Valuable volume on mediated football fandom

Henk Erik Meier
Institut für Sportwissenschaft, Sozialwissenschaften des Sports
Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster

Roy Krøvel & Thore Roksvold (red)
We Love to Hate Each Other: Mediated Football Fan Culture
323 sidor, hft.
Gothenburg, Sweden: Nordicom 2012
ISBN 978-91-86523-35-0

It is certainly a truism among scholars of sport and the media that the world’s commercially most successful sports have entered a symbiotic relationship with media industries. While new media technologies have employed sport as ‘battering ram’ to enter markets or even to create them, they have increased sport’s visibility and popularity to an unknown extent. Since the symbiotic relationship between media industries and sport is accompanied by heavy commercialization, it has served to change the way modern sport is operated and institutionalized. The central role played by media industries for the consumption of sport implies inevitably that much of modern ‘fan culture’ is mediated. Recently, however, changes in media technologies challenge the classical hierarchical transmitter-receiver relationship, which has characterized old media. These changes and their implications for media football fan culture are one of the key subjects addressed in the inspiring anthology “We love to hate each other” edited by Roy Krøvel and Thore Roksvold. Yet, the volume’s chapters address a number of further subjects, such as sportive nationalism and regional identities, gender inequality and intercultural communication. Since the excellent volume contains fifteen well-written chapters, this reviewer finds it hard to pay proper regard to every contribution.

First of all, it is important to note that the volume takes an inclusive stance concerning theoretical foundations even though most authors pursue more or less a ‘critical’ agenda. As Roksvold and Krøvel write in their introduction, the most cited authors by the contributors are Fairclough, Foucalt, Giulianotti and Elias. However, a number of authors refer also to Baudrillard and Goffman in order to provide some theoretical understanding for the construction of cultural identities in today’s media environment. Such theoretical pluralism certainly represents an advantage of the volume since it makes evident how closely theory, method and type of possible findings are linked. Moreover, it becomes apparent that the editors’ call for a more constructive dialogue between different theoretical approaches in the field is heavily justified, since there is a tendency among the distinct theory perspectives to dissipate into ever more fine-grained case studies, which reduces the potential impact of research results. Thus, the reader of the volume finds her/himself confronted with well-crafted case studies providing complex and sometimes opposing empirical findings without much dialogue between the individual contributions.

The book starts with an excellent introduction into the fan concept by Hans K. Hognestad. Hognestad tackles some of the most hotly debated issues in sport sociological research on sport fans, that is, the distinction between supporters and consumers, resistance against total commodification and the rise of virtual sociality. For the reviewers, it becomes evident that the strong impact that British scholars have had on the debate has to be more carefully reflected because it does not only include a highly critical stance towards commercialization, but also an obsession with the question who qualifies as a ‘real’ fan with the concept of the ‘real’ fan overburdened with class connotations. Moreover, Hognestad’s critical reference to Giulianotti’s widely known taxonomy of fans (supporter, follower, fan and flaneur) illustrates that the epistemological status of such classifications has to be questioned. Given the scarce empirical evidence provided by Giulianotti for his ideal types, his taxonomy comes with the risk that necessary empirical observations are substituted by theoretical assumptions and that sport sociologists become obsessed with trying to squeeze their accounts of spectator behavior into predefined categories rather than questioning the taxonomy’s implicit assumptions. Thus, Hognestad makes evident that the distinctions between the categories become increasingly blurred.

Raymond Boyle’s account of the changes for sport media coming with technological innovations is both informative and inspiring, because Boyle discusses the promises coming with social media as well as its possible drawbacks. On the one hand, the rise of online forums challenges journalists’ authoritative role in providing narratives and gives fans a voice also on critical issues such as sport governance. On the other hand, Boyle notes the partisan and hostile nature of much conversation in online forums. Some of the questions addressed by Boyle are later taken on by Steen Steensen in his account of online conversations. Steensen illustrates first the methodological challenges for traditional content analysis to deal with the opportunities of new media technologies. Moreover, he shows that administered chats serve to uphold journalists’ power over discourse and that the audience might approve the maintenance of the traditional media hierarchy.

Moreover, Hognestad’s critical reference to Giulianotti’s widely known taxonomy of fans (supporter, follower, fan and flaneur) illustrates that the epistemological status of such classifications has to be questioned.

Peter Dahlén’s contribution to the volume is an excellent case study of the Norwegian Football Championship victory by a Bergen team in 2007. By employing a theoretical framework developed by religion historian Mircea Eliade Dahlén shows how a longing for togetherness and regional pride found its expression in the ritual celebration of the sporting victory. Thus, the case study vividly illustrates how sport teams come to carry meanings far beyond sporting outcomes.

Thore Roksvold’s longitudinal analysis of newspaper coverage of the Norwegian cup final is very inspiring since it reveals some interesting changes in reporting techniques but also in underlying values. Among other things, an increased focus on individuals becomes evident. Moreover, Roksvold can demonstrate the relevance of gender differences. Hopefully, Rokvold’s study inspires other researchers to adopt his research design to generate some comparative empirical evidence allowing for generalizations.

Rune Ottosen, Nathalie Hyde-Clarke and Toby Miller analyze the framing of football fans in newspaper coverage during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Interestingly, they find that the media did not downplay the fans’ role as commodity. Moreover, the chapter questions the World Cup’s contribution to feelings of national unity in South Africa.

Scottish fans are usually welcomed abroad since they do not seem to cause much trouble in terms of policing and their team mostly leaves the victory for the host. In his reflexive piece, Hugh O’Donnell critically tackles the myth of the Tartan Army and illustrates how the discourse on Scottish fans can be shaped to meet the needs of diverse ideological projects. While working-class identity is part of the Scottish discourse on the Tartan Army, discourse abroad hardly notices such ideological underpinnings and tends to focus on the spirit of fair-play embodied by Scottish fans.

Harald Hornmoen makes a strong case for the reflected character of much fan discourse in his study on newspaper coverage and forum threads on Oslo’s two football teams. He demonstrates the often playful and humorous use of stereotypes and clichés by sport fans who are nevertheless involved in a process of identity construction. Moreover, his confrontation of the perspectives of players, managers and trainers on the local rivalry shows how professional roles influence the public statements of involved actors.

Yet, the contribution by Aage Radmann leaves the impression that identity construction might be playful but nevertheless dangerous. In his interesting account of the construction of the hooligan image in old media and in a Hooligan focused website, Radmann sides with other researchers who detected a ‘moral panic’ in the tabloid press about hooliganism fostering a climate of danger. Moreover, he shows that such perceptions of threat are willingly embraced by hooligans who feel confirmed in their particular vision of masculinity.

Deirdre Hynes addresses a subject that has received increased attention by sport sociologists, that is, the specific experience of female sport fans. She provides further evidence on the complex processes of female identity construction in a highly gendered field. Among others, female fans feel forced to distance themselves from hyper-femininity in order to become accepted as proper fans.

In his account of blogs on Norwegian star players, Andreas Ytterstad addresses a central question of identity politics in sport, that is, to what extent the sporting hero contributes to feelings of national affection. While the author himself is highly critical of sportive nationalism (to put it mildly), he arrives to the conclusion that ‘be more nationalistic’ represents the master frame in the blogosphere. Given the fact that the very existence of national teams derives from the idea that they ‘somehow’ represent their nations, such a finding seems hardly surprising. However, the author’s philippic against sportive nationalism raises important question whether other forms of identity politics in sport would be more preferable. Moreover, Ytterstad’s emphasis on the dominance or the inevitability of a nationalist master frame implicitly challenges findings from other contributions to this volume claiming the potential of football to be used by different ideological projects.

In his case study, Roy Krøvel discusses a controversy surrounding the celebration of Ramadan by top players in an Oslo football team and a goal celebration by two Muslim players. Concerning the Ramadan controversy, Krøvel demonstrates how football can inspire a respectful and reflexive dialogue among fans coming with the potential for a deeper understanding among people of diverse religious origin. In contrast, the controversy about two Muslim players performing a prayer after a goal while a Norwegian player made obscene gestures behind their backs illustrates the difficulties to create mutual respect and understanding. Here, the debate became polarized and heated, raising the question to how well sport might serve as vehicle for intercultural understanding.

The range of theories and topics covered by the contributions is certainly impressive and provides a good overview over currently hotly contested issues in the sociology of sport and media.

Such questions are also echoed in the analysis of two documentaries on the first victory in the Israeli National Football Cup by an Arab team in 2004, which has been contributed by Alina Bernstein, Lea Mandelzis and Inbar Shenhar. Not surprisingly, both documentaries frame football as microcosm of Israeli society and the gaps and tensions for Israeli Arabs living in a Jewish majority state. While the two documentaries support the idea that football plays an important role for the complex relationship between Arab minority and Jewish majority, they nurture some skepticism that football might promote social integration.

Britt-Marie Ringfjord discusses the way the Swedish Public Service Television show ‘Little Mirror of Sports’ teaches children about sport practice. She finds that the football ideology presented in the show still largely corresponds to male norms, all efforts to pay attention to women’s football and female players notwithstanding. In addition, Ringfjord detects some middle-class bias in the show in terms of the ideal family background promoted and the values promoted by sport.

In the volume’s last chapter, David Rowe and Stephanie Alice Baker study the new, mediated ways created by global media of ‘being there’, that is, live sites and public viewing arenas. As the authors carefully point out, this trend is particularly interesting because of the dialectical interplay of local and global and of what they call reflexive mediation, where fans are aware of being watched and envisaged and thus contributing to the media experience.

We love to hate each other provides the reader with a number of theoretically reflected and well-crafted case studies on football fandom and media. The volume is extremely inspiring; and it would be preferable if the design of some empirical case studies would be replicated by researchers from other regional and national contexts in order to generate more comparative research. The range of theories and topics covered by the contributions is certainly impressive and provides a good overview over currently hotly contested issues in the sociology of sport and media. Thus, the reader gets a good understanding of the challenges and prospects social media provides for the future of football fandom. Given the complex issues at stake, some of the topics addressed certainly warrant edited volumes in their own right. While the inclusive theoretical approach adopted by the editors is appreciatively received, the reader may find her/himself sometimes overwhelmed by the theoretical, methodological and topical diversity of the contributions. In any case, the need for a more constructive theoretical dialogue among different sociological perspectives on fandom has become evident. For example, the contributions to this volume leave unclear to what extent football qualifies as vehicle for hegemonic ideological projects.

Thus, in theoretical and methodological respects, the volume clearly documents the strengths and weaknesses of current sport sociological accounts of modern fandom. Among the strengths, the sensitivity for the complex and reflexive interplay between media and fans is important, as is the interdependence of multiple social processes involved in identity construction and a subtle understanding of fan discourse. However, for this reviewer, the volume also illustrates that an exclusive reliance on content analyses and, to a minor extent, on participant observations limits the sport sociologist’s opportunities to address relevant questions empirically. While many contributions conducted in the volume convincingly argue that discourses on football and football fandom are linked to broader societal debates about identity, gender etc., an exclusive focus on discourses does not allow making inferences concerning the impact of media exposure and the relevance of media discourses for individual identity construction and behavior. In addition, although the ‘critical’ theoretical background adopted by many sport sociologists seems to inspire them to despose of quantitative methods, for this reviewer there is no per se reason to assume that any claim made by ‘critical’ approaches does necessarily defy quantitative analysis. Furthermore, given the fact that sport science is multidisciplinary in nature, the volume’s readers might find it surprising that none of the authors refers to contributions by sport psychologists or sport economists on sport fandom. Finally, the volume raises important questions concerning the future of fandom in other sports than football. For good reasons, the contributors have focused on football as Europe’s most popular sport. Yet, although criticism of football’s commercialization seems to represent a leitmotif of much sport sociological writing, the book raises the question of which impact new or social media will have on ‘marginal sports’ in which global media companies have no particular interest. Here, social media could support a vibrant fan culture beside mainstream media.

However, these critical remarks are in no way intended to deny the significance of this volume. Quite the contrary, We love to hate each other is an inspiring collection of papers that is valuable for every researcher working on mediated football fandom.

Copyright © Henk Erik Meier 2012

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