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Irish football fans (PA Images/Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport)

Column Like Ireland’s football fans, we all want to belong

We define ourselves against others in order to join social groups, writes Professor Tom Inglis – but that can have sinister consequences.

ONE OF THE defining moments of the European soccer championships this summer was when the Irish fans stayed on in the stadium after a crushing 4-0 defeat by Spain singing ballads and cheering their team. It was not just a sign of loyalty to the team but a signal to the rest of Europe that when it comes to soccer fans attending championships – indeed when it comes to celebrating and partying – the Irish do it differently.

The Irish fans were, of course, primarily defining themselves against the English fans. In England, and in other parts of Europe, soccer matches are occasions for fans to mock, taunt and goad each other by making rude gestures, chanting and singing offensive songs. Often if they can, they physically attack each other. Sometimes the violence is carefully orchestrated. What appears as random acts of violence has been planned in advance. There is also a peculiar logic to soccer violence. Fans from rival soccer clubs might meet attack each other, particularly before or after derby matches, but then both sets of fans will join up to go international matches to take on the Dutch, Germans or whoever. In some respects, these clashes are release mechanisms: they are a controlled letting go of the impulse to violence. But they are also tribal in nature. They provide identity through collective bonding and belonging.

Clans and tribes

Social divisions are as old as society. Once humans stopped surviving on hunting and gathering, settled down and started developing agriculture, they formed into clans and tribes. These groups related to each other by trading and intermarrying. They often differentiated themselves by identifying with signs themselves with different elements of nature. One group might associate themselves with the land, for example the clan of the bear, others with the air, the clan of the eagle, and so forth. This was the beginning of social difference. In some respects these tribes are no different for Wigan, Millwall, England and Ireland.

Social differences would be fine if they remained at the level of identity and lifestyle distinctions. The problem is that the drive to maintain sameness and solidarity is often related to making out that others who do not belong to the tribe are in some way inferior. Social diversity, like biodiversity, is necessary for human survival, but the problem is that it tends to part and parcel of power differences which are often justified by the clan, tribe or human group seeing themselves as socially and morally superior to other groups, particularly those that are closest rivals.

If powerful groups are to maintain their power they need to symbolically dominate the less powerful groups. They often do this by labelling or stigmatising the groups as inferior. They deride and demean them by gossiping and telling jokes and bad stories about them. Such is the stuff of urban gangs, but as we know to well, it can also be the stuff of Protestants and Catholics, whites and blacks, settled people and travellers.

Kerryman jokes

Often this symbolic domination takes place seamlessly. A group of friends meet and one of them asks did you hear about…  You can fill in what social group you like, the Jew, the knacker, the n*****, the Prod, the Taig, and so forth. Some of these jokes are harmless such as the Kerrymen jokes of years back. However, some of them have the function of maintaining a negative portrayal of the minority group. It is not a coincidence that some men like to tell derogatory jokes about women.

But social divisions are not just about power and moral superiority. They have also to do with meaning and identity. Families are perhaps the most dominant social group in human society. For families to survive, they have to bond together, not just by living together but by engaging in collective rituals. This is why christenings, confirmations, marriages and funerals are so important.

Strong families create a sacred aura about themselves, as if they were a tribe more than a family. Being invited into the family or, more importantly, marrying into them, is not taken lightly. As with many groups, there are meetings and induction rites, some more informal than others which family members are testing the morals, values, practices and lifestyles of each other. This was exemplified very well in the film Meet the Fockers.

Social divisions between groups is, then, part and parcel of social life. The cosmopolitan tries to recognise, appreciate and sustain cultural difference. It is often what makes global cities work. There is a constant attempt to avoid any hint of social, cultural or moral superiority. This is easier said than done.

We can be rational and say that in the same way as it would be stupid to say that an apple is better than an orange, it is stupid to say that a settled person is better than a Traveller.  Unfortunately, as in most cases in social life, the cosmopolitan ideal is not realised – and power and moral superiority raise their ugly heads.

Tom Inglis is an Associate Professor of Sociology in UCD.  He likes to write about Irish identity, particularly in relation to globalisation. His book, Global Ireland: Same Difference,  was published by Routledge in 2008. His most recent book, Making Love: A Memoir was published by New Island earlier this year.

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