Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: riot 1 from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(13c) 1 archaic a : profligate behavior :debauchery b : unrestrained revelry c : noise, uproar, or disturbance made by revelers 2 a : public violence, tumult, or disorder b : a violent public disorder; specif : a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent 3 : a random or disorderly profusion 〈the woods were a ⁓ of color〉 4 : one that is wildly amusing 〈the new comedy is a ⁓〉


Summary Article: riot
from Collins Dictionary of Sociology
  1. (in English law) the use of unlawful violence on the part of at least twelve persons, in a way which would make ‘a person of reasonable firmness’ afraid for his or her safety.

  2. (in sociology) large-scale public disorder involving violence to property and violent confrontation with the police.

Many sociological studies have been published in Britain in recent years, following urban unrest in St. Paul's, Bristol in 1980 and in many other towns and cities in the spring and summer of 1981 and autumn of 1985. No one cause has been accepted as the key to understanding why the unrest occurred, but a number of issues have been singled out as important. One of these is the term ‘riot’ itself. Many commentators have argued that the term is so loaded, morally and politically – involving only the viewpoint of the authorities – that it is specifically useless. Thus many have preferred to use more neutral phrases, like ‘urban unrest’, ‘popular protest’ and ‘public disorder’.

The first type of explanation of riots tends to be of conspiracy, or the influence of outside agitators. So, in the Brixton and other disorders of 1981, political agitators were blamed; in the case of Handsworth in 1985, the police argued that the disorders were organized by drug dealers in order to protect their profits. These types of explanation have a history as long as the history of popular protest. Social historians have given accounts of magistrates and police responses to riots in the 18th and 19th centuries which bear an uncanny resemblance to official and media views of those in the 1980s. Sociologically, these explanations are interesting as ideological constructions. They are rarely proven, but usually serve to deflect attention from underlying social problems and tend to absolve the authorities from any responsibility for the occurrences.

Turning to sociological and related explanations of riots in Britain (except for policing strategies, Northern Ireland must be seen as a separate case), there have been a number of influences on theorizing of which perhaps the most important have been social historians’ accounts of British riots in previous centuries and US sociologists’ explanations of unrest in US cities in the 1960s. Most explanations have also involved some kind of dialogue with the Scarman Report (1981). Scarman's main arguments about the causes of the 1981 unrest concerned material conditions in the areas involved: unemployment, housing, work and other opportunities, together with heavy-handed and confrontational policing, exemplified in a 'stop and search’ operation, ‘Operation Swamp ‘81’, which immediately preceded the unrest. His arguments are in line with sociological work on a number of counts, particularly in his rejection of conspiratorial ideas and emphasis on the reality of the problems faced by the ‘rioters’. A number of strands have been variously emphasized by sociological researchers. These can be listed under four main headings:

  1. material conditions – all the major outbreaks of disorder occurred in localities with much higher rates of DEPRIVATION than average;

  2. POLICING – in virtually every case the first target of unrest was the police. Often disorders followed a specific police operation (e.g. in Bristol 1980, Brixton 1981, and Handsworth 1985) or were associated with high levels of policing. This situation was further complicated by;

  3. RACE – initially several police representatives and politicians gave racist accounts, making arguments about alien cultures, etc. Sociologists have tended to emphasize the importance of the ethnic dimension in different terms. It has long been argued that black people have been subjected to a process of criminalization (see Hall et al., 1978), and that institutionalized RACISM is a persistent and inflammatory problem (Policy Studies Institute, 1983). See also ETHNICITY;

  4. marginalization and ALIENATION – in some respects the existence of these is seen as particularly relevant to black British people, but their implication is wider (see Lea and Young, 1983; Hall, in Benyon and Solomos, 1987). The basic argument is that where people are effectively excluded from processes of political and cultural representation, where effective channels for expressing grievances are closed to them and they perceive a general indifference and even hostility to their situation, they may engage in violent unrest as the only means of expressing their anger and making their situation known, even when this may be likely to prove counter-productive. See also MARGINALITY.

All sociological explanations reject the view that unrest is simply ‘irrational’ or inspired by criminal or political conspirators. They also tend to play down arguments about the ‘copycat effect’, which would reduce explanations to the role of the MASS MEDIA in publicizing and amplifying riots (see AMPLIFICATION OF DEVIANCE). They emphasize that there are identifiable causes, found in the living conditions of the people involved, and understandable in rational terms as responses to those conditions. Compare COLLECTIVE BEHAVIOUR.

© HarperCollins Publishers 2000

Related Articles


Full text Article RIOTS
Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment

Throughout history, violent collective behavior has taken the form of riots, with their attendant vandalism, looting, assault, and even killing....

Full text Article Riots
Encyclopedia of Social Problems

Riots arise when groups of people are committing, or may be about to commit, a variety of violent and/or unlawful acts in relation to an apparent...

Full text Article Riot
The Companion to British History, Routledge

An Unlawful Assembly must consist of three or more persons for purposes forbidden by law or with intent to effect a common purpose, lawful...

See more from Credo