Riots in Theory: A Resource

This post is primarily created as a linked resource for theoretical writings on rioting. The text below is an excerpt from a larger research project, which focused on what I called “cultures of resistance.” I am interested here in pointing to some of the key texts and key theoretical formulations of rioting, mainly to give a brief overview and to offer a few recommended texts.

It only gets mentioned in a footnote, so I want to especially recommend any interested readers to check out Steve D’Arcy’s philosophical text on militant protest and rioting, Languages of the Unheard. It is for me one of the best books on the subject.


Rioting, as a social and cultural phenomenon, can be understood as a form of collective violence, other forms of which include war, terrorism, gangland feuds, ethnic conflict, and economic sanctions. The definition of particular acts or phenomena as collective violence is often contentious. Even the term “riot,” which is often characterized in relation to things like mob mentality and wanton destruction, is a similarly contentious term.

For example, Charles Tilly, in The Politics of Collective Violence (2003), purposefully omits the term riot from his typology of forms of collective violence, “because it embodies a political judgment rather than an analytical distinction” (18). “Authorities and observers label as riots,” he continues, “the damage-doing gatherings of which they disapprove, but they use terms like demonstration, protest, resistance, or retaliation for essentially similar events of which they approve” (18). A key factor in the categorization of some events as riots and other events with the same characteristics as protests or demonstrations is who gets to define the event in particular terms.[1]

Tilly notes that in the broad-ranging study he undertakes of particular events of collective violence, he has never come across an example in which “participants called the event a riot or identified themselves as rioters” (19).[2] To those taking part in so-called riots, the events are more often understood as demonstrations of popular discontent, and specific elements of rioting such as property destruction are understood as legitimate expressions of outrage. It is in this light that even the reformist-oriented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”[3]

With respect to the term rioting, it is useful to remember that one of the primary characteristics of the state is that it holds, or attempts to hold, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. States sanction and allow certain forms of violence, while censuring others. In general terms, it is from the perspective of the state and social hierarchy that acceptable and unacceptable forms of violence are defined.

The notion of social hierarchy is central to Foucault’s discussion of disciplinary mechanisms, and his focus in Discipline and Punish (1977) on panoptic observation from above or from some strategic vantage point elaborates how statist hierarchy functions in an embodied, physical capacity (170-77). Eco-anarchist Derrick Jensen discusses a structural and social hierarchical perspective on power and violence in Endgame Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization (2006) and sets out an understanding of violence in the basic premises of his thought:

Our way of living—industrial civilization—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence. . . . Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and fetishization of the victims. (ix)

Many of the examples of violence that come down the hierarchy, as Jensen puts it, are visited upon average citizens by the state as forms of structural violence. Structural violence may include the kinds of inequalities and discrimination inherent in social structures that favour a particular gender ahead of another, one ethnicity ahead of another, or a particular social class ahead of another.[4]

However, at times the violence coming down the hierarchy manifests in direct physical form, for example, in confrontations with police or in the guise of the penal system. Jensen argues that these forms of violence are rationalized in various ways and, most importantly, are seldom described as violence at all but are rather understood as necessary safeguards put in place to protect civil society. The covering over and making invisible of top-down hierarchical violence is also apparent in the use of particularly obfuscating language when describing war: collateral damage for civilian casualties; incendiary device for bomb; retaliation for aggression; liberation for occupation; and so on. In its many different and varied forms, violence, as Jensen understands it, has a single supposedly legitimate directionality: down the social hierarchy.[5]

As opposed to the opacity of top-down forms of violence, any violence going up the hierarchy, such as collective violence characterized as rioting, is made visible and denounced as wanton and irrational. Irrationality is often implicitly assumed to be a root cause of rioting and other kinds of collective violence because, as Anton Blok explains in “The Enigma of Senseless Violence” (2000), there are not necessarily any “easily recognizable goals and obvious relationships between means and ends” (24). State-sanctioned violence, such as war and policing, are rationalized by having a clear connection between means and ends. Wars are said to be in the name of promoting stability or defending the nation; police violence is said to be in the name of serving and protecting the interests of the community. Collective violence in the form of rioting, on the other hand, is most often represented as inherently senseless and irrational because it does not connect with a readily identifiable end (or if it does, such ends can be purposefully obfuscated).

A key point here, and similar to the insights on violence from Jensen, is that when violence has a clear goal it is seldom described as violence at all but instead cast in euphemistic terms. Conversely, anything that is called violence is implicitly assumed to be irrational. Blok wonders, along these lines, if it is contradictory to use qualifiers like senseless and irrational when describing violence, since to do so “implies that violence can also be ‘meaningful’” (24). As supposedly legitimate forms of violence are most often identified through euphemism and are seldom called violence to begin with, there is no need to label violence as irrational since that is always what is meant by the term: violence is irrational. However, Blok is most interested in examining the ways supposedly irrational outbursts of collective violence are meaningful, and specifically how certain forms of supposedly senseless violence have meaning as cultural acts:

Rather than defining violence a priori as senseless and irrational, we should consider it as a changing form of interaction and communication, as a historically developed cultural form of meaningful action. . . . Ironically, then, these qualifications [senseless and irrational] close off research precisely where it should start: with questions about form, meaning and context of violence. (24)

So then, one way to conceive of riots as meaningful is to see the phenomenon as a cultural expression. In its basic form, a riot is a crowd of people who make use of a particular space and carry out a kind of unscripted performance. The way space is used and the actions that happen in that space can be understood as the form and content of the riot, and in the cases where this also involves the destruction of property it is instructive to note the particular kinds of property that are attacked. Elias Canetti discusses the potential destructiveness of crowds in symbolic and cultural terms in his seminal text Crowds and Power (1960), in which he notes,

The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognized. It is the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances. The solidity of the images was the expression of their permanence. They seem to have existed forever, upright and immovable; never before had it been possible to approach them with hostile intent. Now they are hauled down and broken to pieces. (19)

The riot, as it is presented here, is a form of collective violence whereby the crowd demolishes symbols of authority. The riot embodies a radical decentralization of power, an undoing or reversal of dominant power relations of rioters to the institutionalized authority of law and property rights. Although the rejection of authority manifests as an upsurge of violence, such as destroying icons of authority, this reversal of power can be usefully understood as a re-appropriation of “cultural capital,” as Pierre Bourdieu used the term in “The Forms of Capital” (1986). Cultural capital can be objectified, such as in a work of art, in architecture, and many other sorts of objects that carry symbolic value. Cultural capital can also be embodied, such as through an institutional rank or mark of distinction. For Bourdieu, various kinds of cultural capital function and interact in a given field, and embodied cultural capital, for example, may rely on the mobilization of other forms of cultural capital. Objectified cultural capital…

… exist as symbolically and materially active, effective capital only insofar as it is appropriated by agents and implemented and invested as a weapon and a stake in the struggles which go on in the field of cultural production and, beyond them, in the field of the social classes—struggles in which the agents wield strengths and obtain profits proportionate to their mastery of this objectified capital, and therefore to the extent of their embodied capital. (50)

Along with casting riots as inherently irrational, anthropomorphic metaphors for riotous crowds are common in foundational texts of crowd psychology, such as in Canetti’s Crowds and Power, which associates crowds with swarms of insects and birds (46). Associations such as this have the effect of dehumanizing those involved in collective violence and also carry connotations of irrationality, at least in the sense that individuals taking part in riots or other kinds of destructive behaviour are deemed to be working through a hive mind and are assumed to no longer be in control of their actions as individuals. This is one way that riots, as examples of collective violence going in the wrong direction on the hierarchy, are naively cast as meaningless and dismissed as apolitical acts.

However, although the swarm metaphor for crowd behaviour certainly has pitfalls for those interested in theorizing meaningful structures in relation to rioting, it is not a metaphor that should necessarily be outright rejected. Swarm intelligence is something Hardt and Negri take up in Multitude as a particularly useful tactic of resistance:

When a distributed network attacks, it swarms its enemy: innumerable independent forces seem to strike from all directions at a particular point and then disappear back into the environment. From an external perspective, the network attack is described as a swarm because it appears formless. Since the network has no center that dictates order, those who can only think in terms of traditional models may assume it has no organization whatsoever—they see mere spontaneity and anarchy. The network attack appears as something like a swarm of birds or insects in a horror film, a multitude of mindless assailants, unknown, uncertain, unseen, and unexpected. If one looks inside the network, however, one can see that it is indeed organized, rational and creative. It has swarm intelligence. (91)

In this formulation, the swarm is not irrational but, on the contrary, is a metaphor for a functional means of resisting domination and fighting back against various forms of authority. Traditional authority, such as the established power structure of the government and the police force, is unable to contend with the spontaneous, decentralized nature of a riot and has no means to quantify such collective violence – it can only understand the riot as irrational. Authority is unable to comprehend the swarm intelligence they face because they are only able to think according to traditional political models, in which people, for example, politely request that some politician or political entity present a petition that politely requests those in authority to comply. The riotous swarm, on the other hand, makes no demands or appeals to traditional authority; instead, it seizes and destroys that which it perceives to be its enemy or that which represents its enemy. Rather than being irrational, the riot is a decisive act, one that has specific characteristics akin to a cultural ritual or performance; the riot is irrational only to those who are unable (or unwilling) to understand its internal logic.


[1] There are a number of different kinds of riots. In Languages of the Unheard (2013), Stephen D’Arcy sets out a typology of rioting genres, including grievance rioting (such as in Colony), acquisitive rioting (looting), recreational rioting (soccer or hockey riots), and authoritarian rioting (Nazi Kristallnacht riot, police riots) (147-51).

[2] Exceptions to this general rule may be found in the actions and performances of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot and in the anarchist subculture celebration of rioting in what is sometimes called riot porn, which is edited videos of confrontational demonstrations such as those produced by the Submedia collective.

[3] See Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Speech at Ohio Northern University,” January 11, 1968.

[4] Johan Galtung, in “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” (1969), suggests that, as opposed to direct violence, structural violence is often invisible because it does not have any clearly identifiable agent. Structural violence functions through unequal exchanges and unequal distributions of power that create the conditions for domination, poverty, and other kinds of suffering. Galtung argues that the most insidious forms of violence inherent in statism are structural.

[5] Another poignant example Jensen describes are forms of hierarchical violence as they may manifest in the family, specifically violence that happened in his childhood: “The violence was rigidly one-way: my father beat his wife and children with impunity. I remember the only time my brother defended himself by returning a single blow: he received the worst beating of his miserable childhood. Why? Because he had broken a fundamental unstated rule of our family (and of civilization): Violence flows in only one direction” (60).

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