Reading riots

Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain
For researchers of popular politics, at least, it is no curse to live in interesting times. The past weeks have seen:

  • The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) recognition that popular discontent derailed Greek austerity;
  • The mishandling of protests in Turkey;
  • The shaming of Rousseff in Brazil; and
  • The ouster of Morsi in Egypt.

These events are dense with meaning and hard to read (see Mariz Tadros on Egypt). How are they read? And whose readings count? A group of us have been thinking about this as we get into fieldwork for the DFID-ESRC Food Riots and Food Rights project. Some stylized reflections:

  1. Clever politicians read riots closely

A politician worth her salt has an ear to the ground and an eye on the limits to popular tolerance. Governments know that energy subsidy cuts can provoke riots, and that food price spikes mean disaffected slum-dwellers or farmers. States plan for riots, bringing out the special units and sharpening their weapons and laws. Some dream up gifts for the masses, as did the Indonesian Government  when it cut the fuel subsidy in June. Politicians and governments tend to read riots closely, even if they lack the power or resources or even the desire to respond.

  1. International agencies can’t read riots

International bureaucracies don’t seem to read riots, or perhaps because they are unbothered by unpopularity, fail to interpret them correctly. This is despite the view that popular opinion can deter ‘good’ policies. The IMF acknowledged on 5 June that ‘bouts of political turmoil left doubts about domestic support for the programme’ of austerity in Greece; one wonders what standard of proof the IMF would require to be confident that its programmes lack domestic support.

  1. The media writes the riots – but with different scripts

International news media magnify riots, but without the backdrop of domestic politics, they often give a one-dimensional cartoon account (‘hunger’, ‘desperation’, etc). National reports are more politically up-close and complex (see Sneyd et al’s excellent new paper on this). The two often disagree on whether said event was a ‘riot’ in any meaningful sense.

  1. Researchers read for motivation, opportunity and response

Researchers like ourselves try to understand when and why riot-type events occur, and where and what they change. Our interest in this is much like everyone else’s: riots fascinate because they rupture the foundations of political life: they reject public authority, re-set limits reached or breached, dramatise discontent through direct action. But do they change anything? If not, why do protestors bother?

Frankly, we don’t yet know. But we will get back to you with some answers in June 2014, when our comparative research will be completed.

In the meantime, for some more blogs related to this project, see Alex Shankland’s thoughts on protests and democratic innovation in Brazil, Patta Scott-Villiers’ comments on recent threats to food rights in Kenya, or my post on the Oxfam blog about the politics of inflation. You can also follow our research on Twitter @FoodRiotsRights.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

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