Actual hooligans play only a minor role in violence among English football fans, according to Liverpool University social psychologist Clifford Stott.
He believes that the labelling of England fans as hooligans creates a powerful social context in which fans who would not normally behave violently find themselves drawn into fighting.
Dr Stott and two of his Scottish students travelled and lived among the fans in France for the 1998 World Cup, collecting data by observation, informal conversation, interviews and analysis of songs and chants. His results were published recently in the British Journal of Social Psychology .
He argued: "The arrest figures show that more fans participated in disorder than were known hooligans and those arrested were not known to the UK police as hooligans. This suggests that 'hooliganism' is only a partial explanation of the problem."
Dr Stott found that the expectation that English fans were hooligans caused many of the problems: "Many English supporters in Marseilles were attacked by local fans, but local police did not intervene to prevent this. When they did, they directed their tactics towards the English fans, presumably because they were seen to be the protagonists."
He believed this social context led to a shift in the way English fans understood what violence was. "Many of the fans did not see their own behaviour as violent hooliganism. They saw it as self-defence."
He said these group-level perceptions must be tackled.
The Home Office has commissioned Dr Stott to investigate the policing of English supporters in Europe for Champions' League games. He wants to build a clearer understanding of the psychological and behavioural impact of different styles of policing on supporters' behaviour.
Dr Stott argued that the problem was in fact a political and cultural one. How can the UK government and UK police forces persuade foreign counterparts that aggressive policing towards English fans is not necessary and often counterproductive?