Notably, the Tory proposals for harsh punishments invoke society in name, but the solutions focus on individual responsibility and individual behavior.

This individualist emphasis reflects a utilitarian notion popular with economists. Because individuals make rational decisions regarding their actions, says this view, institutions should be designed to provide the carrots and sticks that make them behave in desirable ways.

Following this logic, some of the severe punishments being meted out to rioters are intended to prevent repeat offenses and to deter future would-be rioters from similar actions. This focus on individual action contrasts greatly with an emphasis on collective traits, such as collective poverty or a consumerist societal culture.

Poverty and culture can be observed and documented, but can seem rather abstract with regard to their influences on actions. But some social theory, originating in sociology, has focused more concretely on the role of social ties and connections in transferring ideas between individuals.

One insight from social ties is that people are more likely to mobilise to action if they know others who are doing so. This idea might explain the number of first offenders now being brought to the courts, some of whom might have had a sibling or friend who engaged in looting first.

A focus on social ties opens up new possibilities for policy to influence behavior. If exposure to someone might nudge them to loot a shop, perhaps exposure to a shopkeeper harmed by the looting might make them more unlikely to do so. This logic has shown real results in Glasgow, which did not riot and where a program to arrange meetings between potential offenders and victims is behind a significant drop in violent offenses.

A similar idea is now being introduced by the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, along with a notion that looters must engage in the cleanup of affected areas. Such approaches attempt to influence the lived reality of offenders and potential offenders in a direct way – and they just might work. As a middle road between polarised ideologies, hopefully these ideas might gain some traction in the heated debates.

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