The riots: clarity not justification by Michael Keith
15 August 2011 11 Comments
“Its time we stopped hearing all this (you know) nonsense about how there are deep sociological justifications for wanton criminality and destruction of peoples’ property.
“Whatever peoples’ grievances may be it does not justify smashing up someone’s shop, wrecking their livelihood and kicking them out of a job.”
(Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, visiting Clapham on Tuesday 9th August 2011; reported in national press and video link on BBC 2 Newsnight, Friday 12th August)1
In some quarters the Mayor of London’s recent dismissal of ‘sociological justifications’ of the July 2011 riots in Britain was taken as a slight aimed at an academic discipline as much as an ascent of the moral high ground. But as a well known classicist Johnson would be aware that his conflation of knowledge production (the epistemological) and morality (the ethical) had a longer, though no less troubled provenance. The Greek aitia (αἰτία) conflated both cause and reason; the term that etymologically gives us the medical mapping disciplines of aetiology appealed to both a sense of determination of the action alongside a notion of moral reason or justification.
But Johnson will also be aware of the enlightenment traditions that appealed to reason in a different way; that attempted to use observation, scrutiny, and analysis to make sense of phenomena that were at first sight perplexing as well as disturbing. Such thinking dwelt on how events, patterns and trends came about in some places and not others, at this time and not at that time. In short how a notion of causality might help us make sense of the world.
And if we turn to Aristotle, another figure of classical thought familiar to Johnson, we might understand at least the questions that we might begin rationally to ask about recent events in British cities. For Aristotle, we should understand the separation of material, formal, final and efficient causality through the metaphor of the sculptor. The marble provided the material (the material cause) out of which the figure was hewn. The template provided the formal guide to the work of the sculptor; the pick or axe the efficient action of iron on stone and the telos of the object, its final causality, was the sculpture envisioned by the artist or artisan.
So unlike the parade of pundits who have (like Nothrop Frye’s determinist critic) placed what interests them most (gangs, rap, unemployment, moral fibre, race, migration) into a causal relationship with what interests them least (the riots) we might instead find a proper place for academic scholarship. Scholarship that makes comprehensible the milieux and the habitus; the social context in which the social order is so fragile that the actions of recent weeks are possible. We might ask about the riots’ chronology, their choreography, their formal appearance on some estates and not others, in some cities first and others later. We might also ask about the sequence of events in Tottenham and the cast list of individuals involved both now and over the last three decades in that part of London, and we might finally ask just how we went from a protest outside a police station to nation wide mayhem. All of these questions demand evidence as well as analysis, empirical endeavour and abstract reason, work that we might understand as sociological research.
Such scholarship (after Kant rather than Aristotle) might be marked by both ethics and epistemology. In such scholarship, we might appeal to and develop a sociological imagination that links private troubles and public issues. But such a recognition of ethical dilemmas does not mean that to know all is to forgive all. Indeed the very discipline of sociological investigation might be demanded to understand the aetiology of the rioting; to make even skeletal sense of recent events, their prehistory in the riotous tradition of the British Isles, the colonial legacies that haunt the 21st century cities of the United Kingdom and the present day’s ostentatiously fragile social order.
In short, things can look a little fuzzy from the rarefied heights of the moral high ground. Maybe some high quality sociological research could make the landscape below just slightly more comprehensible if we are plausibly to explain as well as to condemn the events in British cities this month.
Michael Keith is Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford. He is the author of – among other things – ‘ Race, riots and policing – Lore and disorder in a multiracist society’ (1993)
1http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013h14z/Newsnight_12_08_2011/, 10.20, accessed 14th August 2011.