On April 11 2001 Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg was filled beyond capacity as people rushed to purchase football match tickets. Police and security officials struggled to contain the crowd and a stampede occurred. The crush resulted in around 250 injuries and 43 deaths. (Mason, 2001)
Crowd behaviour can be surprising when individuals join a group and behave in a manner which is out of character. This was certainly the state of affairs in this case, as “the behaviour displayed that night was not characteristic of South African soccer spectators.” (Ngoepe and Semenya, 2002) The question therefore arises as to what influences the behaviour of the crowd. This discussion will consider the factors affecting individuals once they are part of a group by applying the study of crowd behaviour specifically to this case. Research, theories and debates will be considered along with the implications this all has for social psychology in the future.
From Le Bon’s perspective, this stampede is a classic example of crowd behaviour, where individuals lose their sense of self and responsibility by being anonymous members of a crowd, and are susceptible to contagion and suggestibility. The LeBonian and Freudian view of the crowd as “pathological and abnormal” (Ngoepe and Semenya, 2002) is reinforced in this case as members trampled over others in a bid to save themselves. (Mason, 2001) Le Bon proposed that basic, primitive instincts then arise, making violence and anti-social behaviour more likely. (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008) And violence most certainly ensued in this situation. Gates were ‘ripped apart’, ‘many places around the stadium were being vandalised’ and several people were consequently crushed to death. (Ngoepe and Semenya, 2002)
What both Le Bon and Freud’s theories overlook however is the importance of the social dynamics of the event. They give no consideration to ‘grievances and social conflicts’ (Reicher, 2001), nor do they take into account the inter-group relations between the police/security and the crowd. In this case, the stampede began when the ‘untimely announcement’ was given to several thousand people who had travelled from ‘all over the country’ that tickets for the event were sold out. (Ngoepe and Semenya, 2002) The Final Report states that this was one of the causes of the tragedy. It is therefore important to consider further explanations of crowd behaviour.
Festinger, Pepitone and Newcombe’s research (1952), and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study (****) placed great emphasis on anonymity and concluded that deindividuation was ‘a key factor’ in violent behaviour and loss of self awareness.(Hogg and Vaughan, 2008) It is difficult in this case to measure levels of anonymity however. Other theorists later revised this model as a result of research (Postmas and Spears, 1998, Diener, 1980) and Reicher at el (2001) argue that the individual doesn’t lose his identity in the crowd but takes on a new social identity. This is an important point for this case as it implies that an individual’s behaviour and perspectives will be determined by the type of group that is involved. Reicher (2004) identifies that the “values and standards of a crowd of Catholics will be very different from a crowd of soccer supporters” This begins to address the suggestion in the case study that this wouldn’t have happened at a cricket or rugby match. But does this mean disasters are inevitable in football crowds?
Turner and Killian’s Emergent Norm Theory (****) changed the approach to crowd behaviour by identifying the presence of norms that emerge from within the crowd which are deemed to be “goal orientated” (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008) Indeed, the crowd’s goal was to secure a place to watch the football match and this could have led to the crush. Social Identity Theory begins to consider wider factors affecting the crowd and addresses the conflicts that may occur between groups which was a considerable factor in this case. Police and security personnel, in keeping with Le Bon’s view of the crowd as “primitive, base and ghastly” (Le Bon 1908), were deemed to “be hostile to the spectators” and displayed “a general disrespect” for their dignity. (Ngoepe and Semenya, 2002) The preconceived views of security personnel may have served to further escalate the situation and to increase feelings of aggression in crowd members. (Stott and Reicher, 1998) Social psychology’s theories on aggression can also be drawn upon to further elaborate on the event but the purpose of this discussion is to deal primarily with collective behaviour. The Elaborated Social Identity Model identified two conditions whereby the crowd may resort to violence and aggressive behaviour – either an out group behaves in a way that is deemed as unfair or unwarranted, or others act in a way that prevents the crowd doing what they feel is “legitimate.” (Reicher 1996) And both of these conditions seem to be present in this situation. The crowd were prevented from accessing the stadium and they were subject to tear gas and aggressive conduct. (Ngoepe and Semenya, 2002).The focus appeared to be on crowd control rather than safety. (Mason, B 2001) The question therefore arises as to whether football crowds are thought of and treated differently to other groups by police, security and event planners.
Social psychology plays a vital role in explaining crowd behaviour and later theories are particularly useful for the fact that they consider wider aspects than just the crowd itself. They acknowledge that the crowd does not behave in isolation but is subject to influence from the environment and other groups. Theories regarding anonymity were difficult to apply in this case but needed to be considered for the influence they have had on other theorists. It is interesting to note that both LeBon’s and Freud’s view of the crowd was mirrored by security personnel. This is a key factor which needs to be considered further by event planners, police and security companies. Indeed, it is imperative that these groups gain a better understanding of crowd behaviour in order to prevent future mistakes and disasters. Whilst it is easy to adopt the view of the crowd as an aggressive mob, it is very inaccurate to do so. Not only is it inaccurate, it is dangerous and potentially life-threatening. (Reicher et al, 2004)
During this discussion, questions have been raised which remain unanswered. They lead to the identification of areas in need of further research in the field of social psychology: namely crowd types, particularly football crowds; stewards and crowds; preconceived ideas about football crowds; inter-group dynamics and collective aggression. Whilst acknowledging that research on crowds can be difficult to implement, it is vital that further research is undertaken to prevent a repeat of this disaster.