Rioting in London has now spread to several other cities in England. After starting in Tottenham, North London (where 26 years ago the Broadwater Farm riots started) the riots are now in their 3rd or 4th day and have already resulted in multiple deaths and a huge amount of destruction. Notable losses thus far include a warehouse housing much of the English music and film industry's product stock, which many fear may bankrupt uninsured firms throughout the industry. So, what's causing the riots?
As always, it depends on what you mean by "cause." The proximate reason was the shooting death of unarmed father of four and / or alleged drug dealer Mark Duggan. The small but long-running empirical literature on riots reveals what I imagine most of us already suspect: these sort of events are common triggers but seem to serve a roll much more akin to catalyst than true cause. Much has been said in the mean time about the role of social media and easy cellular communication in advancing the riots, but much as Jared Cohen of Google Ideas said about the Arab revolts of this past year, it's hard to argue that either of those factors is really making a difference in whether the riots occur so much as simply helping rioters coordinate (for a particularly good write up of the role of social media in the riots, and the source of that Cohen Op-Ed, see this post at Gigaom).
So what's causing the riots and what can we learn from it? It obviously depends on the type of riot but a running theme is a simultaneous interaction between poverty, economic disparity, and political disenfranchisement. That's clearly not always the case, but this echoes a lot of what we know from the empirical literature on conflict, especially internal conflict. You're not likely to have a civil war if you have homogeneous social groups or an established political system respected by the public, and you're not likely to have riots if you have the same.
All of which is to say that riots generally seem to be very human expressions of discontent and powerlessness that are difficult to ascribe to purely thuggish motivations like a desire to loot. As more stories pour in ( "I saw 3 or 4 young women looting Tesco Express for nappies and milk tonight" "In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old" "No kids don't want to go to college no more coz they don't get paid") it's becoming clear that the English rioting seems to be driven by that same combustible mixture of poverty, inequality, and lack of options. Given that those factors seem to only worsening around the world, it seems wise to view the English riots not as a freak event but rather as part of a larger global trend.