Insurgent Fandom: An Ethnography of Crowds, Disaffection, and Unruly Sounds

Max Jack

I am finishing a monograph in which I examine the global proliferation of the ultra movement—a participatory style of sports fandom that entails collective continual singing, jumping, flag-waving, and the illegal lighting of marine flares at soccer games (and more recently at hockey and basketball games across Europe as well). Having spread across six continents, this coordinated style of crowd action harnesses emotionality in the stadium to positively influence the outcome of the game but, furthermore, is ideologically conceived of by its participants as a social movement positioned against the commercialization of professional sport. Based on over 3 years in Ireland and Germany with the ultra groups of three clubs (Shamrock Rovers FC, FC Union Berlin, and Eis Hockey Club Dynamo Berlin), my ethnographic research led me to commit to the all-encompassing lifestyle of the hardcore fans. Interrogating liberal democratic ideals of how citizenship should look, sound, and feel in public space, Insurgent Fandom examines the mixed feelings of anxiety, disdain, and fascination provoked by ultras’ deviancy that spur the governance of their activities.

Based on participant observation and extensive personal interviews, I show the heightened emotional terrain created by ultras in the stadium to be motivated by an affective logic of social commentary and protest that is informed by their disaffection toward the state, the mainstream media, and the commercial priorities of sports’ governing bodies. In consideration of the salience of protest in the current political climate, my research on the ultra movement provides an avenue through which to investigate the cultural results of political disillusion and the efficacy of crowd action in public spaces. Fearing the organizational capabilities of ultras, myriad governing apparatuses in Ireland and Germany have developed in and around the stadium space aiming to mitigate the inflammatory emotions and affective dispositions of the fans. I argue that cultivating atmosphere through crowd action radicalizes ultras through the alternative social possibilities it enables fans to implement in the stadium space. As such, a tension exists between ultras’ politically liberatory potential and the capitalistic and governmental anxieties whose competing logics of profit and surveillance intervene in ways that aim to “nudge, coax, tune, and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes” (Zuboff 2019, p. 6).

Key References 

Jack, M. (2022). The Crowd in Flux: Atmosphere and the Governance of Public Affects at FC Union Berlin. Ethnomusicology, 65(3), 498–518.

Jack, M. (2022). What’s the crowd got to do with it? On fandom and antifascist action at Eis Hockey Club Dynamo Berlin. TDR, 66(3), 133–148.
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