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Re-Thinking Urban Social Movements, ‘Riots’ and Uprisings: An Introduction

Part of the Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology book series (PSEPS)

Abstract

During the last decade, European cities have been shaken by a wave of urban collective action. In this book, we argue that this wave needs to be understood in connection with the structural context of neoliberal urbanism, and that it can be analysed using the concept of ‘urban social movement’. This means that we go against conventional approaches to some of these collective acts, which researchers and media have labelled ‘riots’. Considering the intensity, spread, duration and social dimensions of the ‘rioting’ that occurred in a number of Europe’s major cities in this period, we prefer to describe them as ‘urban uprisings’, referring to a moment of rapid spread of collective action in an urban context, from district to district and/or city to city, which may or may not include violence, looting and torching. Consider the scale of the urban uprisings in the following brief introduction of the cases dealt with in this book, and the difficulty of making a conventional distinction between (disorganised) ‘riots’ and (organised) movement protest.

Keywords

  • Collective Action
  • Social Movement
  • Social Movement Research
  • Place Politics
  • Structural Racism

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Fig. 1.1
Fig. 1.2

Notes

  1. 1.

    In Riot, Unrest and Protest in the Global Stage, the editors David Pritchard and Francis Pakes (2014) do not make such a distinction. On the other hand, they do not provide any theoretical framework for linking these phenomena either. From silence to protest: International perspectives on weakly resourced groups (Chabanet & Royall, 2014) does not operate with a distinction between social movements and ‘riots’ either, as the editors seek a renewal of social movement theory and link to the dynamics of contention perspective (Tilly, 2008). In addition to, e. g., chapters on the World Social Forum and political mobilisation by Muslims in Europe, the volume includes the chapter ‘Urban riots in France and Britain: Arguments in favor of political analyses’, by Didier Chabanet (2014), who provides an analysis emphasising the political nature of these events in a manner similar to the authors in our volume. However, while the dynamics of contention perspective undoubtedly have opened up the mainstream social movement research paradigm in an interesting way, and partly work as a way of bridging riot research with a social movement perspective, we still find it insufficient in order to grasp, and analyse as political, those collective acts that do not make explicit political claims and/or do not target the government (see further in footnote 5 below).

  2. 2.

    In search for such mechanisms, Olzak and Shannan (1996) use a problematic, economistic competition theory, and an equally problematic interpretation of riots in terms of ‘ethnic conflict’, to argue that it is the combination of increasing opportunities for blacks to compete for job opportunities and a shrinking job market that is the most important factor behind riots, making moments of rising unemployment particularly explosive.

  3. 3.

    The six factors are, in brief: (1) structural—poverty, unemployment, relative deprivation and racial discrimination; (2) political/ideological—a group’s political legitimacy, power and influence; (3) cultural—the rules, norms and self-definition of a group and their relation to those of the police and society at large;

    (4) contextual—history of negative interactions between a minority group and the police; (5) situational—spatial and symbolic characteristics of the site of conflict; and (6) interactional—miscommunication and misreading of particular actions (Waddington, 2007, pp. 49–59).

  4. 4.

    There are also contemporary social psychology scholars who argue that collective events such as riots could create an empowerment that can feed into social change (e.g,, Drury & Reicher, 2009).

  5. 5.

    The most recent turn within the dominant social movement research paradigm is the theory of contentious politics, which considers ‘disruptive’ collective action’ (including riots) as an aspect of social movement politics. But the emphasis is still on (1) ‘interactions in which actors make claims’, in which (2) ‘governments appear either as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties’ (Tilly, 2008, p. 5).

  6. 6.

    The decades roughly correspond to developments in Western European countries, but even among them there are variations.

  7. 7.

    It is an irony that Melucci’s theory has often been used in this way, while this is actually what he believed was the problem with the approach represented by, e.g., Tarrow (1983). The full sentence cited above reads: ‘Contemporary American authors seem to call every form of non-institutional political action a social movement, to the extent that the word “movement” is in danger of becoming synonymous with everything in motion in society’ (Melucci, 1989, p. 24).

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Thörn, H., Mayer, M., Thörn, C. (2016). Re-Thinking Urban Social Movements, ‘Riots’ and Uprisings: An Introduction. In: Mayer, M., Thörn, C., Thörn, H. (eds) Urban Uprisings. Palgrave Studies in European Political Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-50509-5_1

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