'Could the August riots have been predicted?'

Jul 04, 2012

A University of Manchester team researching urban violence has developed a new method which can help city authorities to assess the conditions where conflict could potentially tip into violence.

Participatory Violence Appraisal (PVA), used in Kenya and , could have helped to anticipate the ‘’ that led to last summer’s riots in cities across the UK, say the team based at the University’s Global Urban Research Centre (GURC) .

The project challenges stereotypes of causes of violence, such as poverty, youth bulges and political exclusion,  finding that it often arises through sudden, discontinuous tipping points, sometimes building into ‘chains’.

Standard data, they argue, usually focus on crime but do not address gender-based violence - which is often invisible - or ethnic, political and economic violence which are often accepted as ‘normal’.

A common set of factors, they also say, identify when otherwise well run civil mechanisms, which manage day to day conflict, cannot cope and different forms of violence emerge.

GURC Director Professor Caroline Moser, who led the study, said: “Urban violence is an increasingly significant but much misunderstood global phenomenon.

“But there are no blueprints for when conflict tips into violence; each situation has different underlying causes and our research is about trying to understand them.

“Participatory Violence Appraisal helps us to more fully understand the circumstances where conflict can tip over into generalised violence – and could actually make us reassess what constitutes a violent city.

“PVA samples the views of focus group participants and reveals that much violence is missed by city authorities because it is hidden or part of acceptable behaviour.

“It allows poor groups to identify the extent to which violence-related problems affect their wellbeing, as well as assessing the cause and consequences of violence.

“It’s likely the method would have helped us understand what was going on before conflict tipped into violence in some of the UK’s cities last August.”

The project, funded jointly by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Government’s Department for International Development, focused on four cities known for violent conflict.

The teams in Santiago, Chile and Nairobi, used PVA while the other two were Dili, Timor and Patna, India, using different techniques.

In Santiago they found that violence is not confined to poor areas. In Patna, women were identified as the principle victims of violence, with alcohol consumption identified as the principle cause of violence. In Dili, social jealousy and historical problems among the political elite was the most important cause

In Nairobi political violence predominated. Tipping points from to violence included political campaigns, evictions, rent rises, abusive language by politicians and police and election rigging.

Professor Moser added: “One type of violence can often lead to another so our research is also about understanding how to these break chains.

“In the August riots, the rapid intervention of civil society, the police and local government meant that the chain appeared to be broken early on– though without carrying out PVA, we can’t know if any further types of violence, such as economic or gender-based resulted.”

The teams in each of the cities made recommendations based on the data they collected, which they presented to international agencies such as WHO and UNICEF and a range of donors in Geneva last week.

Their project was described as ‘being close to the perfect research project’ by Dr Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam GB.

Explore further: Smartphone app used by experimenters to learn more about aspects of morality

More information: www.urbantippingpoint.org/

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