If Society is Broken, Who Broke It?

Buried deep in my laptop’s memory is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine following the infamous London riots. It was intended as a corrective to a ‘biomedical’ examination by a Dr Misselbrook of the underlying causal mechanisms that shaped the young rioters’ behaviour. As a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine myself I judged that I had a reasonable chance of my riposte being published in the Society’s own journal. Not a bit of it. After a desultory dialogue with the editor there was neither space nor will to engage. So, for what it is worth, this is the somewhat cautious and sanitized text of my submission.


I was left in two minds after reading Misselbrook on the recent TV images of young people ‘rioting, looting and burning our city streets’ (‘What is it with kids these days?’ JRSM 2011: 104; 392-393). On the one hand his conjectures on research in medicine, psychiatry and neuroscience seemed fair enough; on the other, his focus also seemed dangerously misleading.

Consider postulates like ‘adaptive violence disorder’. This putatively affects young people who have been subjected to physical or psychological abuse, have persisting levels of arousal as a result, who then experience a calming effect when engaging in recurrent violence. This is a legitimate hypothesis. What might be called biological and psychological causal mechanisms were undoubtedly at play during these apparently spontaneous outbreaks of muggings, lootings and arson. But what about social causal mechanisms? Misselbrook allows for explanations of the riots that refer to social mechanisms. But just what is meant by ‘social mechanisms’ here?


Physicians tend to be oriented to individuals, approaching even populations as aggregates of individuals. Sociologists have a different concept of the social, allowing for the existence of enduring social ‘structures’ of class, gender and ethnicity, for example, which are not reducible to what individuals think and do, let alone to their nervous systems or genes. 

A focus on the individual has political connotations. Governments prefer to assign culpability to individuals rather than to underling social structures. The choice of which individuals to examine is also political. The ‘Con-Dem’ coalition and mass media identified a ‘feral underclass’ comprising individual youths prone (biologically, psychologically?) to violent means to consumerist ends. But what about those ‘casino bankers’ and the politicians who de-regulated the finance sector who were culpable for the crash of 2008-2009? Why is the behaviour of this ‘feral overclass’ not subject to calls for scientific perusal? The answer is that its members have wealth and power sufficient to deflect attention elsewhere.

So this is a corrective to colleagues overly committed to individualistic appraisals of human behaviour. Social mechanisms operate alongside, sometimes ‘with’ and sometimes ‘against’ biological and psychological mechanisms.

This is all old hat to sociologists of course, but it requires constant repetition and sponsorship in the guise of ‘public sociology’.


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