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Violent urban disturbance in England 1980-81

Ball, Roger


Roger Ball


This study addresses violent urban disturbances which occurred in England in the early 1980s with particular reference to the Bristol ‘riots’ of April 1980 and the numerous disorders which followed in July 1981. Revisiting two concepts traditionally utilised to explain the spread of collective violence, namely ‘diffusion’ and ‘contagion,’ it argues that the latter offers a more useful model for understanding the above-mentioned events. Diffusion used in this context implies that such disturbances are independent of each other and occur randomly. It is associated with the concept of ‘copycat riots’, which were commonly invoked by the national media as a way of explaining the spread of urban disturbances in July 1981. Contagion by contrast holds that urban disturbances are related to one another and involve a variety of communication processes and rational collective decision-making. This implies that such events can only be fully understood if they are studied in terms of their local dynamics.

Providing the first comprehensive macro-historical analysis of the disturbances of July 1981, this thesis utilises a range of quantitative techniques to argue that the temporal and spatial spread of the unrest exhibited patterns of contagion. These mini-waves of disorder located in several conurbations were precipitated by major disturbances in inner-city multi-ethnic areas. This contradicts more conventional explanations which credit the national media as the sole driver of riotous behaviour.

The thesis then proceeds to offer a micro analysis of disturbances in Bristol in April 1980, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Exploiting previously unexplored primary sources and recently collected oral histories from participants, it establishes detailed narratives of three related disturbances in the city. The anatomy of the individual incidents and local contagious effects are examined using spatial mapping, social network and ethnographic analyses. The results suggest that previously ignored educational, sub-cultural and ethnographic intra- and inter-community linkages were important factors in the spread of the disorders in Bristol.

The case studies of the Bristol disorders are then used to illuminate our understanding of the processes at work during the July 1981 disturbances. It is argued that the latter events were essentially characterised by anti-police and anti-racist collective violence, which marked a momentary recomposition of working-class youth across ethnic divides.


Ball, R. Violent urban disturbance in England 1980-81. (Thesis). University of the West of England

Thesis Type Thesis
Keywords urban, riot, disturbance, disorder, diffusion, contagion, 1980, 1981


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