The Racing Tribe

The Racing Tribe For details of Kate's book The Racing Tribe, click the accompanying icon.

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The Racing Tribe

A summary of the publication, The Social Behaviour of Horsewatchers

SIRC Director Kate Fox was invited, by chance, to go racing. After just one hour at a local racecourse, this compulsive peoplewatcher became fascinated by some intriguing abnormalities in the body-language and behaviour of the racing crowds.

She noticed that racegoers did not practice the gaze-avoidance tactics characteristic of normal crowds: at the races, complete strangers not only frequently made eye-contact but also smiled at each other for no apparent reason, and even initiated conversation.

As positive aspects of social behaviour are among SIRC's main research interests, Kate was determined to find out more about this unusually sociable crowd. The British Horseracing Board and the Tote agreed to provide funds for a ground-breaking research project: the first scientific study of the culture, customs and social dynamics of the racecourse.

What did the research involve?

The project involved 12 months of fieldwork, using research methods normally employed by anthropologists studying remote tribal societies.

The field research included observation studies, participant-observation and extensive interviews with racegoers at 24 race-meetings in both the flat and jumping seasons, ranging from prestigious events such as Royal Ascot to ordinary bread-and-butter race-days at small rural and suburban courses.

On- and off-course interviews were also conducted with owners, trainers, jockeys, stable lads, officials, journalists, bookmakers and racecourse staff. Bibliographic research provided background information on the history, economics, mythology and politics of horseracing.

Towards the end of the project, the IRA bomb-scare at the 1997 Grand National conveniently provided a 'natural experiment', which could have been designed to test the reactions and behaviour of racegoers under highly stressful conditions.

What were the main findings?

Behaviour

The research found that racing crowds do not behave like people in other public settings. The racecourse creates its own 'social micro-climate', characterised by a highly unusual combination of relaxed inhibitions and exceptional good manners:

The abnormal sociability, goodwill and good behaviour of racing crowds is due to a combination of factors:

These factors combine to produce the unique 'social micro-climate' of the racecourse, which provides ideal conditions for positive social interaction among racegoers.

Social Structure

The research showed that, contrary to popular assumptions, racecourses are not dominated by 'toffs'. In fact, racing may have more right to be called the 'National Sport' than football, as it appeals to all ages, all social classes and a much higher proportion of women attracting a more representative sample of the British population than almost any other spectator sport.

While racing crowds can be divided into distinctive types and groups, these cut across socio-economic boundaries. Two broad categories of racegoer were identified: 'Enthusiasts' (including Fans, Addicts, Horseys and Anoraks) and 'Socials' (including Suits, Girls' and Lads' Day-Outers, Pair-bonders, Family Day Outers and Be-seens).

Enthusiasts are dedicated racegoers, but the research found that they are not necessarily, or even predominantly, serious gamblers. 'Addicts' are addicted to racing, not gambling, and the majority just bet 'for fun' in fivers or tenners. Many 'Horseys' do not bet at all.

The research revealed that over a third of regular racegoers are 'Socials' racegoers with little interest in or understanding of horseracing, who attend race meetings for purely social reasons. The social attractions of racing are such that many of these racegoers are among the sport's most regular and loyal supporters.

Contrary to popular opinion, Social racegoers are not primarily upper-class or wealthy. Researchers found as many Socials in the cheaper Silver Ring enclosures as in the Members' enclosures. For both groups, the horses and races merely provide a colourful backdrop to an afternoon's social bonding. In particular, the research revealed the important role of racing in the mate-selection and courtship processes, and in improving business relationships.

Both Socials and Enthusiasts take their children to the races, and parents commented that racing is the most child-friendly spectator sport, as it is easy to understand, and could have been designed for a 5-year-old's attention-span.

Other key members of the racing tribe include jockeys, whose social position can be compared to that of tribal warriors – trainers, who have the prestige and mystery of shamans or witch-doctors – stewards and officials, the tribal elders; bookmakers, a marginalised caste performing a scapegoat function not unlike that of medieval 'sin-eaters' – journalists, the scribes and oracles of the racing tribe and owners, many of whom are no longer from the privileged classes, but who enjoy vestiges of traditional deference at the races because of their connection with the 'totem animal'.

Rituals

The traditional customs and rituals of the racecourse are designed to promote social interaction and bonding between members of the racing tribe:

Etiquette

The social behaviour of the racing tribe is governed by a complex set of unwritten rules. This unofficial code of conduct affects every aspect of social interaction at the races, although racegoers obey the laws of racecourse etiquette instinctively, without being conscious of observing regulations or feeling restricted by them. Important rules of racecourse etiquette include:

In addition to obeying these basic laws, owners, trainers, jockeys, lads, scribes and officials each have their own rules of etiquette to follow, their own ritual practices, and their own variations on the racing dialect enough material to keep teams of social scientists busy for many years.

The Racing Tribe report concludes that while the puritanical or envious will inevitably find much to condemn in the world of racing, observers of human behaviour cannot fail to be intrigued by this culture and that, being human, most such observers will be affected by the sunny social micro-climate of the racecourse, and will find themselves smiling.