Cultural Economic Difference

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Cultural difference or economic difference: which of these factors played a greater role in the 2001 riots?

‘The physical segregation in our towns and cities and the depths of polarisation to which this led between communities … [W]hether in respect of separate educational arrangements, community and voluntary bodies, employment, places of worship, language, social and cultural networks, many communities were operating on the basis of a series of parallel lives. Often, these lives did not seem to touch at any point, let alone overlap or promote meaningful interchanges'. (Cantle, et al., 2006: 11.)

The above passage, taken from an influential and far-reaching report, neatly encapsulates the myriad social cleavages that afflict our towns and cities as the country progresses further into the new millennium. What also emerges from this, and other similar works is that the United Kingdom still sits ill at ease with itself in terms of its multicultural complexion, and that there remains much more to be done if we are to achieve durable social cohesion and avoid the unrest that blighted the north of England during 2001.

Such riots are by no means a ‘new' occurrence in the United Kingdom (UK) as, for example, alluded to by Kalra et al (2002: 20) but which, more recently, may be couched in the post-modern Islamophobic (Parekh, 2000: 311, 316; Macionis and Plummer: 9, 332-3) ideological classifications that follow in the wake of 9/11 in the United States and the UK on 7/7. These matters notwithstanding, there is little doubt that the urban disturbances that occurred in the north of England would have far-reaching and seemingly intractable effects on the national consciousness. Accordingly this study will investigate the nature and extent of these episodes of communal upheaval, by looking at pertinent cultural and economic factors to determine their validity or otherwise as primary mitigating features. Moreover, the work will also seek to provide analysis of what prescriptive measures may be called for to under-write a cohesive and durable social policy for the future.

It is an unfortunate happenstance that described the socio-political terminology of 2001 as a ‘landmark' year, from both macro (world-wide) and micro (local and regional) viewpoints. Globally, the world was thrown into turmoil by events in north America in late summer of that year, and the way in which the subsequent political climate has changed irrevocably. As Heywood (2001: 323) notes, an atmosphere of intolerance was abroad that was felt all around the world. Taking a necessarily more parochial view, 2001 also witnessed an eruption of communal discontent in northerly English counties that also promised, in a smaller but nonetheless concurrently connected way, a significantly more polarised and divisive approach to community relations.

It is put forward that the following quote may serve to open up the subject further, and by so doing shed some light on the nature of the unrest that disfigured majority-minority relations during the middle months of 2001:

From April to July 2001, the northern English towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford saw violent confrontations between young Asians and the police, culminating in the clashes of 7-9 July in Bradford in which 200 police officers were injured. The clashes were prompted by racist gangs attacking Asian communities and the failure of the police to provide protection from this threat. In the scale of the damage caused and the shock they delivered to the nation, the 2001 riots were the worst riots in Britain since the Handsworth, Brixton and Tottenham uprisings of 1985. (Kundnani et al, 2001: 105-131.)

This passage seems to suggest that the basis of these altercations were primarily of a ‘cultural' nature; that is, between mostly young people of different social and ethnic backgrounds with varying worldviews, and their perceived place in modern British society. Quite whether this assumption dwells in the realms of reality is thus far open to question, however persuasive the theory may currently seem. There is also a subtle interplay of discrete yet associated issues that influence why these events occurred when they did. What appears to not be in doubt is the complex and multi-dimensional character of these unlawful activities, and the fact that scholars, and presumably social commentators alike, place differing emphases on the root causes (Hussain and Bagguley: 408). These matters notwithstanding, the text will dwell on the theme of likely cultural causes for the moment prior to considering economic reasons.

Huntington's (1998) almost Orwellian Clash of Civilizations suggested that concerns relating to cultural aspects of human discourse were, and would continue to be, plagued by mutually-irreconcilable postures that would ensure a more or less permanent polarisation of belief systems by diametrically-opposed forces. For the purposes of this study, the inference is that the fault lines that occur are of a mainly faith-based temper, and that ….'Muslims make up one fifth of the world's population but in the 1990s they had been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization' (Huntington, 1998: 256). However, such overtly biased analysis has to be militated against the West's own belligerent propensities when one weighs human misery in, for example, two World Wars and indeed beyond (Hobsbawm, 1994; Calvocoressi, 2001). The point of opening the debate up to briefly include macro-level discourse lies with the pressure that certain minority communities may feel subjected to in a post-Cold War scenario, whereby cultural sensibilities suffer from a sense of polarisation and alienationimposed by the majority host community awakening to a ‘new world order'.

So, this majority Western mindset constructs the vision of the alien - the ‘Other' - living amongst the wider indigenous population, and one that adopts habits and customs opposed to prevailing attitudes. Hence, the logically segregationist outcome of a society that adopts a form of voluntary cultural Apartheid amounts to what one UK broadsheet refers to as ‘deeply entrenched' communities (Guardian, 2006). Moreover, an earlier edition of the Guardian's sister paper the Observer (2001), paraphrasing Dr David Owen of Coventry University's expertise in racial demographics, intimated that the lack of clear integrationist policies by local (and by extension national) politicians in the riot-torn communities of the north will lead, the article suggests, to a hardening of what may be termed ‘ghettoisation' and a further deterioration of race relations, in areas that may exacerbate a form of collective ‘siege' mentality.

However, these pronouncements would seem to only scratch the surface of what is a convoluted series of social problems that, taken together, present a powerful statement regarding neighbourhood interactions at the end of the millennium. The ‘official' storyline has sometimes been that mutual respect is paramount and continuously upheld, whilst:

The realities include: a black [and by implication, Asian] community struggling to achieve social justice and a better deal for its children at a time when Britain is increasingly divided into two nations; a police force actively eroding civil liberties which the law is supposed to uphold; a popular press which daily relays racist images and chauvinistic sentiments whilst orchestrating moral panics against ‘ideological bias' in schools; mass youth unemployment, in which ethnic minorities are over-represented, disguised by government training schemes in which they are discriminated against.

(Cohen and Bains, 1988: 1)

What may be discriminated against is the belief by a particular grouping that they share a common descent, exemplified by difference or ‘type' (Jenkins, 2008: 10) and that the word ‘difference' is the trigger that makes a particular ethnic collection (especially when a minority) singled out for attack by the majority. These ‘attacks' may well be baseless, irrational, and bracketed as purely ‘racial' in overtone, or they may be due to an apparent sense of impotence in the face of radical change by a disenfranchised, disillusioned white ‘underclass' (Hutton, 1996) with little or no real political power.

From a cultural angle, this apparent victimology adopted by the white working-class psyche is further strained by challenges that are characterised by the belief that ‘contemporary societies are increasingly confronted with minority groups demanding recognition of their ethnicity and accommodation of their cultural and religious differences' (Hussain and Bagguley, 2005: 413). Moreover, as Hussain and Bagguley explain, the issue of ‘difference' is emphasised by what they state is the concept of ‘Englishness' and its tendency to classify ‘Blackness' as the ‘Other', thus effectively creating barriers between what are, in the final analysis, human beings (Hussain and Bagguley, 2005: 413).

As briefly alluded to earlier, however, the multi-faceted nature of these ‘exchanges' between different ethnic groups and the law enforcement arm of the Establishment - the ‘dominant' grouping, as it were - must be extrapolated beyond the merely ‘cultural'; the point of taking this debate further is to present a balanced argument and thereby avoiding the trap of leaving identifiable inconsistencies,and with it clear lapses in the debate.

From a socio-economic perspective there may indeed be a case for suggesting that poverty, unemployment, and associated deprivations cut across the racial divide. This takes many forms, and logically the starting point has to be the nexus of educational resources and the accompanying access to opportunity. Following the riots in Bradford, a number of prominent community and business leaders clearly identified several factors that directly contributed to social disaffection, and which were described as ‘obvious': poverty, lack of educational opportunities and presumably the evils that accompany such negative connotations (Alleyne and Millward, 2001). As Cantle (2001) goes on to agree, there is a significant element of what his report referred to as ‘poverty and deprivation' that leads to frustration, and which therefore, when extrapolated, always leads to aggression.

To be sure, such impediments to social progress and true inequality are bad enough; but if we add other negative ingredients like poor housing, inadequate civic services, and crucially to ensure that the communities that are ostensibly due to receive Local Government aid are also consulted about their own futures- that is, their opinions are valued and they are treated with respect by councillors, contractors and others (Prashar, in: Benyon and Solomos, 1987: 115-117). Naturally, this should extend beyond mere ‘piecemeal' initiatives to emphatically demonstrate that the resources of the State are allocated on an even-handed basis, and that natural and social justice are not only done, but crucially seen to be done.

The ironic aspect of the economic paradigm is that first-generation immigrants from the Indian sub-continent came to take up the offer of work, and that by and large many of the jobs that that they came to fill have since disappeared, as industry has moved to regions that are more profitable in terms of reducing the average unit cost, (that is, wages) leaving something of an industrial wasteland and low-paid, low-status ‘service sector' jobs at best (Hutton, 1996). However, having written that, this argument is turned on its head when one contemplates that there is the ongoing debate about the current influx of East European peoples eager to move abroad in the search for work, and the demographic pressures that accompany a new wave of immigrants into this crowded island.

In the final analysis, the balance of arguments appears to favour cultural issues as the prime mitigating element that provided the principal motivations for the social upheavals that seismically affected the north of England in 2001. Certainly, socio-economic themes cannot be totally ruled out; but, given demographic trends that accompanied the further opening up of Europe's borders since the late 1990s and post-millennium, that approach has less to recommend it largely due to a paucity of supporting evidence. The Cantle Report's (2001) findings do not dismiss the incidences of deprivations, unemployment, and lack of opportunity; quite the reverse. However, there is clear emphasis on abstract concepts like ignorance, fear, and an obvious lack of communication on sensitive matters of cultural values, and what is important to each group within our multi-cultural society. It is not, though, about merely unearthing problems. Identifying issues that create societal fissures should also involve bridging ethnic divides as Cantle (2001) stresses amongst the report's main recommendations, alongside a robust expression of universal citizenship, the promotion of cross-cultural contact, and to institute a local community cohesion plan to eradicate fear and ignorance. Also, it recommends that the regions are to ensure that young people across the divide are given access to decision-making processes in which they have a major stake for the future. The implications are clear: the communities cannot afford to fail, that much should be self-evident to all concerned.


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