Issueless Riots
In Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 391, Sept. 1970, pp. 21-33

Notes  |  Back to Main Page

By Gary T. Marx 

Gary T. Marx is lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Harvard University, and research associate at the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies. He is the author of Protest and Prejudice (1967) and editor of Racial Conflict: Tension and Change in American Society (1970). His articles have appeared in the American Sociological Review, Trans-Action, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Journal of Social Issues, and other journals. He was on the staff of Kerner Commission and is currently an associate editor of Social Problems. He is spending a year in France and England as a Guggenheim Fellow studying the police and social movements.

Note 2002: This was written in response to what I saw as the erroneous claims of some on both the left and the right about civil disorders in the last half of the 1960s. It grew out of working for the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Reading this 30 years later, some of it seems dated and the categories pretty abstract, yet the failure to appreciate types of civil disorder and the variety of motives found within them continues to characterize much popular understanding. A related article is “A Document With a Difference” (Trans-Action Society, Sept. 1968.) The material on types of riots is further discussed in the article listed adjacent to this one on the index page, "Rebellion in Plainfield."

ABSTRACT: Recent work on collective violence has produced a needed corrective to the one-sided image of riotous crowds held by earlier theorists. But we have failed to give adequate attention to instances of rioting crowds where protest, ideology, and grievance are relatively absent. The exclusive contemporary focus on protest riots (however interesting and accessible ) may obscure certain general predisposing factors, psychological states, social processes, and consequences found in the most diverse types of riot. It may also inhibit the comparative analysis of different types of violent outbursts. Certain dimensions that can be used to characterize riots are reviewed and a typology of forms of riot is developed by combining two of them: whether a generalized belief is present and whether the riot is instrumental in helping solve a group's problem. Some hypotheses and three types of riots are discussed : (1) instrumental riots in which a generalized belief is present, as in the eighteenth and nineteenth century European food and industrial riots studied by Rude and Hobsbawn; (2) riots in which a generalized belief is present but which are not instrumental in resolving a group's problems, such as most pogroms and communal riots, (3) issueless or unprincipled riots, in which a generalized protest belief is absent and which have slight implications for social movements and change.

WE have come a long way in our view of collective violence since early pioneering theorists such as G. LeBon, E. D. Martin, and E.A. Ross emphasized the emotional character of crowd behavior. For them, the crowd evoked lurid images of opportunism and destruction where the basest of human impulses were expressed. They wrote of "herd instincts" and "the group mind," the "atavistic vulnerability of civilized men," "dirty people without name," and the "dangerous classes." The crowd was thought to be like-minded, destructive, irrational, fickle, and suggestible, and made up of social misfits, criminals, and riffraff.

Fortunately, the basic theoretical assumptions of collective behavior theorists (as expressed most clearly in the work of Neil Smelser), empirical research, and the ideological predispositions of contemporary social analysts have shattered this one-sided image of riotous crowds.

The excessively negative and psychological image of the crowd has been undermined by certain theoretical developments in sociology-- Neil Smelser, in reacting against earlier characterizations of crowd action as "irrational," "unpredictable," "purposeless," and "unrestrained," has performed a valuable service in arguing that "collective behavior is analyzable by the same categories as conventional behavior ." 1 Much of human action, whether collective or in a more institutionalized setting, can be seen as goal-directed and purposive, involving a response to the exigencies of social life affirmation of that response by theassignment of positve values to it, and a definition of the situation in which it occurs. Ideas and beliefs about the world play an important role here. Furthermore, collective outbursts show something of the patterning and structure of ordinary social life. The threatening and sometimes exotic nature of collective behavior led earlier conservative theorists to ignore its similarities to more conventional behavior.

Rude's Studies Cited

In the case of empirical research, Rude's studies of the crowd in France and England between 1730 and 1848, and recent research on black rioters, offer slight support for the image of the crowd participant held by earlier observers. Rude in using police and judicial records, finds that criminal and lumpen-proletariat participation was slight. Eighteenth century British and French rioters were not those at the margins of society; rather, they tended to be well integrated into local settings and had specific grievances. The mob consisted of the ordinary urban poor, known as the menu peuple --small workshop masters, shopkeepers, apprentices, craftsmen and laborers: employed people with settled abode and without criminal conviction." 2 Similarly, research on black riot participants in the 1960's suggests that in many ways rioters were broadly representative of Negro youth. 3 They were not disproportionately unemployed, criminal, or recent migrants, and had a strong sense of indignation over the place of Negroes in American society.

An additional factor in the debunking of classical riot views has been the sympathy shown by many American social scientists for current rioters. In direct contrast to certain early conservative theorists such as LeBon, most American sociologists studying collective behavior hold liberal-to-left political perspectives. They rather naturally and correctly reject the Gustave LeBon-Ronald Reagan "mad dog" image of rioters, though in so doing there is a tendency to ignore variation and see all violent outbursts as "rational," "intrinsically political," and "instrumental and purposive." Their analysis and ideology lead them to see black, student, and "third world" collective violence as intricately tied to injustice and strain, and often to imbue all crowd participants with ideological ends and a disinterested morality. 4

For quite different reasons, some very conservative observers such as Senator McClelland's internal security sub-committee members are also stressing the political nature of recent civil disorders. It is interesting that a somewhat similar interpretation of events can be made to serve very different ends. On the one hand, radicals justify recent riots by seeing them as a natural response to oppression (one even guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.) They are seen to involve a higher, protest morality, and the appropriate response is to end oppression which generates protest. On the other hand, for conservatives a political, conspirational interpretation of riots makes it easier to justify the need for massive repression than would less threatening interpretations stressing expressiveness, opportunism, and personal pathology.

A Healthy Corrective

The factors mentioned have produced a healthy corrective to the image of the crowd held by earlier theorists and still held by a large proportion of the American public. Yet I think they have caused a pendulum to swing too far away from LeBon; or, at least, we have ceased paying attention to those instances of rioting crowds where protest, ideology, and grievance are relatively absent. When, out of interest or by definition, attention is focused on crowds that have an ideological purpose, are involved in the process of social change, and are related to social movements, rioting crowds are then taken, by default, to have the above characteristics. I think such characterizations of recent American collective violence tend generally to be correct, though there is much variation between riots. Such characterizations are also politically pleasing to most social analysts, so long as the view is not applied to the collective violence of groups they disagree with (such as the KKK or the Minute Men.)

Yet there are numerous occasions where, outwardly at least, men collectively seem to be doing many of the same things --battling authorities and each other, attacking symbols, looting, stealing, and destroying property --but where the elements of protest, ideology, grievance, strain, lack of access to channels for redressing complaints, social change and social movements, are relatively insignificant factors, if not absent altogether.

Such situations can be called "issueless riots." In such riots, I do not mean to imply that behavior is necessarily, on the average, any more or less rational, emotional, or destructive than in non-crowd circumstances, nor that it may not be individually instrumental. Such riots are issueless in the sense that a critique of the social order and the belief that violence will help bring about needed social change are relatively unimportant as motivating factors.

In discussing deviant behavior, Robert Merton has made a distinction between deviance which is nonconforming and that which is aberrant. This distinction would seem to have application to types of riot and riot participants. Nonconformity is seen not as ". ...a private dereliction but a thrust toward a new morality." 5 The nonconformist legitimates his disinterested deviance in terms of higher values, he publicly challenges norms and practices that he sees as morally suspect, and he aims to replace them with new norms. In contrast, the individual engaged in aberrant behavior deviates out of expediency and for the momentary gratification of personal ends, without seeking social change.

What Neil Smelser has called a generalized belief, and has taken to be a crucial, defining characteristic of collective behavior, does not seem applicable to all situations of non-institutionalized, hostile, collective action. For Smelser, collective behavior represents "the action of the impatient," and involves a response to strain which attempts to modify some component of social action. A generalized belief is seen as one of the necessary conditions for the occurrence of an episode of collective behavior. The generalized belief identifies sources of strain and calls forth an appropriate response. In the case of a riot or hostile outburst, this belief assigns responsibility for an undesirable state of affairs to a particular individual, institution, or symbol, and argues that things will be improved if only the latter is attacked or destroyed. In offering a coherent and systematic framework, rich with examples, Smelser has made a significant contribution to the study of collective behavior, yet I think his definition unduly restricts the field, at least as far collective violence is concerned.

The exclusive contemporary focus on one type of riot (however interesting and accessible), where, in Merton's sense, behavior can often be seen as non-conforming and where elements of a generalized belief are clearly present, may obscure certain general predisposing factors, psychological states, social processes, and consequences found in the most diverse types of riot. Such a focus may also inhibit the comparative analysis of types of violent outburst.

Defining A Riot

I would prefer to define a riot as "relatively spontaneous illegitimate group violence contrary to traditional norms." 6 Within this general definition, riots may be seen to vary from one another along numerous dimensions. The number of attributes to be used in characterizing riots is large, and we lack a generally-agreed-upon set of concepts or measures for classifying them. Most earlier theorists, while classifying types of crowd, did not single out riots or deal with types of riot. Crowds were characterized in terms of whether or not an objective was present, the type of objective present, the psychological states of the participants, the nature of their interaction, and criteria of group membership. Park and Burgess differentiated between passive and active crowds. 7 Herbert Blumer makes a distinction between the casual, conventionalized, expressive crowd and the "acting, aggressive crowd." 8 Turner and Killian differentiate between individualistic/solidaristic, focused/volatile, active/passive dimensions of crowds. 9 Roger Brown divides crowds into mobs and audiences, and sees four types of the former: aggressive, escape, acquisitive, and expressive. 10

Many scholars have differentiated riots from revolutions, rebellions, and the like, depending on whether an intent to overthrow the government is present; but there have been relatively few efforts to deal systematically with types of riot. 11 Racial violence in different time periods has been contrasted by considering the group dominating the rioting (whites or blacks) and the primary objective of attack (people or property). 12 The few qualitative studies that have been done on riot occurrences (as against studies of riot participants) generally fail to deal much with variation. This failure may partly explain why they usually come up with fairly weak correlations in relating background variables to the occurrence of a riot. 13

The one effort that has dealt most with variation between riots, focusing on severity rather than occurrence, although using items that are not theoretically very significant (such as whether or not the National Guard was called out), reports more and stronger correlations when various background measures are considered than do several of the above studies that treat riots as if they were internally homogeneous phenomena. 14

Recent research efforts like that of the Kerner Commission have given most attention to rather easily quantifiable or descriptive factors, such as how long the riot lasts, the number of people involved, injured, and arrested, the amount of damage done, the type of hostile activities present, the extent of social control mobilization, and the nature of the precipitating event.

Neglected Factors

Relatively less attention has been focused on the nature of the legitimating belief (or whether it is even present), consequences of various types of riot, the type of prior context out of which the riot emerges, different patterns of development, the kinds of psychological states characterizing rioters, selectivity in attack, and questions of a sociological nature which can be asked about any group activity (such as its degree of cohesion, planning, the importance of leadership, and the type of roles present).

The variables one emphasizes in building a typology depend on the questions one is concerned with. I think a major focus of the study of riots should be their relation to ideology, social movements, and social change. Thus, two of the most important dimensions would seem to be: To what degree is a generalized belief present? and, To what degree are riot actions themselves instrumental in collectively solving a group's problem? 15 When these dimensions are combined, we have the following typology:

The scanner does not look favorably upon typologies. The original article contains a table based on the presence or absence of a generalized belief going horizontally and a collectively instrumental dimension going vertically. This yields the following four types:
Type Example
I. Generalized belief present and collectively instrumental Bread riots, Luddites, prison riots
II. Generalized belief present but not instrumental Pogroms, communal riots
III. No generalized belief but instrumental Riots misinterpreted by authorities
IV. No generalized belief and not instrumental Riots during police strikes, riots in victory

This framework could be elaborated by considering the nature of the generalized belief. Following Smelser, does it envision fundamental changes in values, or changes only in norms; or simply see an attack on particular individuals as sufficient to alleviate the source of tension? Does the change aim at creating entirely new social arrangements, or is it an effort at restoring a prior state of affairs? 16 What kind of substantive elements does the belief involve --class, racial, religious, national? To what extent does the belief have a magical quality to it, which distorts reality and "short-circuits" the paths to change?

If the riot is seen as instrumental, we may further ask if the violent action itself directly solves the problem --such as in storming a jail to release prisoners, destroying or driving away all one's enemies, or gaining retribution and avenging a perceived wrong --or is it instrumental in the sense of being a resources and a threat, which compels one's adversary to negotiate and offer concessions? Regardless of the generalized belief, what kind of changes actually occur --the removal of particular agents seen as troublesome, the redistribution of resources, the appearance of new roles and organizations, alterations in values and/or norms? Attention could also be focused on those outbursts which, beyond not helping to solve a group's problem, positively hinder it by misplaced attack or by stimulating repression and retrenchment.

The above typology could be expanded and refined (and perhaps made more difficult to comprehend) by considering the above distinctions, or any of a large number of others. However, its present simple form may suggest certain questions and various hypotheses.

Protest or Crime?

In a useful article, Ralph Turner has called attention to some factors involved in subjective definitions of disorders as either protest or crime on the part of various publics. In contrast to many observers who see "protest" and "politica1" meaning in any collective disorders, or deviant activity, merely because an oppressed group is involved, without considering the ways in which such actions vary or what types of evidence, would prove or disprove such interpretations, Turner "scrupulously avoids assuming that there are objectifiable phenomena that might be classified as deviance, as protest, or as rebellion.” 17

Clearly there is an arbitrary element here, and definitions adopted bear some correspondence to ideology and whatever public policy axe the definer is wielding; yet I think there are "objective" factors which might lead a no-less scrupulous investigator to differentiate disorders which are protest from those which are merely deviance. One of the most important of these is the presence of a generalized belief. Additional factors that make a protest definition more applicable are: the development of the disorders out of a prolonged community conflict and out of a focused context, and in roles between conventional activists and riot participants, the presence of riot spokesmen, the presentation of demands, selectivity in attack, a link between the source of the trouble as identified in the generalized belief and those targets actually attacked. To be sure, rarely will these all vary perfectly with one another, or approach either end of the continuum.

Riots of a protest nature fall in cells I and II. The "principled" rioting of these cells can be differentiated from the "unprincipled" or issueless rioting of cell IV.

Among some hypotheses which hopefully are not unduly circular, and which in most cases are based on nothing more than hunches, are the following:

Riots of type I (generalized belief, instrumental) may be more controlled and pattterned and do less damage than type II (generalized belief, not instrumental) or IV (no genera1ized belief, not instrumental.)

To the extent that they are present, the supposed psychological characteristics of crowd members (reduction in self-control and self-consciousness) and traditional crowd processes (milling, collective excitement, contagion) may characterize cells IV and II to a greater extent than cell I.

There will be a tendency for a dissatisfied group to move from type II to type I riot, and from there to less spontaneous, carefully planned guerrilla warfare and sabotage activities. But as a given type I or II riot develops, the proportion of ideological! rioters will decline when more opportunistic types move in to take advantage of the situation.

If true, this may operate to underestimate the degree of selectivity of attack in such riots. If studies on the patterning of looting and burning of ghetto stores in the 1960's riots had been able to separate early from late attacks, I think an appreciably greater amount of selectivity might have been found. As it was, in some cities, but certainly not all, considerable selectivity by race, reputation, and type of store was present --although in one city, the eventual spread of fires by strong winds led one researcher to conclude nothing more than that those stores that had combustible material in them burned.

The generalized belief present in type II riots is more likely to have a magical, short-circuiting-of-reality quality than that in type I.

Riots of types II and IV will inspire less serious and punitive efforts at social control than will I; although the nature of the social-control response plays an important part in any collective outburst, variations in it will be felt to a greater extent in types II and IV than I.

Participants in type IV riots, on the average, will be lower in social position and less, well integrated into the society than those in I and II , and this will be true of type II relative to I; riots of types IV and II are more likely to involve groups receiving their solidarity on the basis of ascriptive criteria than type I. Targets in type IV riots are likely to be more diffuse than in I and II; targets in type I are more likely to be a powerful group than in II, where targets are likely to involve an ethnic minority or other powerless group; riots of type IV are likely to have a less hostile, more playful and expressive character than I or II, with attacks on authorities motivated to a greater extent by self-defense than in types I and II.

Examples of riots where a generalized belief is present and where riotous action is instrumental in helping solve a group's problems (type I) may be seen in the eighteenth and nineteenth century European food and industrial riots studied by Rude and Hobsbawn. They represented a means, understood by the people as well as their rulers, by which those with few political or economic rights might gain concessions. 18

The main thrust of food riots was a demand to buy food at a "just price." Demonstrations would be mounted against those presumed to be profiteering through the shipment or hoarding of grain. If the authorities failed to act to impose a just price on merchants, millers, farmers, or bakers, grain and its products would be seized and sold at a lower price with the proceeds going to the owner .

In what Hobsbawn has called "collective bargaining by riot," workers, lacking other means, pressed their demands through attacks on industrial property, workshops, mines, mills, and machinery, and by pulling down the employer's house. Violence was used as means of dealing with wage cuts and price increases, or so as to protect the workers' livelihood against the threat of new machinery. Nineteenth-century Luddism moved from a seemingly spontaneous demonstration of stocking workers "clamoring for work and a more liberal price" to a well-organized movement whose small, disciplined bands moved swiftly at night. Machines rather than people were attacked, until authorities began attacking the Luddites. Attacks were selective and restrained, and frequently preceded by a letter warning the employer to change his ways or face the consequences.

Ghetto Riots

Black ghetto riots of the 1960s have been complex and quite diverse, varying from the multi-faceted disorders of Watts, Newark, and Detroit, to those that emerged in self-defense against overly eager control forces caught up in a riot self-fulfilling prophecy as in Jersey City, to those that were characterized primarily by looting or were largely expressive (as in many of the 1964 riots or in the 1966 Dayton riot), or were not much more than traditional Saturday night brawls but which happened to occur during the height of the riot season and were labeled "riots" by the mass media (as was the case in Tucson, Arizona), to those that were most clearly political, as in Plainfield, where demands were presented and negotiations between ghetto youth leaders and city officials alternated with violence. 19

Most ghetto riots --coming after a decade of civil rights activity and promises, in a context of severely restricted channels for the effective redress of grievances, sometimes growing out of focused community conflicts with a degree of selectivity in attack, and with the presence of slogans and ex-post facto legitimations discovered by social science research and journalists --clearly fit in cells I and II. From the riots in 1964 to those occuring later, there appears to be a tendency for the generalized belief to develop more fully and to reach an even larger number of people, and perhaps for the violence to become more instrumental or to be responded to by authorities as if it involved grievances as well as rule-breaking.

Riots of type I are likely to involve a dissident group against the government and civil authorities, or a particular, focused, institutional context such as a factory or school; whereas riots of type II are likely to have a more diffuse character, often involving violence between groups divided on the basis of religion, ethnicity, ideology , race, or region, with the government as a bystander. Most pogroms and communal riots fall here. In these cases, a generalized belief is present defining a group as aliens, outsiders, troublemakers, inferiors, degenerates, subversives, or racially or culturally impure, and holding them responsible for various social ills and historical sins. Elements of wish fulfillment, and what Smelser calls "short-circuiting" (a jump from very general levels of blame to an attack on specific concrete agents) seem more characteristic of this type of outburst. Although there may be elements of realistic competition present, and the clash of divergent life styles and values, such riots tend not to deal directly with the source of strains experienced by the group or lead to changes in public policy. Instead, they can represent a displacement of anger onto an accessible target. Such riots may inhibit social change and, as in the case of earlier American race riots or Russian pogroms, may occur with the explicit or implicit encouragement of elite groups. 20

As noted earlier, much has been written about the type I and II riots. Their importance in causing (and reflecting) social change and their dramatic nature help explain why. Appreciably less attention has been given to violent outbursts where a generalized belief is lacking and which are not instrumental in solving a group's problem (type IV). Considering such neglected riots offers an indication of the range of material that a comprehensive socio1ogical analysis of riots should deal with.

I wish briefly to describe issueless riots which develop out of two kinds of circumstances: (a) in the face of a pronounced weakening of the agents of social control, and (b) expressive outbursts which occasionally accompany victory celebrations or ritualized festivals.

Rioting When Police Go On Strike

Under some conditions, the weakening or absence of external controls may greatly increase violations of traditional rules. The disorders that have emerged when police go on strike or in the disorganization of war periods indicate this.

Following a strike in 1919 by the Liverpool police, riotous behavior occurred over a two-day period, necessitating the calling out of soldiers and the use of 850 special constables. As helmeted soldiers with fixed bayonets patrolled the streets, a London Times correspondent reported "Central Liverpool tonight represents a war zone. ... Anarchy broke out, and even in Liverpool's unfortunate history of strike troubles, the position was apparently, never more serious." 21 In what was described as an "orgy of destruction," predominantly youthful rioters held the upper hand in the densely crowded streets for two nights. The dominant activities seemed to be looting, destroying property, drinking, generally rebellious behavior and attacks on police and soldiers trying to maintain order . Streets were littered with merchandise, from watches to costumers' dummies.

The riot, at least initially, seemed to have a less hostile tone than those where a well-developed generalized belief is present. Thus, in one instance, from Crane's shop of musical instruments "looters dragged pianos out into the open and thumped them in a frenzied endeavor to demonstrate their defiance of law and order. Here, between 1 and 2 this morning, a baton charge was made by the police and the al fresco concert was suddenly ended and the crowd dispersed." However, less expressive activities were also present, such as stoning and mobbing of soldiers --which resulted in (or stemmed from) soldiers offering volleys of rifle fire and bayonet charges.

A similar situation prevailed at nearby Birkenhead, where almost half the police force went on strike. The Riot Act was read, forty shops were wrecked and looted, fifty people were arrested, street fighting occurred, and police and soldiers were attacked as rioters made sorties from their strongholds in narrow back streets.

A similar phenomenon occurred in Boston a month later, when two-thirds of the police went on strike and then Governor Calvin Coolidge and his police commissioner refused to call out the 3,000 available state troopers. Boston was without police protection for two days and, according to a recent article, "the mob ruled the streets." 22 The rioting and lawbreaking that accompanied the 1969 strike of the Montreal police also seemed to have several elements of issueless rioting; though given the issue of French separatism, student and labor dissatisfactions, and economic rivalries, this is less clearly the case than in Liverpool or Boston. Looting, vandalism, and arson were reportedly widespread, a policeman was killed by sniper fire, and scores were injured. One shop owner reported, "You've never seen the city like this. It's like the war." 23 Disorders also were reported in Stockholm, Malmo, Gotenburg, and other Swedish cities following the equivalent of a police strike on June 7, 1970.

Roughly comparable situations could be seen in some European cities at the end of World War II, when rioting and a general breakdown in order occurred as the Axis Powers retreated.

Riots in Victory and Celebration

The category of riots in victory, or the somewhat traditional violent outbursts that follow particular holidays and social events (or that accompanied the fairs and feasts of pre-industrial Europe and the brawls between rival craft guilds or volunteer fire departments in nineteenth-century America), do not so clearly fit into the category of collective behavior as the events considered above. They may have a ritualized aspect and be "institutionalized," in the sense that participants and controllers expect them to happen. The element of spontaneity, which is a crucial component of collective behavior, is less clearly present.

Yet no one knows exactly when the violence will begin, who will play what roles, and/or how far what begins as merry-making activity will go. It thus clearly has an element of spontaneity to it, even if not so clearly pronounced as is the case with other kinds of riot. The element of fun, kicks, the quest for excitement, and a general expressiveness characterizes such disorders, though if social control agents are highly repressive this can quickly change. The riot in victory or as recreation is particularly interesting in light of theories that see rioting always tied to strains and the absence of appropriate means for redressing grievances.

Among well-known examples of such riots are many of the youth disturbances which occur with some regularity at resorts during vacation periods, 24 and the antics of an earlier generation of college boys, whose victory celebrations sometimes moved from tearing down goal posts and overturning streetcars to brawling, looting, and battling authorities.

Less well known but having something of the same character was an August 1945 riot in San Francisco, which followed the Japanese surrender. As San Francisco "opened all vents in celebration of the war's end," thousands of dollars of damage was done.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, 25 "police stood by powerless as the crowds broke windows on Market and adjoining streets." The crowd attacked streetcars, overturned scores of automobiles, looted stores, and tore down posters that reminded them of the war.

While clearly marginal to the category of issueless riots, the series of violent outbursts that occurred around the career of John Wilkes are interesting. They suggest the fluid link between celebration and destruction, and how past memories of oppression, as well as current dissatisfactions, may lead to violent action even on the occasion of partial victories. More than half of the Wilkite riots reported by Rude developed out of seeming victories and celebrations. 26 For example, Wilkes' supporters greeted his election (not his defeat) to Parliament in 1768 "by tumultuous riots in the cities of London and Westminster which, for two days on end, the forces of law and order were quite inadequate and unable to contain." 27 The windows of the rich were smashed with little distinction made between government and opposition members. With "gay abandon," less serious but similar activities also occurred on his birthday, twice on his release from prison, his later election to Parliament, and on his election as Lord Mayor of London. In each of these instances it is difficult to see how the precipitating incident confirms or sharpens strain, or the generalized belief in any of five ways listed by Smelser, such as introducing a sharp new deprivation, symbolizing a failure which demands explanation, or being a response to the sudden closing of channels for peaceful protest.

Strain a Necessary Factor?

To be sure, if one looks long enough and carefully enough into the nooks and crannies of any complex body of riot data, he can probably find some evidence of strain and at least a proto-ideology. For example, in the police strike riots, some people no doubt were angry at the city government for what they saw as a government attack on trade unionism, yet this factor does not characterize issueless riots, particularly when they are contrasted with riots at the other end of the continuum. In neither Liverpool nor Boston was it possible to identify "...a belief in the existence of extra-ordinary forces -- threats, conspiracies, etc.--which are work in the universe" nor an ". ..assessment of the extra-ordinary consequences which will follow if the collective attempt to reconstitute social action is successful." 28

In some of the riots in victory, it has similarly been difficult to identify sources of strain, such as racial discrimination or competition, low salaries and job insecurity, colonial domination and the like --though, as the riot developed people experiencing an array of strains may become involved. 29

The occurrence of such "issueless" riots in the face of weakened social control, together with those that emerge out of victories, suggests that pronounced strain and the presence of a generalized belief are not necessary conditions for the occurrence of a riot, though mixed with other factors they are certainly sufficient conditions.

This does not mean one must adopt a Hobbesian beast-in-the-beast-kept-in-check-only-by-external-force image of riots. 30 Nor is it to deny that riots often have a protest character and are inspired by indignation and ideology, and that a crucial factor in accounting for major shifts in the rate of hostile outbursts is the political system itself. It is to call attention to variation in types of riot.

To be sure, hostile outbursts involving well-developed generalized beliefs are more interesting and likely to be more significant for social change, and perhaps occur with far greater frequency than the relatively issueless riots described here. Yet this should not lead us to ignore --or worse, deny --the presence of the latter .

To note the distinctions made in this paper is certainly not to argue that current black and student disorders are unaffected by a generalized belief, or occur in a context where serious grievances and issues are lacking. Unlike a recent paper by a political scientist, in which the political implications are rather more clear than the scientific, I am not suggesting that current riots occur "mainly for fun and profit." 31 However, I am suggesting that our understanding of riots, social movements, and change would be broadened by some consideration of other kinds of riots that are less tied to protest and ideology . If this were done, we might become more aware of:

  1. How different types of riot (and riot participants) relate to each other ( e.g., the process whereby issueless riots become articulate and instrumental, or how ideologically motivated rioters affect opportunistic rioters) ;
  2. Sources of motivation beyond a generalized belief and disinterested protest;
  3. The expressive consequences of riots beyond their instrumental group conflict aspects ;
  4. The need to restrict theories about the importance of strains, lack of political access, and the role of ideology to one of several types of violent outbursts.
We might also be better able to document and understand the protest nature of much recent American collective violence, by contrasting it with other types of riot where this is clearly absent.

Top  |  Back to Main Page

I am grateful to Greg Johnson, Leon Man, and Art Liebmann for their helpful comments.


1. Neil Smelser, Theory of Collective Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.) See also the useful discussion by C. Couch, "Collective Behavior: An Examination of Some Stereotypes." Social Problems 15, 3 (1968), 310-311.

2. Rude, The Crowd in History (New York: Wiley, 1964).

3. R. Fogelson and R. Hill, "Who Riots? A Study of Participation in the 1967 Riots," in Supplmental Studies for the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1968) and other studies summarized in N. Caplan, "The New Ghetto Man: A Review of Recent Empirical Studies," Journal of Social Issues (Winter, 1970).

4. For example, for a sampling of numerous articles where this theme is explicit or implicit: R. Fogelson, "Violence as Protest," in R. Connery, ed., Urban Riots: Violence and Social Change (New York Academy of Political Science, 1968) ; T. M. Tomlinson, "The Development of a Riot Ideology among Urban Negroes," American Behavioral Scientist 11 (March-April, 1968) , 27-31; J. Geschwender, "Civil Rights Protest and Riots: A Disappearing Distinction," Social Science Quarterly 49 no.3 {December, 1968) ; R. Rubenstein, Mass Political Violence in the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970) ; I. L. Horowitz and, M. Liebowitz, "Social Deviance and Political Marginality," Social Problems (Winter, 1968); some of the essays (particularly chs. 1 and 9 gathered together in J. Skolnick, The Politics of Protest (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969)

The less negative view of riots currently held by social scientists may also be because contemporary riots are more restrained than earlier ones and, given effective, worldwide coverage by the mass media, have become almost daily, routinized events that no long seem so out of the ordinary.

5. R. Merton and R. Nisbet, Contemporary Social Problems (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Wor1d, 1966), p. 810.

6. Whether all riots are illegal is not an issue raised in this definition.

7. R. Park and Burgess, The Science of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1924).

8. H. Blumer, "Collective Behavior, in H. Lee, New Outline of the Principles of Sociology (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961).

9. R. Turner and L. Killian, Collective Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1957), pp. 84-89.

10. R. Brown, Social Psychology (New York: Free Press, 1965).

11. An important exception is Tilly's use of historical data to trace a development from "primitive" to "reactionary" to "modern" violence, depending on shifts in the organizational, base (communal to associational} and the relation to the structure of power (acquiring, maintaining, or losing position): C. Tilly, "Collective Violence in European Perspective" in H. D. Graham and T. R. Gurr, Violence in America (New York: New American Library), 1969). "Primitive Violence" would seem to call attention to cell IV of the typology which follows, with the other two types falling in cell I and, to a lesser extent II.

12. Morris Janowitz, The Social Control of Escalated Riots (Chicago: University of Chicago, Center for Policy Studies, 1968) distinguishes between "communal" and "commodity" riots. The latter refers to recent ghetto riots, although they are also characterized by the increased use of arms. The move from white dominated attacks on blacks to black-dominated, property-oriented rioting, is observed by L. Masotti, J. Hadden, K. Seminatore, J.Corai in A Time to Burn? (Chicago: Rand McNalIy, 1969) , ch. 5.

13. S. Lieberson and Silverman, "The Precipitants and Underlying Conditions of Race Riots," American Sociological Review (December, 1965, 887-898; M. Bloombaum, "The Conditions Underlying Race Riots as Portrayed by Multi-dimensional Scalogram Analysis: A Reanalysis of Lieberson and Silverman's Data," American Sociological Review 33 (February, 1968), 77; B. Downes, "Social and Political Characteristics of Riot Cities: A Comparative Study," Social Science Quartetrly 49, no.3 (December, 1968) ; S. Spilerman, "The Causes of Racial Disturbances: A Comparison of Alternative Explanations," American Sociological Review (August, 1970). In excluding racial disorders that developed out of focused institutional contexts, Spilerman finds that riot process is largely a function of one factor --the size of the Negro community.

14. J. Wanderer, "An Index of Riot Severity and Some Correlates," American Journal of Sociology, 64, no.5 (March, 1969).

15. In riots characterized by a generalized belief, there is no assumption that all riot participants share that belief, nor that other motives are not present. As in any complex event, motivation for participation is diverse and may change over time, though this is not to suggest that the same kinds of motives in the same frequencies are found in all instances of disorder. The personally disorganized, those with pronounced antisocial tendencies, criminals, and individualistic looters may take advantage of the general confusion in a riot to further their own ends. There are many recent and historical examples of such people being drawn into a riot, unconcerned, and perhaps even unaware of the broader issues. Riots clearly offer a cover for normally prohibited behavior. Yet such people are always present, while riots of type I and II occur infrequently and are very much related to broader social, political, economic, religious, and racial issues. An explanation that seeks the source of these riots only in the nature of man, or of certain men (such as those in the lower social classes), cannot account for their variation in place and time.

16. For example, Rude's distinction between "backward-looking" and "forward looking" riots. Op. cit.. pp. 214-234.

17. R. Turner, "The Public Perception or Protest," American Sociological Review (December 1969).

18. G. Rude, op. cit.; E. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (New York: W. W. Norton. 1959).

19. In addition, two generally neglected factors in some of the destruction in certain cities were (a) merchants who paid black youth to firebomb their stores in order to collect insurance, and (b) efforts of organized crime to sanction or destroy non-cooperating businesses.

20. For a consideration of the scapegoat and the displacement of aggression functions of such riots, see H. Otto Dahlke, "Race and Minority Riots --A. Study In the Typology of Violence," Social Forces 30 (1951-52); and M. Simpson and G. Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minorities (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), ch. 4.

21. London Times, August 4, 1919.

22. F. Russell, "The Strike That Made a President," Americalt Heritage 14 (October, 1963), 44-47, 90-94; and R. Bartlett, "Anarchy in Boslon," Americalt Mercury", 35 (1935), in part reprinted in R. Turner and L. Killian, Collective Behavior, op. cit., pp. 22-23. Also, W. Heaps, Riots, U.S.A. (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), pp. 118-130.

23. New York Times, October 9, 1969.

24. Though as American youth has become more politicized in the 196Os, such outbursts less clearly fit in this category.

25. Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1945. Of a more mixed variety is the riot in an army rehabilitation center which also broke out on the night of victory over the Japanese, reported in J. Abrahams and L. McCorkle, 'Analysis of a Prison Disturbance," Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 42 (1947).

26. Rude, op. cit., p.55.

27. N. Smelser, op. cit., pp. 249-251.

28. N. Smelser, op. cit., p. 8.

29. An important and rather neglected issue is the systematic study of the process whereby the focus and/or types of participants in a crowd change.

30. A pronounced weakening of social control is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the occurrence of a riot. For example, in 1919, although riots occurred in Boston and Liverpool, they did not occur in London or Birmingham, where police also went on strike; nor did they occur in all Italian and German cities when social control agents withdrew as Allied forces came near.

Indeed in some cases the reverse may occur. In Detroit in 1967 the "blue flue" (when large numbers of police failed to report for duty, claiming to be sick during a dispute with the city), crime reportedly; went down. In some ghetto areas, riots essentially; ended when police were withdrawn, though in others disorders greatly escalated when this occurred. In a number of recent "rock" festivals, the absence of a visible police presence and self-policing by youth marshals appear to have minimized disorder. However, in one unfortunate incident the announcement that, after strenuous negotiations, there were no police present at the festival, led to wild cheering, but also led to an immediate outbreak of purse-snatching, robbery, and gate-crashing. An important variable in the withdrawal of regular police is the strength and legitimacy granted indigenous controllers.

31. E. Banfield, The Unheavenly City (Boston: Little Brown, 1970), ch. 9.

You are visitor number to this page since January 10, 2002.