Monthly Archives: August 2011

“The riots: A mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar” (Discuss)

Any Politics student from the 70s or 80s should recognise one of Jeff Stanyer’s favourite exam quotes. Events in London on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights were just that. Familiar: the usual refusal of government to accept any link between policy and violent reaction. The unfamiliar: the tactics and mode of organisation used.

Back in 1980 and 1981, the same old excuses and explanations emerged. Firstly, when in doubt, blame the police. They got the Scarman inquiry, which was predicated on the fact that they had done something wrong and something had to be done to put it right. Even then, there was no attempt to distinguish between what caused the riots and what occasioned them. The occasion for the riots to kick off was a misunderstanding over what the police were doing to a person injured. They were actually trying to help him, but the rapidly gathering crowd assumed that they had injured him. Rumour ruled.

What caused the riots was increasing disgruntlement with the position of what we now call the underclass, but then called the lumpenproletariat [a dangerous Marxist word not to be used after 1985]. A large proportion of this group happened to be Afro-Caribbean, so questions of racism were also involved. The police are the representatives of the state with which people come into contact on the street, and so are most likely to have confrontational contact (although people at the benefits offices also have a tale to tell).

Explanations of rioting were examined in John Benyon’s book, Scarman and After (Pergamon 1984), in particular by Stan Wilson. He argued that there were a number of ideological explanations. Revolutionaries weren’t interested in responding to riots, seeing them as proof that their dream of the final collapse of capitalism was taking place. Imagine if they had, as today, been able to watch riots plus a collapsing stock market. Unconfined joy!

Liberals (Taylor included social democrats in this category) see riots as an indicator of malfunctioning institutions, so the solution is always to be found in tinkering with the system. Sound familiar? Tuesday night the brighter politicians were saying how disgraceful it was, how brave the police were, but the riots were definitely an indication that Scarman hadn’t solved everything, that there was still racism and that Tory (sorry; ConDem) cuts were falling hardest on the rioting communities and youth who had had hope rudely snatched away from them, in the form of the EMA, SureStart, tuition fees etc etc.

Conservatives are living in the best of all possible worlds, so rioting has to be explained in a different way: it’s a conspiracy! They’re doing it for gain. They’re irrational. They’re doing it for fun. Or they’re copycats.

Conspiracy theorists have always argued that rioting will go away once the “leaders” are identified and locked up. Today we have a new version of this: it’s the technology. Lock up Blackberry! Suspicion of the new media, social networking sites, Twitter, Facebook etc can be indulged by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and turned into the argument that the internet needs policing. Look: it’s causing riots now!

The neo-liberals who have replaced the old conservatives understand the idea of doing things for gain, but it’s not a strategy for the lower classes, old boy. Both agree, though, that deterrence is the only possible answer… but the neo-liberals think that what you have to do is make the price of being caught higher than the gain to be obtained from looting. So fines, confiscation of assets. But unfortunately the perpetrators here don’t appear to have any money… Very well… take away their benefits! The old conservatives believe in locking them up. Problem is that the prisons are full, so where are they going to be put? The police, as personified by their blogs, believe that the problem is that the rioters know there is nothing that they can be punished with and that here lies the nub of the problem.

The big difference from the riots of the 1980s lies in the copycat riots in other cities. Whereas the riots in Liverpool took a familiar path, mostly confined to Liverpool 8, those in Birmingham and Manchester moved out of the ghettoes of Handsworth and Moss Side and attacked the major shopping centres. This is a clear escalation, and has led some commentators to write of the “shopping riots”. Very much a case of rioting for gain and a step in a dangerous direction.

Irrational? Well that can only be dealt with by superior tactics. Prevent crowds gathering, Contain crowds, or kettle them, rely on intelligence and tension indicators and go for water cannon and CCTV to put them in jail afterwards. Same problems as above. Monitor Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and even send warning messages using the same technology as the youth.

Doing it for fun??!! This is a version of irrationality, but somehow involves drug-taking and returns to the war on drugs, but without any resources for rehabilitation. Sir Herbert Gusset would teach them that fun it certainly isn’t.

Copycats? Simple. We just need to control the Media. It’s this 24 hour news business. They’re just doing it so they can watch themselves…and there were people on Tuesday night waving at the cameras… “Hello, Mum!”

We have been here before. The answer will ultimately emerge as a mixture of technology, tactics and institutional reform. The big difference this time is going to be: no money. Maybe some for the police, but times are hard. It will be difficult to blame police leadership because most of them ended up resigning over hacking. There really isn’t anyone left to fall on their sword. Enter an American Police Chief, stage left?

Posted by Bill Tupman (Honorary Research Fellow, Politics)

Photo courtesy of Chris JL.

Milgram’s obedience experiment 50 years on: the banality of evil, or working towards the Führer?

Stanley Milgram and his 'shock generator' machine

Stanley Milgram and his 'shock generator' machine

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on a programme of research that was to change our understanding of the human propensity for evil forever. Participants in the research came into his laboratory at Yale for what they thought was a study looking at the effects of punishment on memory. Does a person learn better if they are punished every time they make a mistake?

To help the experimenter investigate this question, participants were placed in the role of teacher and asked to administer an electric shock to a learner every time he recalled the wrong word from a previously learned list of work pairings. The shocks started at 15 volts but increased every time an error was made, going right up to 450 volts — well beyond a point that would be lethal.

In fact, the learner was an actor who was an accomplice of Milgram and the shocks were not real. But the teachers did not know this. Indeed, the question that Milgram was really investigating was how willing the participants would be to go along with the experimenter’s instructions. Would they stop administering shocks at 75 volts (when the learner let out a cry of “Ugh!”) or 150 volts (where he demanded to be let out, because his heart was starting to bother him), or at 300 volts (where he let out an agonized scream and refused to answer any more)? Thinking about it, how far would you go?

As every student who has just completed their psychology A-level knows, around 10% of participants in Milgram’s baseline study stopped at the 300-volt mark. (90% continued beyond this point. Indeed, a full 65% continued administering shocks right up to the 450-volt point. In other words, they displayed total obedience.)

Milgram’s research is phenomenally important because it shows that normal decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when they are instructed to do so by others. When psychiatrists and members of the public were asked what proportion of people would go to the 450-volt mark they tend to say something like 1% — assuming that only a sadist or a psychopath would go this far. In this, Milgram saw his studies as supporting Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” — a concept developed upon observing the trial of the architect of the Nazi’s “final solution”, Adolf Eichmann. This suggests that terrible events like the Holocaust might occur because people were concerned more to do their bureaucratic duty than to question the ends towards which that bureaucracy was working.

Milgram’s empirical contribution is as important today as it ever was. Recently, though, historians and psychologists have started to question whether his work has been correctly interpreted. In this regard, in my research with Steve Reicher at the University of St Andrews we have argued that participants’ identification with the experimenter and with Milgram’s scientific project was central to their willingness to administer shocks to the learner.

Rather than simply obeying orders, participants were thus “working towards the experimenter” — working creatively to do what they thought was right with reference to an identity that centred on their belief in the value of science. This process mirrors that of “working towards the Führer” which the historian Ian Kershaw argues explains the dynamism of the Nazi state and the brutality displayed by its functionaries.

All in all, this new understanding suggests that decent people participate in horrific acts not because they are mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather because they come to believe — typically under the influence of those in authority — that what they are doing is right. In these terms, the Milgram studies are not about obedience but about leadership. The key question they throw up is not why participants show blind obedience (they don’t) but why they identify with the authority (the experimenter) rather than with the victim, and hence are willing to follow him down the destructive path he sketches out.

Of course, this same question is sadly pertinent to an array of atrocities we see in the world today: the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib, genocide in Darfur, phone hacking in News International. In all these case, followers proved willing to work towards their leaders not because they were thoughtlessly obeying their orders but because they were responding creatively to the goals of a leadership with which they identified. In all these cases the search for precise orders proves futile, and rather misses the point that brutalising regimes are advanced by engaged followers, not passive zombies. The source of evil is not in the banal workings of passionless bureaucracy, but in the delineated content of a shared identity (a sense of ‘us’ that has no place for ‘them’), which empowers leaders and mobilises followers.

Posted by Professor Alex Haslam (Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology)