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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


The Racialisation of Disorder in Twentieth Century Britain
Michael Rowe

(Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998)
211pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 37.50; ISBN 1-84014-528-5



There is a burgeoning literature on the aetiology of disorder in Britain, much of it now stemming from the work of cultural and social geographers, rather from the more traditional array of sociologists, social policy analysts, psychologists and criminologists. This book represents a creditable attempt at evaluating the merits and demerits of existing theoretical paradigms and developing a distinctive approach.

It will be of use first and foremost to students of 'race' and ethnicity. The assessment of competing theoretical approaches to the subject (contained in chapter 2), though somewhat mechanical, is solid and generally even handed, in the sense of presenting the merits of those approaches with which the author clearly has little sympathy. His preferred option, the 'critical realist racialisation problematic' is defended cogently (though the 'explanatory' diagram on page 44 fails to aid in this process).

The second major advantage, from the student's point of view, lies in the use of four case studies. There are separate chapters devoted to the Liverpool 'race' riots of 1919, disturbances surrounding the activities of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the 'riots' in London and Nottingham in the late 1950s, and the disorders at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, north London in October 1985. These are excellent summaries both of the events themselves and of the nature of the surrounding discourses (notwithstanding the voluminous literature elsewhere).

As with many texts which focus predominantly on discourse analysis a number of questions remain. There is an uneasy tension surrounding the relation between discourse and material reality, i.e. between discourse and the thing/essence to be explained. It is also not at all clear how 'racialisation' occurs. Is it simply a set of competing discourses? Why are some disorders 'racialised' and not others (here we simply have a sample of four 'events' which were)? Are 'racialisation' and 'ethnicisation' the same thing (here they are implicitly conflated)? Were discourses about 'race' at the time of the Liverpool riots merely 'more or less common-sensical'; 'racialised ideas (being) axiomatic and taken-for-granted'(page 179)? Perhaps they were if we employ a Gramscian notion of ideology. Finally, if we are to accept the notion of a multiplicity of racisms, there needs to be a clear conception of what 'racism' is.


Peter Ratcliffe
University of Warwick




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