How are we to understand the recent outbreak of violence, rioting, and looting in the United Kingdom? Ta-Nehisi Coates, in one of my favorite ongoing series entitled, "Talk to me like I'm stupid", asks to what extent were the UK riots about race?
There are several interesting ways to look at social deviance in general:
1) Durkheim: deviance and the recourse to violence is the product of anomie, a lack of social norms.
2) Merton/Strain Theory: society tells us how to achieve certain goals, yet the means to achieve these goals are not readily available.
3) Sutherland/Differential Association Theory: criminal and deviant behavior are learned from childhood. Seeing one's family and friends successfully achieve goals via deviant acts positively reinforces similar behavior in oneself.
4) Labeling Theory: deviant acts are only deviant insofar as they are called deviant by society at large.
5) Hirshi/Control Theory: most people are capable of controlling urges to engage in deviant behavior. Those that are incapable of controlling these urges are not sufficiently "bonded" to society.
6) Marxist Theory: economic and political forces push people in the direction of violence and deviance.
Certainly this is not an exhaustive list, and the sociological literature on criminology and deviance is vast. But I bring this up to showcase a recent post on the Monkey Cage by a guest writer, Erik Bleich. His main argument, stemming from a paper he co-authored about European riots post-1980, boils down to the idea that it's best to take a multi-dimensional view of the UK riots instead of picking and choosing various theories about deviance.
In practice this means instead of calling solely upon the judicial system and police to deal with the aftermath of rioting, many of the European states in Bleich's study opted for a dual approach: namely, they used both the judicial/police apparatus as well as the welfare state apparatus to punish the rioters while seeing to it that the social origins of the deviance were attacked at the root.
Interestingly though, the degree to which each apparatus is called upon is related to the government-in-power's ideological leanings. Right-wing governments are more likely to rely upon the police to punish, whereas left-wing governments are more likely to seek palliative policies to address social decay.
Based on the theories I listed above, it's not entirely clear which policy is preferable. Some of them are more fatalistic and seemingly unsolvable through punishment (e.g. Marxist, strain, labeling theories), while others are more likely to be deterred through punishment or re-education (eg. differential association, control theories).
So, to answer Ta-Nehisi's question: it's complicated.