Sarah Burton on ‘Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: The Riots One Year On’

A Conference Report for GEA

Recently I had the pleasure of attending Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects:The London Riots one year on. The riots in August 2012 came just as I was preparing to begin my teacher training; I was fascinated by the reporting of the disturbance and violence as emanating from a disenfranchised, feral youth, unconnected to the society around them and wondered if I would see this in the teenagers I was about to embark on teaching. Throughout the course of the year I explored concepts of privilege and power with my pupils. Though my postgraduate research predominantly focuses on narratives of sexualities within the law and I was keen to combine my education background and current sociological perspective in order to explore further the narratives created around youth and misrule. Particularly interesting was the focus on riotous bodies and the idea of them as both dissonant and representative of specific groups or perceptions.

The day was extremely diverse in content and contributors. As well as thought provoking parallel paper session which included work from Katie Blood drawing attention to the riots as a statement and Leah Bassell who built on the work of Les Back to bring forth original notions of a new form of listening which is both complex, humble and political, the conference also made space for non-academic participants. Especially interesting was the contribution of Teddy Nygh, the producer of the documentary, Riot From Wrong, which investigates the causes of the riots and aims to show the unreported aspects of the rebellion and whilst framing it in terms of the voices of marginalised youth. These sessions, being extraordinarily varied, added greatly to my thinking, not only in terms of theoretical insights but also as excellent examples of how interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research may complement perspectives and push forward new questions as a result.

The panel sessions were an example of this: featuring academic presenters as well as a wide-ranging selection of non-academic contributors such as journalist Owen Jones, Ojeaku Nwabuzo of the Runnymede Trust and playwright Gillian Slovo, they provided an exceptional platform for discussing the riots. I found particularly resonant Les Back’s phrase ‘poverty of imagination’ to describe the contemporary analysis of the riots as well as Cliff Stott’s scrutiny of commentary on the riots which framed the rioters as alien others.

Yvette Taylor opened the conference by asking how we can go about practicing a ‘public sociology’ which doesn’t reduce experiences and events to the realm of data, and ended by posing the question of how we can make sociology ‘travel’. Coming to the event from an interdisciplinary perspective I found this significant; certainly in my own work on narratives of sex in the law I am encouraged to consider the ways in which my work may be – and should be – more than a straightforward piece of analysis, how it can engage with multiple voices and practices without viewing them from a purely theoretical perspective but also conversely how my research can travel, moving outwards from academia and finding its public ‘voice’. Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects proved a genuinely inspiring event which is sure to have far-reaching effects.

Sarah Burton, PhD candidate, University of Glasgow.

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