Book chapter (electronic)

Understanding Urban Riots (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Urban riots are intense and highly destructive outbursts of collective violence. Intrinsically "explosive" and "volatile," they often seem, at least at first sight, to lack any discernible and comprehensible political agenda. For this reason, riots are often miscast as "wantonly criminal," "senseless," or "irrational"—this was the view of early scholars working in this space and it persists in some corners today. Yet this perspective is simplistic and belies the fact that there is invariably an underlying logic to these violent events, even if this is difficult to decode and understand. The majority of contemporary research on urban riots—much of it empirical—recognizes the complexity of these events and seeks to unravel the web of causal factors, from crowd dynamics to broader social and political context, that frames the outbreak of riots. This work builds on the rational approaches to understanding crowd behavior that emerged in the latter part of the 20th century and provides for a more holistic understanding of their nature and causes. Riots are unique in the sense that every outbreak is the product of a distinct combination of drivers and contextual factors. At the same time, these events often share common features—political marginalization, economic deprivation, problematic police-public interactions—that make their broader life cycle a familiar one. This means that despite the seemingly chaotic nature of riots, researchers have been able to develop empirically informed analytical frameworks that provide for deep understanding of how these violent social events come about.