The impact of the riots: people feel more threatened and prejudiced

The recent riots in England have sparked a vigorous debate about the causes. On the Left, much of the attention has focused on the role of economic inequality and economic grievances among sections of society. On the Right, attention has focused more heavily on the role of criminality and morality. But as one commentator points out, amidst this debate there has been little in the way of reason ‘and a rigorous scientific approach’ to understanding these events. Furthermore, little attention has focused on the consequences of the riots.

How have the riots impacted on public attitudes? In the aftermath, were people mainly concerned about the way in which these events threatened their finances and security, or were they more concerned about threats to wider British society and culture? And even though the riots involved members of different ethnic and cultural groups, how have they influenced public attitudes toward minority groups, such as Muslims, Black and East European communities?

A study by Drs Matt Goodwin, Mark Pickup and Eline de Rooij examines these questions. It is the first systematic investigation of how the riots have influenced public attitudes. Unlike other research that has emerged, their study is focused specifically around the riots. Having put a survey into the field two weeks before the riots, the events provided us with a ‘natural experiment’ and an opportunity to see how attitudes have changed.

We were interested in seeing whether people felt more or less threatened after the riots. Feelings of ‘threat’ are especially important, as they have been shown to have powerful effects on public attitudes toward issues such as immigration and diversity, and also on voting behaviour. In short, if people feel more threatened then they are more likely to express prejudice toward other groups, favour more restrictive policies on issues such as immigration and support extremist parties.

At a broad level, our findings suggest that – in the aftermath of the riots - citizens felt more threatened. On the whole, respondents in our nationally representative sample were more likely to feel they were under threat after the riots. However, there are many different forms of threat. People may feel that their economic position is threatened, their security is threatened and/or that their wider society and culture is threatened. We found that not all forms of threat increased.

Feelings of economic threat did not increase. Public perceptions of individual economic threat (i.e. fears that individuals’ own economic prospects will worsen) did not increase after the riots. Similarly, public perceptions of collective economic threat (i.e. fears that the national economy will worsen) did not increase after the riots. This provides evidence that people were not primarily concerned about the economic impacts of the riots.

Rather, following the riots people felt more threatened in specifically two ways. First, people were more likely to feel that their safety was threatened, i.e. they were more fearful of increasing violence and vandalism in their neighbourhood. Second, they were more likely to feel that wider British culture and society was under threat, i.e. they were more fearful that British culture is threatened. Feelings of security threat increased by 10% and feelings of cultural threat increased by 5%. These were ‘statistically significant’ effects. In short, citizens were more likely after the riots to feel that their security and wider society was under threat.

This has had important consequences. Although people did not associate the riots with specific minority groups (whether Muslim/Black/East European communities), they were more prejudiced in their aftermath. Those who felt afterwards that their security was under greater threat were more likely to express hostile attitudes toward Muslims. Meanwhile, those who felt afterwards that wider British society and culture were under greater threat were more likely to express hostility toward Muslims and also Black and East European communities. So, whereas the riots were not associated in the public mindset with particular minority groups, they have nonetheless increased prejudice in British society.

What does this mean in real terms? If we look at a 1-10 scale of intolerance toward Muslims, then the estimated effect of an increase in feelings of security threat is in the range of 0.1 to 0.2. In real terms, this means that a 0.1 increase on this scale is roughly equivalent to 190,000 white Britons who previously felt that having a Muslim as a neighbour/boss/partner was fairly attractive now – after the riots – feeling that this is fairly unattractive.

Our findings suggest that the riots have lead citizens to feel more threatened, which in turn has intensified intolerance toward minority groups. This indicates that beyond their immediate impact on property and criminal convictions, the riots have had a broader impact by undermining social cohesion and entrenching negative attitudes toward minority groups (even though the public did not associate the riots directly with these groups).

Seen from a broader perspective, regardless of individuals’ surrounding socio-economic context (which we have controlled for), any similar event in the future that disrupts society and makes citizens feel more threatened is likely to have highly significant and negative effects on how they perceive minority groups.

The study is based on the ‘Academic Omnibus Project’ run by the polling organization, YouGov. It draws on two (online) surveys of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 citizens in the first survey (11-18 July) and 2,000 citizens in the second (17-18 August). The surveys included a battery of questions about individuals’ social and economic profile, their attitudes toward minority groups and voting intention. These questions allowed us to probe the extent to which citizens feel threatened, and prejudiced toward minority groups.

We use an innovative experimental approach, which is often considered the ‘gold standard’ in social scientific research. The experimental method is taken to be the most scientific of all research methods as it enables researchers to keep greater control when examining cause and effect. Unlike other methods, the experimental approach allows us to isolate the impact of a single variable: the riots. Having placed identical questions on surveys just before and after the riots, we use this event in a natural experiment. Given the magnitude of this event, relative to all others in the same period, we can be confident that changes in threat and prejudice over this period are a result of the riots. To ensure that this is the case, the second survey included a question at the beginning that specifically primed citizens to think about these events (a ‘primer’). This set-up allows us to determine whether levels of threat and changes in those levels are linked to attitudes regarding minority groups.

It is rare that we are in a position to observe and measure the effects of a significant real-world event, such as the riots. But the findings tell us more than just the effects of the riots. It reveals how threats to 
security and culture, whatever the source, reduces tolerance in our society.

The study was led by Dr Mark Pickup and Dr Matthew Goodwin from the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, and Dr Eline de Rooij from Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. It was funded by the Integrating Global Society group at the University of Nottingham, with generous logistical assistance from YouGov-Cambridge.

One Response to “The impact of the riots: people feel more threatened and prejudiced”

  1. Paul Evans
    September 6, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Interesting. Did you see Randy Thornhill (et al) and their work on the preconditions for democratic progress?

    I summarised it here (slightly clumsily) http://blog.localdemocracy.org.uk/2011/08/01/democracy-the-healthy-society-the-chicken-and-the-egg/

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