The London Riots – How Do We Really See Class?

August 12, 2011
Posted by Faye Allard

[Note the byline and welcome Faye Allard, my colleague at Montclair and first-time contributor to the SocioBlog. JL]

(Cross-posted at Sociological Images.)

I am a Londoner. A proud East Londoner, hailing from the working class. And this past week has been one of the most difficult I’ve encountered since I moved to the US nearly ten years ago. This weekend my hometown was attacked by rioters, just minutes away from my family’s homes and businesses, my high school and a million childhood and teenage memories. I don’t think I can do justice describing the feeling of watching this unfold from so far away. Needless to say, I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. Thankfully, it would appear that most of the violence has subsided. In its place: a myriad of social commentaries on why this happened. Not only from journalists, but from the everyman benefiting from the very same social media that helped rioters coordinate. Indeed, many sociologists have aired their ideas on Facebook, blogs and even op-eds.

But perhaps in our rush to explain and apportion blame, we all missed asking some important questions. Why did we assume that the rioters are poor? How do we really know the class background of the rioters? Why did the media depict the rioters as underprivileged? And why did we accept this depiction unquestioningly?

The sociologist in me fantasizes of a post-riot 10-question survey to be distributed to all rioters immediately after completion of law-breaking activities with questions including: what is your average household income, what is your and your parent’s highest level of education, what is your occupation, on a scale of one to ten just how angry with the government are you at this moment, ten being really jolly pissed off?

Short of such a research tool, how did we come up with such sweeping generalizations of a group of people we really know little about, except for the fact that they all rioted?

As someone who has lived in both nations, I feel class is certainly a nuanced thing in Britain, much more so than in the US. But even with the subtleties of the British system you cannot simply see class. And for the most part, all the information we initially had about rioters is what we saw on TV and in still photographs. Case in point:

Spot the posh people?

In this picture we just cannot tell. If you thought you could tell, you’d be guessing, and you’d be basing your decision on ideas you have about the poor. Some might argue that those wearing hoodies are poor, as the wearing of hoodies has become synonymous in the British press with certain low-income groups. But people of all class groups own hoodies. We also cannot surmise that the rioters were from the area they attacked and attempt to extrapolate social class from that location. Police reports indicate that in some cases there was organized traveling to targeted areas. So how do we ascertain the social class of the rioters? Their behavior?

Did we see violence, looting and vandalism, assume that this could only be the work of poor people, and passively accept the media’s categorization of the perpetrators as such? Or are we so blinded by our ideological beliefs – romanticizing the riots to be exactly what Marx warned us of – that we bought this generalization? Or do we want so desperately to blame deep governmental cuts against the poor that we ignore the lack of solid evidence as to who these rioters really are?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I know that being from a proud working class background, I am angry that so many of us have jumped to this prejudicial conclusion.

As I write this, on Friday 12th August, long after many of the commentaries have been published and opinions have been shared, news outlets are beginning to report the demographic information of the rioters who have appeared in court (for example, here)

Among those rioters who fit the stereotype – alienated, poor youth – are those who do not fit this type at all. They have already been the subject of several headlines: teachers, an Olympic ambassador, a graphic designer, college graduates and a “millionaire’s daughter.” The very fact that these “unusual suspects” have been singled out by the press demonstrates the power of this prejudice; we are shocked when it isn’t poor people rioting. But why? Maybe it’s because deep down we believe that the poor are capable of violence, but the rich aren’t.

At this point, we are far from really knowing the class backgrounds of the rioters, especially since many people have not, and probably will not, be caught for their actions. We are still without reliable data to draw conclusions, just as we were earlier in the week when so many of us rushed to attribute this rioting to disenfranchised youth. It may well be that these riots were mostly poor people, but my point is, we cannot say with certainty at this point that this is the case. And as an East End girl, I ask: what does it say about us, especially sociologists, that we were so willing to believe this about the poor without any solid data?


Bob S. said...

While I agree with some of what you write, I have to ask do you totally lack common sense and a knowledge of history?

Can you show me a pattern or history of middle class or rich people rioting and looting?

Can you show me a pattern or history of violent crime (assault, battery, etc) where the criminals were predominately middle class or rich?

How about examining the addresses of those arrested in the current riots and seeing if they are in a middle class or rich neighborhood?

Can you show any history of rioting and looting where the people drove their cars, took taxis or trams to the location; then transported back their stolen merchandise the same way?

Maybe we could simply look at the neighborhoods in London and compare the socio-economic conditions and the prevalence of rioting?

If the rich and middle class were rioting; wouldn't it make sense for them to tear up, burn down and steal in their own neighborhoods?

Sometimes reality is as simple as it appears on T.V.

So the question to you is why do you feel it is necessary to try to impugn the middle class or rich people like this?

brandsinger said...

Look at the picture again. Note what's taking place. These riots are not about "class." They're about jeans. These people are young, driven by consumerism. They have been coddled and enticed by the doctrine that they are entitled to a better life... and that they are victims of an unfair system. Their parents have lost authority.

So forget class. It's about values: consumerism, entitlement, tribal affiliation (over family and community), and belief that you can get away with anything (as I've read most criminals in England can).

Faye Allard said...

Thank you for your comments Bob. They are certainly thought provoking, so I thought I’d briefly respond.

First off, I am not trying to impugn the middle and upper classes. I state at the end of my post that it is quite possible that the working classes might make up the majority of the rioters. Very early data indicates that there were at least a few middle class rioters involved, with many being from lower socio-economic strata. But the point of my blog is not who actually did it. My point is that conclusions were made about who these rioters were when didn’t have data to reliably do so.

I liked how you highlight historical happenings, and see how we might predict behavior and phenomena based on previous events. But any explanation would be just that, a prediction. I believe that a good sociologist should never rely on common sense for explanation, for it allows our personal experiences and prejudices to creep in. Sociologists should rely on reliable, thorough research and data, which is missing in this case.

brandsinger said...

"I believe that a good sociologist should never rely on common sense for explanation, for it allows our personal experiences and prejudices to creep in."

This is the conceit of social science. Your "personal experiences and prejudices" always creep in. They define your framing of the issues in the first place.

Bob S. said...

I agree Faye but you are also ignoring what data there is.

There is a ton of information about the socio-economic status of the neighborhood where the riots are occurring.

Are they happening in the middle class neighborhoods or not?

There is an absence of information about how the looters are getting there.

IF the looters were pulling up in mom and dad's 4 door sedan, loading up the Bentleys and Mercedes, don't you think we would hear about that?

So we don't hear about that...can we not reasonable conclude it isn't happening that often?

And frankly, I don't believe you didn't mean to impugn the middle/rich folks.

You didn't talk about the gaps in education levels and wonder if Sociology graduates were rioting.

Nope, you wanted to cast doubt on the economic class of the people involved.

@brandsinger -
While there is a fair amount of truth in what you say, I would ask a couple of questions.

While many parents coddle their children and teach (by example) consumerism; which groups are taking that further into entitlement mentality?

While many parents are doing (in my opinion) inadequate jobs in teaching values; which groups are represented more in crimes involving taking other people's stuff (theft, burglary, etc)

There is a clear and verifiable answer

brandsinger said...

Hi Bob.
I just don't think "class" is a useful analytical tool.
Age is more illuminating: Fully half the accused in custody are 18 or younger.

Britain's liberal criminal justice system - in the context of modern social thinking that avoids moralistic judgment - seems to have set the stage for rampant lawlessness.

From an AP article earlier today:
"In Britain we have no real punitive measures," said a youth social services worker named Andrew, who asked to only be identified by his first name so he would not be identified by youths he has counseled. "There's loads of carrot and absolutely no stick. You need a mix of both."

He said in the six years that he's been working in Britain's juvenile justice, few of the youth offenders he's worked with have been rehabilitated.

"You're not even allowed to call their detention rooms cells because people believe you'll destroy their self-esteem," he said. "I would agree with trying some soft approaches if they worked but I haven't seen that they have."

So Bob - the "class" framing is just not helpful. Race plays a role too. Age is key... the values context and political correctness contributing factors.

Anonymous said...

If you forbid cops from doing their job, given enough time nearly everyone, regardless of social position, will be engaging in criminality. It's no surprise that given the weak police response in the UK that some middle-class stuff-white-people-like types on the margin began joining in the looting. To infer from that that social class inequality is not a permissive condition for the rioting in the UK is just sloppy, however.

Faye Allard said...

Anon, thank you for your comments. To clarify, I am not inferring that social class is not a factor in this -- Bob, a lot of the data you ask for is just not available to us right now in a reliable manner, and Anon, that is my very point for posting this blog.

One exception to this as Bob point outs, we do know where the riots occurred. We do know that a few of the areas are known for being middle class. Clapham and Ealing being noteworthy examples – see this news report for example:,8599,2087677,00.html

However, again I ask the question – how do we know that the people who rioted at any location are from that place? We have to wait for arrest and court records to be released in to ascertain that. Only in the last day or two have the first, of what will be many, records have been released, but this only represents those who were arrested and some will continue to avoid prosecution.

Interestingly for the data released in my home borough, initial arrest records released indicate that more than half of the looters are not from my borough. .
But that is just one incomplete set of data, as more people are arrested this might change. Or it might not. And we cannot assume that this might be the case everywhere there was a riot; we should wait for all records to be released before making our conclusions.

Bob, there were reports of looters traveling by car; most noteworthily in two high profile incidents – three young men were killed being run over during a riot and three policemen were deliberately hit by fleeing looters ( and

But, once again the point of my blog post is that we do not have enough reliable information on rioters to say how they traveled. Also included in this wish list of data we do not yet have are rioters educational levels (that information isn’t recorded on their arrest records, and can we only guess using occupations listed by defendants, so we might not ever accurately really know how education is related to rioting).

Of course, we can guess, we can use history and predict, but it’s not the same has having reliable data, so we (certainly us sociologists) should not write as if it were.