Psychiatry and the History of Riots

In the wake of the recents riots in England, social scientists and journalists have been quite prominent in offering their explanations for the looting and destruction.  Social psychologists and sociologists have, by and large, dominated the more scholarly discussions.  So it is interesting to recall that, as Hans Joachim Schneider pointed out in a 1992 article, two other sets of theories about riots have historically drawn their inspiration from clinical psychology and psychiatry:

2. According to the psychoanalytic social contagion theory, participants in riots are carried away by their subconscious, by their feelings, affects, or instincts.

3. Following the psychopathological convergence theory, individuals who share similar characteristics or abnormal traits, predispositions, or attitudes, or else members of social fringe groups gather in the riot situation.

Schneider cites no studies in this context, but it might be interesting to trace the history of these lines of argument emphasizing psychopathology, ones which now seem to be largely out of favor.  One might mention, for instance, Charles Mackay’s popular Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, first published in 1841.  Perhaps readers can suggest other primary and secondary works in this area?

  1. One must not leave out Karl Lamprecht, admired by the agrarian William E. Dodd, for his theory of Reizsamkeit. I quote at length from one of Lamprecht’s lectures at Columbia U. here: I would love to know how many bearers of the agrarian ideology focused on mobs and riots engendered by speedy urban life.

    • Anonymous
    • August 17th, 2011

    Several anthropologists have written about riots, some from a psychoanalytic perspective.
    Two good papers are
    1. Veena Das. 1998. Official narratives, rumour and the social production of hate. Social Identies. 4.1: 109-126 ; and
    2. Anthony Redmond. 2007. Surfies versus westies: kinship, mateship and sexuality in the Cronulla riot. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. 18.3: 336-350
    Both combine psychoanalysis with other theoretical traditions, though they don’t talk about ‘contagion theory’

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