Social identity in policing: from football hooligans to football fans

Early this year Australia was visited by Cliffard Stott, a UK based social identity theorist. I had the privilege of listening to him present on some of his latest work on crowd psychology and crowd management. Really though, he wasn’t in Australia to visit fellow academics. He was chiefly in Australia to meet with Australian law enforcement agencies to talk to them about their crowd policing tactics.

This is an opportunity for us. Stott’s active engagement beyond academia (i.e. with the “real world”) is a perfect example of social identity in action. We can use it as a case study in the transition from high quality social psychological theory to effective policy and practice.

So what did Stott and his colleagues do?

First, let’s take a second to connect the social identity approach to crowds.

As we have touched on elsewhere the social identity approach recognizes that our understanding of ourselves is derived from our social category memberships, including are ingroups. Further, understanding ourselves as a member of an ingroup is no more or less rational than understanding ourselves as a unique individual.[1] Both are outcomes of the same ubiquitous categorization process and there is no inherent pathology to group based emotions, motivations, thoughts, or behaviours. Not in dyads, not in families, not in teams, and not in crowds.

From this perspective the psychology of crowds is our everyday psychology. A crowd event might be more populous, involve particular ingroup identities and norms, and involve particular social-structural factors, but it is not ‘special’ in terms of the cognitive nuts and bolts.

This can be contrasted with an alternative, probably more popular, understanding of crowd psychology: crowds make otherwise normal individuals more impulsive, volatile, and irrational. We can call this the Le Bonian thesis,[2] and it is this psychology of crowds that is presented in a lot of introductory text books. The name comes from Gustave Le Bon, whose very early work in the field has come to epitomize the ‘crowds = irrationality’ notion. And indeed, Le Bon doesn’t hold back:

Several of the special characteristics of crowds such as impulsivity, irritability, incapacity to reason, absence of judgement or critical spirit, exaggeration of emotions and more besides are also observed amidst lower forms of evolution such as the savage and the child.[3]

Don't let the friendly face and beard fool you, Le Bon had some harsh words for crowds.

Don’t let the friendly smile and hipster beard fool you, Le Bon had some harsh words for crowds.

Critically, many police and security forces around the world subscribe to the Le Bonian thesis in their understanding of crowds; training their members in the view that crowds and large groups of people cannot be reasoned with due to impaired cognitive function. This despite clear evidence to the contrary. That is, while crowds can certainly be violent and pose a grave danger to police, patterns of crowd violence cannot be understood without rational decision making on the part of crowd members.[4]

Yet the training persists,[5] and appears to be “working”. In a sample of U.K. Police who had completed ‘public order training’ Stott and Steven Reicher found consistent beliefs that crowds are composed primarily of mindless followers.[6]

Things are looking up though, and it is all thanks to football.[7]

In the lead up to Euro2004 the U.K. government funded a program of research aimed at improving the policing of the notorious English football fan. This is where Stott and colleagues come in. They used this opportunity to develop a model of ‘good practice’ for football fan policing; one that would leverage the social identity approach and Reicher’s elaborated social identity model of crowd behaviour.[8]

But what did this mean practically?

Well for one, free of the Le Bonian thesis, crowd members could now be viewed as responsive to rational appeals. That meant that a greater role could be given to non-coercive pathways to behaviour change; pathways like leadership and authority. Second, thanks to a fuller understanding of the role of social norms in guiding group behaviour, the pro-social norms of some crowds could now be seen as a police resource. Thus, opportunities for self-policing could be included in the model.

The end result was a good practice model with features not commonly found in crowd policing. For example, instead of an emphasis on ‘high profile’ police in large numbers and equipped with riot gear, the emphasis was on a graduated approach. That graduated approach beginning with ‘low profile’ police in small numbers and in ordinary police uniform (or even plain clothes). As another example, instead of a generalized police approach to a broadly defined crowd, the emphasis was on the need for police actions that are information led and specifically targeted.

At this point it gets really cool, speaking as a social scientist.

Stott and colleagues’ model was only adopted by some police forces in the host country Portugal. While it was embraced by the Polícia de Segurança Pública in the major cities, the Guarda Nacional Republicana stuck to their traditional crowd management strategies in the rural areas. This set the scene for a natural experiment comparing the effectiveness of the social identity informed model and traditional crowd policing training.[9]

In the urban event locations Stott and colleagues observed low levels of conflict and disorder, even in the presence of self-defined hooligans and overt attempts to instigate conflict. In contrast, the resort town of Alburfeira experienced two football ‘riots’. In fact, many who initially avoided violence in those situations came to support conflict with the police. In short, initial outcomes supported the utility of the social identity based policing model.

So let’s hope Stott’s meeting with Australian law enforcement was productive. While there are signs that these ideas continue to be well received in the U.K. (e.g. the U.K. government’s ‘Understanding Crowd Behaviour’) and elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Sweden), I am yet to see indications they are being adopted in my own backyard.

And it would be timely. It looks like there will continue to be some fairly tense crowd events over here.

As student protests are organized across Australia, police forces in turn are deciding how they will respond.

As student protests are organized across Australia, police forces in turn are deciding how they will respond.

Regardless though, what we have is a social identity success story in full. We have gone from understanding social identity, through program development and execution, to improved outcomes. I hope this inspires some optimism for your own ideas for social identity based practice. The opportunities abound.


[1] Turner, J. C., & Oakes, P. J. (1986). The significance of the social identity concept for social psychology with reference to individualism, interactionism and social influence. British Journal of Social Psychology, 25(3), 237-252.

[2] Reicher, S. D. (1982). The determination of collective behaviour. Social identity and intergroup relations, 41-83.

[3] LeBon, G. (1985, translated in 1947). The crowd: A study of the popular mind. London: Earnest Benn, p. 23.

[4] Reicher, S. D. (1984). The St. Pauls’ riot: an explanation of the limits of crowd action in terms of a social identity model. European Journal of Social Psychology, 14(1), 1-21.

[5] Hoggett, J., & Stott, C. (2010). Crowd psychology, public order police training and the policing of football crowds. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 33(2), 218-235.

[6] Stott, C. J., & Reicher, S. D. (1998). Crowd action as inter-group process: Introducing the police perspective. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 509–529.

[7] Or soccer, whatever.

[8] Reicher, S. D. (1996). ‘The Battle of Westminster’: Developing the social identity model of crowd behaviour in order to explain the initiation and development of collective conflict. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 115–134.

[9] Stott, C., Adang, O., Livingstone, A., & Schreiber, M. (2007). Variability in the collective behaviour of England fans at Euro2004:‘Hooliganism’, public order policing and social change. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37(1), 75-100.

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