Theoretically grounded football study with good empirical case studies

Arve Hjelseth
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Translated from Norwegian by
Jeremy Crump

Jamie Cleland, Mark Doidge, Peter Millward & Paul Widdop
Collective Action and Football Fandom: A Relational Sociological Approach
221 pages, hardcover.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2018 (Palgrave Studies in Relational Sociology)
ISBN 978-3-319-73140-7

This book offers a comprehensive and sophisticated theoretical framework for studies of the culture of football supporters. It focuses in particular on activismin these cultures and in particular how some groups of supporters organise in order to influence the development of their clubs, or the development of football more generally. The theoretical framework is provided by relational sociology, more closely defined in chapter 2 as cultural relational sociology.

The book is part of the series Palgrave Studies in Relational Sociology, and in chapter 1, I was left in doubt as a reader as to whether the point was to use football to illustrate the theory or whether relational sociology was seen as a framework for better understanding football supporters. Attention first turns more clearly towards football in chapter 3. The authors’ point is that football constitutes a very interesting field for empirical studies which start from a relational perspective. This seems like a reasonable assertion. What is relational sociology? Hitherto, I have only rarely relied on the concept, but it is a perspective which emphasises that relations and connections between people are the fundamental constituents of social life, whether the object of study is small groups or large social institutions (pp 3-4).

The authors rely specifically on Crossley’s Towards Relational Sociologyand additionally on King’s The Structure of Social Theory. As with many such concepts, there are times when I am not sure what this new one represents in relation to more classical sociological perspectives. It appears to be a synthesis of various approaches to research. In going through the central concepts (pp 10-15) the authors cite among others Blumer (interaction), Latour (networks), Touraine (social actors) and power and resistance (Castells). From time to time I ask myself whether such syntheses are necessary – it often strikes me that it is just as fruitful to take theoretical insights from different perspectives, without any need for them to be synthesised. Be that as it may, the book has very sound theoretical foundations.

Collective action is the other key theoretical concept in chapter 1, where it is discussed in connection with the literature about social and protest movements. This is of interest for the study o football supporters since in some contexts they do indeed constitute powerful social movements. The authors emphasise that ‘collective action’ can refer to a range of phenomena, and further point out that football differs from what we usually associate with traditional social movements and collective action. The latter have often been undertaken with the aim of achieving rights for underprivileged classes, genders or minorities, but football supporters belong to social movements which are organised around a form of consumption, namely football (p 16). In my view, it is a moot point whether football supporters can be principally understood as consumers, but I shall not go into that here. The last part of chapter 1 links these themes more concretely to the literature about football supporters. Altogether, this is a theoretically sophisticated chapter which is well informed by recent research, even if, as I said, I am a little unsure what precisely relational sociology brings to this subject over and above the individual theoretical perspectives which it builds upon.

Chapter 2, which has the subtitle ‘A Primer in Cultural Relational Sociology’, discusses in more detail how the literature on collective action and fan culture can be more clearly linked to relational sociology. It identifies seven key areas, namely communication and co-operation, mobilising resources, structures and roles in collective action, feelings and collective effervescence, tactics, recruitment and the spatial organisation of collective action (‘spaces and places’). The chapter draws on very wide sociological readings with examples from both football and other fields.

Chapters 3-7 take their starting point in empirical studies of selected clubs and supporter organisations. Chapter 3 analyses how friendship and social connections are at the same time preconditions for and consequences of the activities of two selected semi-professional clubs in southern England. Common to both clubs is that they draw left-leaning crowds and believe that football at this level is an attractive alternative to the glamour of the Premier League. It is easier to maintain the image of the club as community. The chapter is interesting, not least when the authors point out that since the leagues which these teams play in are regional, the supporters can go to each others’ home matches when it suits them. This creates social ties across established networks – what Robert Putnam calls ‘bridging’ social capital.

This is natural in a way. Many of the supporters’ core values certainly have an anticapitalistic tendency since they are faced with extremely wealthy owners, sponsors and commercial TV companies.

Chapter 4 is an analysis of the chaos at Coventry City after the club was relegated from the Premier League in 2001. In 2013, the club decided for economic reasons o move from the relatively newly-built Ricoh Arena and to play instead at Northampton, thirty miles away. This led to widespread campaigning by the supporters to get the club back to its home town. Placeplays a central role in many supporters’ identity, with its association of coming together with likeminded people. The chapter analyses the significance of networks and social capital for an understanding of the development and scope of the work of getting the club back to the city. It shows clearly how useful sociological theory is for shedding light on such processes.

Chapter 5 turns attention to Swansea City and the more concrete significance of so-called supporters’ trusts. These emerged as a means of channeling supporters’ engagement with their clubs and became a counterbalance to football’s development as an arena for outside investors. Furthermore, they were often set up in the wake of economic crises, of which there have been a good few in the lower divisions of English football. There are various types of supporters’ trusts. In some cases, they own the whole club on the basis of democratic membership, while in others the trust is represented on the management board or has formal access to the management by some other means. The crucial point is that, by means of such organisations, supporters become something more than customers. At Swansea, it was an economic crisis that inspired the creation of a trust. In their analysis, the authors draw on Randall Collins’ concept of interaction rituals. The trust’s gradual development was at first motivated by anger and fear but, through social interaction, this was transformed into a kind of social effervescence. Coming together in an association created in itself a sort of moral solidarity, articulating a wish that the club should be drawn more closely into the local community.

Chapter 6 focuses more on the big clubs, giving special attention to actions and campaigns against rising ticket prices and how such campaigns are organised in social media. The authors use complex network analysis to study how information is spread through these channels. They look more closely at the campaigns #Twentysplenty and #Walkouton77. The first of these was set up against increased ticket prices for away supporters in the Premier League. They wanted a recognition of the significance of away supporters for the atmosphere at football matches. The other was a local campaign at Liverpool FC in which those involved worked to get as many spectators as possible to leave the ground after 77 minutes during a home game against Sunderland in protest against a proposed ticket price of £77 in a new stand. The network analysis provides support for the theory that social movements are often built on what Mark Granovetter calls weak ties (p 147),

Chapter 7 turns its attention to European football and looks at collaboration and network relationships between fans in different clubs and not least in different European countries. Football Supporters Europe (FSE) is an example of an organisation working for the interests of supporters despite differences in club allegiance. There are also examples of organisations which are based on specific interests or groups, for example a network for gay supporters, or against violence and racism (p 164). FSE has organized an antidiscrimination section and the authors discuss inter aliaits contribution to the campaign Refugees Welcome. In general, they attach great importance to how the organized supporters mobilise and participate in left-wing networks. This is natural in a way. Many of the supporters’ core values certainly have an anticapitalistic tendency since they are faced with extremely wealthy owners, sponsors and commercial TV companies. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that there are radical right-wing groups which also organize through football. They remain below this book’s radar.

The concluding chapter summarises the book and underlines its theoretical ambition – that supporters’ collective mobilisation is best understood in the light of relational sociology. It is supporters’ mobilisation- through tighter or looser networks, through social interaction and the praxis inherent in the supporter role – which makes football clubs real clubs, not just private companies run for profit, even if that is their legal status. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the world of English football outside the Premier League, chapters 3-5 are extraordinarily informative.

It must be emphasised that relational sociology, particularly rooted in Crossley, pervades the whole book – it is not just theoretical scaffolding. It is therefore up for discussion whether it is productive to marshal the rich theoretical material underpinning the book under a single umbrella (‘cultural relational sociology’). Nevertheless, this is a theoretically well-grounded study, with interesting and enlightening case studies.

Copyright © Arve Hjelseth 2018

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