Laura Castells Navarro is a British Science Association Media Fellow, funded by University of Bradford


Presenting at the British Science Festival, Dr John Drury, reader in Psychology at the University of Sussex explained the formation of collective identity and sense of community brought about by rioting.

The research was framed in the 2011 London riots, which started in Tottenham as a scaling up from an anti-police protest for the death of Mark Duggan and later spread to nearby Enfield and to other cities. This spread has commonly been represented as a “copy-cat effect” or a “contagion” however, Drury noted, that these denominators fail to explain why it the riots did not spread to all the cities or why, in some cases, they started as a protest but it did not develop to a full riot.

The group, formed by psychologists at the University of Sussex, Keele University and the University of St Andrews used data from 41 interviews with rioters obtained from the Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots project and combined it with online video images cross-referenced with Google Street View, and independent, police and council reports to draw a time-line of the events. “This is the first attempt to put together what happened in the first 24 hours of the riots”, Drury added.

The time-line of the events shows how the death of Marc Duggan combined with history of grievances encouraged protest against the police. The perceived use of indiscriminate force by the police against a young woman led to the escalation of the attack, which culminated in the burning of a police car. In cases like these, the police standard response is that of non-response, was considered by the rioters to be a sign of weakness which, led to the even higher escalation of the protest to a riot. Rioters considered the subsequent as partially an opportunistic stand, however it was described by some as an attempt to taunt the police into reaction.

For the first time, Dr Drury’s research shows how the identification of the police as the common enemy resulted ina new collective identity and sense of community, overriding the  postcode identity that had previously dictated local divisions and rivalries. The researchers also found that the sense of feeling supported led to a sense of empowerment, which combined with this newfound identity to  increase the level of rioting and looting and promote its spread to other areas.

However, according to the findings, only the individuals with pre-existing grievances against the police, often related to the ‘stop and search’ policy, got actively involved in the rioting. While it  is still too early in the project to be able to draw any clear conclusions, the results of this research could have applications in the causes of tension between police and their community.  The identification and action upon sources of grievances could prevent the ignition of the riot before it starts because, as Dr Drury said, “once started, riots are extremely complicated to stop”.