Urban Studies Riots
Matthew Moran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0006


Riots have long been an area of interest for researchers but the study of this form of collective disorder has always proved challenging. Riots are fluid and highly volatile events, intense outbursts of emotionally charged violence that often seem devoid of any clear, underlying logic. The task is further complicated by the fact that every riot is unique in the sense that it arises from a particular combination of causal and contextual factors that may vary considerably from event to event. Classical thinking on riots (see From Classical to Contemporary Perspectives on Riots) was underpinned by notions of irrationality and criminality, but this trend was reversed over the course of the 20th century as rational approaches to understanding collective behavior gained momentum. Contemporary research, much of it empirical, has sought to adopt a holistic approach to the study of riots, combining an understanding of immediate crowd dynamics with the broader contextual factors surrounding riots.

General Overviews

Works across several disciplines, from sociology to social psychology, have made efforts to chart and contextualize changes in thinking over time with regard to the causes of riots and the behavior of those who participate in these violent events. Waddington and King 2005 and Stott and Drury 2017 offer a useful entry point to the subject in this regard. Waddington 1992 gives a detailed comparative study into different types of riots and disorder, from urban riots to football hooliganism. In terms of research that situates riots as part of a broader discussion of contentious politics and social change, Hobsbawm 1978, Tilly 2003, Wacquant 2007, and, more recently, Seferiades and Johnston 2012, an edited volume, hold great value. Other works, such as Keith 1993 and Abu-Lughod 2007 (cited under Useful Case Studies of Riots), highlight the importance of race and ethnicity in efforts to understand the etiology of riots.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1978.

    Originally published in 1959. This book offers a study of various primitive forms of protest, many violent, and highlights the idea of actors in this context as “pre-political people” not yet possessed of the “specific language” (pp. 2–3) required to articulate their aspirations or worldview. The work provides important insights into the complex and subtle points of overlap among protest, politics, and social movements.

  • Keith, Michael. Race, Riots and Policing. London: UCL Press, 1993.

    Dating to the early part of the 1990s, this book remains a valuable starting point for those seeking to gain an understanding of the role of racial tensions, among other things, in the production of riots. Given that much of the literature examining race in this context examines the experience of the United States, the British focus of Keith’s work is of particular interest.

  • Moran, Matthew, and David Waddington. Riots: An International Comparison. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    Presents a detailed model for understanding the causal factors that contribute to episodes of rioting. The authors emphasize the political significance of rioting and support their analysis with five international case studies. Also considers recent developments such as the role of social media in the spread and escalation of riots and the overlap between riots and social movements.

  • Seferiades, Seraphim, and Hank Johnston, eds. Violent Protest, Contentious Politics, and the Neoliberal State. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

    The contributions to this edited volume explore riots through the lens of contentious politics and the destructive forces of neoliberalism. Theoretical insights are grounded in examples drawn from a range of international cases.

  • Stott, Clifford, and John Drury. “Contemporary Understanding of Riots: Classical Crowd Psychology, Ideology and the Social Identity Approach.” Public Understanding of Science 26.1 (2017): 2–14.

    Critiques the origins and ideology of classical thinking on crowd psychology. The authors present approaches in this genre as pathologized, highly ideological, and lacking context. Having dismantled the intellectual basis for this early thinking, the authors present the case for an identity-based approach to crowd behavior that is rooted in social psychology. This approach prioritizes the perspective of the crowd participants, in particular the perceptions and meanings that these participants hold.

  • Tilly, Charles. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    This book explores the idea of collective violence as a form of contentious politics (the title of a subsequent book by the same author) and serves as an antidote to simplistic interpretations that prioritize nihilism and criminality in explanations of riots.

  • Wacquant, Loïc. Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Urban Marginality. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007.

    The author explores the concept of advanced marginality in the volatile ghettos of Chicago and the suburbs of Paris through a combination of political sociological theory and extensive empirical evidence. Valuable context for understanding some of the more deeply rooted causal factors framing the outbreak of riots in urban centers.

  • Waddington, David. Contemporary Issues in Public Disorder: A Comparative and Historical Approach. London: Routledge, 1992.

    This book draws on a range of examples, from the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland to inner-city riots in the United States, to give an overview of key issues at stake in debates on public disorder. A wide-ranging and accessible study.

  • Waddington, David, and Mike King. “The Disorderly Crowd: From Classical Psychological Reductionism to Socio-contextual Theory; The Impact on Public Order Policing Strategies.” Howard Journal of Crime and Justice 55.5 (2005): 490–503.

    Provides an overview of the shift from the classical theoretical tradition of riots-related research that prioritized themes of irrationality to more nuanced social psychological and sociopolitical approaches. The authors offer synopses of key theoretical developments and conclude by considering the impact of these changes on public order policing strategy.

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