The debate in the aftermath of the August riots could easily have left the impression that those involved were exclusively young, black gang members with long criminal histories.
The Reading the Riots study reveals that the makeup of those involved in the disorder was far more varied.
Our researchers spoke to 270 rioters, who ranged in age from 13 to 57 and came from a wide range of ethnic groups. A third said they had never been found guilty in court or cautioned – and the overwhelming majority said gangs played little or no part in what happened.
The number of interviews conducted in each of the major cities broadly reflected the relative scale of disturbances in each place. Interviews were conducted with 185 people in London, 30 in Birmingham, 29 in Manchester, 16 in Liverpool, seven in Salford and three in Nottingham. Thirteen were in prison.
Unlike most of the data already released by the government, the Guardian/LSE study is not confined to people arrested and subject to prosecution. Indeed, only a minority of the rioters we spoke to had been arrested over their involvement.
An initial, though partial, picture of those who took part in the disturbances emerged in October when the Ministry of Justice and Home Office released data on the 1,984 people who at that point had appeared in court in connection with the riots.
The rioters were predominantly young. About three-quarters of those in the Guardian/LSE study, like the profile of those that have appeared in court, were aged 24 or under, with just over a quarter of prosecutions involving juveniles under 18. Although only a small minority, people over 40 were clearly present in the disturbances. The oldest person interviewed by our researchers was a south London resident, aged 57, who described joining the unrest in Clapham Junction. "I threw bricks at the Old Bill, I threw bottles at the Old Bill. I threw all sorts, whatever I could get my hands on, smashed up a car, a police motor, broke the windows."
Ninety percent of those who have appeared before the courts were male. Although it is difficult to know the precise numbers of men and women who participated in the riots, this breakdown probably under-represents the number of females that took part. Anecdotal feedback from people who had first-hand experiences at the riots suggests crowds were composed of more than 10% women. Of those interviewed by the Guardian/LSE, 21% were female.
In some areas, government figures and the Reading the Riots data paint the same picture. MoJ figures revealed that, where ethnicity was recorded, 33% of those appearing in the courts on riot-related charges were white, 43% were black and 7% Asian. The figures varied significantly from area to area, often closely resembling the ethnic makeup of the local population: in London, 32% of defendants were white, in Merseyside, the figure was 79%.
Similarly, in the Guardian/LSE study, though a slightly larger proportion were from an ethnic minority (50% black, 5% Asian) or of mixed race (18%), this again varied significantly from area to area, with the ethnic makeup of interviewees in Salford and Manchester overwhelmingly white.
All the evidence suggests rioters were generally poorer than the country at large, and educated to a lower level. The government data found that compared to the UK school population as a whole, young riot defendants were far more likely to have had special educational needs, to have been absent or excluded from school, and to be falling below national averages in respect of achievement. The educational background of the 270 rioters in the Guardian/LSE study offers additional insights.
Forty-four percent of those interviewed were in education. The general attainment levels were lower than those of the population as a whole: of the adults, a third had no qualification higher than GCSE , while the highest qualification of another 15% was A-level or similarlevel. Although one-fifth of the rioters claimed to have no educational qualifications at all, one in 20 said they had a degree.
While general levels of achievement for the group as a whole were relatively low, many were highly articulate and politicised, particularly when it came to describing the problems they faced, the frustrations in their lives, and the lack of opportunities available to them.
Much has been made by politicians and others of the previous criminal histories of those prosecuted for their involvement in the riots. The MoJ data suggested that 76% of suspects had one or more previous convictions – significantly higher than the general population. Considerable caution is required, however, for this proportion is little different from the profile of those convicted in crown court generally, and may also have been slightly inflated by arresting "the usual suspects" in the weeks after the riots.