A sudden upsurge of collective violence, often directed at property, sometimes at persons in authority. There is considerable taxonomic dispute about the precise definition of the term, and the point at which collective unrest becomes riot, rather than (say) merely civil disorder. The issues here are not merely academic, since acts of collective violence often raise questions of legitimacy (especially when they are directed against the State itself), and can be discredited by those against whom they are directed by means of being labelled as a form of criminal lawlessness. For example, G. Rudé's study of The Crowd in History (1964) shows how the revolutionary crowd in European history was identified by the ruling classes as a frenzied criminal mob, while E. P. Thompson's reading of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English history (The Making of the English Working Class, 1964) suggests that a similar process occurred in respect of Luddism. Stanley Cohen's study of the British Mods and Rockers in the mid-1960s is an exemplary account of the contested labelling that often surrounds the moral panics which are associated with hooliganism and can promote a public discourse of riot.
Much media and other public discussion of riotous behaviour-be it in the contexts of labour militancy, ethnic unrest, or youth subcultures -therefore promotes a ‘lunatic fringe’ or ‘criminal riff-raff’ theory of such activities. Sociologists who have explored the underlying causes of riots have tended, rather, to view them as symptomatic of structural social tensions. Thus, for example, research into the urban riots in the United States in the 1960s showed that these had wide local support and participation, were not orchestrated by a lawless and unrepresentative criminal minority, and could therefore much more plausibly be seen as broad group responses to shared grievances (see, for example,, ‘The Los Angeles Riot of August 1965’, Social Problems, 1968). See also collective behaviour.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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