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17.1: Collective Behavior

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    • Explain the difference between the various types of collective and describe the explanations for collective behavior that have been proposed.
    • Explain the preconditions necessary for collective behavior to occur and explain how they build on one another.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Social behavior is patterned and predictable.
    • Collective behavior is a fundamental fact of human existence.
    • Collective behavior and the collectivities in which it occurs takes on many for.
    • All collectivities rely on communication among the participants.

    Guiding Questions

    • What is collective behavior and how do sociologists use this to help understand social interaction?
    • Would you be part of a flash mob?
    • Describe the kinds of collective behavior crowds exhibit.
    • What are the different types of collectivities and how are they created?
    • What is mass hysteria? And how does mass media fuel mass hysteria?
    • How does the contagion, emergent-norm and value added theory help to explain collective behavior?

    Collective Behavior

    Collective behavior is a term sociologists use to refer to a miscellaneous set of behaviors in which large numbers of people engage. More specifically, collective behavior refers to relatively spontaneous and relatively unstructured behavior by large numbers of individuals acting with or being influenced by other individuals. Relatively spontaneous means that the behavior is somewhat spontaneous but also somewhat planned, while relatively unstructured means that the behavior is somewhat organized and predictable but also somewhat unorganized and unpredictable. As we shall see, some forms of collective behavior are more spontaneous and unstructured than others, and some forms are more likely than others to involve individuals who act together as opposed to merely being influenced by each other. As a whole, though, collective behavior is regarded as less spontaneous and less structured than conventional behavior, such as what happens in a classroom, a workplace, or the other settings for everyday behavior with which we are very familiar.

    The term collective behavior refers to a miscellaneous set of behaviors. As such, these behaviors often have very little in common with each other, even if their basic features allow them to be classified as collective behavior. Common forms of collective behavior discussed in this section include crowds, mobs, panics, riots, disaster behavior, rumors, mass hysteria, moral panics, and fads and crazes. Of these forms, some (crowds, panics, riots, and disasters) involve people who are generally in each other’s presence and who are more or less interacting with each other, while other forms (rumors, mass hysteria, moral panics, and fads and crazes) involve people who are not in each other’s presence—in fact, they may be separated by hundreds or thousands of miles—but nonetheless share certain beliefs or concerns.


    A casual crowd is a collection of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time. The people in this type of crowd have no real common bond, long-term purpose, or identity. An example of a casual crowd is a gathering of people who are waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection in a large city. True, they are all waiting to cross the street and to this degree do have a common goal, but this goal is temporary and this particular collection of people quickly disappears once this goal is achieved. As Erich Goode (1992, p. 22) Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. emphasizes, “members of casual crowds have little else in common except their physical location.” In fact, Goode thinks that casual crowds do not really act out collective behavior, since their behavior is relatively structured in that it follows conventional norms for behaving in such settings.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A casual crowd is a collection of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time. It has no common identity or long-term purpose. This gathering of people in a Paris market place is an example of a casual crowd.

    Conventional Crowd

    A conventional crowd is a collection of people who gather for a specific purpose. They might be attending a movie, a play, a concert, or a lecture. Goode (1992)Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. again thinks that conventional crowds do not really act out collective behavior; as their name implies, their behavior is very conventional and thus relatively structured.

    Expressive Crowd

    An expressive crowd is a collection of people who gather primarily to be excited and to express one or more emotions. Examples include a religious revival, a political rally for a candidate, and events like Mardi Gras. Goode (1992, p. 23)Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt. Brace Jovanovich points out that the main purpose of expressive crowds is belonging to the crowd itself. Crowd activity for its members is an end in itself, not just a means. In conventional crowds, the audience wants to watch the movie or hear the lecture; being part of the audience is secondary or irrelevant. In expressive crowds, the audience also wants to be a member of the crowd, and participate in crowd behavior—to scream, shout, cheer, clap, and stomp their feet.

    A conventional crowd may sometimes become an expressive crowd, as when the audience at a movie starts shouting if the film projector breaks. As this example indicates, the line between a conventional crowd and an expressive crowd is not always clear-cut. In any event, because excitement and emotional expression are defining features of expressive crowds, individuals in such crowds are engaging in collective behavior.

    Acting Crowd

    As its name implies, an acting crowd goes one important step beyond an expressive crowd by behaving in violent or other destructive behavior such as looting. A mob—an intensely emotional crowd that commits or is ready to commit violence—is a primary example of an acting crowd. Many films and novels about the Wild West in U.S. history depict mobs lynching cattle and horse rustlers without giving them the benefit of a trial. Beginning after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, lynch mobs in the South and elsewhere hanged or otherwise murdered several thousand people, most of them African Americans, in what would now be regarded as hate crimes. A panic—a sudden reaction by a crowd that involves self-destructive behavior, as when people stomp over each other while fleeing a theater when a fire breaks out or while charging into a big-box store when it opens early with an amazing sale—is another example of an acting crowd. Acting crowds sometimes become so large and out of control that they develop into full-scale riots, which we discuss momentarily.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Protest Crowd

    As identified by Clark McPhail and Ronald T. Wohlstein (1983), McPhail, C., & Wohlstein, R. T. (1983). Individual and collective behaviors within gatherings, demonstrations, and riots. Annual Review of Sociology, 9, 579–600. a fifth type of crowd is the protest crowd. As its name again implies, a protest crowd is a collection of people who gather to protest a political, social, cultural, or economic issue. The gatherings of people who participate in a sit-in, demonstration, march, or rally are all examples of protest crowds.


    A riot is a relatively spontaneous outburst of violence by a large group of people. The term riot sounds very negative, and some scholars have used terms like urban revolt or urban uprising to refer to the riots that many U.S. cities experienced during the 1960's. However, most collective behavior scholars continue to use the term riot without necessarily implying anything bad or good about this form of collective behavior, and we use riot here in that same spirit.

    Terminology notwithstanding, riots have been part of American history since the colonial period, when colonists often rioted regarding “taxation without representation” and other issues (Rubenstein, 1970).Rubenstein, R. E. (1970). Rebels in Eden: Mass political violence in the United States. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. Between 75 and 100 such riots are estimated to have occurred between 1641 and 1759. Once war broke out with England, several dozen more riots occurred as part of the colonists’ use of violence in the American Revolution. Riots continued after the new nation began, as farmers facing debts often rioted against state militia. The famous Shays’s Rebellion, discussed in many U.S. history books, began with a riot of hundreds of people in Springfield, Massachusetts.

    Rioting became even more common during the first several decades of the 19th century. In this period rioting was “as much a part of civilian life as voting or working” (Rosenfeld, 1997, p. 484),Rosenfeld, M. J. (1997). Celebration, politics, selective looting and riots: A micro level study of the Bulls riot of 1992 in Chicago. Social Problems, 44, 483–502. with almost three-fourths of U.S. cities experiencing at least one major riot. Most of this rioting was committed by native-born whites against African Americans, Catholics, and immigrants. Their actions led Abraham Lincoln to observe in 1837, “Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times…Whatever their causes be, it is common to the whole country” (quoted in Feldberg, 1980, p. 4).Feldberg, M. (1980). The turbulent era: Riot and disorder in Jacksonian America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Rioting continued after the Civil War. Whites attacked Chinese immigrants because they feared the immigrants were taking jobs from whites and keeping wages lower than they otherwise would have been. Labor riots also became common, as workers rioted to protest inhumane working conditions and substandard pay.

    Race riots again occurred during the early 20th century, as whites continued to attack African Americans in major U.S. cities. A major riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917 took the lives of 39 African Americans and 9 whites. Riots begun by whites occurred in at least seven more cities in 1919 and ended with the deaths of dozens of people (Waskow, 1967).Waskow, A. I. (1967). From race riot to sit-in: 1919 and the 1960s. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. During the 1960s, riots took place in many Northern cities as African Americans reacted violently to reports of police brutality or other unfair treatment. Estimates of the number of riots during the decade range from 240 to 500, and estimates of the number of participants in the riots range from 50,000 to 350,000 (Downes, 1968; Gurr, 1989).Downes, B. T. (1968).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Types of Riots

    Several types of riots may be identified according to the motivation and goals of the participants in the riots. One popular typology distinguishes between protest riots and celebration riots (McPhail, 1994).McPhail, C. (1994). The dark side of purpose: Individual and collective violence in riots.Sociological Quarterly, 35, 1–32. Protest riots express discontent regarding a political, social, cultural, or economic issue, while celebration riots express joy or delight over an event or outcome, such as the celebration of a football team’s championship that gets out of hand. Protest riots are fundamentally political in nature, while celebration riots are decidedly apolitical.

    Another popular typology distinguishes four types of riots: purposive, symbolic, revelous, and issueless (Goode, 1992).Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Purposive riots arise from dissatisfaction regarding a particular issue and are intended to achieve a specific goal regarding that issue. The colonial riots mentioned earlier are examples of purposive riots, as are many of the riots that have occurred in U.S. prisons during the past few decades. Symbolic riotsexpress general discontent but do not really aim to achieve a specific goal. The early 20th-century riots by whites, also mentioned earlier, are examples of symbolic riots. Revelous riots are the same as the celebration riots already discussed, while issueless riots have no apparent basis or purpose. An example of an issueless riot is the looting and general violence that sometimes occurs during a citywide electrical outage.

    Disaster Behavior

    A disaster is an accident or natural catastrophe that causes many deaths and much property destruction. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, and floods are the most common natural disasters, while the sinking of the Titanic and the April 2010 BP oil well explosion are among the most well-known accidents that had disastrous consequences. Some disasters, such as plane crashes and theTitanic sinking, are very “localized” and affect a relatively small number of people, however tragic the consequences might be for those directly affected. Other disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, affect a much larger geographical area and number of people and thus have far-reaching consequences.

    Some sociologists study why disasters occur, but sociologists interested in collective behavior study another aspect of disasters: how people behave during and after a disaster. We call this form of behavior disaster behavior.

    When disasters occur, people’s daily lives and normal routines are disrupted. As David L. Miller (2000, p. 250)Miller, D. L. (2000). Introduction to collective behavior and collective action (2nd ed.). Springfield, IL: Waveland Press. observes, disasters often strike without warning, and when they do, people face unexpected and unfamiliar problems that demand direct and prompt action. There is the obvious problem of sheer survival at the moment when disaster strikes. During impact, individuals must confront and cope with their fears while at the same time looking to their own and others’ safety. After disaster impact, people encounter numerous problems demanding life-and-death decisions as they carry out rescues and aid the injured.

    Over the next several days, weeks, and months, they must make many adjustments as their lives slowly return to normal, or at least as close to normal as can be expected. How do people generally behave while all this is going on?

    A common belief is that people look out for themselves after a disaster occurs and that they panic and engage in “wild, selfish, individualistic, exploitative behavior” (Goode, 1992, p. 181).Goode, E. (1992).Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. However, sociologists who study disaster behavior generally find that the opposite is true: people stay remarkably calm after a disaster occurs and for the most part do not react with terror or panic. As Goode (1992, p. 181)Goode, E. (1992).Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. observes, “People tend to confer with others about the appropriate line of action. They weigh alternatives, consider consequences, and come up with socially and collectively reasoned solutions.” In addition, relatively few people experience emotional shock. Friends, relatives, and even strangers tend to help one another and generally display a “high level of concern for and generosity toward disaster victims” (Miller, 2000, p. 274).Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Grief, depression, and other psychological consequences do occur, but these generally are no more serious than the reactions that follow the deaths of friends and family members caused by reasons other than disasters.

    Collective Preoccupations

    Collective preoccupation involves people who hardly ever meet, don't even interact, yet engage in similar behavior and understand the reason of that particular behavior. For the most part, they start of with a small group of people and them move to greater audiences. Examples of collective preoccupations include fashions, fads, rumors, and urban legends.

    The types of collective behavior discussed so far—crowds, riots, and disaster behavior—all involve people who are often physically interacting with one another. As mentioned earlier, however, some forms of collective behavior involve people who are much more widespread geographically and who typically do not interact. Nonetheless, these people share certain beliefs and perceptions that sociologists classify as collective behavior. Two broad categories of these beliefs and perceptions have been distinguished: (a) rumors, mass hysteria, and moral panics; and (b) fads and crazes.

    Rumors, mass hysteria, and moral panics all involve strongly held beliefs and perceptions that turn out to be not true at all or at least gross distortions of reality. A rumor is a story based on unreliable sources that is nonetheless passed on from one person to another person. A rumor may turn out to be true, but it often turns out to be false or at least to be an exaggeration or distortion of the facts. The defining feature of a rumor, though, is that when it arises it is not based on reliable evidence and thus is unsubstantiated (Goode, 1992).Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. In today’s electronic age, rumors can be spread very quickly over the Internet and via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. In October 2010, a rumor quickly spread that Apple was planning to buy Sony. Although there was no truth to the rumor, Sony’s stock shares rose in value after the rumor began (Albanesius, 2010).Albanesius, C. (2010, October 26). Apple buying Sony? Probably not. PC Magazine. Retrieved from,2817,2371467,2371400.asp

    Mass hysteria refers to widespread, intense fear of and concern for a danger that turns out to be false or greatly exaggerated. Episodes of mass hysteria are relatively rare. One that is often-cited is the “War of the Worlds” episode (Miller, 2000).Miller, D. L. (2000). Introduction to collective behavior and collective action (2nd ed.). Springfield, IL: Waveland Press. On October 30, 1938, actor and director Orson Welles aired a radio adaptation of this famous story by H. G. Wells, which involved a Martian invasion of Earth. The show depicted the invasion occurring in New Jersey and New York, and thousands of listeners reportedly thought that an invasion was really occurring. This was decades before the Internet, so they called the police, National Guard, hospitals, and other sources for information and got in touch with friends and family members to share their fears. Although the next day newspapers carried many stories of stampedes in theaters, heart attacks, suicides, and other intense reactions to the radio show, these stories turned out to be false.

    A moral panic is closely related to mass hysteria and refers to widespread concern over a perceived threat to the moral order that turns out to be false or greatly exaggerated. Often people become very concerned about a moral problem involving such behaviors as drug use and sexual activity. Their concerns may have no basis in reality or may greatly exaggerate the potential and actual danger posed by the problem. In either case, their strongly held moral views about the situation heighten their concern, and they often seek legislation or take other actions to try to battle the moral problem.

    Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (2009)Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Moral panics: The social construction of deviance. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. describe several moral panics in American history. One of the most important was the concern over alcohol that motivated the Prohibition movement of the early 20th century. This movement was led primarily by rural Protestants who abhorred drinking as a moral and social sin. They thought drinking was a particular problem among urban residents, many of whom were Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants. Their Catholic faith and immigrant status contributed to the outrage that Prohibition activists felt about their alcohol use.

    Another moral panic over a drug occurred during the 1930s and led to antimarijuana legislation. Marijuana had been legal before then, but Anglo Americans became concerned about its use among Mexican Americans. Newspapers began to run articles about the effects of marijuana, which was said to turn its users into rapists and other types of violent criminals. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics provided “facts” about these effects to the news media, which published this misleading information.

    Another moral panic over a drug occurred during the 1930s and led to antimarijuana legislation. Marijuana had been legal before then, but Anglo Americans became concerned about its use among Mexican Americans. Newspapers began to run articles about the effects of marijuana, which was said to turn its users into rapists and other types of violent criminals. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics provided “facts” about these effects to the news media, which published this misleading information.

    Fads and Crazes

    Fads and crazes make up the second category of beliefs and perceptions that are considered to be collective behavior. A fad is a rather insignificant activity or product that is popular for a relatively short time, while a craze is a temporary activity that attracts the obsessive enthusiasm of a relatively small group of people (Goode, 1992).Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. American history has witnessed many kinds of fads and crazes throughout the years, including goldfish swallowing, stuffing people into a telephone booth, and the notorious campus behavior known as streaking. Products that became fads include Rubik’s Cube, Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch dolls, and Beanie Babies. Cell phones were a fad when they first appeared, but they have become so common and important that they have advanced far beyond the definition of a fad.

    Explaining Collective Behavior

    Over the years, sociologists and other scholars have proposed many explanations of collective behavior. Most of these explanations have focused on crowds, riots, and social movements, rather than on rumors, fads, and other collective behaviors that involve less social interaction. "Theory Snapshot" summarizes these explanations.

    Theory Snapshot

    Theory Major assumptions
    Contagion theory Collective behavior is emotional and irrational and results from the hypnotic influence of the crowd.
    Convergence theory Crowd behavior reflects the beliefs and intentions that individuals already share before they join a crowd.
    Emergent norm theory People are not sure how to behave when they begin to interact in collective behavior. As they discuss their potential behavior, norms governing their behavior emerge, and social order and rationality then guide their behavior.
    Value-added theory Collective behavior results when several conditions exist, including structural strain, generalized beliefs, precipitating factors, and lack of social control.

    Contagion Theory

    Contagion theory was developed by French scholar Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) in his influential 1895 book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Le Bon, 1895/1960).Bon, G. L. (1960). The crowd: A study of the popular mind. New York, NY: Viking Press. (Original work published 1895) Like many other intellectuals of his time, Le Bon was concerned about the breakdown of social order that was said to have begun with the French Revolution a century earlier and to have continued throughout the 19th century. Mob violence by the poor was common in the century in cities in Europe and the United States. Intellectuals, who tended to live in relatively wealthy circumstances, were very disturbed by this violence. They viewed it as irrational behavior, and they thought that the people taking part in it were being unduly swayed by strong emotions and the influence of other people in the mobs.

    Le Bon’s book and its contagion theory reflected these intellectuals’ beliefs. When individuals are by themselves, he wrote, they act rationally, but when they are in a crowd, they come under its almost hypnotic influence and act irrationally and emotionally. They no longer can control their unconscious instincts and become violent and even savage. In short, contagion theory argues that collective behavior is irrational and results from the contagious influence of the crowds in which individuals find themselves.

    The views of contagion theory were popular well into the 20th century, but scholars came to believe that collective behavior is much more rational than Le Bon thought and also that individuals are not controlled by crowd influences as he thought.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Contagion theory assumes that people in a crowd act emotionally and irrationally because they come under the influence of the crowd’s impulses. Source: Photo courtesy of Joanna,

    Convergence Theory

    Convergence theory is one of the theories that presented this new understanding of collective behavior. According to this theory, crowds do not unduly influence individuals to act in emotional and even violent ways. Rather, crowd behavior reflects the behavior and attitudes of the individuals who decide to join a crowd. Once they converge in a crowd, the behavior of the crowd is a consequence of their behavior and attitude. Instead of the crowd affecting the individuals in it, the individuals in it affect the crowd. Reflecting the adage that “birds of a feather flock together,” people who feel a certain way about a particular issue and who wish to act in a certain way tend to find and converge with similar people. The crowd they form then reflects their beliefs and desired activities. As Goode (1992, p. 58)Goode, E. (1992). Collective behavior. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich writes, convergence theory says that the way people act in crowds or publics is an expression or outgrowth of who they are ordinarily. It argues that like-minded people come together in, or converge on, a certain location where collective behavior can and will take place, where individuals can act out tendencies or traits they had in the first place. (emphasis in original)

    Convergence theory does not deny that people may do something in a crowd that they would not do by themselves, but it does say that what a crowd does largely reflects the individuals who compose it. If we think of a mob or at least a small group of people who commit a hate crime—for example, gay bashing—we can see an application of convergence theory. The individuals who form this group are people who hate homosexuality and who hate gays and lesbians. The group violence they commit reflects these beliefs.

    A woman walking down the street with a rainbow umbrella is shown here.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): According to the emergent-norm perspective, people have their own reasons for joining a parade. (Photo courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans/flickr)

    Just after the mid-20th century, Ralph H. Turner and Lewis M. Killian (1957)Turner, R. H., & Killian, L. M. (1957). Collective behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. presented their emergent norm theory of collective behavior, which downplayed the irrationality emphasized in earlier decades by Le Bon and other intellectuals. According to Turner and Killian, when people start interacting in collective behavior, initially they are not sure how they are supposed to behave. As they discuss their potential behavior and other related matters, norms governing their behavior emerge, and social order and rationality then guide behavior.

    In at least two ways, emergent norm theory takes a middle ground between contagion theory and convergence theory. As should be clear, emergent norm theory views collective behavior as more rational than contagion theory does. But it also views collective behavior as less predictable than convergence theory does, as it assumes that people do not necessarily already share beliefs and intentions before they join a crowd.

    Value-Added Theory

    One of the most popular and influential explanations of social movements and other forms of collective behavior is Neil Smelser’s (1963)Smelser, N. J. (1963). Theory of collective behavior. New York, NY: Free Press. value-added theory (also called structural-strain theory). Smelser wrote that social movements and other collective behavior occur if and only if several conditions are present. One of these conditions is structural strain, which refers to problems in society that cause people to be angry and frustrated. Without such structural strain, people would not have any reason to protest, and social movements do not arise.

    Another condition is generalized beliefs, which are people’s reasons for why conditions are so bad and their solutions to improve them. If people decide that the conditions they dislike are their own fault, they will decide not to protest. Similarly, if they decide that protest will not improve these conditions, they again will not protest. A third condition is the existence of precipitating factors, or sudden events that ignite collective behavior. In the 1960s, for example, several urban riots started when police were rumored to have unjustly arrested or beaten someone. Although conditions in inner cities were widely perceived as unfair and even oppressive, it took this type of police behavior to ignite people to riot. A fourth condition is lack of social control; collective behavior is more likely if potential participants do not expect to be arrested or otherwise hurt or punished.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): According to sociologist Neil Smelser, an important condition for protest is a precipitating factor: a sudden event that ignites people to take action. During the 1960s, several urban riots began when police were rumored to have unjustly arrested or beaten someone.

    Smelser’s theory became very popular because it pointed to several factors that must hold true before social movements and other forms of collective behavior occur. However, collective behavior does not always occur when Smelser’s factors do hold true. The theory has also been criticized for being a bit vague; for example, it does not say how much strain a society must have for collective behavior to take place (Rule, 1988).Rule, J. B. (1988). Theories of civil violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Key Takeaways

    • Contagion theory assumes that individuals act irrationally as they come under the hypnotic influence of a crowd. Collective behavior scholars now believe that collective behavior is much more rational than contagion theory assumed.
    • Convergence theory assumes that crowd behavior reflects the preexisting values and beliefs and behavioral disposition of the individuals who join a crowd.
    • Emergent norm theory assumes that norms emerge after people gather for collective behavior, and that their behavior afterward is largely rational.
    • Value-added theory argues that collective behavior results when several conditions exist, including structural strain, generalized beliefs, precipitating factors, and lack of social control. All these conditions must exist for collective behavior to occur.

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