Britta Busse, Alexandra Hashem-Wangler and Jochen Tholen describe their ethnographic research into the social and political engagement of a football fan group in Germany, explaining how the manner in which this group blend the ‘private’ matter of football support with the ‘public’ matter of anti-racist activism is indicative of a much broader change in how youth in Europe engage in political life.
Responding to the general decline of young people’s participation in traditional political organizations, sociological and political research has focused upon alternative means of social and political engagement. This new focus indicates that low youth voter turnout rates, the decrease in political knowledge, interest and party identification do not reflect the variety of ways in which young people practice politics. Rather than sticking to these “top-down models” of political participation, it is beneficial to consider the manner in which practices undertaken by young people blend public and private instead of maintaining the traditional split between them. Thus, a broader conceptualization of politics would include a “bottom-up” definition of political participation – and accept that “non-participation in the traditional sense may reflect a conscious choice which could be seen as a form of engagement in and of itself”.
In order to portray how public and private is blended in young people’s engagement we present in the frame of the MYPLACE project a group of young football fans in northern Germany who actively engage against discrimination in the football stadium. More than twelve months of fieldwork and qualitative interviews constitute the basis of the present youth research. In its organisation, the group is independent from the club’s official fan club. Most of its members come from the Ultra-Scene. Its substantive focus lies on anti-fascist and anti-discrimination activities of football fans; this includes engagement against homophobia, racism, sexism and against discrimination of disabled, Sinti and Roma. The age of the members ranges from 13 to 35 years. The group is characterized by a vivid exchange of information (such as newspaper articles, information about local activities and events, etc.) that they share in their active group on Facebook. The group had been founded after a gang of Nazi-hooligans had attacked an Ultra-fan party in the fan hall of the stadium. As a consequence, the attacked fans wanted to make the public aware of right-extremist football fans in the stadium and joined together into this new working group.
Its activities focus mainly on the choreographies that are best described as the mouthpiece of the fans. The choreographies are adjusted to the current topics and problems among the football teams or the fans. For example, in December 2012 the law regarding the security in German football stadiums was supposed to be intensified. This means that more body searches and more stadium bans for so-called “problem-fans” would be the result, including an increased difficulty to smuggle fireworks into the stadium as a consequence. As a sign of its protest, the group as well as other fan groups all over Germany introduced 12 minutes and 12 seconds silence (the numbers as symbols against the law that finally did get intensified at the 12th December 2012). Thus, the choreographies serve as a way to represent the fans’ interest in the stadium and in the football clubs. At the same time, the choreographies are used as a means of communication between the different fan groups, mostly as a reaction to the other groups’ concepts or ideals. As such, this is an opportunity to display the group identity by publishing slogans and ideals that are transmitted in the stadium. More precisely, the groups’ anti-discrimination messages fulfill their aim to provoke the other team’s fans who do not share their values and to make people aware of existing forms of discrimination. The ideals and claims are also visualised on t-shirts, scarves, sweat-shirts as well as on buttons, stickers and brochures.
The young people’s activity is not limited to the area within the stadium. By organising exhibitions, workshops and readings, they also try to reach audiences beyond the stadium. The exhibitions are comprised of two levels. First, before the start of every home game a booth is situated on the outer ring of the stadium. The members of the group sell shirts, buttons, scarves and stickers and distribute brochures to other fans in order to inform them about the activities and about the different forms of discrimination in the stadium. Second, the exhibitions go beyond the area of the fan culture. The group participates at local youth events and organizes workshops and readings at schools or at the university in order to spread the awareness of discrimination forms among young people.
Remarkably, it is not only the range of activities that mould the identity of the group. In fact, the accumulation of knowledge plays a considerable role in shaping the identity and self-perception of the group. The members of the group are always up-to-date due to their monthly regular meetings and due to their daily active communication in their private Facebook group. Newspaper articles, links to other websites or organizations as well as personal comments on current politics and events are being negotiated on the social media platform. Interestingly, for most of the interviewees it is not the community that is most important for their engagement, but the efficacy of the group – the fact that most of its members participate regularly and actively in the activities. As such, the members sustain a clear self-identity with their group. The differentiation to other groups is very important to them. Importance is ascribed to acting according to the group’s credo. For instance, cooperation with other anti-fascist groups are only accepted if the other group also fulfills the other requirements, such as anti-sexism and anti-homophobia.
With this concrete and compact group picture, the members appear as self-confident and responsible individuals. Nearly all interviewees revealed that they perceive themselves as actors who sort out reliable information from useless populist information. This means that they consciously read reliable newspapers (mostly online) and additionally compare the news with what they read on international platforms. In other words, knowledge and awareness appear as their main ‘cultural capital’.
Interestingly, in this regard the group displays a quite elitist attitude. When explaining how they have personally changed after becoming members of the group the participants pronounce that their participation has sharpened their awareness for topics that comprise discrimination and other general socio-political topics. This perceived advantage over those people who do not reflect intensively about what they hear or read in media is being pronounced very often by the group members during the interviews. Since they have a better overview over social and political topics, their general attitude is that their views on respective matters (e.g. laws in the football stadium, the handling of right-extremist people, Germany’s immigration policy, Germany’s handling of the past, the perception of Israel’s foreign policy, etc.) are to be taken the most seriously because they carry the most weight. In other words, the fan group displays a clearly elitist attitude. Indeed, their self-perception as a group is presented as opposite to society in general and, according to Bourdieu’s definition of ‘cultural capital’, the advantages seem to endorse them with a higher status in society in moral terms.
Moreover, the knowledge and skills empower them to criticize or to challenge the state, the police, society and the media. Their behaviour and their attitudes show that they understand their role partly in filling in for the functions that the state is not providing – especially the Ultra-members display this radical kind of self-perception. On the other side, because of the incapacity of the state to fight discrimination and inequality, a remarkable number of participants mentioned that they would prefer to leave the country and live somewhere else. “The state’s incapacity but also the perceived fact that Germany has not learned from its problematic past” (so more or less the quotation by some group members) have been stated as reasons for leaving the country. Thus, a kind of resignation and silent protest come to the fore and stand parallel beside the notion of empowerment.
A similar kind of resignation and protest becomes evident in the group’s reaction to right-extremist fans inside the stadium. The group members never communicate directly with other right-extremist fans. According to them, it makes no sense to talk to this ‘mob’ because they are all incorrigible and undiscerning. Any incidents with right-extremist fans are managed indirectly by proposals that are handed in to the official fan club or by the police. In this regard, it might even seem that this attitude might be a contradiction to their anti-discrimination engagement. In any case, this behaviour reveals the importance of certain values to them and shows that a strong group identity is maintained by differentiating themselves from other groups – and by defining the area of engagement and cooperation.
Summing up, the narratives from the above presented group verify that political practice undertaken by young people blend public and private – in this case anti-discrimination matters with their identity as football fans. Especially their elitist identity, which they develop out of their values, displays how strong the identification with their activism in this seemingly apolitical sphere is able to become. Even though most of the group members display a low trust in and low identification with traditional political parties, their engagement shows that they have knowledge about the institutions of government at various levels and that they actively participate in the spread of social and political information. By doing so, they actively engage in social and political matters without being formally inscribed into any traditional political institution. Thus, a broadening of the notion of political participation opens the way to better grasp the political and social sphere of young people’s activism. It discloses new elites at places where elites are not expected. Finally, as this group is not representing the mainstream of the post-war “dialogue, consensus and compromised oriented” German society, the general question arises, whether this (until now) minority will be the forerunner of upheavals of the future political style in Germany.
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Britta Busse holds a Masters degree in sociology. From 2008-2012 she worked as a Research Assistant at the department for social science research methods, Darmstadt University of Technology (project funded by the German Research Foundation: “Experimental Mobile Phone Panel”). Since March 2013: Research Assistant at the Institute Labour and Economy, University of Bremen (project funded by the EU: “MYPLACE”).
Alexandra Hashem-Wangler is co-leader in the EU-research project MYPLACE (“Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement”) at the Institute Labour and Economy at the University of Bremen. Her former doctoral research at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) focused on youth culture and transitions, life course research methods, social change, transformation processes in Eastern Europe, and identity construction.
Jochen Tholen is research director at the Institute Labour and Economy, at the University of Bremen, Germany. He holds master degrees in economy and sociology and his research areas are labour relations, management and related studies with a focus on Europe and transition countries.