The Situationist

The Situation of Looting

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 4, 2010

Stephen Mulvey for BBC News had an illuminating article earlier this article, asking “Why Do People Loot?”  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Chile could be mistaken for being in the throes of a political uprising rather than the aftermath of a natural disaster.

“We understand your urgent suffering, but we also know that these are criminal acts that will not be tolerated,” President Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday, condemning the “pillage and criminality”.

* * *

Social psychologists accept both that looting is criminal behaviour, and that it is natural when the forces of law and order disappear.

They distinguish different types of looting, including:

  • Looting of goods needed for survival
  • Opportunistic theft of good such as TV sets
  • Collective action, conditioned by the political environment

It’s the third category that is of most interest to psychologists.

Steve Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at St Andrews University in the UK, quotes approvingly Martin Luther King’s adage “a riot is the language of the unheard”.

In his view, a mass outbreak of looting can follow precise patterns, which express the community’s sense of right and wrong.

During the riots in the St Pauls area of Bristol in 1980, some shops were untouched because they were regarded as part of the community. A bank, on the other hand, came under heavy attack because it was perceived as a symbol of authority.

“People joined in spontaneously,” he says. “The number of people who told me they had attacked the bank in St Pauls was remarkable.”

During food riots in Britain at the turn of the 18th Century, there were cases where grain was seized from merchants and sold to the needy at a fair price – and then the money and the empty sacks were handed back to the merchant.

“In Chile, the questions I would want to ask are, ‘Let’s look closely at the patterns of behaviour, the grievances, the sense of right and wrong of those involved,’” he says.

“It’s not ‘What happened to me?’ but ‘What happened to us?’ How are ‘We’ as a group treated by ‘Them’? How much is this due to the fact that they ignored us?”

At the same time, he acknowledges that individuals do use the cover of the riot for straightforward cases of theft – and that distinguishing collective action from cases of individual opportunism is not always easy.

* * *

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To read the entire article, including a section discussing the role of anger, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A System-Justification Primer,” “Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation,” “The Situational Effect of Groups,” ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “March Madness,”

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One Response to “The Situation of Looting”

  1. Em. said

    Interesting. Looting in the aftermath of a crisis like this is certainly a noteworthy phenomenon. I think there is something important (although I don’t know what, really) in the relationship between scenarios of looking and the breakdown of systems of authority.

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