Finished an article today for Admap with my chum Alex Bentley, which uses – among other things – the recent riots to illustrate how near the surface our [wrong-headed] assumptions about human behaviour are.
Coincidentally both the Guardian and the BBC have chosen today to kick off public examinations into the causes of the recent riots.
The Guardian have chosen to repeat the format of the famous Detroit study into those disturbances and are embracing a collaboration with the LSE and (as they have learned to do from the MPs expenses) with a broader reader base. (They've also done this fab infographic)
The BBC have opted for a more informal town-hall style live event (video or twitter).
Listening to the latter it's clear how easily the conversation becomes too specific – about the particular things that happened in a particular place at a particular time and the particular causes of it. What gets lost is the underlying mechanics of this temporary outbreak – the copying. Too much already is either route #1 moralising about individuals or route #1A big-abstract-forces- acting-on-individuals kinds of argument; too little is understanding this event in the context of other such events.
Equally – as is all too often the case in market research – the individuals involved (in whatever way) are likely not to be very reliable witnesses, either about themselves or about the larger events. This is as true of the Guardian study as the BBC talking shop.
Fundamentally, only by understanding the behaviour as a social phenomenon (and not one rooted in individauls) can we really get to grips with it and start to understand what we might do differently next time. Think about it: a riot on your own? [sorry Messrs Strummer/Jones]