‘For us it’s about getting out of the laboratory, into the field’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets Professor Clifford Stott MBE.

If you got on your time-travelling motorbike and set the dials for when you returned to college to do A-level psychology, and you told young Clifford ‘one day you’ll get an MBE for your work’, what do you think he would say?

I probably would have thought that would be a terrible thing. My early years were very anti-establishment. This was back in the day of Thatcher, and I was quite radical in my political views. So I would have seen it as a marker of being somebody in ‘the state’, and the troublesome political dimensions of this thing having the word ‘Empire’ in it… that would have been salient, and I would have rejected it.

What's changed over the years: a general softening, or a feeling that the way to be ‘anti-establishment’ is from within?

I suppose I see it as a more sophisticated understanding of the underlying challenges, neatly captured in the word ‘reform’. 

My interest in crowds was provoked in part by going on demonstrations when I was a teenager: I was an anti-racist and anti-National Front. The thing that struck me was the way these demonstrations were policed. 

To this day, I can visually represent in my mind, standing in Trafalgar Square outside the South African embassy, watching the police wade into the crowd. That left me feeling antagonistic toward the police. But when I started to interact with the police once I had completed my PhD, I began to see my understanding was wrong. In the main, the police genuinely are, in my experience, very positive. Lots of people join the police precisely because they want to make the world a better place. The idea of seeing these people as ‘the problem’ was just ridiculous. It didn't stack up.

I also reflect on what it was that I was trying to do, which was to drive change. If I wanted to deliver change, it wasn't a question of harping on the sidelines. It was a question of building a network of relationships with progressive police officers through which the work that we were producing could flow meaningfully into changes in guidance, policy, and practice. 

That led to changes in my relationship to the police and my understanding of the issues involved in driving reform.

Do the police place more stock in your work and your opinions because you were open about your past? You've described yourself as a ‘troublemaker’.  

On certain points in this journey, I've had to be very open; you must be to get security clearance. I don't hide anything, and I never have. But I don't walk up to people to say, ‘Hi, my name is Clifford Stott, here's my life history’… but at certain points with certain people you have conversations to engage at that high level, a ministerial level sometimes. 

But that history has informed my understanding, being on the other side of the fence on the receiving end of the power relationship has taught me a lot. The phenomenology of being inside the crowd helped inform my understanding of its dynamics. And part of that was the experience of heavy-handed policing. 

But I also think we must move away from a unitary concept of ‘the police’…

… just as you move away from the singular concept of ‘the mob’. 

Some of the early work that we did, together with Steve Reicher, during my PhD led us toward a more nuanced understanding of the police. Steve went on to develop that through his work with an ex-police officer turned PhD student Pat Cronin. Their work began to identify the powerful role played by what we call ‘accountability dynamics’, what were in effect the inter-group dynamics of police command decision making. 

This is a key part of the theoretical push that I have sought to make within the social identity tradition. Ultimately, my work is interested in the micro sociology of identity processes: social identity isn't something that's just going on in the mind. It's lived out through behavioural practices and group relations. And the dynamics of those interactions shape the way our subjectivity works across time. It's about exploring those social dynamics, which also means looking at them from the perspective of the powerful, not just the phenomenology of the powerless. Indeed, one of the unique things about crowds is that the powerless can and do become powerful for momentary periods. It’s important for us to understand how and why that is possible.

Take me back to Trafalgar Square, your experiences there with the police. Perhaps one misreading of your work would be that all the people in a crowd are like you in that situation: you found yourself there you legitimately wanting to go about your business, and you get charged by the police, and then things escalate. But actually, you've been quite clear that there will often be people in crowd situations who have gone specifically looking for trouble.

Yes, it's important, to recognise the complexity of what we're arguing, and there are many different dimensions to that. What we push against is as important as what we argue. One of the predominant things that we have had to push against is the dispositional explanation: that you can explain crowd violence merely as a product of the predispositions of people that populate crowds. That is insufficient to account for what goes on, because the drivers are interactional and situational. 

But you’re right, that's not to say that there aren't people in the crowd who are ideologically predisposed towards violence against the police or state. But there are group level dynamics at work in crowds, which determine whether those ideological perspectives become dominant to drive the behaviour of multiple people at particular points of time, most of whom would have not come to that event with any such ideological predispositions. 

It's a complex array of psychological and group level factors that were that we're trying to build an explanation of, and there is no simplicity, no single factor explanation to that.

That rich picture led to, for example, Euro 2004. Your work with the Portuguese police at the Euro 2004 tournament, and the success in terms of the low level of confrontation…  which I like to take some credit for, because I was there, and I didn't confront anyone. 

And you’re a known troublemaker!

It was way too hot for confrontation. There you go, another situational factor. But was that a real watershed moment for you in terms of impact?

It was, it was amazing, there's no two ways about it. Incredibly rewarding to see a situation emerge over two years of work, where you find a whole nation state’s police force implementing practices on the ground, based on a set of arguments that you've been developing from travelling around Europe for the past two years watching football.

Don't go there. I’m still jealous from years ago when you told me about your ‘access all areas’ passes to tournaments and European games…

Of course, it was fantastic, but it was also incredibly hard work, the interface between that and the demands of an early career research trajectory. At that point, as a social psychologist you needed to do experimentation, you needed to publish in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology as the hallmark of success. You needed hard numbers, you needed all this quantitative and positivist stuff. And there I was sitting in a bar in Turin on a Monday night, getting drunk because you needed to blend in, chatting to football fans, watching it all kick off, getting herded around, often threatened and assaulted by away fans and police, put in very dangerous situations, and then sort of popped back into the department on Thursday morning. I'd rock up having gone through all this and I’ve got to be liaising with senior professors in my department and be all polite and middle class. The contrast was immense, but then being faced by self-doubt… ‘Where’s my data?’ ‘What am I going to do? Where can I publish this?’ My career is in ruins!’ It was really challenging. But I actively took a decision that impact was more important to me… even though we didn't have the word ‘impact’ at that time.

Turned out to be a wise decision, I would say. Was there a moment in Portugal for Euro 2004 where you thought ‘this is coming together’? 

Absolutely, several of them. But the one that sticks in the mind, which we touched upon in the paper that we published in the European Journal, was England v Croatia. I was walking down the main pedestrianised shopping street on that day and saw a group of people weaving their way up through the crowd. They weren't ‘together’, but they were clearly moving in a coordinated way towards the Rossio Square where there were thousands of England fans. 

I caught that straight away, followed them into the square. They began to chant to try to provoke the England fans. But the England fans didn't react. There was a large group of what we might call loosely England ‘lads’, and one of them gets up out of the bar where they were sitting and walks across to two police officers that were standing near me and had a conversation. On his way back I asked him ‘you just had a conversation with a cop, what was that about?’ And he came out with this speech about how ‘we're all hooligans, if somebody has a go at your country, we're going to have a go back, and them lot…’ – pointing at the Croatians – ‘…are coming here to make it kick off. So, I went over to the cops to try and get them to sort it out before all went off’. I just thought that was just an amazing bit of data ‘this is self-regulation by self-defined hooligans, in a context of this kind of policing, that’s exactly the thing we predicted would happen and needed to identify’. There it was, that one moment in time, that one individual doing that one thing… wrap a ‘p <0 .05’ around that!

And you think that was specifically prompted by the nature of the presence of the police in that situation?

Yeah, absolutely. It had been shaped over the preceding days, through styles of police intervention that were non-confrontational, that had fostered an environment where people felt that the police were accessible, and that is was a legitimate form of engagement or collaboration. They could go and talk to that officer to help them prevent a violent confrontation. They could try to mobilise that officer. But more importantly, they were trying to solve the problem themselves. Our argument has always been that if you create a form of policing that is perceived as legitimate, group dynamics will adjust to become much more focused on self-regulation. 

In a post hoc survey we showed a strong shift in the correlations between measures of ingroup identification and identification with the police. Prior to tournament, these measures strongly negatively correlated, but after the tournament, they strongly positively correlated. That moment and those data flowed into where our research is now, which is much more about the question of what drives police perceptions of police legitimacy. 

Procedural justice theory, like our social identity approach, is a theoretical argument that links perceptions of police legitimacy to what is referred to as self-regulation. That's what we predicted we would see on the ground in Portugal, and that's what did observe. Even though those predisposed towards violence were present, there was still no violence. We think that perceptions of police legitimacy were a primary causal factor driving that outcome. 

So you have this big success story, UEFA take it forward into other tournaments, to varying degrees. But my impression is that your work has been adopted more readily outside the UK than within it?

I think that's fair, certainly earlier on. First, let me just correct one thing, it's not ‘my’ work, it’s ‘our’ work. You know very well that Steve Reicher, John Drury and others have been fundamental in this, Andrew Livingstone was working with me on that project on the ground in Portugal, and so on. So it’s always a collaborative effort. But yes, we were seeing much more significant uptake in places like Sweden, in Denmark, in Portugal. In the UK, there was a scepticism or reticence. But again, that began to teach me a lot about the politics of knowledge in the policing context. 

Since 2010 we have seen the emergence of this ‘impact’ agenda, we have this word ‘applied’ in Applied Psychology, Applied Social Psychology. I resist that idea because for me it's not applied: we're producing the knowledge in partnership with the police and practitioners. It’s not that we are the experts who create the knowledge independently, and then go out and apply it in the so-called real world. The knowledge is created in situ. 

So there's this dimension of understanding that needs to appreciate how to articulate knowledge with policing, which is a political thing. You need navigate the politics of knowledge in that context to ensure that you can be in the right place at the right time. 

Of course, that ‘right place, right time’ is absolutely the wrong place for somebody else: in crowd policing it almost always flows off the back of tragedy. In the case of the UK, that tragedy was the death of Ian Tomlinson, who was a newspaper seller on his way home from work, who got caught up in a public order policing exercise, got pushed over, suffered internal bleeding, and died. The trust and confidence we'd started to structure in policing football led to a situation where we were able to get into the fray, into the debate, to influence the broader recommendations that flowed out of the political public inquiry into public order policing.

Was that before or after the 2011 riots?

That was in 2009. And then the recommendations came out and started to be implemented in 2010, and 2011. 

The first major reform that we helped engineer was with South Yorkshire Police – ironically, given their track record around Hillsborough, but they were incredibly innovative in this particular area at that time because of some very forward-thinking mid-level commanders. That was in April 2011. 

Shortly afterwards, in August, we get the riots, which was a very serious challenge to our work both theoretically, and in terms of the reforms it was underpinning in the policing context. 

For me, the riots were revelatory, really challenging. But through the work that we were able to do, via the ESRC funded project, ‘Beyond contagion’ – with John and Steve again, and Roger Ball and others – we really drilled down into those riots.

We took the theory forward to confront a broader issue, where I think, we had got stuck in a particular moment of the social psychological process we had already uncovered. We were looking at the relationship between the exercise of police power, and indiscriminate intervention in the use of force that was creating a unified identity in the crowd. 

What we had done is, in effect, stop looking at the process at that point, like taking a snapshot of it. The 2011 riots taught us that process is ongoing. It carries on through multiple interactions, and those interactional dynamics create a form of empowerment that creates agency, a form of collective self-efficacy or power. As a result, people can come together in other locations or other times and mobilise proactively into the active production of violence in the form of a riot. But that capacity still is part and parcel of the earlier interaction, both within the earlier riots but also linked to day-to-day policing.

The report was called ‘Beyond contagion’, but is contagion some form of contagion playing an important part in that process? For example, through uploading videos or sharing on social media?

Contagion is a dangerous word. We use it relation to the spread of Covid-19, and that’s how it was designed, to understand the spread of disease through effectively, as John Drury puts it, ‘mere touch’. 

But when it comes to human behaviour, contagion is used to describe ‘social influence’. Both impute underlying causal dynamics, but contagion draws upon metaphors of the disease, upon outdated theoretical conceptualisations of irrationalism or mob psychology. It is important to move beyond the metaphor of contagion as the descriptive vehicle to understand the dynamics of social influence or the spread of riots. Let’s call it social influence, call it what it is, not what it was.

The methods had evolved by that point… tell me about that.

Social media was starting to take off. What we began to recognise straight away when trying to make sense of what happened in these riots was that there is this massively rich mine of data. All I had to do was to go to YouTube, find a clip that was uploaded by somebody who's filming in the event, and all along the right-hand side of the browser, we have a whole series of other uploaded videos also related to that event. By drawing on them, and cross-referencing them with Google Streetview, I could go to that location and walk around in virtual space. I could use shop signs and bus stops, fencing and parks, trees and streets, to work out where it was. By triangulating that data you could build a rich and deep picture… it was actually better than if I was there.

Certainly a lot safer. What needs to change now, in terms of the understanding and work on the ground?

That’s a big question. In part, everything needs to change, because we're just about to enter this massive crisis of climate change. My work is evolving. We're moving away from the narrow focus on public order issues and crowd behaviour, towards a broader agenda that's much more focused on social challenges. 

As academics we have this responsibility. My perspective is increasingly informed through my role as Dean for Research in my Faculty, and the broader research agenda that has been emerging for 10 to 15 years. 

For me it’s about interdisciplinarity, about adjusting the research environment in the UK towards these critically important social challenges that are coming onto the horizon. The issue is not simply about understanding the psychology of public disorder but understanding how we can use our understanding of human and social psychology to protect democracy and help us to navigate through the kinds of challenges that we are going to see to our security as the climate disaster begins to bite.

We've already seen how central the crowd has become – and always has been to some extent – to the stability of the democratic system. Just take Capitol Hill as an example. That problem is not going away – Trump, reactionary totalitarianism on a global level, is not going away. As the climate crisis bites, inequality begins to escalate, refugees start to multiply, there are going to be very serious challenges to us in terms of our capacity to maintain anything that we call liberal democracy. What's the role of social psychology in that? And how can social psychology help secure our security in ways that also protect democracy?

And that's what we've seen lately, I guess, in terms of the pandemic being ‘the great amplifier of vulnerability’ and the knock-on effect of that on democracy and protest, social order, legitimacy, all those things?

Yes, I think so. An area we're beginning to develop work in now is on the agenda of disproportionality. Prior to the pandemic we already had a serious problem of disproportionality in policing, with ethnic minorities over-represented in policing and the criminal justice system – communities that are over policed and under protected. 

As we move beyond the pandemic, with that inequality amplified, with the negative impact on school education, with the decline in the economy and the lack of opportunity for employment, the issue of disproportionality is likely to get worse. 

How can we begin to think about using our understanding of intersectional and interactional dynamics to build and analyse theoretical models that help shape how policing should be in the post-pandemic world, in ways that address that disproportionality and maximise our capacity to maintain police legitimacy? 

Can you give me an example? 

Well, part of what we're looking at is the complex drivers of disproportionality which is not just about police decision making. There are organisational factors that ‘push’ police officers into certain areas and into contact with citizens. But in those areas, there is often lots of socio-economic deprivation. Those deprivation factors also ‘pull’ citizens into contact with the police disproportionately. And then there's patterns of interaction on the ground. So, we're thinking about the problem from an interactional or process-based perspective and trying to develop methodologies and work that helps us to analyse those complex interactions between structural, micro-sociological and psychological factors.

But to achieve this we need to draw on our external partnerships. That's one of the things we've achieved – great partnerships with the police and other stakeholders where there's trust and confidence in the research process. This MBE is going to be an important tool in helping us to secure that trust and confidence moving forward. But for our research team – and at the moment I am lucky enough to have an excellent team of post-docs and early career researchers driving the work – it’s often about getting out of the laboratory, into the field, to look at policing in real time and understand those intersectional dynamics. 

Then we can start to engineer evidence-based solutions within which social psychology plays a pivotal role. It’s always about thinking ahead, building on these platforms. It’s no longer just about crowds, it's more general than that.

It feels like you’ve outgrown psychology, that perhaps you were always bigger than psychology.

Well, it’s a football cliché that no player is bigger than the team, but you've hit the nail on the head to an extent. 

With the strategic perspective that I've got now, as a Dean for Research, the future is interdisciplinary. We've got to get out of our disciplinary silos. The levels of frustration I've experienced in the past… I'm going to be frank with you, psychology conferences, often drive me up the wall. I find them so abstract, so talking to themselves.

I am a social psychologist by background, history, and tradition. I bring the social psychological perspective, a social identity approach to bear. But it is necessarily a sociological social psychology. And I'm more now a self-declared criminologist than I am a social psychologist.

The issue here is not how we talk to ourselves, but how we engage our discipline with others. The solutions we need to engineer are not simply about a budget centre, in a School of Psychology that calls itself a by that name because it educates people in Psychology, which in turn creates a disciplinary budget centre in a University because of the FTEs it generates. 

We’ve got engineer our way out of that. Many universities, including Keele, are thinking about thematic research priorities. So for us at Keele, the key strategic research drivers are threefold: global health, sustainability and inclusion. Those are the three narratives and then within those narratives, it becomes ‘where does my work fit?’ For me its within what we call sustainable security. How can we build forms of governance, that have legitimacy and sustainability across the longer term? There's a psychological element to an analysis there, but it's not all about psychology. 

The best psychologists that I meet are fully on board with that: completely comfortable with interdisciplinarity, with not jealously guarding their professional background.

We must be like that, and this is a lesson for the BPS too… we must understand that to survive, our discipline must be much more outward looking. If it is the case, as you say, that the best psychologists are thinking this way, it's because they understand what the mood music is. We're beginning to see theway our discipline needs to evolve over time. We can't stay stuck in our silo any longer. 

- Find more from Professor Stott in our archive, as well as more on crowds. Also well worth listening to him on The Life Scientific.

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