Enter the carnival football fan

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Lise Joern
Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics
University of Southern Denmark


Geoff Pearson An ethnography of English football fans: Cans, cops and carnivals 201 sidor, inb. Manchester: Manchester University Press 2012 (New Ethnographies) ISBN 978-0-7190-8721-9

Geoff Pearson
An ethnography of English football fans: Cans, cops and carnivals
201 sidor, inb.
Manchester: Manchester University Press 2012 (New Ethnographies)
ISBN 978-0-7190-8721-9

Geoff Pearson, Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool Management School, has provided us with an ethnography of English football fans who, probably more than any other constituency of supporters, have been presented regularly as extremely violent, destructive, xenophobic and racist. Since the 1960s–70s, academic analysis of football has focused overwhelmingly on the issue of hooliganism. First researchers sought to relate football hooliganism to changes occurring in the relationship between the male working class supporter and the team. Social psychologists then focused on what they saw as harmless ritualised violence. These studies were followed by more detailed sociological enquiries, which appeared to suggest that football hooligans had come predominantly from the lower working classes. A response to this came from a small group of researchers using participant observations and ethnographic accounts of football fans which provided a more sensitive description of the social contexts in which notions of the ‘football hooligan’ come to be constructed. Pearson’s An ethnography of English football fans: Cans, cops and carnivals, however, is not about hooligans. It offers a fresh and more adequate perspective on English football fandom.

The singular focus on hooliganism, that always has been a marginal feature of football fan cultures, began to break down in the aftermath of the Hillsborough stadium tragedy in 1989. Changes to English football stadiums since the early 1990s, and in particular the replacement of standing areas with executive and family seating, have been accompanied by a shift in the focus of academic writing on football fandom moving beyond analysing English fans as ‘hooligans’ and capturing a more positive and inclusive culture of England’s support both at home and abroad. Since the middle/end of the nineties, a distinct subculture of fans has been playing the most acoustically and visually noticeable role in and outside the stadium. On occasion these fans also become involved in disorder.

Pearson’s book carefully engages in this particular subculture, the carnival fans, and its background. It discusses reasons and motifs behind the phenomenon of carnival fans and investigates the distinct characteristics of that subculture. Pearson’s study is based upon sixteen years of participant observation among fans of Blackpool FC, Manchester United and the England National Team conducted both in Britain and abroad.

The first chapter focuses on the ethical issues for researchers carrying out fieldwork in sensitive areas and the problems and challenges that researchers face, carrying out participant observation in fields where criminal activity is not unusual (although the criminal activity engaged in by these groups are at the lower end of the severity spectrum). This is an excellent chapter of great value to anyone researching football fans.

In chapters 3 and 4, the carnival fan is defined and differentiated from the football hooligan and related to previous research into football fandom. Carnival fans are described as

the loud and noisy subculture of wider football fandom who attend matches home and away, who spend a huge amount of their time and money following their team, who help create the chants that form the ’atmosphere’ at matches but who provide a constant challenge to the football authorities and police through their attendance and modes of expression.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the impact of social control on the behaviour of football fans, specially the alcohol ban and the fundamental role of alcohol consumption among carnival fans (for carnival fans, football and alcohol seem to be inseparable).

Chapter 7 concentrates on attitudes to gender, sexuality, race and disability. Pearson points out that the fans’ views on most issues of discrimination reflect those of any (male) group who gather together socially. Although women do join the carnival groups, the carnival subculture is dominated by masculine norms in terms of language and behaviour. To be fully accepted in the group women are expected to adopt these norms.

The carnival phenomenon, albeit to varying degrees, is to be found throughout Europe.

One of the greatest changes in terms of fan behaviour during the last years comes from the introduction of mobile phones and the Internet. The new technologies provided a new way for fans to communicate and express themselves. Chapter 8 examines the influence of these technologies upon fan behaviour.

In the final chapter Pearson points out the necessity for football clubs, governing bodies, local authorities and the police to maintain a differentiated view of football fans, recognising the different sub-groups within the wider football fan scene to ensure positive interaction with the fans.

Pearson makes the carnival culture understandable. He takes a differentiated look at the subculture’s distinct characteristics and specific development. His book can help to respond to the carnival fans’ needs more adequately and provide the insight required to be able to react better to possible negative developments regarding the clubs, associations, fan support and police.

Although Pearson’s research focuses on English teams and their fans, his results are applicable to a broader European fan scene. The carnival phenomenon, albeit to varying degrees, is to be found throughout Europe. There are groups, movements and scenes that differ both from one country to another and within the terraces with regard to structures, rules, and main points of emphasis. In an attempt to find a common denominator for the European carnival fan, these individuals can be described as particularly passionate, emotional, committed, and above all very active fans. What all carnival fans seem to have in common is simply their desire to support their club or team while enjoying the experience, and the exteme pleasure they derive from providing that support creatively for a full 90 minutes both acoustically and visually in spaces that are as wide as possible.

At the same time many carnival fans adopt a critical attitude to the ’bourgeoisification’ of football. Accordingly, what counts for most carnival fans is not only the match result, but rather their committed support and the activities before, during and after the match. Because of their distinct modes of expression and their occasionally rule-breaking behaviour, conflicts often occur between carnival fans and the police. Knowledge of fan culture is crucial when assessing the risk of disorder at football matches, thereby ensuring a balanced approach by the police, governing bodies and football authorities. In this context, Pearson’s book provides valuable insights into the subculture of carnival fans.

An ethnography of English football fans is an extremely thorough ethnography of football fans, describing their motivations and behaviour. It will be of great importance to anyone interested in the behaviour of football fans and in management of football crowds.

Copyright © Lise Joern 2013

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