collective behaviour

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Potentially a very wide-ranging field of study which deals with the ways in which collective behaviours emerge as responses to problematic circumstances and situations. At one extreme this can mean the study of co-ordinated and organized social movements; at the other, it refers to the seemingly spontaneous eruption of common behavioural patterns, as for example in episodes of mass hysteria. Between these are responses to natural disasters, riots, lynchings, crazes, fads, fashions, rumours, booms, panics, and even rebellions or revolutions. Many of these phenomena are dealt with under separate headings in this dictionary. Collective behaviour, then, is perhaps a term that covers too wide a field, since, in one sense, it could be seen as coterminous with the whole of sociology.

Perhaps the earliest formulations of collective behaviour are to be found in crowd psychology. Gustave Le Bon, in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), argued that the crowd was a real collective entity since ‘it forms a single being, and is subjected to the law of the mental unity of crowds’. He suggested that all individual responses are lost in crowds, and that a ‘collective mind’ emerges and makes people ‘feel, think and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would’. Crowds emerge through the existence of anonymity (which allows a decline in personal responsibility); in contagion (ideas moving rapidly through a group); and through a suggestibility whereby the unconscious aspects of the personality come to the fore.

Many subsequent studies of crowds, riots, mobs, and similar such collective disturbances—including, for example, contributions by Gabriel Tarde and Sigmund Freud—do little more than elaborate Le Bon's contagion hypothesis. Freud starts from Le Bon's description of the crowd mentality—whereby crowds are seen as impulsive, changeable, and irritable; incapable of sustained attention, criticism, or perseverance; and governed by a sense of omnipotence, exaggerated feelings, magical formulas, and illusions—and explains group participation in terms of the psychoanalytic theories of the instinct-object relationships in the individual and of the primal horde. As he puts it, ‘The uncanny and coercive characteristics of group formation, which are shown in the phenomena of suggestion that accompany them, may…be traced back to the fact of their origin from the primal horde. The leader of the group is still the dreaded primal father; the group still wishes to be governed by unrestricted force; it has an extreme passion for authority…it has a thirst for obedience. The primal father is the group ideal, which governs the ego in the place of the ego ideal’ (‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’). According to Freud, these features together with the loss of consciousness, dominance of the mind by emotions, and the impulsiveness of crowds, ‘correspond to a state of regression to a primitive mental activity’.

A more sociological approach to collective behaviour is evident in Neil Smelser's ‘value-added schema’ (see Theory of Collective Behaviour, 1963), which suggests that the determinants of collective behaviour are given by the followig sequence of events and elements: structural conduciveness (conditions of permissiveness under which collective behaviour is seen as legitimate); structural strain (such as economic deprivation); growth and spread of a generalized belief (for example a mass hysteria, delusion, or creation of a folk devil); precipitating factors (specific events—such as a fight set against the background of an explosive race situation—which confirms the earlier generalized belief); mobilization of the participants for action (via effective leadership, in a social movement, or a single dramatic event such as a rumour of a panic sell by a leading holder of shares in a company); and the operation of social control (which refers to the counter forces set up by the wider society to prevent and inhibit the previous determinants). According to Smelser, the last of these is of particular importance, since ‘once an episode of collective behaviour has appeared, its duration and severity are determined by the response of the agencies of social control’.


Subjects: Sociology.

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