READING GUIDE to: Dunning E et al.  (1986) ‘Spectator Violence at Football Matches: towards a sociological explanation’ in British Journal of Sociology, 37, 2: 221—44.

Definitions of hooliganism vary from using ‘bad language’, through ‘horseplay’ to full-scale pitch invasions and large-scale fracas. There may be a hard-core group who intend to cause violence, and others who are drawn in – the hard-core group often escape detection since they are not like the stereotypes. Why is violence so important to young men, and why is football the venue?

Defining the problem
The forms of confrontation vary according to the numbers involved and the ‘seriousness’ of their weapons, and whether the inside or outside of the ground is the arena. The official policy of segregating fans can only enhance their solidarity, although it avoids fights inside grounds. Fights can begin with a ‘run’, although the hard core often avoid these and thus avoid the police who engage in running skirmishes with fans. Sometimes there can be fights within the same set of fans – eg between those from different housing estates. The chants and denigration of opponents helps enhance solidarity too.

The ‘fighting crews’ or ‘superhooligans’ are especially likely to have right-wing connections. These people avoid the dress stereotypes and ‘hooligan uniforms’ in favour of current youth fashions. 

Official explanations
These often blame drinking and violent play on the pitch, but these are sufficient but not necessary causes. There is a hierarchy of causes. Drinking and fighting are both signs of a cult of masculinity, and have an important social role, while violent play on the pitch is not strongly correlated with crowd violence. The police also serve as a target for acting out hostilities – an adverse effect of the official policy of heavy policing [NB all this was written before the use of police CCTV?]. Media coverage doesn’t always help and can contribute towards an unofficial league table of hooligans. However, the main problem with official explanations is that they do not understand that fighting and toughness is actually enjoyable for the participants, [not some pathology to be explained – criminologists like Matza also suggest this, as do modern explorers of the dark side of ‘peak experiences’ like Rojek 1999].

Academic explanations

  • (a) Early marxist explanations, like Taylor’s, blamed bourgeoisification and internationalisation of the game, seeing hooliganism as a kind of working-class protests and resistance to these trends. Clarke has a similar line, emphasising professionalisation and spectacularisation as bringing forth a corresponding alienation among the supporters [and see Critcher in James]. Stuart Hall emphasises the effects of the media in generating a moral panic. However, these accounts are really more about the public reaction to hooliganism not explanations for it. They tend to assume hooliganism dates from the 1960s. They are unable to explain working class groups fighting among themselves, or to see fighting with the authorities as only secondary, as a result of this initial desire to fight among themselves.
  • (b) Marsh et al saw fighting as an aggressive ritual, symbolic and rather tribal with no seriously violent intent. At least this gave some insight by insisting that these activities were not just ‘anarchic’ or [‘mindless’, to use our Prime Minister’s favourite word]. However, there was no attempt to develop a social context or root for this behaviour, say in working class culture.
Dunning’s explanation

Hooliganism is predominantly linked to lower working class males, as the official statistics show [However, these refer to those arrested or charged – see p.229 – and so are not very reliable. Dunning has already hinted at why this is so – the police tend to arrest and charge the stereotyped hooligans who may not be at all typical of the fighting crews].

Dunning goes on to explore the work of an anthropologist called Suttles, especially via the concept of ‘ordered segmentation’ [which looks like a ‘figuration’ – or is certainly compatible with it as we shall see]. Suttles’ work is about how different communities in Chicago, divided usually by age, gender, ethnicity or territoriality, can come together to form larger alliances (street corner gangs) and systems, especially when threatened by rivals. These ad hoc alliances arise as outcomes of certain generative rules, such as the old idea that an enemy’s enemy becomes my friend etc [spot the similarities with the idea of figurations emerging, in, say, Elias on court politics]. Conflicts between these segments are deferred in favour of wider conflicts with other larger groupings outside. [Suttles seems to combine this with a classic ‘social disorganisation’ approach to deviance – working class male youths are sent into the streets to play ‘unsupervised by adults’]

We have a clear link immediately, says Dunning, with the behaviour of some football hooligan groups (and fans), who will fight among themselves but then form larger alliances – Northern fans against combined London fans, or English fans abroad.
We find a special emphasis on aggressive masculinity among these segmented groups [why? – because they are less well socialised?]. Their parents are aggressive too. Females are excluded to avoid any ‘softening’. There are constant feuds, and the high status awarded to good fighters makes fighting enjoyable. ‘Respectable’ working class males [another reference to Suttles, but clear hints of some classic old British work on deviancy here] handle violence and aggression differently, by internalising it and institutionalising it, for example – and for them, violence is something to feel guilty about. Organised sport is a sufficient outlet for the respectable groups.

The rough groups are denied any respect in straight society and develop ‘authoritarian personalities’, which draws them to right-wing politics [again some really old work in urban sociology is cited here, while Adorno’s work on the authoritarian personality is never really expanded – into the political dimensions, for example, which lead to a superb and devastating attack on capitalism]. Such individuals both seek out violence and respond aggressively ‘because they have not learned to exercise the degree of self-control that is demanded in this regard by the dominant norms of British society’ ( p.234) [functionalism here? a circular argument too].

Historically, the story goes back long before the 1960s. Most frustration might be expected among working class communities, but there were also occasional ‘moral panics’ among the ‘more established groups’ (235). Various ‘fashions’ led to different venues for violence – dance halls, for example. 

Football violence specifically fluctuates according to ‘the degree to which the working class is incorporated into the mainstream of British social life and hence are constrained to adopt, in Elias’s sense of the term, the more “civilised” values and modes…of the more established social classes’ (235). The amount of football violence follows a curvilinear path [Dunning uses FA records and press reports for data here, although we know that differential levels of attention might also be involved in producing these records and reports]. Thus its incidence was high before World War 1, then it fell inter-war, became very low during World War 2 and afterwards, up till the 50s, then rose sharply from the mid-60s. In Elias’s terms British society before 1914 was less civilised, then the working class was incorporated into the mainstream during the War and by other trends including Trades Unionism, equality of opportunity, affluence and the emergence of child-care. However, the ‘roughs’ remained outside of these trends, and were further marginalised by the Recession. Violence became focused on football again due to media coverage, and a more general panic surfaced in 1966 especially concerned with our prestige internationally [compare with the current anxieties about whether we could stage the 2006 World Cup with our hooligan record]. 

A vicious circle then set in, with coverage of football violence making football an attractive site for those seeking violence. Once informed of the potential, hooligans like football grounds especially – they are ideal sites with their anonymous crowds and masculine rituals.

Dunning warns us about social determinism and ends with a plea for a more ‘social developmental’ [figurational] understanding, as in Elias’s work.

Apart from the dodgy statistics and odd contradictions, this seems to me to be more about defending and popularising Elias than explaining football hooliganism (and see most of Dunning’s pieces, like the one in Rojek’s collection, which is also very defensive). It tries to incorporate the other main approaches – moral panics and ritual behaviour have their place – but refuses any marxist account of ‘social strain’. Instead, though, we seem to be offered weak functionalism rather than a proper historical and emergent account  (compare with the detail use of figurational approaches in, say, Mennel on food, or Haywood on the emergence of football rules). 

My other problem concerns the circularity of the approach. This is an asymmetric analysis, looking back on the history of hooliganism and trying to explain it ‘backwards’, so to speak – hooliganism declines during wars, and wars integrate people into society, so one must cause the other. I would want to argue about both of those ‘facts’, let alone the causals implied! It all makes sense backwards, but it is hard to accept unless there are other measures of ‘civilisation’ used as well – the rough working class groups are less civilised, Dunning tells us, and we know this from their involvement in hooliganism. But this definitional matter is also an explanation – they commit hooligan acts because they are uncivilised. But how do we know they are uncivilised? Because they are hooligans! Round and round we go. Rough proles just must be uncivilised for Dunning, I suspect, and he cites a lot of old studies which slagged off their childrearing, their homes, their morals and so on: we know these old studies to have been very value-laden and circular themselves.