Feature: World Cup Acts as National Ritual

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Sociologist Emile Durkheim believed rituals unite people through shared experiences and led them to identify with the group. Now sociologists have found evidence for the theory at the world’s largest sporting event.

If you’re a fan of the FIFA World Cup, or other international sporting events, you may have noticed certain things in the atmosphere: pride, sorrow, exhilaration, passion, hope, exaltation. Few gatherings in the modern world inspire such emotional reactions on such large scales.

Now, after studying the 2010 World Cup, a team of German sociologists say such emotions show the tournament to act like a ritual for thousands of people on a national level.

“The World Cup really offers us a unique opportunity to measure this kind of thing,” said Christian von Scheve, the team’s head researcher at the University of Berlin. You see people from across Germany gather at public spaces, bars and restaurants to watch games together. It’s a scale maybe only matched by national inaugurations, commemorations or mourning rituals.

What does a national ritual look like? What do folks feel when they’re a part of it? The researchers tried to answer these questions by drawing from the theories of Emile Durkheim, considered one of the founders of sociology. The 19th-century theorist believed an important ingredient of rituals was what he called “collective effervescence”:

“In Durkheim’s terms, it is something like a heightened emotional arousal that you experience when you participate in rituals of your group,” von Scheve said. “It could be any kind of ritual: celebrations, grief rituals, you name it.

Uruguayan soccer fans watch a World Cup match between France and Uruguay. Image: Federica Narancio, Voice of America.

Uruguayan soccer fans watch a World Cup match between France and Uruguay. Image: Federica Narancio, Voice of America.

“The emotions can be good or bad. What we saw in our study is that it didn’t really matter whether the German team wins or loses because the whole thing is about being ‘entrained’ into the activities of a group.”

That means an individual’s emotional ups and downs, lefts and rights, flow with everyone else there. Based on Durkheim’s thinking, those that are “entrained” in this way would identify more with the group.

And that’s exactly what von Scheve’s team discovered.

Studying German soccer fans before and after the games, they found that many said they felt a high degree of entrainment while watching the events. It turned out these were the individuals who went on to identify more with the German nation.

“We didn’t find a general increase in the population, but those who were ‘entrained’ showed increases,” said Sven Ismer, a fellow researcher on the study. Because of this, some individuals may be more susceptible to be entrained in these activities. There could be many reasons why that is.

“Some people might not be interested in soccer,” Ismer said in an email. “They don’t watch the games so they don’t experience any strong emotions about them.” Research teammate Marta Kozlowska said context may be important.

Supporters at 2010 World Cup festivities. Image: Patrick de Laive.

Supporters at 2010 World Cup festivities. Image: Patrick de Laive.

“It does make a difference whether you watched a match alone at home or in a public viewing,” she said.

Those who were emotionally entrained had a greater appreciation for German symbols as well. That’s also something predicted by Durkheim’s theory, von Scheve said.

“Durkheim was interested in beliefs that promote solidarity and pro-social behavior. He said, ‘Well, look, pro-social values are so weak and the temptations of individual behavior are so strong, there needs to be something going on that simply makes those values salient in everyday life,’” von Scheve said.

His solution was that during rituals, symbols become charged with the values that benefit the overall group so that they become effective outside the context of the ritual. In other words, symbols come to represent what the group is about.

“This is what we found in Germany,” von Scheve said.

After the World Cup, entrained participants rated symbols like the Berlin Wall, Oktoberfest, Volkswagon, even former chancellor Helmut Kohl, more positively than before. Other symbols, like a Spanish bullfighter or Roman Coliseum, didn’t arouse such feelings.

The World Cup affected both German symbols and identification with the German group, but the latter effect was weaker. That may have to do with German history.

“Germans tend to be reluctant in terms of showing off patriotism or nationalist attitudes even if it’s in the friendliest possible way,” he said. “Given the history, being too patriotic and even showing off national flags has been kind of tabooed.”

You can find newspaper debates on whether its admissible to say you’re proud to be German or not, he said.

“Since the World Cup in 2006, which was held here, things started to change because it was widely perceived as a success in showing the world it can be a friendly place and that people enjoy themselves here. From that point on it became sort of socially acceptable to practice dressing up in German national colors or showing German flags when you watch the national team.”

The real question then, is, “Who’s going to win it all this year?”

“Well Germany might do pretty good!” von Scheve said. “But given that it’s in Brazil, and they’re always a candidate to win – it might as well be Brazil.”

The study, “Emotional Entrainment, National Symbols, and Identification: A Naturalistic Study Around the Men’s Football World Cup,” was published in the journal Current Sociology.

Featured Image: Supporters at an outdoor viewing event. Credit: The Times.