Home and Away with Football Fans: the anthropological method as identity in the field
The epistemological definition of the ethnographer’s identity and of anthropology have been the focus of many self-reflective analyses. Famous quotes such as “imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach…” (Malinowski 1922: 4), or “I hate travelling and explorers” (Levi-Strauss 1955: 3), helped define the discipline’s gaze as focused on a distant subject; studying the remote, the different, the exotic. More recently, anthropology engineered a shift to broaden its subject-matter to ‘the West’. If Goody, as early as 1966, had seen the distinction between anthropology and sociology in England as xenophobic, it took the impulse of the postmodernists to bring anthropology home by de-constructing the us/them dichotomy and shifting the gaze of anthropological analyses to a post-exotic context. This led to a new corpus of famous quotes, testifying to the change of perspective. From Geertz’ “we are all natives now” (1983: 151) to Strathern’s “the nice thing about culture is that everyone has it” (1995: 153), anthropology was discovering that a unique methodology, as opposed to the subject, or location, of study, was what had shaped and defined the discipline.
One particular image may have captured the mystique of the ethnographer at work: the cover of Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986) shows a white man absorbed in noting what seem to be his observations. He has his back turned to two indigenous people, an adult and a child. The caption for the cover reads “Steven Tyler in the field”. This photograph has been analysed in different ways. I see the ethnographer both in and out of his field; all at once immersed in the studied society and set apart by his activity, which links him to a referential outside: his work, its purpose and its audience. There is a double rhetoric whereby the ethnographer has set himself distinct from what he is observing, yet physically remains within the observed. He is not writing ‘home’ but is at ‘home’ simply by writing his observations about his physical immersion. This interpretation of the photograph leaves out the relationship between observer and informant, centre and periphery, the ‘West’ and ‘the Other’, but sees the identity of the ethnographer, his home, as located within his very activity of jotting down his notes and, presumably, applying the anthropological method to his observations.
It is this interpretation that I experienced in the winter of 2008, when I was commissioned to contribute to a pan-European research on football fans and their motivations. In an almost ‘nativist’ perspective, because of my nationality and my capacity to speak the language and understand its nuances, it made sense that I should focus on a group of football fans in France. Almost by accident, I managed to contact a group of ‘ultra’ football fans in Le Havre, a naval construction city hit by de-industrialisation, in the north-west of the country. It took months to gain enough contacts and common referent points to be allowed to follow the group. Finally, I was able to spend time with the so-called Barbarians Havrais, during their games and their meetings, in complete immersion.
From the beginning, my identity became problematic; my knowledge of France, my ‘home country’, located me at ‘home’ while doing fieldwork, yet I did not feel an integral part of the setting. Indeed, I could be seen to be sharing the same passport, the same language, many cultural references, TV shows and other nuances that made us all at home in France. But this was unfamiliar territory. I had never taken any interest in football and knew nothing of the radical fans’ interests, values or modes of representation. Perhaps it was because I was on fieldwork and had to observe and study the group that I felt so much like an insider and an outsider, while I would not have given this feeling a second thought had I met any of these fans on the street.
I recall a particular day when this double rhetoric was clearly at play. An away game meant we departed from Le Havre in minibuses that took us to the game city, some 500 km away. During the journey, we listened to music and talked a lot; I would ask question after question, take picture after picture. It was a very friendly atmosphere: by then, the Barbarians Havrais had accepted me and saw me as the latest addition to the group rather than a remote observer. However, I remember feeling in constant flux as in one moment I would feel part of the group, then in the next, a complete outsider; one comment would make me feel at home whilst another would suddenly throw me into unfamiliarity.
This dynamic of constant oscillation led me to resort to what was familiar: the anthropological method, and more specifically, my own focus on material culture. From the rather vague problematic of understanding the fans’ motivations, I focused more specifically on the aesthetic dimension of supporting football.
With time, I became particularly interested in history, colours and crowd movements during the games, as well as scarves, banners and jerseys, to explain the motivations of football fans. I recorded chants and their lyrics, I photographed banners and consigned the various meanings of their signs and colour combinations, asked questions on the choreographies during games, their importance and why they were seen as beautiful. The ‘ultra’ fans consciously divide themselves between ‘hooligans’ and ‘tifosi’. In the same group, some claimed a more Anglo-Celtic influence, others a more Mediterranean one. This translated in visual and symbolic terms; the former saw less colourful and choreographed crowd movement to be aesthetic whilst the latter found pleasure in creating large visual effects in the stadium, using 'waves' and flags. It also meant a use of different symbols, such as Celtic crosses, helmets and beer references for the ‘hooligans’ and a more ‘cartoon-like’, more colourful style for the ‘tifosi’. At the Barbarians Havrais, the double influence is seen in their mascot: a Wile E. Coyote wearing a horned Viking helmet. This was all acquiring meaning and gave purpose not only to the groups’ activities, but also to my presence amongst them. I was indeed an outsider, but my method of constant enquiry justified my presence. I was at home; not because I was in France, with French people; I was at home because I was doing what I know best - I was looking at others and deriving meanings and symbols from their behaviour.
Unable to fix my own identity, being both ‘at home’ and in a truly ‘other’ place, I became the ethnographer; that is, the one who looks at things in an ethnographic way. The notions of ‘home’ and ‘away’ being too blurred and somewhat irrelevant in the field, all that came to matter was the anthropological gaze, the ‘home’ in the ‘field’.
Asad T, ed. (1973) Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithaca
Clifford, J and G. Marcus, eds. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press
Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge: Further Essays In Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books
Goody, J. (1966) 'The prospects for social anthropology' New Society, Oct. 13, pp. 574n°76
Levi-Strauss, C. 1992  Tristes tropiques. London: Penguin
Malinowski, B. 1961  Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. New York: Dutton
Stocking G, ed. (1983) Observers Observed. Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork. HOA 1. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press
Strathern M, ed. (1995) Shifting Contexts: Transformation in Anthropological Knowledge. London: Routledge
Hubert Bastide is a D.Phil candidate and a tutor in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the categorisation of objects, between art and ethnographic artefacts in the context of European museums. Hubert studied simultaneously in different universities, and consequently holds a variety of degrees in Law, Business, History of Art and Material Anthropology. He has also ventured into the corporate world before coming back to his research.