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?

2 thoughts on “Psychiatry and the History of Riots

  1. Anonymous says:

    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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