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Analysing the 2011 riots: Why the emotional impact extended far beyond the affected communities

New research investigating the emotional effects of the 2011 riots across England has found that the negative impacts were felt by communities far removed from where the activity took place, with black neighbourhoods being particularly severely impacted.

The English riots of 2011 affected half of London's boroughs, as well as neighbourhoods in several other cities, causing £200 million worth of property damage in more than 200 individual riot events.

The study, undertaken by researcher Panka Bencsik at the University of Sussex, used data from the individual happiness data collection app, Mappiness, to track the general happiness and stress levels of thousands of respondents per month across the country. The app asks participants to report on their feelings and activities twice a day, resulting in a rich dataset for the summer of 2011.

The data revealed that the riots brought about substantial unhappiness and stress in all communities and socio-economic levels across the country, with particularly pronounced negative effects in areas with high levels of black residents.  While the impact was substantially stronger in neighbourhoods with riots, they also had a negative effect in the entirety of England, Wales and even Scotland, where no actual riots took place.  In areas with riots, the well-being loss was substantial: they had an equivalent negative effect on the average citizen as large as the positive effect of Christmas Eve has for the average Brit.  

These negative effects on communities persisted long after the events had ceased and throughout the rest of the summer.

The riots not only caused unhappiness, but people near them also altered their behaviour in reaction. In particular, communication and information seeking increased, with higher levels of TV watching, texting, email and social media use.   

However, for a few, the riots were positive. Respondents in areas of England with the highest levels of skills deprivation actually reported an increased happiness during the riots.  

Panka Bencsik, author of the report, believes that interviews with rioters highlight why this pattern emerged.

“Social research conducted in the aftermath of the riots through a series of interviews with participants found one of the key motivating factors for joining in was their sense of lack of opportunities and of inequality, which barred them from moving forward in life. Consequently, people in these similarly deprived areas might have been sympathetic to the rioters’ cause.”

Since its inception in 2010, Mappiness has had more than 2 million responses from more than 30 thousand participants. On this occasion, researchers used only a small snippet of time, comparing respondents’ feelings and behaviour before the riots to the changes in their levels once the riots broke out.  

The results suggest that the observed drop in well-being is indeed causally linked to the riots, as such a pattern of substantial drop exactly in the areas which experienced riots does not emerge at various tested periods before.

Bencsik believes that the results show that more in-depth research needs to be done on the mental health cost of the riots, to complement and enrich the existing information on the financial cost.

 “It needs to be recognised that the damage done by rioting goes far beyond mere monetary value; further research would help us better understand how citizens are impacted and can be best supported after extreme events.

Only by further assessment of the well-being of the affected communities and those of a similar standing can society understand the motivations behind them, and take action in tackling the root problems to ensure that similar events don’t happen again.”

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By: Patrick Reed
Last updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2018

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