Criminologically speaking: If technology is not to blame for the London riots, what or who is?

Taking the criminological perspective, I attempt to dissect the Generation Y gang culture in Britain, and see how it connects to the ongoing rioting.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

People aren't born angry. Something has to make people angry.

Technology has been blamed for the riots in London and major cities around the United Kingdom. Though social media is not to blame, nor is BlackBerry Messenger directly implicated -- though it was used to perpetuate violence -- technology is not the demon in this.

Technology is the middle-ground for which people use to do other things. It's as simple as that. So, if technology is not to blame: what, or who is?

Many children today do not represent the quintessential image that adults have in their idealistic and optimistic minds. Children kicking soccer balls and skipping ropes on lush green fields and coming in for a cool drink prepared by a loving parent once the sun sets.

One of the problems with society is that we over-generalise and lump in one extreme to another.

But so many of the children and young people in the deprived areas London, Manchester, and in other British cities rioting and looting, are only so in body. In mind, they are adults, because they have been forced to adjust to the harsh realities of what life really brings.

In this rare off-topic article, I explore the younger Generation Y's gang culture in London and theorise how rioting spread from what was initially a peaceful protest. It's a long piece, but it offers some theoretical explanations as to why.

(Image via Flickr)

Though I do not condone the violence or the criminal activity, part of my role as a criminologist is to objectively empathise -- a paradox to some -- in order to understand why crime occurs, leading thus into how society can prevent it.

While there is certainly "no justification for this level of violence" -- a soundbite resonated through every broadcast of the day -- there are, however, reasons for it.

Generation Y gang culture in London

Gangs and violence are not mutually exclusive.It isn't just the typical young 'youth' boys rioting and looting, but girls also. Girls are just as likely to be involved in the gang culture as boys, and London has its fair share of gangs as will every other city on the planet.

While many vilify gang culture in London, it is a crucial part of the Generation Y's culture in the capital. A gang does not automatically mean it will be violent, commit criminal acts and hold abusive attitudes and behaviour.

As one fellow criminological colleague of mine told me, a Londoner herself, the term 'gangs' is another way of saying 'informal families'; collectives of people for familial support amongst those of their own generation, because they may not have the traditional parental reinforcement.

Gangs, in her experience, may cause violence, but the most want to give the impression that they are self-dependent though not a force to be reckoned with -- merely a defensive mechanism to prevent further harm from their already fragile childhoods.

The rational choice of rioting and positive role models

One significant factor to take into account is the opportunity that rational choice theory presents us. In short, we rationally choose not to commit crime or disorder and vice versa. The lack of police on the streets of London during the initial uprising led to images of rioting and looting appeared initially to go unpunished, which can go towards partly blaming for uprising in other areas of the country.

In terms of rioting, young juveniles are more likely to commit crime in groups or with others. This is more prevalent in groups or gangs where there are no positive role models, or there has been a sudden loss of one.

This leads me to sub-cultural theory. Communities are living, breathing social organisms. Each culture -- whether this be a community, a street, an ethnic group or a socio-economic class, for example -- will have a deviant sub-culture. These conflict subcultures are the ones rioting -- not necessarily the criminal subcultures, which deal in the black market economy in drugs and suchlike. Criminal subcultures could benefit from the conflict subcultures' looting, by the selling of stolen goods, for example.

These deviant subcultures are in effect violent gangs and hostile groups, and can be classed by membership, short-term hedonism, and non-utilitarianism. This forms part of status frustration -- a culture clash between those who seemingly have everything and those who have little, and struggle to survive in Western society.

Combining both sub-cultural theory with lacking police numbers and rational choice theory, we find opportunity theory -- where crime is committed based on the opportunity presenting itself. If the car isn't locked, it's more likely to be stolen than one that is.

The police and the state

Though now -- as over 16,000 police officers cover the streets of London to heighten the law enforcement presence to resist further unlawful activity -- only now are we seeing the carrot and the stick approach, almost to 'coax' people away from rioting.

State housing authorities say that those caught on CCTV rioting face eviction from their houses, for example.

While these measures come from central and local government, these entities are detached from the vast majority of the young, deprived children and families engaged in the violence. It falls down to the police knowing what is best -- as police are, as many seem to forget, people too -- and know their local areas well. The police should be the ones dealing with those in their local communities, rather than politicians in Downing Street pontificating with wide-ranging language and "policy initiatives" which take an inappropriate broad stroke at societal smaller problems.

The UK's coalition government has little to call its own in terms of youth-specific policy, and the policy that does target young people has been immensely unpopular amongst the younger generation.

Besides tuition fees -- need I say more -- many of these policies focus on schooling and education, and forget the 'rioting generation' as we have seen this week, are not within the conventional realms of schooling and education.

Who to blame?

Should we blame the parents? In short, yes, but not entirely. Legally, parents can be prosecuted for the actions of their childrens' delinquency -- even in middle-class settings such as school truancy. But it is the fault of those who commit acts of rioting and looting, destruction and violence -- regardless of age. It is, on the other hand, just as much as it is the fault of state and local government for not mobilising policy at the smaller sub-cultures that are disaffected by wider, middle- to higher-class society.

There is clearly an inter-generational problem, particularly between parents and children. Local community leaders, such as priests, members of Parliament and youth workers, only appeal to those who are within the legitimate and law-abiding members of society, with criminal 'underdogs' only appealing to the criminal groups and gangs. Yet, both are just as influential as one another.

In short, we cannot just blame those on the street. Society appears as though it is breaking down, and will take time to recover, but in fact it has been broken for some time. It takes a while for the already-cracked crockery to break.

Related content:

Editorial standards