Report on Psychological Explanations of Football Hooliganism

Author: , Published: 14 February 2020, Modified: 9 July 2023

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Executive Summary

  • The purpose of this report is to examine the explanations that have been put forward for football hooliganism.
  • This includes subcultural theories that suggest that hooliganism is caused by social learning of individuals in a specific subculture.
  • Social identity theory (SIT) offers an alternative explanation, which posits the influence of the footballing culture upon the individual affects the propensity to cause violence,.
  • The findings suggests that social identity is a more persuasive explanation, but that the individual’s propensity towards violence is an important predictor of hooliganism.
  • A significant challenge is the paucity of contemporary research into football hooliganism and it is the recommendation of this report to examine if the approaches examined here remain applicable to the contemporary settings.

Table of Contents

  • 1: Introduction
  • 2: Subcultural explanations
    • 2.1: Subcultural explanations
    • 2.2. Football as a specific subculture
    • 2.3 Assessment
  • 3: Social Identity Theory explanations
    • 3.1: The importance of identity
    • 3.2: Social Identity Theory
    • 3.3: Elaborated Social Model (ESIM)
    • 3.4: Assessment
  • 4: Conclusion

1: Football Hooliganism

Football hooliganism may be defined by antisocial behaviour that takes place by football supporters (Dunning et al., 2014). It can constitute a number of different crimes, although it is usually identified as involving a kind of violent behaviour (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). Football hooliganism thus represents a form of group behaviour that can be explained through psychology (Dunning et al. 1982). It has been suggested that some of the drawbacks in how football hooliganism is analysed results from a lack of clarity over an analysis of what supporters do: sometimes the behaviour by football supporters can seem threatening even where there is no act of violence.

2: Subcultural Explanations

2.1: Subcultural explanations

There have been some other attempts to explain football hooliganism with reference to specific cultures. This has largely been completed in the 1970s with limited contemporary research. Clarke (1978) presented a subcultural thesis, where it was argued that football hooliganism was a development of the skinhead culture, which used football contexts to promote their attitude against the mainstream society. This was supplemented by the approach of Buford (1991), who argued that the adrenalin that was produced during situations when rival supporters clashed presented a key reinforcing element to football hooliganism. Therefore, there is a long history of suggesting football violence is something that comes from a specific subculture with a preference for violence.

2.2. Football as a specific subculture

Football itself as a sport could be regarded as encouraging violence. It has been argued that part of the reason that football is likely to result in violence is because the norms of the game encourage violence (Dunning et al. 2014). In many cases, it is argued that football players are more likely to engage in violence on the pitch and this is observed by supporters who imitate it, through social learning theory where individuals learn from the example of others (Bandura & Walters, 1977). Hard tackles and other ways in which the football match may be perceived as including physical battles between players are then used to inform the perspective that violence is simply a part of the game (Stott & Pearson, 2007). It may be significant, from this viewpoint the level of violence in football hooligans has declined simultaneously with the decline in violence in play (Dunning et al., 2014). Supporters contribute to the game through their support, and this is then contributed through aggression and violence that mirrors what they see on the football field (Spaaij, 2007). The aim is to intimidate and act in an aggressive fashion towards the opposing team and the opposition’s supporters.

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2.3 Assessment

However, the issue with these approaches are that they explain football hooliganism in specific cultural contexts such as working class society in the 1970s (Clarke, 1978; Dunning et al., 2014). They do not explain how football hooliganism can become a part of hooliganism in other contexts where there is not an apparent subculture such as the skinheads and where football provides key factor that combines different groups (Stott & Pearson, 2007). The focus upon the tendency of males to engage in violence, which is reinforced by the adrenalin experienced when football hooliganism occurs does not explain why supporters might not wish to engage in socially-sanctioned forms of violence rather than hooliganism. The focus of such research upon the causes of hooliganism in the 1970s may limit their applicability to contemporary settings. Furthermore, these theories do not explain why some supporters enjoy engaging in violence, and others do not, even where it is clear that they are subjected to the same influences.

3: Social Identity Theories

3.1: The importance of identity

Worpole (1992) argues that the way in which football support might be explained is that it reflects the sense of local identity of supporters, and thus the aggression shown towards other teams reflect the strong sense of local identity. When fans identify with their own club, they identify with the group as a set of supporters (Worpole, 1992). The sense of group identity is thus emphasised by opposition and aggression to other supporters (Tsoukala, 2009). However, the aggression shown to the supporters of other teams is only one feature of how this takes place: it has been shown that supporters of one football team are likely to be negatively predisposed to anyone who identifies as the supporter of another football team, even in small everyday aspects such as giving directions in the street (Dunning et al., 2014). Aggression and violence are simply the extreme effects of the fierce identification with a particular group, which also implies a strong identification against other teams (Hornsey, 2008).

3.2: Social Identity Theory

Social Identity Theory (SIT) has been seen as one way in which football hooliganism can be explained (Frosdick & Marsh, 2013). SIT identifies how group behaviour is structured on the perception of one group’s superiority over another, and so focuses upon the notion of discrimination (Dunning et al., 2014). This can be exacerbated by group behaviour, leading to acts of violence against out-groups. Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982) applied SIT to explain football hooliganism and identify a number of potential processes that might occur. First, the individual responds to the sense of arousal produced by group cohesiveness, and loses their self-consciousness. They lose their ability to hold individual norms and values and suffer a failure of self-regulation. Secondly, public self-consciousness is lost because the individual feels anonymous and therefore lacking in personal accountability (Prentice-Dunn & Rogers, 1982). Therefore, the individual supporter will not be regulated by his or her personal moral code, or be restrained by the sanctions that might be associated with any acts of violence (Dunning et al., 2014).

3.3: Elaborated Social Model (ESIM)

Dimmock and Grove (2005) suggest an alternative model that is also based upon SIT: the Elaborated Social Model, or ESIM. This suggests that it is an inherent part of group identity for the individual to lose self-awareness. However, it differences from how Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (1982) construe football hooliganism because it suggests that the individual does not feel anonymous, but feels more strongly attached to the group norms. If people are separated from their in-group, they will cease to follow their group norms as strongly. Rather than there being a loss in how individuals respond to group identity, there is a tendency towards individual norms being superseded by the group norms.

3.4: Assessment

The extent to which these theories can explain real cases of football hooliganism has been investigated in a number of studies. Stott et al. (2001) examine how violence that took place in the World Cup of 1998, making a strong case for the influence of deindividuation. It was not the case that the violence was simply caused by a few individuals who affected the others in the group, but by the ESIM model that suggested otherwise non-violent supporters became violent. This was exacerbated by the actions of the police that drew otherwise peaceful supporters into violent activity. Where police did not intervene, violence escalated, and where they did intervene indiscriminately, the violence escalated as the supporters felt that they were being treated unfairly. This would seem to support the deindividuation thesis when associated with a real-life football example. This could be supported by research by Dimmock and Grove (2005) which suggests that supporters felt that they experienced reduced self-control when a game was taking place.

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Van Hiel et al. (2007) examine individual difference explanations for violence. This focuses upon the extent to which individuals are more likely to engage in violence because they are already disposed to do so. It is not the case that normal supporters simply become football hooligans, but that some supporters are more likely to become supporters than others. Van Hiel et al. (2007) suggest that where the traits of the group members hold existing attitudes concerning the acceptability of violence, violence is more likely to take place in a group setting. It is possible that both deindividuation and individual factors have a role to play for different football supporters.

4: Conclusion

It is clear that football offers a context in which violence takes place. Although subcultural explanations identify some important ways in which this can take place, it does not explain how violence can involve a range of individuals from different parts of society and may be limited to the specific context of the 1970s when such theories were developed.

Social Identity Theories demonstrate how violence can develop even among previously non-violent people, but the model that this proposes has not been fully supported by the evidence. Rather than individuals losing their sense of self-consciousness or feeling anonymous, or experiencing deindividuation, the likelihood of violence takes place when individuals are predisposed to violence. This does not negate the importance of social context, but suggests that social context has a greater effect on those individuals who are already predisposed towards violence.

The drawback with these approaches isthat the principal theories may be dated when applied to the contemporary context and there has been limited contemporary research. The potential for a multicausal picture of hooliganism requires further consideration.  It is the recommendation of this study that the application of these theories to the contemporary context of hooliganism is examined.


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Buford, B. (1991). Among the Thugs: Face to Face with English Football Violence. London: Vintage.

Clarke, J., (1978). Football and working class fans: Tradition and change. In: R. Ingham (ed.), Football Hooliganism: The Wider Context, London: Interaction Imprint, pp. 37–60

Dimmock, J. A., & Grove, R. (2005). Relationships of fan identification to determinants of aggression. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, pp.37–47.

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Van Hiel, A., Hautman, L., Cornelis, I., & De Clercq, B. (2007). Football hooliganism: Comparing self‐awareness and social identity theory explanations. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 17(3), pp.169-186.

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