When Football fans strike: Explaining violence by sports fans as a function of identity
Rioting occurring after a football match is not an uncommon phenomenon. Longstanding hostility amongst football fan groups is a tradition worldwide. Hooliganism is a term that describes violent behaviour perpetrated by football spectators, and we find the phenomenon occurring across the globe. In extreme circumstances, death can be an outcome of such riots. For example, during Honduras’ 1969 World Cup qualification, 2,100 people died. In Indonesia, the country where I lived previously, hostility between two fan groups occurs between groups from two cities that are close together.
The most contemporary case of violent football riots in Indonesia resulted in the death of Haringga Sirila (23 years old) on 23 September 2018. The young man was a big fan of Persija, a football team of Jakarta. The violent hostility between the two fan groups remains a deep tradition, with seven people from the two groups having died since 2012. This hostility is not an isolated case and similar cases also occur in other cities around the country. However, the question arises: Why do they strike?
One line of work examines violent behaviour perpetrated by a group or a mass as “Amok” (or ‘running amok’): an analysis with historical roots in the Malay tradition.
A study conducted by Manuel L. Saint Martin of the University of Southern California, attributed this kind of mass violence in South East Asia to mental and personality disorders and extreme psychological distress.
Interpreting mass violence as ‘running amok’ is an explanation that points to feelings of frustration and violence as the effect of social or psychological pressure. But this explanation seems inappropriate to explain football fans’ rioting.
So what drives physical violence amongst football fans?
Another type of explanation draws on the psychology of groups. Social psychological research has shown that we have two kinds of identity: personal identity, representing our uniqueness and what distinguishes us from others (I am different from other people), and social identity, usually called a group identity. A social identity allows us to associate and bond with other people (e.g., ‘I am Australian’, or ‘I am a fan of this club’).
How are these personal and social identities related to the violence occurring amongst football fans? A great deal of research is exploring this question. One answer points to the relationship between personal and social identity, a concept called Identity fusion. It is a very deep sense of oneness with a group and its individual members that motivate pro-group behaviours - even personally costly ones.
The feelings of identity fusion are not just being strongly bonded with a group, but it is having deep emotional ties with other group members. These bonds are similar to familial bonds. Familial bonding usually occurs in a narrow context (e.g., with members of our nuclear family), but the concept of fusion can be extended to a larger group such as national group, religious group and of course, a football fan group.
But how can the feeling of oneness lead to intergroup violence?
Work on identity fusion suggests a number of factors facilitate the connection between the sense of oneness and violence.
For example, arousal has been established as a catalyst for those who have strong feelings of oneness with the group to engage in extreme behaviour. An experiment involving 245 students in Spain, showed that in a dodgeball game, stimulating arousal within the group resulted in more extreme behaviour on behalf of his/her group.
A second factor is called the personal agency principle, whereby an individual feels that he/she represents the group and is compelled to act on behalf of the group. Of course, not all pro-group actions are violent! But when people who feel fused with a group feel frustrated or threatened, the sense of being compelled to act even if extreme actions are needed means violence is more of a risk.
The death of a football fan in a riot, as in the case of Haringga, can be explained in this way. In a pre-match situation, the crowds in a stadium can create arousal, increasing the risk of violent behaviour for those whose personal identity is fused to the group, and who experience a sense of personal agency alongside collective threat or frustration.
In addition, previous studies show that shared painful past experience amongst group members may also play a role. Along with our colleagues (Martha Newson, Harvey Whitehouse, and Vici Sofiana Putera), we collected the data from 100 people of two conflicting fan groups in Indonesia (Bandung team and Jakarta team). Our focus was on the extent to which the shared painful experiences with fellow members can be a catalyst for the tendency to engage in violent behaviour on behalf of the group.
We found that the tendency to act extremely is more likely when a person had experienced feelings of oneness with the group, and especially when the members shared a painful past experience. In football rivalries, we know that, the fans of the two teams competing with each other, have shared the painful experience of violence from the other group. When one group’s violence promotes the second group’s fusion, which in turn is linked to their extremism or violence, a vicious cycle is initiated.
What can be done to stop violence among highly fused fans?
Identity fusion seems to rely on very strong ties, that are almost impossible to defuse. So, an “extreme’ approach to preventing violent associated with identity fusion is to dissolve the group itself. But, in most cases, this approach cannot be implemented. A more feasible approach may be changing the norm of the fan groups – i.e., their standards or rules for pro-group action.
Some football fans have norms of supporting hostility and violence. The key may be to change these norms, with the help of the football team itself and the football regulation boards, to promote positive norms. One example would be using the match as a way to raise funds for natural disaster victims around the country, or for children impacted by cancer, is a potential way to slowly and sustainably change the hostile norm associated with the match with a caring norm. The view of the competition is shifted so it is not only about the number of goals scored by the players, but also about the funds collected by the fans. This would strengthen the injunctive norm that football fans contribute positively to society. Similarly, many positive values such as fairness, peace and justice can be clearly seen in good sportsmanship, and if we promote these values, we can help fans groups to also extend these values to their rival teams.
- Susilo Wibisono & Whinda Yustisia
*The article is a version of an article written for and published by The Conversation Indonesia, on Sept 28, 2018.
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