Critical Synthesis: On the Academic Framing of Riots (by Michael B from Section 2)

In the analysis of urban riots throughout U.S. history, there are a couple common questions that academics raise regarding this caustic subject. First, there is the question of why riots happen; why do certain groups riot, and why are their motivations for rioting different from others? Second, do riots accomplish anything for the rioters involved, and by extension, is rioting a useful form of protest? This question is particular cause for disagreement among scholars as well as for activists and people in general. In the readings we have read for class, including Bert Useem’s piece and Janet Abu-Lughod’s book, the authors work carefully toward answering this question and addressing the existing literature on “non-routine” collective action.

Useem begins this discussion by reviewing current sociological framework on the subject of rioting by focusing on two main bodies of theory: the theories of breakdown and resource mobilization. The former, Useem explains, posits that collective action, specifically in the form of rebellion and rioting, occurs in direct reaction to the failures and corrosions of so-called mechanisms of social control. That is, when a group wishes to riot, and there are no perceived reasons not to, then it will riot. Resource mobilization theorists, by contrast, believe that it is the mechanisms of group political work, a sort of guerilla lobbying process, that motivates riots.

The point of where these different theories clash is the existing body of evidence (existing data on historical riots) and whether it supports breakdown theory or resource mobilization theory. The purpose of RM theory is, as Useem points out, a theoretical amendment to accommodate and explain riots whose occurrences were either not predicted or explained by breakdown theory. In order to determine whether or not these theories withstand practical application, I will look at Abu-Lughod’s analysis of historical riots that are primarily caused by either black or white communities in urban settings.

Abu-Lughod looks in-depth at the bloody riots that occur in Chicago, Harlem and Los Angeles from the mid-nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century. In each of these she backgrounds the riots historically with the socio-economic and ethnic tensions that accumulate within given neighborhoods before particular riots break out. The anecdotes vary historically but more importantly, as the author frames it, geographically. In the example of Chicago, the history of Illinois situates this city as more historically sympathetic to southern attitudes toward blacks; because of this, Chicago makes harsher black laws which make the city less friendly toward African Americans than its other northern counterparts.

New York, in contrast, appears to segregate blacks less than what is apparent in Chicago’s south-side wards, and arguably offers less austere racial laws than Chicago as well. However, as becomes plain in Abu-Lughod’s analysis, these conditions are not preventative against riots. Although while riots do occur in both Chicago and Harlem throughout these periods of history, the contexts of these riots do vary geographically. For example, while Chicago riots embody a constant battle against white and black residents, featuring riots incited by each, Harlem riots tend to be provoked by conflicts between police and black residents.

In each of these cases, we also see that explanations from breakdown or resource mobilization theory have varying significances. The problems of predictability and intentionality become the key determinants here to whether or not these theories hold up; as we see in the case of Harlem, riots are provoked by what seems more directly to be discontent with authorities of power (i.e. the police force). In examples Useem cites as being pro-resource mobilization theory, riots in Europe appear to contradict the patterns apparent in the violent black-police relations in Harlem.

This dissonance between historical examples of riots echo the point that Useem and Abu-Lughod are reinforcing in each of these readings. That is, the point being that tidy explanations of the causes of riots cannot be universal, insofar as causes of riots are not universal. Variance in time and space in Abu-Lughod’s examples, of Chicago and Harlem specifically, show that while there are trends in how riots occur, they do not set in stone the parameters by which riots are started.

For Useem, this dissonance means reevaluating the theories we use to look at riots. Instead of arguing about breakdown theory and resource mobilization theory as they are traditionally discussed, he suggests new and more particularist frameworks toward why breakdown happens, via social capital, routine-disorder, and clash of civilizations breakdown theories. Each of these familiarizes different ways in which riots occur, while consolidating the RM theory debate on intentionality and objectives of rioting.

And while Abu-Lughod does not explicitly debate these issues, she provides a wealth of evidence in favor of this particularizing of the nature of riots. With each of these accounts, she shows that whether or not intentionality or social capital are explicit motivators for non-routine collectivization is heavily dependent upon the factors going into the riots themselves. Some patterns in particular cities show that riots can be goal-oriented and aimed toward expressing discontent, while others introduce entirely contradicting models. The lesson here is that rather than trying to reframe discussions of riots to make these models fit existing frameworks, we should strive to follow where empirical data takes us in developing explanations for complex issues like riots and protests.

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