Challenging the narrative of broken communities: informal social controls and the 2011 English Riots

Dr Deborah Platts-Fowler1
1Victoria University Of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

The 2011 English were framed by concerns over moral decline and a lack of self-restraint. Those who participated were associated with a nihilistic ‘gangsta’ culture. The Prime Minister concluded that pockets of society were not just broken, but frankly sick.

The manifestation of looting was touted as evidence by politicians, as well as some criminologists, that the riots were not political. Despite the police shooting of a young black man in suspicious circumstances and the context of recession and austerity, rioters simply went shopping.

This paper presents case study research to challenge this narrative. It highlights that in one of the worst affected cities, there was barely any looting. Violence was targeted against the police as a response to repressive and discriminatory policing in certain parts of the city.

Far from trashing their neighbourhoods, rioters were responsive to community controls, which mitigated violence locally; and, in places where informal social controls were supported by formal controls and integrated into the public order response, violence was averted altogether.

The paper concludes that ‘broken communities’ were not the problem in 2011. Communities were part of the solution where public agencies knew how to support and engage with them.


Deborah is interested in crime and disorder in neighbourhoods, with a focus on relationships within and between communities, and between communities and the state. She has conducted research in urban locations associated with violence, gangs, and ethnic conflict. She is a critical criminologist interested public criminology. In the UK, she has advised  Ministers, the police and a range of other state agencies on issues relating to her research.

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