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21 October 2021

Personal and trade networks key in spread of unrest during English Swing riots

The diffusion of information through personal and trade networks were key factors driving the spread of unrest during one of the largest riots in British history, according to new research.

Protest closeup
The researchers' work on the Swing riots may have parallels with contemporary incidents of social unrest.

News of unrest spread quickly among networks of neighbours within parishes and in areas around large trade hubs during the English Swing riots of 1830-31, facilitating their spread across the country as unrest over work conditions and pay grew.

Unlike in later incidents of social unrest, however, researchers found that transport networks and mass media proved less influential in the diffusion of information about the Swing riots.

The findings were revealed in a new article co-authored by King’s College London academic Dr Gabriel Leon-Ablan, Dr Toke Aidt (Cambridge) and Dr Max Satchell (Cambridge), entitled The Social Dynamics of Collective Action: Evidence from the Diffusion of the Swing Riots 1830–1831.

The article was published in the Journal of Politics.

As well as charting the diffusion of information, researchers also examined the role of organisers in aiding the spread of the unrest and whether information about repression by authorities affected participation.

Dr Leon-Ablan, from the Department of Political Economy at King’s, said the study of the Swing riots suggested “local organisation can play an important role” in the diffusion of unrest, with evidence showing that parishes with more local activists experienced more diffusion.

The researchers also found that though direct threats of repression from authorities affected the decision of people to participate in the unrest, diffusion was not driven by information about the law enforcement response in neighbouring parishes and so was unaffected by it.

The researchers believe their findings could have relevance for modern incidents of social unrest, particularly in incidents where access to technology is curtailed by authorities.

Dr Leon-Ablan said: “There are a number of important parallels between the Swing riots and more recent episodes of social unrest. For example, social unrest in less developed countries, where individuals have limited access to modern communication technologies, must spread in ways similar to the Swing riots.

“This is also true of unrest in cases in which the authorities limit or shut down the phone and internet networks.”

You can read the paper in full here.

In this story

Gabriel  Leon-Ablan

Reader in Political Economy