Crowd Control at Football Matches

Clifford Scott is researching hooliganism, and how to deal with them
30 July 2006

Interview with 

Dr Clifford Stott, University of Liverpool


Chris - Could you just give us a gentle introduction to your work?

Clifford - A gentle introduction; I'm not sure if that's easy. I suppose in a sense what I've been working on with John as well is basically a theoretical model of what makes collective behaviour in crowd events possible from a psychological point of view. So it's the psychology of crowd behaviour. From that theoretical model we've been able to start asking important, difficult but practically important questions about how we manage crowds in society; particularly at the critical times of violence at political demonstrations and in football crowds and at various other events like that.

Chris - You went out to join the World Cup but not to watch the game but to watch the people.

Clifford - Yes, it's one of the difficulties I have. I'm always working and I can't switch off. If I go to a football match I spend most of my time looking at the crowd and not the game but I'm starting to come to terms with that. I go along and take a group of researchers with me and we spend lots of time in crowd events just making systematic observations and looking at events. In particular we focus on interactions. The particularly important interactions we look at are between the police and football fans. What we've found is that those interactions are critically important in determining how people behave in a crowd event, particularly as this relates to the emergence of widespread rioting.

Chris - So what do you do? Do you look for hot spots in the crowd where you think trouble is about to break out and then watch that dynamic going on or do you just chance it and hope that some trouble will break out near you, in which case I don't want to come to a football match with you?!

Clifford - We're pretty good at our jobs so we do end up quite often being in the right place at the right time. But it is particularly opportunistic and in part that's why we study football crowds. We always know where football crowds are going to be, we know that it's highly likely that there will be problems around a football match, and we know that the police are almost invariably going to be there. So it makes that opportunistic kind of approach to studying crowds a lot more fruitful because we tend to see a lot more going on in crowd events at the football. From that we can learn so much more about how crowds work.

Chris - So what's the recipe that turns a crowd of people that's just there to support something they view as fun into something in which they become quite aggressive and sometimes murderous?

Clifford - I think there's quite a lot of misunderstanding about how crowds work. One of the things we've begun to understand is that crowd behaviour is the result of particular forms of interaction. The way groups interact during a crowd event, and you must remember that the police are a group during a crowd event, have a fantastic impact on how crowds behave and on their psychology. In particular, it affects people's sense of what's right and proper behaviour and also what it's possible for people to do collectively. That dynamic of what we call legitimacy and power really functions to make particular forms of group behaviour possible. What we find id that where to police act against the crowd in ways that the crowd see as wrong, and when the police are particularly indiscriminate in the way that they treat crowd members, those are the kinds of situations in which riots tend to develop.

Kat - So if they see the police beating up a woman or picking on someone when they shouldn't be?

Clifford - Yes, that kind of sense of the police doing something wrong. We must remember here that what we're talking about is a psychological dynamic. It doesn't really matter if the police are doing that or not. What matters is that there's this emergent perception in the crowd, and it's really that objectivity which drives collective action. If they feel that the police are doing something wrong, then they feel that by acting against the police that they're doing something right.

Kat - So it has a sense of group injustice about it.

Clifford - Exactly.

Kat - What causes a football riot to kick off or any sort of big event like this? What nucleates it?

Clifford - Well it's very very complex. If we had an answer to that question right now I don't think I'd have a job. What we're looking at is to try and change people's views about why crowd violence happens in the context of football. Overwhelmingly people have an opinion about this and people think generally that it's caused by football hooligans. But what we're beginning to find is that that's not a very good way of looking scientifically at the problem. Science is all about bringing to bear scientific knowledge and data about a particular issue and what we find is that this whole idea about hooliganism is completely useless when it comes to understanding these riots.

Chris - Are police anywhere else in the world doing it any better than we are here?

Clifford - There's good practice and there's bad practice all over the world. What we do is to look at the dynamic as a social conflict. I think that the kinds of dynamics that we expose in our study of football violence have a great deal of applicability and I think that they can make sense of the escalation of violence, for example, in the Lebanon at the moment. So I think that these are general processes of the psychology and the social dynamics of social conflict and there's a great deal of generality there about how we understand it.


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