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A riot is a social occasion involving relatively spontaneous collective violence directed at property, persons, or authority. Five main concepts characterize a riot. First, riots are socially constructed in that those participating in them define or redefine their social environment through a negotiation or renegotiation of symbols and meanings. For example, if looting occurs during a riot, what is conventionally defined as stealing private property may come to be redefined as “taking” or “receiving” items that are now collectively considered within the domain of public property. Second, riots are not singular events or moments in time, but occasions, in that there is a “before,” “during,” and “after.” Although a riot may have an immediate precipitating incident, this moment is only one among many in the processional history of a riot. For example, the Watts Riot (August 1965) began with a relatively routine traffic stop of an African American motorist and quickly escalated into six days of arson, rock throwing, looting, and sniping that resulted in thirty-four dead and $45 million in damages. Though the traffic stop was the precipitating event, it would not be correct to consider it the cause of the riot; rather, the cause was the cumulative effect of many events and circumstances. Third, a riot is relatively spontaneous in that it does not involve a significant amount of planning and coordination. Although a small number of individuals may instigate a riot and serve as emergent leaders by providing examples of “appropriate” behavior, these individuals are generally unable to plan and coordinate action in a meaningful way once a riot has begun. The relative spontaneity of riots led some of the earliest researchers to conclude that once in crowds, individuals became irrational, highly suggestible, and without social control. More recent research, however, has found these claims to be largely unsubstantiated, noting that during most riots, collective violence is purposive and targeted. Fourth, a riot involves collective violence, meaning that groups or communities engage in the infliction of harm or destruction for the purpose of producing social change. Although individual violence may produce social change and even rioting—as in the case of the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968)—to be considered a riot, both collective action and violence for the purpose of social change must be present. Finally, a riot involves collective violence directed at property, persons, or authority. It is important to note that in many instances, collective violence is directed not solely at property, persons, or authority but at some combination, such as statecontrolled property or persons in authority. For example, in reaction to Italian Reform Minister Roberto Calderoli wearing a shirt decorated with cartoons satirizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad, hundreds of Libyans rioted by throwing stones and burning the Italian embassy, killing ten (on February 17, 2006).
Types of Riots
Just as actors participate in a variety of actions during a riot, so too are there different types of riot. There are four main categories of riot, though these distinctions are not mutually exclusive. A communal riot is characterized by collective violence directed at persons of an opposing group, and may involve racial, ethnic, or religious groupings. Although police or agents of social control may engage in violence to keep the groups apart, the vast majority of collective violence occurs between groups. A commodity riot is characterized by collective violence directed primarily at property, but may involve people of different groups. Next, a protest riot involves spontaneous collective violence directed against a specific policy. In contrast to the communal riot, during a protest riot most of the collective violence occurs between the police or other agents of social control and the rioters. The final, and perhaps most frequent, form of rioting is the revelry or celebration riot. As with a commodity riot, collective violence is directed primarily at property, but may involve persons. However, in contrast to all other riots, a celebration riot does not necessitate grievance and often occurs after a victory over a traditional rival or the winning of a championship.
A riot is distinct from a variety of concepts that are often employed interchangeably in popular usage. The term most frequently used as an equivalent is demonstration. However, a demonstration is distinct from a riot in three fundamental ways. First, a demonstration is often planned and thus lacks the relative spontaneity of a riot. Second, unlike a riot, collective violence does not need to occur for something to be considered a demonstration. Finally, during a demonstration, leaders often have enough control to coordinate and direct the actions of others, which rarely, if ever, happens during a riot. Another term often used interchangeably with riot is protest, which is the act of expressing grievance in hopes of achieving amelioration or to draw attention to a cause. A key feature of protest is the condition of grievance, which although sometimes present is not always necessary for a riot.
A riot is also distinct from a revolt, which is an action aimed at the overthrow of an established social order, which may involve a transfer of power and the radical restructuring of social relations. Although riots have the potential to produce some social change, they are perhaps better understood as “proto-political” movements that rarely, if ever, result in a transfer of power from one social group to another.
History of the Riot
The current understanding of the term riot dates back to the fourteenth century, when it began to connote violence, strife, or disorder on behalf of a particular portion of the populace. By the early eighteenth century, violence and strife was on the rise in England, which resulted in Parliament passing the Riot Act of 1715. The Riot Act stated that if twelve or more persons unlawfully or riotously assembled and refused to disperse within an hour after being read a specified portion of the act by proper authority, those persons would be considered felons and authorities would have the right to use lethal force against them. The Act provided broad powers to institutional authority during riots and despite some notable riots over the next two centuries, resulted in a general decline in the number and severity of riots in England. Although repealed in 1973, the Riot Act was influential in providing a legal framework for similar legislation in many other nations, including Australia, Belize, Canada, and the United States. From 1965 to 1973 the United States experienced a significant increase in the number of domestic riots, particularly in large urban areas with high concentrations of poverty and racially based residential segregation. Some community members from these areas objected to the term riot, as they believed it called to mind the image of an unruly ghetto. Consequently, many scholars and politicians began to refer to riots as civil disorders. Although riot no longer appears to have this same negative connation and again appears in popular and social science terminology, the term civil disorder is still often used interchangeably.
Recent research by social scientists has again sparked interest in the study of riots. In a comprehensive review and reanalysis of riots in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, Clark McPhail (1994) found that a lack of resources, grievance, and aggression did not play as large a role in riots as originally claimed. In addition, McPhail found that actors in a riot are far more purposive in their actions than previously supposed. However, McPhail’s findings regarding the causes of riots may be limited in generalizability, as research by Ashutosh Varshney (2002) found urban, caste, and community factors to be predictors of riots in India. This renewed interest in riots highlights the need for a better understanding of where and why they are likely to occur.
- Anderson, William A. 1973. The Reorganization of Protest: Civil Disturbances and Social Change in the Black Community. American Behavioral Scientist 16 (3): 426–439.
- Dynes, Russell R., and Enrico L. Quarantelli. 1968. Redefinitions of Property Norms in Community Emergencies. International Journal of Legal Research 3 (December): 100–112.
- LeBon, Gustave.  1960. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular-Mind. New York: Viking Press.
- Mackay, Charles.  1980. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Harmony Books.
- McPhail, Clark. 1991. The Myth of the Madding Crowd. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- McPhail, Clark. 1994. Presidential Address—The Dark Side of Purpose: Individual and Collective Violence in Riots. Sociological Quarterly 35 (1): 1–32.
- Simpson, John, and Edmund Weiner. Riot. In Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Vol. 13, 966–968. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1968. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Dutton/New York Times.
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