Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


John Solomos (1999) 'Social Research and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 22/03/99      Accepted: 23/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


This article begins by exploring the conceptualisation of racism that is to be found in the Macpherson Report and the implications that this has for social research. It then looks at some of the policy recommendations of the report and the ways in which its key recommendations raise important dilemmas for policy initiatives on race. The final part of the article moves somewhat beyond the content of the Macpherson Report and suggest that we as researchers need to develop a critical self-awareness of the limitations of our research agendas in addressing phenomena that are addressed in the report, such as racism within institutional settings and racist violence.

Institutional Racism; Race In Contemporary Britain; Racism; Racist Violence


In the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence there was much popular comment on it that saw it as a 'turning point' or a 'watershed' in the history of post-1945 race relations in British society. Whether this will actually be the case in practice remains to be seen, and it is far too early to make a reasoned assessment of the prospects for the future. But it is of some importance that sociologists and others working in the field of race and ethnic studies take on board some of the issues raised both by the Report and by the public debate over the past six years about the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the responses of the police and other institutions to this event.

Whatever the long-term impact of the Macpherson Report, one things seems clear already, namely that any rounded account of the politics of racism in British society has to explore the implications of the controversy over the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Certainly the vast amount of media coverage given to the Inquiry, as well as the widespread support for the campaign organised by his family to uncover the full facts surrounding his murder, signals that this is not merely another episode in the tragic litany of racist murders and 'deaths in custody' that has been a recurrent aspect in public debates about race relations over the past decade and more. It is appropriate therefore that those of us that have made the study of race and racism in British society our focus of research should reflect both on the key themes of the Report and the implications it has for the future of research and scholarship in this field.

In this brief discussion of the Macpherson Report, I want to focus particularly on three issues. First, I want to discuss the account of racism the permeates the Report and the questions that the approach it outlines raises for social research on the ways in which racism operates within the institutional context of the police and other public bodies and agencies. Second, I want to take up some of the policy recommendations of the Report and the ways in which its key recommendations are articulated in order to highlight some of the political dilemmas it raises. Third, I want to move somewhat beyond the content of the Macpherson Report and suggest that we as sociologists and researchers need to develop a critical self-awareness of the limitations of our research agendas in addressing phenomena that are addressed in the Report, such as racism within institutional settings and racist violence.

Defining Racism

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the political response to the Macpherson Report (1999) is the way in which so much of the public debate has been focused around the notion of 'institutional racism'. This interest stems from the discussion in Chapter Six of the Report of various definitions of racism, ranging from that to be found in Lord Scarman's 1981 report to more recent definitions by Simon Holdaway and Benjamin Bowling. Although the report eschews any claim to providing the final word on exactly what institutional racism means, it does provide a definition of sorts when it says that it consists of:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people (¶6.34).

This is, in itself, not a new definition, nor a very rigorous one. As the Report itself makes clear, this is a definition that is partly derived from American debates going back to the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s (see Allen, 1973; Williams, 1985). It is also evident that the definition reflects the frustrations of activists involved in the Stephen Lawrence campaign with the everyday racism and plain ignorance that they came across in their dealings with the police and other institutions. But it is also clear that this is a definition that is partly reliant on notions such as 'indirect discrimination' and 'racial disadvantage' that became part of public policy in Britain as early as the 1976 Race Relations Act. This may seem a strange combination of influences at first sight, but it is perhaps the outcome of the range of inputs into the report from both official agencies such as the Commission for Racial Equality and campaigning groups linked to the family of Stephen Lawrence.

I make the above point not simply in order to engage in a conceptual debate about the notion of 'institutional racism'. But I do want to argue that a sociological response to the Macpherson Report must take a critical look at the rather limited, and in places contradictory, discussion of racism that runs through it. Despite the public attention given to this aspect of the Report, my reading of it is that it does not come up either with a satisfactory definition of what it means by institutional racism in relation to the police or provide us with a framework of what kind of policy and political initiatives are necessary in order to racism in institutions or in society. Rather, the Report is in many ways not concerned with defining the meaning of institutionalised racism in any depth, but instead with arguing that the failure of the police as an institution to respond professionally to the murder of Stephen Lawrence was largely the product of 'discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people'. It has to be said that the Report provides a wealth of evidence that the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence involved all these processes in one way or another. But the Macpherson Report has little to say about the actual mechanisms that may help us to understand both the historical processes and the contemporary realities that shape relations between the police and black minority communities.

It is interesting to note in this regard that in the past two decades the concept of institutional racism has been the subject of intense debate in relation to a number of policy arenas, including policing, education and immigration policy. While the Macpherson Report itself makes little reference to these debates in a direct sense, it is important to remember that, in the aftermath of the publication of the Scarman Report, there was a wide ranging discussion about both the concept of institutional racism, and its various meanings, as well as the way in which it could be applied to specific institutions (Mason 1982; Williams 1985). An important theme in this discussion related to the ways in which it was important to provide a clear analysis of the processes that were placed under the general label of institutionalised racism. Part of the problem, however, is that despite these conceptual debates there remains a real dearth of well researched studies of the kinds of processes and institutions that are referred to in the Macpherson Report. There are a whole range of issues on which a focus on institutional processes in shaping the position of racial minorities would be crucial to any rounded analysis of racism in contemporary Britain. I am thinking here of such phenomena as racial violence, direct/indirect discrimination, exclusion from local and national politics, sentencing policy; immigration policy.

A related point is the relative paucity of empirical studies of how minorities experience their treatment within institutional settings. As well as the events that took place in the immediate aftermath of murder of Stephen Lawrence, which are meticulously described in the Macpherson Report, there is also a need for more research on how minorities experience their treatment by key institutions. The treatment of Stephen Lawrence's family and of his friend Duwayne Brooks by the police highlights the everyday processes that shape this experience, and yet over the years social researchers have had little to say about this dimension of race and racism in contemporary Britain.

It may be that such research will prove to be difficult to carry out, given the sensitive and politicised nature of such issues, but it is important to find out more about the processes of social regulation and identity formation that work within key social institutions. It is evident from research in both the United States of America and in Britain that racism manifests itself in plural and complex forms, and the logic of racism needs to be appraised in such a way that we understand how contemporary racisms have evolved and adapted to new circumstances.

Although it may be of some importance to examine the ways in which 'institutionalised racism' works in particular settings, we must also be aware of the dangers of using such terminology very loosely and rhetorically. It is important that racist discourses and practices are rigorously contextualised within particular settings in order to see how they shape the development of racial ideas and political actions. This means being aware of what it is that is covered by generic terms such as 'institutional racism'.

Scarman, Macpherson and the Politics of Reform

Turning now to another important facet of the Macpherson Report, I want to discuss briefly the main policy and political implications that run through it. The first point that one needs to make is that the Report, in much the same way as the Scarman Report in 1981, covers a much broader canvas in its recommendations than the actual events surrounding the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the police response to the murder. It includes recommendations, for example, about general policies on race relations, racism, education, social policy as well as a wide range of related issues. This is in some ways part of its strength, but it also means that in judging its political effectiveness we have to beware of the range of policy arenas that are discussed in the report and the likely political outcomes.

The experience of the Scarman Report should warn us against making any facile predictions about the nature of the policy response that we are likely to see. If anything, the experience of the past two decades teaches us that the ways in which policy recommendations are translated into practice remains fundamentally uncertain, particularly as the nature of policy change depends on broader political agendas. As Lord Scarman himself argued a few years after the publication of his report:

I constantly ask myself two questions? Has any good resulted from the Brixton Inquiry? And, what now remains to be done. (Scarman 1985: p. 7)

It may be, of course, that the Macpherson Report will fare somewhat better than the Scarman Report. From a symbolic perspective it is clear that New Labour is committed to giving questions about race and social justice a higher profile, and it has taken the initiative of commissioning this Report. But it is also evident that, apart from the promise to strengthen the 1976 Race Relations Act, the response of the Government to the Macpherson Report remains somewhat vague in substance, although high on moral rhetoric. Part of the danger that confronts us in the aftermath of symbolic events such as the publication of this report is that it can become difficult to maintain a sense of perspective about the possibilities of policy change.

It would be far too simplistic to dismiss the Report's key policy recommendations or to say that it is bound to be ignored. But it would not be out of line with trends over the past two decades to point to the limited nature of reform and policy change in this field. Even in the aftermath of the major outbreaks of urban unrest in 1980/81 and 1985 the promise of reform and new agendas was replaced after a time by a degree of complacency and inactivity (Benyon and Solomos, 1987). As Stuart Hall remarked in the aftermath of the 1985 riots:

I have a reluctance about entering once again into what seems to me a terribly familiar and recurring cycle. The cycle goes something like this. There is a problem that is followed by a conference; the conference is followed by research; the research reinforces what we already know, but in elegant and scholarly language. Then nothing happens. (Hall, 1987: p. 45)

It is, of course, highly unlikely that nothing will happen in the aftermath of this report, particularly in the light of the highly politicised sets of events that led up to it. But it will be necessary to look closely at the ways in which policy recommendations articulated in the report become part of policy initiatives and of legislation (for a discussion of this point see Hall, 1982). In this environment social researchers need to look closely both at the policies given voice in this Report as well as the wide range of issues that receive little or not attention in it.

Changing Research Agendas and the Lawrence Report

So far I have focused my attention on two important issues that arise directly from the Macpherson Report. I now want to move on somewhat to a wider question that social scientists working in this field should be discussing, namely our own role in the current situation and the limitations of our research agendas. I was made to think about this point as a result of looking at Appendix 18 of Volume II of the report, which lists the publications seen by the Inquiry.

This is in many ways a very partial list, and one that ignored some important studies that have helped to shape the field of race and ethnic studies in recent years, and it could be argued that at least part of the reason for the relative absence of rigorous and informed research insights into the analysis to be found in the Macpherson Report can be put down to the ways in which the report has been cobbled together on the basis of submissions by various bodies and individuals rather than influenced by sustained research. While this is undoubtedly true, it must also be acknowledged that the research that has been produced over the past three decades and more has been at best very limited in the manner it has explored important facets of racism in British society. On a whole range of important aspects of contemporary racism social researchers have had little to say. We can take, for example, areas such as political institutions, the police, the criminal justice system, racial violence, social class and exclusion, white racism, racist movements. All of these areas are central to the concerns of the Macpherson Report, and yet it is clear that there has been a paucity of substantial research on them. No doubt there are examples of individual pieces of research that have somehow not been looked at by the Inquiry. But in general terms it seems beyond doubt that part of the problem we face is that core issues of concern have featured at best as a low priority on the social research agenda.

Why has this situation arisen? Part of the problem it seems to me can be found in the rather limited agenda that has guided the work of the main research centre in this field over the past three decades, namely the Research Unit on Ethnic Relations at the University of Bristol in 1970. The Unit continued its research in another form at the University of Aston from 1978 to 1994 and from 1984 as the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the Warwick University. Although ESRC core funding of the Centre ceased in 1998, there is little doubt that for three decades it consumed the bulk of social science funding in this field. Despite the large amount of money that the ESRC invested in the Unit/Centre over the years there are notable gaps in the range of research questions that it covered.

Another important facet of research in this field is that in practice researchers have been pulled in a variety of directions, by both political and academic pressures. Given the politicised nature of this field of sociological work this is not surprising, but the consequences for research and scholarship have been negative. This is an argument that others working in the field have recognised for some time. Take for example John Rex, who in 1978 became Direcor of the ESRC Research Unit on Ethnic Relations. Writing in 1979, and drawing on his long experience of research in this field, he argued perceptively that anyone embarking on research in the field of race relations was pulled in a number of alternative directions:

Rex himself rejected all of these options, and called for an approach to race relations research that was both theoretically informed and politically relevant, but essentially concerned with a longer term structural view of race relations. This is what Rex called 'a perspective on race relations based on a serious political sociology' (Rex, 1979: p. 17).

With hindsight, Rex's typology of different approaches to research in this field captured some of the recurrent problems that social researchers working in this field have had to come to terms with. It helps to make clear why researchers working in the field have found it hard to (i) establish a rounded research agenda that included all facets of race and racism in British society and (ii) have been pulled in different directions by contrasting political and academic pressures.

In the years after Rex published his typology, there have been tremendous changes in both the theoretical and the empirical focus of much of the literature on race and racism. There has been a pronounced broadening of research paradigms and a plethora of theoretical perspectives have come to the fore, particularly from a range of radical schools of thought. A proliferation of new theoretical texts, journals and edited collections have explored various aspects of both race and ethnicity and provided a basis for new areas of scholarship to develop, as with issues such as 'new ethnicities' and 'whiteness' (Bulmer and Solomos, 1999). But one of the ironies of recent trends in the analysis of racism is that we have seen a move away from research on social action and on institutions and a fixation with theoretical abstraction and textual and cultural analysis. Whatever the merits of some of the recent theoretical debates, there have been few sustained attempts to link them to research on institutions and processes of social change. In this environment there has been, if anything, a retreat by researchers into abstracted theoretical debates and discourses.

The consequences of these shifts have still to be though through and digested. But as we look towards the next century it is important to provide a basis for more dialogue between these (often) important scholarly debates and the social processes that help to shape racial and ethnic issues in specific national, local and global environments.


When all is said and done, there is one line in the Macpherson Report that shocks me to the bone. It is the following statement: 'The whole incident which led to this murder probably lasted no more than 15-20 seconds' (¶1.1). Long after I read the Report for the first time, my thoughts kept coming back to this line. What is even more disturbing, of course, is that the death of Stephen Lawrence is not an isolated event. As social researchers we have a moral obligation to find out more about the social and political circumstances that can help us to understand how it is that such brutalities can actually happen in a society such as our own.

It would be a sad indictment of research on race and racism if we remained at the margins of public discourses about events such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It is precisely through critical engagement with questions raised in this report that we can move forward to carry out research on the processes that created the conditions for this brutal murder and on the social and political responses that it has produced. And it is only through informed research of this kind that we can begin to think beyond the limitations of both current policy and research agendas.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999