Drinking and Public Disorder

Drinking & Public Disorder - download the book in pdf format Dr Peter Marsh & Kate Fox 1992

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Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research

UK research

This section is, by necessity, the longest in the report. It contains summaries of our fieldwork in the main research sites, with extracts from researchers’ reports to give a ‘flavour’ of typical patterns of activity in these locations at weekends and particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. The section also contains selected extracts from interviews, discussions and conversations with ‘punters’ and expert witnesses. The aim of these is to illustrate a number of the points made in Sections 3 and 4. They constitute, in research of this nature, the primary data source.

Of particular interest to the theoretical model which we presented earlier (see Section 4) are extracts from discussions with the ‘Squad’ in Oxford. The members of this group, more than any others, are classic examples of the so-called ‘lager-louts’ – young men for whom Friday and Saturday nights are (or were) about both drinking and fighting. The material presented in the section on Oxford provides insight into the motivation of drink-related disorder and the special social contexts in which it occurs. There is a need, however, to raise at this point a further theoretical and methodological consideration. It concerns the way in which social talk should be ‘read’ and interpreted.

When people comment on their own behaviour, or that of others, there are two distinct features of that talk which we need to consider. Firstly, we can understand the talk in terms of its relationship to the structure, content and motives of real-life events. People describe what happened and why it might have taken place. There is, however, another level of interpretation required because talk is, in itself, a social act. Individuals have particular motives for offering an account – one which, perhaps, enhances their own sense of self-importance or social worth. Put very simply, if you ask a group of young men if they have drunk a lot of beer, been in fights or committed a range of ‘macho’ acts, they will inevitably say "Sure!" and provide several gory examples of their exploits. To read only the surface level of such talk and ignore the underlying motivational or ‘illocutionary’ elements is to make a fundamental mistake. Unfortunately, it is one which many researchers who use ‘self-report’ methods make all too regularly. In many cases the underlying illocutionary content of an account is of more relevance than the alleged acts to which the surface, ‘locutionary’ level refers.

In our own work on aggression, violence and disorder in a wide range of contexts, conducted over the past 17 years, we have come to see much of this behaviour as guided and directed by tacit social rules. These provide a framework for participants to achieve tokens of respect for their acts but also serve to limit the extent and severity of the violence. The rules make the game of ‘hooliganism’ playable because, despite images to the contrary, one does not have to take too many risks.

This theoretical line is developed much more substantially in, for example, Marsh (1982). Here, however, we need to note that not only can aggressive and disorderly behaviour be seen as rule-directed, but talk about such behaviour is also guided by rules and conventions. These permit certain levels of exaggeration and distortion. Groups of young men will, typically, accept a distorted rhetoric, so long as it is not too exaggerated. Thus, one can embellish one’s own performances, and therefore add a little to one’s prestige, because of this tacit conspiracy within the group to which one belongs.

In the talk which any researcher collects, these embellishments will, inevitably be present. They have to be read as such and the surface level of accounts must be contrasted with accurate observations of the type of events to which the talk relates. The motivations for group aggression and disorder become clear from the illocutionary content and distortions, and a clearer picture of the phenomena emerges once these have been taken into account.

In some cases, the exaggerated talk offered by participants will contravene the tacit rules of such talk subscribed to by the group. At these points one hears comments from others such as "No, that’s exaggerating – he may think he’s hard, but he’s not really, he’s just boasting". These comments are invaluable because they identify the position of the fine line which is drawn between acceptable distortion and what, for scientific purposes, we will refer to as ‘bullshit’. Ironically, perhaps, the participants we found labelled as ‘bullshitters’ by their peers were those who espoused the view most closely mirroring that which we have found in some of the more sensationalist tabloid reporting.

Both exaggerations and some aspects of ‘bullshit’ are evident in the sample extracts which we have provided in the following subsections. They should be read in the context of the observation reports which we have also included. It is interesting to note, however, that even in the most self-presentational of accounts the simple notion that drinking strong lagers inexorably leads to violence and disorder is almost totally absent, even among those who have been the most active participants in the lager-lout game. As one of our Oxford contacts said: "If a mob of boys came into the pub and we were stone sober, we’d still do them. If a mob of boys came into the pub and we were drunk, it would still be done. But once you’re all together you get on a real high and don’t need any drink".


The following sub-sections provide summaries of field research in various towns and cities in the UK and Ireland. The locations were chosen because they had all featured prominently in Press reports of drink-related disorder. Wakefield, for example, had been dubbed the ‘Lager Lout Capital of the North’; Coventry was the ‘Violence Capital of the Midlands’; Banbury was at the centre of ‘Rural Rioting’, outrage and so on.  

Although space prevents us from including more than a tiny fraction of the ‘raw’ fieldwork data, the conclusions we draw are based on the 3000 interviews and conversations, and over 200 hours of observation work conducted by our researchers. The interviews and observation sessions were fairly evenly distributed across the fieldwork sites, with approximately 300 ‘informants’ in each location.

The majority of these informants were ‘punters’: regular pub- and club-goers in the 18-30 age-group, with extensive knowledge of the local ‘scene’. Many of these ‘punters’ were heavy-drinking, boisterous young males who spent every Friday and Saturday night in the town centres; most had first-hand experience of incidents of disorder, although only a minority were active participants in such events.

A significant number of informants in each research site came into the category which we have loosely defined as ‘expert witnesses’: these would include, for example, Beat PCs with over 10 years’ experience in a particular town centre, taxi drivers and bus conductors with similar local experience and knowledge; the managers and long-serving staff of local pubs, night clubs, restaurants, fast-food outlets and so on. Again, the majority of these informants had direct personal experience of various aspects of town-centre disorder.

Further perspectives on the nature of disorder in each site were provided by social workers, probation officers, magistrates, school teachers and youth workers. Senior police officers were interviewed in every site to gain an overview of town-centre problems and policing policy.

Rather than ‘forcing’ this fieldwork data into pre-ordained categories, we have, to a large extent, allowed the dominant concerns of those we spoke to to dictate the issues covered in each section. In Coventry, for example, a specific case study was conducted which was concerned with the introduction of a bye-law banning street-drinking. The section on Oxford is largely concerned with the views and activities of the ‘Squad’, the Banbury material focuses on policing problems and so on.