Rioting, civic participation and unrest: any insight from economics?
What does economics have to do with riots, some may think: isn’t economics all about markets, employment and inflation? Well, the answer is NO under many respects. It is no mere coincidence that a resurgence of mass protest has accompanied the recent financial turmoil and austerity measures in many countries – from anti-government demonstrations in Greece, the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy movement. The 2011 English riots also had an economic component: a study conducted by LSE in collaboration with The Guardian confirms that last year’s turmoil reflected the rupture of social cohesion brought about by the current economic slump, persistent inequalities, and cuts to social services that penalised the worse-off.
Indeed, economics research has already recognised these linkages. There is evidence of a correlation between fiscal consolidation, especially if accompanied by distributional issues, and social unrest (Voth 2011; Ponticelli and Voth 2011). The linkages between inequality and instability were established long ago (Alesina and Perrotti 1996), with ethnic and racially-induced inequalities playing a particularly important role (Field et al. 2008).
A concern, however, is that economics offers too narrow a set of analytical tools to tackle such intricate social phenomena as riots. The standard microeconomic approach builds on Becker’s approach to crime (1968), considering that rioters respond to the private benefits and costs of rioting: hence rioting should prevail where gains are high and costs (in terms of time and probability of imprisonment) are low (Tabarrok 1997). Yet equating rioting to sheer crime misses one part of the story –the fact that even if unlawful, civic participation and unrest may enable novel or unconventional bargaining modes aiming to influence policy choices. They are part of the political process, not just burglary or petty shoplifting.
The other issue is that beyond individual costs and benefits, rioting is also related to community-level grievances and benefits, which somehow feed into individual-level motivations and incentives. Applied, rather than theoretical, economists do recognise this, but the problem is that community- and individual-level variables are often highly correlated, so that the distinction is not always clear-cut in the data. In addition, it is difficult to say how community-level variables affect individual behaviours –it may be through community leaders acting as coordinators, peer pressure leading to changes in social norms, or some external, idiosyncratic factor. Since a seminal paper by Di Pasquale and Glaeser which raised these issues as early as 1996, establishing whether individual or community factors drive rioting has remained a challenge.
This issue is all the more relevant today, as the World Wide Web and especially online social networking services such as Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger, contribute to fuelling participation and to facilitating coordination. The media hype around “Facebook revolutions” and “Blackberry riots” has attracted the attention of policymakers and the general public alike, but little scientific research is available to date.
Progress can hardly come from the rigorous controlled experiments that economists like so much –you won’t artificially induce a riot to compare it with a quiet “control group”! And even non-experimental data are conspicuously lacking, despite major undertakings such as the one sponsored by The Guardian. Yet further insigth can come from enhanced cross-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration, especially with complexity theory and social network analysis. In conjunction with findings from economics (and from the sociology of social movements, to be sure), they may complete our understanding of the social dynamics through which, starting from individual motivations, riots burst, escalate, and eventually come to an end. “In silico” simulations of the rioting experience are certainly a simplified and perhaps even naïve representation of a real-world riot, but allow to come as close as possible to a social experiment –and with all their simplicity, they may be enough to provide us with new ideas and much to think about.
Filed under: Economic sociology, Economic theory, Social networks, Social science methodology | Leave a Comment
Tags: 2011 UK riots, Agent-based models, Civil violence, Economic analysis, economic methodology, Mixed methods, Public policy analysis, Social simulation, social theory, Trans-disciplinarity, Web-based social networks
I am an economic sociologist with interest in social networks and their impact on markets, organisations, consumer choice and health.
My research also includes work in social science methodology and data.
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