Its been a few years since I last posted on Minds. I was thinking of a kind of catch up commentary. How the world has changed. Is changing. Including the privileged bubble in which we as academics could find ourselves. If we were lucky. This is certainly changing. Public funding is being cut, academia is, if not in turmoil, heading for upheavals globally. This has implications for disciplines like anthropology where demonstrating impact and relevance is difficult. Perhaps this week’s turmoil in the UK offers some scope for anthropology’s core strengths of empathy and interpretation. Several days of rioting in London have given way to riots in urban centres, including yesterday evening in Manchester city centre and in the adjoining city of Salford a few miles away. Full background to the riots is available on newssites such as the BBC and the Guardian. Youtube provides graphic images of young people breaking into city centre stores and walking out with goods.
Commentators agree that what is different about this disorder is the rapid transition from a localised political protest at the shooting by police of a young man in Tottenham, an area made famous for politically motivated riots in the 1980s, to what seems to be a new phenomenon, at least in the UK, of spontaneous urban looting which is at present largely confined to retail areas. I am not in a position to comment on who is involved in the rioting or how this differs from previous incidences of organized disorder, political or otherwise, here or elsewhere. As the journalist Zoe Williams remarks in today’s Guardian newspaper, this is the kind of situation you don’t go out and look at. Levels of violence were quite high. Moreover, events can be followed on twitter, blogs, newsfeeds and other social media, a means of participating from a distance and for some an invitation to action.
Not all of this action was negative. Social media groups have apparently organised clean ups in London and Manchester. Electronic traces of these events will doubtless sustain an entire generation of social analysts for years to come as they strive to recreate the reasons for this apparently mass outbreak of smash and grab. Another change, another way of doing ethnography. Some things however remain the same and one of them is the potential of insightful ethnographic analysis to inform and shed light on social practice.
I have just read Orvar Lofgren and Robert Willim’s Magic, Culture and the New Economy. The book is a series of snapshots of new economy practices taken during the 1990s at the height of the uber boom built on brand, affect and image. Although the examples in the book deal with typical new economy enterprises such as hip hotels and lifestyle spas and the marketisation of self realisation through career coaching, all point to the importance of emotion in constructing value, the significance of affect as driver and product of the new economic order and the gap or perhaps uncertainty in terms of what value is actually based on.
The young people involved in the smashing and grabbing in Manchester last night are widely condemned as lacking core values of respect and decency. Newspapers and members of the public – on the Greater Manchester Police Facebook pages for example- remark that this is not a political protest but a descent into criminality. It is evidently something of both. Indeed, attempts to categorize these phenomena within certain fields will constitute a site of contestation for a long time to come. Lofgren’s and Willim’s book highlights the dramatic inequalities on which the new economy is founded and the circulation of branding as value where value can be socially sustained- the magic of making something out of nothing to which the book’s title alludes. Manchester’s looters focused on high value electronics where these were available and branded goods, particularly clothing. In taking without paying they were demonstrating disrespect certainly, but were they also refusing to accept the magic of the brand?