Understanding the root causes of football violence could help tackle other extreme behaviours such as gang culture and terrorism because the psychology underpinning them is very similar, according to new anthropological research.
In many places around the world, there is a culture of violence among certain radical groups of football fans. This is usually written off simply as 'hooliganism' but research hints that there may be more positive motivations for the behaviour, for example a passionate commitment to a group or a desire for belonging.
For the latest study, anthropologists from the University of Oxford examined fan violence in the UK, Brazil, and other countries, in order to understand if violence could be channelled into positive social activity. Their findings were published in The International Review for the Sociology of Sport.
They say that while hooliganism in the UK and Brazil displays cultural differences, the fundamental motivations for the violence have clear similarities. In both cases, the researchers found that shared experiences which created a 'brothers-in-arms' mentality was key to understanding the outbreak of violence. Wherever they are in the world, football fanatics view other fans of the same team as family and have a strong desire to protect them.
"Football fandom is in many ways a positive thing that can trigger impressive displays of commitment, like attending every match come rain or shine, or setting up food banks for the community during the recession," said Martha Newson, lead author of the study from Oxford's Department of Anthropology.
"Even though you are not literally brothers, you share a sense of kinship based on going through life-changing ordeals together. This produces a shared passion for the cause – or, in football terms, the club. The feeling is that you are looking after your kin and protecting your family. We believe it's possible to harness these motivations in ways that could lead to positive outcomes."
The research also found clear links between the psychology underlying football hooliganism and other extreme behaviours, such as gang culture and terrorism. All three are rooted in a similar feeling of 'brotherhood', suggesting tackling the deviant behaviours may require similar strategies.
Research was conducted at fan sites and football grounds during the Brazilian World Cup, as well as at the grounds of Millwall and Wolverhampton football clubs.
Members of the team are now working with the West Midlands Police Football Unit to better understand violence and disorder. In future, they hope to apply the same techniques to researching more dangerous groups, such as Isis fighters as part of a large project run by Professor Harvey Whitehouse at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology.
"Our studies show that many extreme group behaviours are fuelled by the same motivations, but football bonding offered us a relatively safe space to start," Newson added.
"The more we understand how the behaviour works, and what motivates it, the more likely our chances are of reducing it and maybe even harnessing its potential to produce more positive outcomes. Tackling one form of extreme group violence will give us the confidence and tools to apply the learnings to other areas such as fundamentalists and radicals."