Introduction to Sociology/Collective Behavior
|I still don’t know what to make of it. I was riding a public bus from my home in the suburbs to the downtown core of my home town. Fresh out of college, I had scored a great job with a promising future in bank management, and was looking forward to spending the next few days in training downtown. There was standing-room only as I grabbed onto the overhead rail towards the back of the bus and held on for the 30 minute ride. The attractive scents of perfumes and colognes wafted from the men and women dressed in suits, ties, and other business attire. People practiced the norm of what sociologist Erving Goffman called civil inattention: the conscious attempt to study something other than the strangers around you in a crowded space. All eyes carefully studied the passing scenes of the street through the bus windows or studiously read drug store novels they had brought with them.
Then, “it” happened. Two strangers, a man and a woman, were occupying the same seat just a few feet ahead of me. The man, seated next to and looking out the window, suddenly gave out an incomprehensible yell at the top of his lungs that sounded something like: “HIIIII-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA!” As he did, he turned his head from looking out of the window to the young woman sitting beside him. When his yell ended, he simply turned his head again and continued looking out the window.
Me and all of the other passengers were completely dumbfounded. We had no idea what had just happened or what caused this man to offer the shrill yell that pierced the hazy quiet of our morning bus ride. What should we do? I felt for the young woman sitting beside him, who must have died a dozen times while sitting beside him. What was he going to do next? Pull out a knife? Attack the woman or someone else? Something had to be done.
What happened next was just as fascinating as the man’s scream. Nothing happened. Not a thing. The young woman didn’t move. People on the bus kept their attention keenly focused on anything other than the man who had just yelled out. Everyone, acting in concert, simply pretended as if nothing had happened at all! Total silence and inattention was the collective, conspiratorial response. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that those with Turret’s syndrome sometimes yell out inadvertently. Was that perhaps what caused the unusual behavior? And even so, how could it be that all people on the bus would so conspicuously respond by totally ignoring what had just happened?
The term Collective behavior refers to social processes and events which do not reflect existing social structure (laws, conventions, and institutions), but which emerge in a "spontaneous" way. Collective behavior might also be defined as action which is neither conforming (in which actors follow prevailing norms) nor deviant (in which actors violate those norms). Collective behavior, a third form of action, takes place when norms are absent or unclear, or when they contradict each other. Scholars have devoted far less attention to collective behavior than they have to either conformity or deviance.
Examples of collective behavior include: religious revival meetings (like those depicted in the documentary Marjoe), a panic in a burning theater (e.g., the Kentucky Beverly Hills Supper Club fire), a sudden widespread interest in a website (e.g., MySpace) or clothing item (e.g., wriststrong bracelets), a collective social movement to improve the environment (e.g., Greenpeace), or the rapid spread of rumors (e.g., that Barack Obama is Muslim or not a US citizen). These diverse actions fall within the area sociologists call collective behavior.
Collective behavior differs from group behavior in three ways:
- collective behavior involves limited and short-lived social interaction while groups tend to remain together longer
- collective behavior has no clear social boundaries; anyone can be a member of the collective while group membership is usually more discriminating
- collective behavior generates weak and unconventional norms while groups tend to have stronger and more conventional norms
Traditionally, collective behavior in sociology includes four forms: the crowd, the public, the mass, and the social movement. While there is a degree of debate over what should be included under the label of "collective behavior" among sociologists today, often included are additional behaviors like: rumors, riots, trends, and fads.
Why Study Collective Behavior?
Aside from the intrinsic interest of understanding why large groups of people behave the way they do, there are practical reasons why the study of collective behavior is important. Two examples might illustrate the practical importance:
Better architectural design and crowd management might have avoided this tragedy. How to redesign buildings and manage crowds are two types of knowledge that can result from the study of collective behavior. Understanding how people behave in riots, what sets them off, and how they can be rapidly concluded is also knowledge that can result from the study of collective behavior. Additionally, understanding how humans react during natural disasters and ensure that the damage that occurs is entirely a result of the disaster and not the human response to it.
Another motivation for studying collective behavior is in order to actually change elements of society. This is the component of collective behavior known as "social movements." Again, an example may help illustrate this point:
Understanding how to organize a social movement to pursue social change is one of the areas studied by sociologists. Better understanding how to organize such a movement can provide movement members the tools they need to succeed.
Various forms of collective behavior are examined in detail in the following sections.
A crowd is a gathering of people who share a purpose or intent and influence one another. Crowds are a common occurrence in modern life. Most sporting events, concerts, and other performances result in the gathering of crowds. Blumer (1951) differentiated four types of crowds:
- casual - loose collection of people with no real interaction (e.g, people at the mall)
- conventional - deliberately planned meeting (e.g., community meeting organized by political leaders)
- expressive - depicts a crowd at an emotionally charged event (e.g., a political rally or soccer game in Europe or Latin America)
- acting - a crowd intent on accomplishing something (e.g., fans rushing a stage during or after a concert)
When crowd behavior is directed toward a specific, violent end, the result is a mob. Mobs tend to be highly emotional. Examples of mob violence include the lynchings in the Southern U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. Violent crowd behavior without a specific goal is a riot. Because riots do not have a specific end, it is assumed that their intention is to express general dissatisfaction.
Collective behavior can also refer to behavior that is diffused or dispersed over large distances. Not all collective behavior has to occur in the immediate vicinity of others (compact crowds). This is especially true with the advent of mass media, which allows for the rapid distribution of information around the world.
Theories of Crowd Behavior
Originally proposed by Gustave LeBon (1896), contagion theory proposes that crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members. The hypnotic influence, combined with the anonymity of belonging to a large group of people, results in irrational, emotionally charged behavior. Or, as the name implies, the frenzy of the crowd is somehow contagious, like a disease, and the contagion feeds upon itself, growing with time. This also implies that the behavior of a crowd is an emergent property of the people coming together and not a property of the people themselves.
There are several problems with LeBon's theory. First, contagion theory presents members of crowds as irrational. Much crowd behavior, however, is actually the result of rational fear (e.g., being trapped in a burning theater) or a rational sense of injustice (e.g., the Cincinnati race riots). Second, crowd behavior is often instigated by and guided by individuals. That the crowd seems to take on a life of its own is certainly true, but the influence of the individual should not be overlooked.
It is also worth noting that LeBon's book is from the perspective of a frightened aristocrat. He interprets the crowd episodes of the French Revolution as irrational reversions to animal emotion, which he sees as characteristic of crowds in general. Blumer sees crowds as emotional, but as capable of any emotion, not only the negative ones of anger and fear.
Convergence theory argues that the behavior of a crowd is not an emergent property of the crowd but is a result of like-minded individuals coming together. In other words, if a crowd becomes violent (a mob or riot), convergence theory would argue that this is not because the crowd encouraged violence but rather because people who wanted to become violent came together in the crowd.
The primary criticism of convergence theory is that there is a tendency for people to do things in a crowd that they would not do on their own. Crowds have an anonymizing effect on people, leading them to engage in sometimes outlandish behavior. Thus, while some crowds may result from like-minded individuals coming together to act collectively (e.g., political rally), some crowds actually spur individuals into behavior that they would otherwise not engage in.
Emergent-Norm Theory combines the above two theories, arguing that it is a combination of like-minded individuals, anonymity, and shared emotion that leads to crowd behavior. This theory takes a symbolic interactionist approach to understanding crowd behavior. It argues that people come together with specific expectations and norms, but in the interactions that follow the development of the crowd, new expectations and norms can emerge, allowing for behavior that normally would not take place.
Crowds as "Gatherings"
More recent research into collective behavior has begun to change sociological thinking on crowds. This new approach distinguishes what brings people together as a gathering from what they do once gathered. Most gatherings are temporary and are formed by an assembling process. Individuals who gather are often acquainted and invited or informed about the gathering. Once gathered, the subgroups of individuals who already know one another tend to stay together throughout the gathering. There are, of course, some solitary individuals as well.
This line of research also dispenses with the idea that crowds impair judgment. Alcohol and drugs, which can contribute to deviant behavior, certainly can impair judgment and influence the actions of crowds, but crowds themselves do not necessarily impair judgment. The actions of individuals at gatherings also illustrate that individuals remain independent, sometimes responding to solicitations, sometimes ignoring them, sometimes interacting with their subgroup, and sometimes acting spontaneously.
Gatherings also exhibit dispersing processes that end the gatherings. Sometimes these are emergency dispersal, as when authorities arrive and try to end the gathering. Sometimes they are planned or the enthusiasm of the gathering wanes and people simply leave. Perhaps the key point of the "crowds as gatherings" approach is that there is a great deal of variation in gatherings.
Panic is a sudden terror which dominates thinking and often affects groups of people. Panics typically occur in disaster situations, such as during a fire, and may endanger the overall health of the affected group. Architects and city planners try to accommodate the symptoms of panic, such as herd behavior, during design and planning, often using simulations to determine the best way to lead people to a safe exit.
A moral panic is a mass movement based on the perception that some individual or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, poses a menace to society. These panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues (although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur and some moral panics have historically been fueled by religious missions, governmental campaigns, and scientific mobilizing against minority groups that used media outlets to further their claims), and often include a large element of mass hysteria. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality, and usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Though not always, very often moral panics revolve around issues of sex and sexuality. A widely circulated and new-seeming urban legend is frequently involved. These panics can sometimes lead to mob violence. The term was coined by Stanley Cohen in 1972 to describe media coverage of Mods and Rockers in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.
Recent moral panics in the UK have included the ongoing tabloid newspaper campaign against pedophiles, which led to the assault and persecution of a pediatrician by an angry, if semi-literate, mob in August 2000, and that surrounding the murder of James Bulger in Liverpool, England in 1993. (See this page for examples of moral panic.)
A riot is a form of civil disorder characterized by disorganized groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence, vandalism or other crime. While individuals may attempt to lead or control a riot, riots are typically chaotic and exhibit herd-like behavior. Riots often occur in reaction to a perceived grievance or out of dissent. Historically, riots have occurred due to poor working or living conditions, government oppression, taxation or conscription, conflicts between races or religions, the outcome of a sporting event, or frustration with legal channels through which to air grievances. Riots typically involve vandalism and the destruction of private and public property. The specific property to be targeted varies depending on the cause of the riot and the inclinations of those involved. Targets can include shops, cars, restaurants, state-owned institutions, and religious buildings.
Hysteria is a diagnostic label applied to a state of mind, one of unmanageable fear or emotional excesses. People who are "hysterical" often lose self-control due to the overwhelming fear.
The term also occurs in the phrase mass hysteria to describe mass public near-panic reactions. It is commonly applied to the waves of popular medical problems that everyone gets in response to news articles, such as the yuppy flu of the late 1980s. A similar usage refers to any sort of public wave phenomenon, and has been used to describe the periodic widespread reappearance and public interest in UFO reports, crop circles, and similar examples.
Hysteria is often associated with movements like the Salem Witch Trials, the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and Satanic ritual abuse, where it is better understood through the related sociological term of moral panic.
Mass hysterias can also exhibit themselves in the sudden onset of psychogenic illnesses, or illnesses that are the result of psychology and not an external source (e.g., like a pollutant or infectious agent). A recent example of psychogenic illness resulting from mass hysteria occurred in Jilin, China in 2009 when hundreds of workers at an acrylic yarn factory began to fall ill. Doctors in China determined that, for most of those who fell ill, there were no physical indications of poisoning, which is what the workers claimed caused the illness.
A fad, also known as a craze, refers to a fashion that becomes popular in a culture (or subcultures) relatively quickly, remains popular, often for a rather brief period, then loses popularity dramatically. (See this page for a list of fads.)
A rumor is often viewed as "an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern" (p. 33), though the definition can vary. Rumors generally involve some kind of a statement the veracity of which is not quickly or ever confirmed.
Rumors have three basic characteristics
- they're transmitted by word of mouth
- they provide "information" about a person, happening, or condition
- they express and gratify the emotional needs of the community
There are also various types of rumors, including:
- Pipe dream rumors, which reflect public desires and wished-for outcomes
- Bogie or fear rumors that reflect feared outcomes
- Wedge-driving rumors that intend to undermine group loyalty or interpersonal relations
As rumors travel they grow shorter, more concise, and more easily grasped. About 70% of details in a message are lost in the first 5 to 6 transmissions. Negative rumors are more likely to be disseminated than positive rumors.
Rumors may be part of a collective explanation process. Bordia and DiFonzo found that 29.4% of statements on archived internet message boards are sensemaking statements that attempt to solve problems. The rest of the discussion revolves around these statements.
Rumors may also be political communication strategies. Media and particular cultural-historical conditions may facilitate a rumor's diffusion. In 2006, Jayson Harsin introduced the concept of the "rumor bomb" to describe the widespread phenomenon of rumoresque communication in contemporary relations between media and politics, especially within the complex convergence of multiple forms of media, from cell phones and internet, to radio, TV, and print. Harsin treats rumor as a particular rhetorical strategy. For Harsin a "rumor bomb" extends the definition of rumor into a political communication concept with the following features:
- A crisis of verification. A crisis of verification is perhaps the most salient and politically dangerous aspect of rumor.
- A context of public uncertainty or anxiety about a political group, figure, or cause, which the rumor bomb overcomes or transfers onto an opponent.
- A clearly partisan even if an anonymous source (eg. "an unnamed advisor to the president"), which seeks to profit politically from the rumor bomb’s diffusion.
- A rapid diffusion via highly developed electronically mediated societies where news travels fast.
Examples of rumors include:
- the alleged removal of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq to Syria
- sexual innuendo in The Little Mermaid adaptation by Disney
- sexual innuendo in The Lion King, another Disney film
- sexual innuendo in Aladdin, another Disney film
- that John McCain had an illegitimate black child 
- that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the U.S.
There are several good online resources for checking rumors and urban legends, including:
- snopes.com, particularly useful for checking email rumors
- factcheck.org, particularly useful for checking political rumors
Berk (1974) uses game theory to suggest that even a panic in a burning theater can reflect rational calculation: If members of the audience decide that it is more rational to run to the exits than to walk, the result may look like an animal-like stampede without in fact being irrational. In a series of empirical studies of assemblies of people, McPhail (1991) argues that crowds vary along a number of dimensions, and that traditional stereotypes of emotionality and unanimity often do not describe what happens in crowds.
Suggested Multimedia Resources
- The Final Report: LA Riots. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/final-report/2770/Overview (Accessed May 5, 2008).
McPhail, Clark and Ronald Wohlstein. 1983. “Individual and Collective Behavior WithinGatherings, Demonstrations, and Riots.” Annual Review of Sociology 9: 579-600. Granovetter, Mark. 1978. “Threshold Models of Collective Behavior.” American Journal of Sociology 83(6): 1420-1443. Snow, David, Louis Zurcher, and Robert Peters. 1981. "Victory Celebrations as Theater: A Dramaturgical Approach to Crowd Behavior." Symbolic Interaction 4:21-42. Vider, Stephen. 2004. "Rethinking Crowd Violence: Self-Categorization Theory and the Woodstock 1999 Riot." Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34:141-166. Cress, Daniel and David Snow. 1996. “Mobilization at the Margins: Resources, Benefactors, and the Viability of Homeless Social Movement Organizations.” American Sociological Review, 61:1098-1109. Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1988. “The Consequences of Professionalization and Formalization in the Pro- Choice Movement.” American Sociological Review, vol. 53(4), pp. 585-605. Piven, Frances Fox. 2006. Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. McAdam, Doug. 1999. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930 – 1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Meyer, David. 2004. “Protest and Political Opportunities.” Annual Review of Sociology, 30: 125-145.
- Have you ever been in a crowd and done something you would not have done otherwise?
- Do people typically panic in emergencies?
- Why do so many movies and TV shows suggest that people would panic if they "knew the truth"?
- Do you pass on rumors or chain emails without looking into them? Why or why not?
- Herbert Blumer, "Collective Behavior," in A. M. Lee, ed., Principles of Sociology, New York, Barnes & Noble, 1951, pp. 67-121.
- Schweingruber, David S. and Clark McPhail. 1999. A Method for Systematically Observing and Recording Collective Action. Sociological Methods and Research. 27:451-498.
- Jacobs, Andrew. 2009. “Chinese Workers Say Illness Is Real, Not Hysteria.” The New York Times, July 30 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/world/asia/30jilin.html?partner=rss&emc=rss (Accessed July 30, 2009).
- Peterson, Warren, and Noel Gist. 1951. Rumor and Public Opinion. The American Journal of Sociology. 57(2):159-167.
- Pendleton, S.C. (1998), 'Rumor research revisited and expanded', Language & Communication, vol. 1. no. 18, pp. 69-86.
- Allport, Gordon, and Joseph Postman. 1947. Psychology of Rumor. Russell and Russell.
- Bordia, Prashant, and Nicolas DiFonzo. 2004. Problem Solving in Social Interactions on the Internet: Rumor as Social Cognition. Social Psychology Quarterly. 61(1):33-49."
- Harsin, Jayson. 2006. The Rumour Bomb: Theorising the Convergence of New and Old Trends in Mediated US Politics. Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture. 39(1):84-110.
- Berk, Richard. 1974. Collective Behavior. W. C. Brown Co. ISBN 0697075257
- McPhail, Clark. 1991. The Myth of the Madding Crowd. .Aldine. ISBN 0202303756