Peter Marsh MA, D.Phil., C.Psychol (1948-2014)

The following article appeared in the Guardian obituaries column in June 2014. It was written by Peter’s great friend, Dr Desmond Morris:

Social psychologist who penetrated the worlds of football hooligans and urban gangs to research the causes of violence

The social psychologist Peter Marsh, who has died aged 67, was fearless in the investigations he undertook. His first major field study was an analysis of the behaviour of football hooligans, ats a time when there was serious concern about the levels of violence on the terraces and in the streets. He travelled with the young hooligans, observed their encounters at close quarters and, in Rules of Disorder (1978), wrote the first detailed report of their rituals and battles. During this time he was also serving as a director of Oxford United football club, an official role that enabled him to penetrate further into the world of the sport.

Much of his research was concerned with increasing our understanding of the root causes of violence, especially among young people. During his tenure, from 1977 to 1979, as co-director of the Contemporary Violence Research Centre in Oxford University, he even went to the length of living alongside murderous urban gangs of criminals in the US, and youth gangs in France and Italy, in his attempt to find out how we can reduce violence in society.

When music turned violent, he was there at punk-rock concerts, taking notes and recording the action. And when pubs turned violent, he began a study of the links between excessive alcohol consumption and public disorder. He co-authored Drinking and Public Disorder (1992), a report based on extensive fieldwork in town centres across Britain, which contended that public disorder is at least partly related to the sudden increase in density of (mainly) young people in the streets and public areas around fixed closing times. The report recommended experimental trials of either extended or deregulated licensing hours in certain local areas. This recommendation was cited in the white paper Time for Reform (2000), which informed the Licensing Act of 2003 and ultimately led to the modernisation of UK licensing laws.

While many other social psychologists become dispassionate in their studies, Peter remained fervent about his and cared deeply about the people whose backgrounds had led them to behave in various antisocial ways. It was this sympathy for his subjects that enabled him to move among them without being physically attacked.

Born in Leeds, West Yorkshire, Peter was proud of his working-class roots; his father, William, was an itinerant road-builder, his mother, Annie, a mill worker, and Peter attended 20 different primary schools. He obtained a diploma in social studies at Ruskin College, Oxford, and subsequently both his first degree and a doctorate in psychology at University College, Oxford. After carrying out various research projects at the department of psychology in Oxford, he moved on in 1979 to become a senior lecturer in the subject at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University).

In the 1970s, Peter was one of a group who began a pioneering study of regional differences in body language, and visited 25 countries to record local gestures and facial expressions. This research was reported in Gestures: Their Origins and Distribution (1979). He went on to write several books on the subject of human communication, including Eye to Eye (1988), Tribes (1988) and Aggro: The Illusion of Violence (1978); and, with Anne Campbell, co-edited Aggression and Violence (1982). In Driving Passion: The Psychology of the Car (1986), written with his friend Peter Collett, he examined the remarkable love affair that exists between drivers and their motor-cars.

In 1989, Peter left his academic post to set up an independent study group in Oxford called MCM Research. With his team he embarked on a number of major projects investigating a wide variety of social issues. In 1997 he co-founded the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), also based in Oxford, to focus on positive aspects of human behaviour and social interaction, further widening the scope of his investigations with projects for the European commission, British government departments and the private sector.

The production of the SIRC guidelines on science and health communication (2001), in partnership with the Royal Society and the Royal Institution, and later adapted for other European countries, was an important achievement. The guidelines, intended for scientists and journalists, aim to tackle inaccuracies and distortion in the reporting of scientific developments, health risks and medical advances. Peter was also determined that SIRC should encourage and nurture talented young researchers and social scientists. The notable successes of his SIRC staff and colleagues, past and present, are a fitting legacy.

Peter combined humour and wit with lasting friendships and strongly held beliefs. He was an inspirational colleague, an adventurous field-worker, a lover of life, a loyal friend and a superb cook.

Peter Marsh, social psychologist, born 15 September 1946; died 9 June 2014