Yang: What Riots Can Teach Us

Los Alamos
What Riots Can Teach Us

“Hows” always intrigue me. Learning about learning; how we behave differently in different contexts (how do we know?); or, how to think…

Mark Granovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties, the seminal work on social networks, was the foundation of my own PhD dissertation. However, only recently from reading “Everything Is Obvious” (click here) did I learn about Granovetter’s “riot model” and how we rationalize the motivation behind baffling collective behavior. 

Like many people, I don’t always realize what motivates myself (I can usually find plausible explanations with 85 percent confidence); I also cannot always unfailingly detect how another individual (even a close friend) is motivated. And we certainly do not know how a crowd is motivated. Yet, we sure can come up with brilliant analyses of crowd behavior. 

Granovetter’s “riot model” deserves a close look.

In Granovetter’s hypothetical scenario, we first imagine a group of 100 students in their college town, protesting, for example, the proposed hike of government fee. While frustrated and angry, the students are perfectly willing to listen and have a dialogue. Still, they are prepared to “take action” if necessary, and some are more ready than others.

Further, every student has different bases for determining how much risk s/he is willing to accept: financial background, degree of vested interest in the political process, a chance to get on TV, comfort with physical engagement (or, violence), and a myriad of others that we might not think of. And even if we can come up with many other reasons, how valid are they? Some students are going to be crazier than others, and they might be the first few that start throwing or smashing things.

Lastly, in a potential or an actual riot situation, even ordinarily sane people might behave in ways that they normally would abhor. 

Now, let’s also imagine that every single student has a different “threshold” for violence. Andrew Watts, explaining this “riot model,” defines the threshold in this scenario as, “a point at which, if enough other people join in the riot, they will too, but below which they will refrain.” Some people need only 1: just one person shouting and throwing things is enough to push these people to join the action.  People with such a low threshold are the “rabble rousers.” Others who might perceive more personal risk in the potential riot would have a higher threshold of say, 25. And still others would have a threshold of 2, 3, or 10, etc. 

In his “riot model,” Granovetter posits for this crowd of students a particular threshold distribution, in which every one of them has a different actual threshold, from 0 upward. In this example, the first “crazy” one would start throwing and smashing things initially because s/he has no threshold, then the one with threshold of 1 would immediately follow, and the next one with threshold of 2 joins, and before you know it, a full blown riot ensues. 

Let’s stretch our imagination even more. Suppose in a different college town, another 100 students are protesting the same issue. Let’s assume that these students’ backgrounds, family, financial and everything else, are identical to the students of the first town we just visited. Everything is much the same except for one little difference in the “threshold” distribution. 

For this group of students, no one has a threshold of 3 and two students have a threshold of 4. To outside observers, these two groups of students look and behave – before they start acting on their frustration – as similarly as can be perceived. But for this second group, there is insufficient momentum for a full-blown riot. After the first “Ms. Crazy” starts throwing things in this second group, the threshold 1 and 2 students join in. Then, things fizzle out. No one would follow since there is no one in the group with threshold of 3. 

As outside observers, we want to puzzle over the “reasons” for the differences between these groups; we want explanations. We postulate all kinds of motivational possibilities, from students’ temperaments, local business’ reactions, some particularly inflammatory comments by certain people, and on and on. They all sound reasonable. Yet, the only difference is in the threshold distribution. 

Had we known about the two different threshold distributions, might we be wiser? The only way we could have known about the detailed differences of threshold distributions, where the second group skips the threshold of 3, is by being intimately familiar with each and every one of the 200 students involved — how they interact with each other and what would tip each one into violent action. In reality, we can never really know such detailed information about a population, or even a moderately sized group of people. 

Like everything worthwhile in life, the detailed journey takes a lot longer to achieve the outcome. So I have taken most of the space today on this theoretical example to make these points:

1. This is a hypothetical situation, yet, the lessons are important.

2.  Even a clinically scrubbed and hypothetical case stretches our understanding. What does that say about our reality, where all social situations are so very much more complicated? Somehow in our daily life, we seem to feel sure about our analysis and conclusions, and confidently make subsequent policy decisions.  

3. We shouldn’t automatically assume that which motivates us is the same as what motivates others. If we can’t ever wear another person’s skin — and imagining ourselves in that person’s shoes is really an inadequate substitute – perhaps at least, we should try to listen more carefully? Of course, that’s much easier said than done. Does any school offer a course on “how to listen?”

Ultimately, this feels like a philosophical problem…so I will continue reflecting in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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