The Sociology of Hillsborough

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster, in which 96 innocent Liverpool fans went to watch their team compete in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Nottingham Forest and never returned. Hundreds more suffered post-traumatic stress, thousands of people lost brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, friends. Football as a spectator sport would never be the same again.

The involvement of Sociology as a discipline in the aftermath of Hillsborough is obvious. The work of Professor Phil Scraton in helping the victims of the 96 supporters gain justice is just one example. The other, and one taught often in sociology classrooms is of state crime. But with the ongoing criminal proceedings in relation to the disaster, that is not the role of sociology that I am going to focus on. Out of respect for the 96, I do not wish to discuss or prejudice any hearings, however implausible that may be.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the city of Liverpool and the wider football community were brought together by the tragedy. I recall the Monday after the disaster going to visit Anfield to pay my respects and leave flowers on the pitch. The stadium had barely been open 24 hours and already the Kop was full of flowers and scarves. Other tributes spilled out onto the pitch almost to the half-way line. It was the sign of a city in mourning. Not only were the colours of Liverpool present, but Everton, Manchester Utd, Newcastle, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chester City, Scunthorpe Town amongst many others. It was only years later, in my undergraduate degree, I identified what sociological process was going on in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Emile Durkheim’s idea of Boundary Maintenance. The tragedy of Hillsborough had brought society together to say ‘never again’. Over the next few years, that collective consciousness was reaffirmed. Fences came down, standing at games was banned and all-seater stadia were introduced. The facilities for football fans improved, partly because of the investment of capital in the Premier League era, but mostly because the football community as a whole spoke up and said that this type of tragedy should never be allowed to happen again.

For years before Hillsborough, there had been a moral panic about violence at football games, creating folk devils out of ordinary supporters. With high levels of unemployment, violence would break out occasionally between groups of fans, particularly those in traditionally working class areas. One could argue that it was a form of status frustration born out of a lack of opportunities for the working classes, the closure of traditional industries and a failing education system. A further argument could be one of hegemonic masculinity, a need for males to assert their power and dominance over other males. But in the press, no such explanation was offered. The first instances of football violence within the stadia at Luton, Millwall, West Ham, Leeds and Chelsea were simplified into the actions of violent thugs – it was almost textbook labelling. Authorities clamped down. Fans were herded into pens and escorted to and from matches like cattle by the military policing ordered by the Conservative Government. It was a form of intervention that had created more chaos in Toxteth, Brixton and Tottenham in the early 1980s. Ultimately, being labelled deviant, fans acted in deviant ways – a form of deviancy amplification.

The most high profile of these incidents was the Heysel Stadium Disaster, where Liverpool and Juventus fans clashed and 39 Juventus fans died when a wall collapsed under pressure and crushed them. Football fans were the ultimate folk devil at this time, with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threatening to withdraw the England Football team from the 1986 World Cup to prevent any repeat of this violence. No attempt was made to understand the causes by government, instead an Identity Card programme was proposed, increasing the surveillance of football fans who were mostly working class.

Not until Hillsborough did people listen to the concerns of fans. Nobody asked how they were treated or reviewed the actions of police or checked on the Health and Safety of grounds, many built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The reason was simple. And the media played it’s part in vilifying not only Liverpool fans, but other football fans as well. The city wide boycott of ‘that newspaper’ (I refuse to mention its name) serves as an act of symbolic resistance to the lies that were published under the banner of ‘journalism’.

For some sociologists, Hillsborough is an example of a specific type of crime, and far more qualified people than me have written about these. (For more information, read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth.) As somebody living in the city at the time, Hillsborough is far more worthy of research and study by sociologists, particularly the impact of the disaster on the city of Liverpool and how such a tragedy could help to reinforce the bonds of attachment the people of Liverpool felt to it’s fallen friends, family, colleagues and the reputation of the city. A form of social solidarity was born out of Hillsborough and sadly reinforced through the murders of Anthony Walker and Rhys Jones in later years. As an example, 30 years on from Hillsborough, this was the front page of the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo tonight. 96 names, never to be forgotten. RIP the 96.

About the author

Sociology teacher trying to change the world one cohort at a time. Sometimes flippant, often miserable, but always focused on opening the eyes of students to the complexities of the world we live in.

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