Dr. Richard Giulianotti


I shall begin by looking at the social and academic context of the new football media. And that context begins in what we might simply call the 'modern' period of football in the United Kingdom, which is to say the early 1960s onwards.

During this era, some important changes took place in football in the UK, and most particularly in England. These changes heralded what we might call the 'modernisation' of football in the UK.

So, overall, these modern developments tend to be traced back to the 1960s. They might be regarded as drawing British football into the 'modern' era.

Among academics, research into football was rather slow to emerge. But, when it did emerge, in the late 1960s, most academic work on football, especially the social dimensions of football, tended to look at football hooliganism. So, in that sense, the sociological debate on football, started from the historical premise that there was something wrong with football, and that it had problems which needed to sort out. And that problem was perceived to be football hooliganism.

Between the late 1960s, and the mid 1980s, there were several major sociological explanations which emerged, to explain football hooliganism.

United KingdomThe first major explanation emerged from the Marxist perspective, especially the work of Ian Taylor. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Taylor argued that football hooliganism was caused by young, working class fans, who were showing resistance to the forces of modernization in football. Taylor wrote about the attempt to bourgeoisify football, and argued that the so-called 'football hooligans' were actually expressing a form of resistance to this take-over of a working class game.

In the late 1970s, Peter Marsh and his colleagues at Oxford Polytechnic carried out research with young football fans. They argued that football hooliganism was primarily a harmless ritual, and a way of releasing natural, aggressive impulses within a young, male social context.

They argued that the general public, the politicians, the judges, and the press, all had a tendency to exaggerate the scale and the danger of 'football hooliganism' or what they called 'football aggro'. This exaggeration or amplification tended to give rise to real violence among fans, as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A third school of thought emerged in the early 1980s, and has tended to be rather dominant to this day. This perspective came from a group of sociologists based at the University of Leicester. They base their work on the sociological philosophy of Norbert Elias, and which has come to be known as 'figurational sociology' or 'process-sociology'. The leading writer on figurational sociology and sport, is Eric Dunning; he is supported by a number of colleagues, notably Patrick Murphy, Ivan Waddington and Joe Maguire. To many of us, they became known as the 'Leicester school'.

The figurationalists started their work on football hooliganism, at a time when English fan violence was reaching its peak. Subsequently, the figurationalists received large research grants from British football institutions, to carry out their work.

Their basic argument is that:

  1. Football hooligans tend to come from the lower-working class social groups.
  2. Violence at football is not a new phenomenon. However, the general public do not tolerate violence as much as in the past, because they have become more 'civilized'.
The figurationalists published three major books on football hooliganism. These were co-written by Eric Dunning, Patrick Murphy & John Williams. During the 1980s, more and more researchers began to research or to publish on the issue of football hooliganism. The field became rather competitive. This resulted in the figurational perspective being criticised on several grounds: I think all of these criticisms were proved to be justified. In fact, the final criticism became very evident round about 1990, when John Williams decided to split away from the figurational perspective. Williams argued that the evidence on football hooliganism, which he had found when interviewing fans and researching the subject, did not match with the theories of figurationalism.

The result is that there are now two football research centres, inside the University of Leicester, and inside the Department of Sociology. On one side, there is John Williams, who continues to run the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research. He gets most of his research funding from football institutions in England. On the other side are the figurationalists, who work at the Centre for Research into Sport and Society. They get most of their funding, as far as I know, from the University of Leicester.

I would argue that the figurationalists still have a hegemonic position, within the sociology of sport, and especially in the study of football.

However, during the late 1980s and 1990s, a number of other researchers have come to prominence in examining football culture.

The most important of these have been:

  1. Pierre Lanfranchi - Pierre is an historian, and he was based at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Pierre was a vital figure in making the debate on football much more international, and much more inter-disciplinary. He regularly organised conferences, for old and young academics to meet and to discuss different aspects of football.
  2. Steve Redhead & the 'Institute for Popular Culture' based at Manchester Metropolitan University - Steve Redhead has written a lot on the cultural aspects of football. In particular, he looks at the relationship between football, youth subcultures and music. Redhead also tries to explore how postmodern social theory might be applied to explain football culture.
  3. Gary Armstrong - Armstrong has helped to reintroduce an anthropological approach to explaining football in the UK. His work has tended to be restricted to the study of football hooliganism. In 1991, he published an article in a leading sociology journal, The Sociological Review, which led to a lot of controversy.
  4. There is a new group of researchers, based at the University of Brighton (on the south coast of England). They are led by Alan Tomlinson, and have written extensively on FIFA, and the organisation of the World Cup Finals.
  5. Other researchers based in Manchester at the University of Salford. I have in mind here, especially, Vic Duke - who has co-written a book on Football, Nationality & the State; and Ian Taylor, who continues to write the odd article on football.
  6. Scottish researchers - such as myself and Gerry Finn. We have tried to emphasize the fact that a lot of the theories developed in England, are not applicable to football in the rest of the UK.
  7. John Bale, who is a geographer, and who has written some fascinating pieces on football, space and senses of place.
So, I think you have here, the key players in the current football debate in the UK. But, I think there are areas in which that debate has tended to take place within a framework of distorted communication, in which the more powerful groups within the debate tend to be especially hostile to criticism, and in which they tend to use their power to block the publication of work by other authors.

I appreciate that academics throughout the world tend to experience these problems, but I think this is especially true in the UK football debate. One result of this abuse of power, I think, is the tendency of the debate to be very heated - at times polemical, at times litigious. I think a lot of the blame for this aspect of the football debate, must lie at the door of the Leicester School, the figurationalists, who are extremely sensitive to criticism. They do tend to ignore or to rubbish the work of other researchers. If you look at the 1991 edition of the Sociological Review, you will understand what I mean.

Now, with the emergence of these new research groups, it has to be said that the general debate on football culture has turned to look at a broader range of issues, beyond football hooliganism. To some extent, this is because the actual debate on football hooliganism was no longer considered to be constructive or interesting. There had also been a decline in the research funding that was available to study football violence.