Reading the Riots is the only research study into the causes and consequences of the summer riots involving interviews with large numbers of people who actually took part in the disorder. A project run jointly by the Guardian and the London School of Economics (LSE), the aim was to produce evidence-based social research that would help explain why the rioting spread across England.
The research was inspired by a study of the Detroit riots in 1967 involving a collaboration between the Detroit Free Press newspaper and the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. The Detroit project, which challenged some of the assumptions about the cause of the unrest in the city, used quantitative research techniques – multiple-choice questionnaires – to compare populations that rioted with others that did not.
However, it was decided that a qualitative framework – involving in-depth, free-flowing interviews with rioters – would be the most appropriate method of studying the summer disturbances in England.
The first phase of Reading the Riots was completed in three months using confidential interviews with hundreds of people directly involved in the riots in six cities. It also involved a separate analysis, by academics at Manchester University, of a database of more than 2.5m riot-related tweets.
The second phase – to be completed early next year – will involve interviews with police, court officials and judges and a series of community-based debates about the riots.
In September we advertised on the Guardian website for researchers with skills in interviewing and good links with riot-affected communities. More than 450 people from across the country applied. A team of 30 was selected and trained with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. They spent October interviewing people who had been involved in the riots in six cities: London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham, Salford and Manchester.
Each researcher was given a topic guide covering the major themes of their interviews with rioters should cover. They were asked to find out how people first heard about the riots, how they became involved, how they communicated, what they did, why they thought the riots stopped and how they felt about their actions now.
The questions were deliberately neutral and researchers were discouraged from asking leading questions. Each interview tended to last at least 45 minutes and allowed for an extended discussion between interviewer and respondent, providing nuanced first-person accounts of people's experiences and perspectives.
Basic demographic data was collected about the interviewees, including where they lived, their age and ethnicity, educational qualifications, previous criminal history and whether they worked. They were also asked a series of survey-style questions, on topics ranging from their thoughts on the riots to their attitudes towards police – each of which was taken from a larger social survey for the purposes of comparison.
We wrote to 1,000 people convicted during the riots and offered them the opportunity to take part in the study. Researchers also visited their homes. But primarily, local contacts were used to find people who were involved in the riots but had not been arrested. After being promised anonymity, a surprising number agreed to take part in the study, often because they wanted their story to be heard.
Interviews were in various locations, such as people's own homes, youth clubs, cafes and fast-food restaurants. The Ministry of Justice gave Reading the Riots access to prisons, enabling interviews with about 13 people convicted for their involvement in the riots. However, a large majority of the 270 people interviewed for the project had not been arrested.
All interviews were recorded, transcribed and stored in a database. In total, Reading the Riots collated more than 1.3m words of first-person accounts from rioters. Rigour in the analytical phase – mostly undertaken in November – was vital.
Once all the data was collected, a team of five research analysts recruited by the LSE began the complex task of analysing the lengthy transcripts in search of themes. The process began with an analyst reading a transcript to get an overview of its contents. After several readings, each transcript was then coded so that particular themes could be identified and evidenced.
A list of coding labels was produced – essentially themes and sub-themes appearing in the interviews – and these were reviewed by the research team on a regular basis. The links and relationships between dozens of themes and sub-themes such as government injustice, riot motivation, police, community, and the role of social media, were constantly updated, providing an ever more detailed picture of why the riots happened.
The relationships between the themes were recorded and displayed on a thematic map document, allowing the team to see the larger, overall picture as a cohesive set of findings began to emerge.