Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: The Riots One Year On

A Conference Report for GEA

Over the past year, academics have brought critical perspectives to bear on the complex causes and consequences of the English riots of 2011. Important questions have been raised about the relationship between the riots and the increasingly hostile conditions of neolib

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eralism and Coalition policies, including: growing unemployment, rising tuition fees, the withdrawal of the EMA, cuts to Sure Start and an overhaul of welfare provision. Re-visiting the causes, consequences and ongoing effects of the riots has been vital, particularly when key policy figures, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron have dismissed the need for any sociological analysis, claiming the rioters were simply driven by pure criminality, greed and opportunism.  On the 28th September 2012 myself, Yvette Taylor of The Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research (London South Bank University) and Sumi Hollingworth and Ayo Mansaray of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (London Metropolitan University) held a one day collaborative conference ‘Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: The Riots One Year On’ to provide a space for the kinds of critical debates and questioning so readily dismissed by our politicians.

The idea for the conference was inspired by discussions at another GEA supported event: the one-day conference on ‘Modern Girlhoods’, held at Brunel University in February this year.  At that event, keynote speaker Farzana Shain spoke passionately about the gendered effects of the global financial crisis, and how the ‘girl’ has been (re)positioned within this. Farzana showed delegates an advert for the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ project. In it’s emotive, visually compelling video, Nike’s Girl Effect movement advocates a global investment in young girls in developing countries as the carriers of our future. We are told: ‘invest in a girl and she will do the rest. It’s no big deal. Just the future of humanity’.

The Girl Effect is replete with neoliberal imperatives, cultivating and calling upon girls to become entrepreneurial, self-responsible, economically ’empowered’ citizens while masking the deep and growing inequalities which structure young women’s lives.  Farzana’s keynote not only made me think about the troubling consequences of this positioning of the ‘developing world girl’ as a new, luminous subject of potential, carrying a heavy burden of ensuring the ‘future of humanity’. It also prompted me to ask: which girl gets othered, left behind, marked as abject in this climate, both in the developing world and here in the UK, particularly as austerity bites?  Specifically, I was struck by the contrast between the celebratory framing of Nike’s ‘girl’ of poverty, and the rioting girls and mothers of last summer’s riots who were constructed not as victims of growing inequality but ‘feral kids’ and ‘improper parents’.

Following this, Yvette and I wrote a blog post – ‘Failed femininities and Troubled Mothers: Gender and the Riots’ – for the BSA Sociology and the Cuts website about the hyper-visibility and persecution of mothers and ‘riot girls’ in last summer’s events. Indeed, other than Gaby Weiner’s brilliant piece on the GEA blog, there had been relatively little critical analysis of how gendered power relations and forms of oppression were worked through the reporting of, and policy responses to, the riots. September’s conference was intended to build on this feminist intervention, bringing together a community of researchers and practitioners to interrogate the relationship between the riots and re-shaped inequalities of gender, race, class, place, and sexuality in a post-crash, austerity era.  Speakers offered fresh interpretations and analysis on issues related to the riots and GEA including: youth unemployment; education futures; stop and search; political activism; parenting; public sociology; and media framing of the riots and rioters.

Commentary on the event can be found on the Weeks Centre blog and an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement. A further insight into the conference can be found in the reports from the four postgraduate students who received funded places from GEA. On behalf of the organisers, I would like to thank GEA for supporting this conference and enabling postgraduate and early career researchers to be part of this important dialogue.

Kim Allen (GEA executive member), Manchester Metropolitan University

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