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The term "collective behavior" was first used by Robert E. Park, and employed definitively by Herbert Blumer, to refer to social processes and events which do not reflect existing social structure (laws, conventions, and institutions), but which emerge in a "spontaneous" way.

Another definition of collective behavior is that it is action which is neither conforming, in which actors follow prevailing norms, nor deviant, in which actors violate those norms. Collective behavior is a third form of action, It 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.

The classic delineation of the field is to be found in Herbert Blumer's essay, "An Outline of Collective Behavior." The topics in this Wikipedia essay follow Blumer's outline. They do so because of the relevance of Blumer's scheme to Thomas Kuhn's famous notion of "paradigms" in science. Kuhn confesses that he uses the word, paradigm, in something like twenty different senses, but for present purposes it will mean a set of propositions and techniques which can be used to test these propositions empirically. Each phase in the history of a mature science, such as physics or biology, is ruled by its paradigm, and "normal science" conforms to it. But at some point there are so many discrepancies and illogicalities in the science's findings that a "scientific revolution" takes place, and scientists flock to a new paradigm.

Sociology is too immature as a science to have a true paradigm, but it does have what might be called "proto-paradigms." Like true paradigms, a proto-paradigm is a set of propositions and techniques which both summarize evidence already acquired and provide guidance for future studies. Unlike true paradigms, however. the evidence acquired is less decisive, and the guidance which it provides is less sure.

Blumer has created a proto-paradigm in this sense. He presents a radical critique of the overwhelming bulk of sociological schemes, on the ground that they treat the actor as passive-- as controlled by social forces which act on him as physiological stimuli act on the organism. To Blumer social "forces" are not really forces. The actor is active: He creates an interpretion of the acts of others, and acts on the basis of this interpretation.

Blumer has expressed this view in a very small number of essays. His teaching, in which he expressed very few ideas in a very slow way, were punctuated by the gestures of the all-American athlete which he had been. He continued acting this way over a number of decades.

Some might think that someone who published so little has not made much of a contribution to sociology. But such a view would be mistaken. His proto-paradigm continues to inspire empirical research, in a field which until recently had almost no data to offer. Theories such as Blumer's endure and are useful. But the empirical studies for which they provide guidance are of only fleeting interest. Once further research supplants them they are of little use.

Examples of Collective Behavior

Heree are some instances of collective behavior: the sudden frequent use of the word, "like," among adolescent girls, the national debates in Canada and the U.S. about whether to ratify the Kyoto protocols, a change from 50% market saturation by the WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS word processing program to the even more widespread use of Microsoft Word, and the Esperanto movement for a neutral international language. The claim that such diverse episodes all belong to a single field of inquiry is a theoretical assertion with which not all sociologists will agree. But Blumer and Neil Smelser, when they were alive, did agree, as did others. No one can deny that the formulation has satisfied some sociological minds.

Four forms of collective behavior[]

1 - the crowd

Scholars differ on what classes of social events fall under the rubric of collective behavior. In fact, the only class of events which all authors include is crowds. Clark McPhail is one who takes this view; he treats "crowds," which he finds to of an elaborate set of types) and collective behavior as synonyms.

The classic treatment of crowds is Gustave LeBon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896), in which the author, a frightened aristocrat, interpreted the crowds of the French Revolution as irrational reversions to animal emotion, and inferred from this that such reversion is characteristic of crowds in general. Freud expressed a similar view in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922). Such authors have found their ideas confirmed by various kinds of crowds, the economic bubble being but one. A famous economic craze was the tulip mania (1637), in which the prices of tulip bulbs in the Netherlands rose to astronomical heights. An array of historical oddities of this kind is narrated in Charles MacKay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841).

At the University of Chicago, Robert Park and Herbert Blumer agreed with the speculations of LeBon and other that crowds are indeed emotional. But they added that a crowd is capable of any emotion, not only the negative ones of anger and fear.

Many authors expand the common-sense definition of the crowd. To some of these the term refers to episodes in which the participants are not assembled in one place but are dispersed over a large area. Turner and Killian refer to such episodes as diffuse crowds, examples being Billy Graham's revivals, panics about sexual perils, and Red scares.

Some psychologists have claimed that there are three fundamental human emotions: fear, joy, and anger. Smelser, Lofland, and others have proposed three corresponding forms of the crowd: the panic (an expression of fear), the craze (an expression of joy), and the hostile outburst (an expression of anger).

Each of the three emotions can characterize either a compact or a diffuse crowd. The result is a scheme which identifies six types of crowds. Lofland has portrayed the six in a useful chart.

2 - The public

Park distinguishes the crowd, which expresses a common emotion from a public, in which a single issue is discussed. A public comes into being when people start discussing a particular issue. Obviously, this is not the usual use of the word, "public." To Park and Blumer, there are as many publics as there are issues. Just as a public is born when discussion of it begins, so it dies when the public reaches a decision on it.

The use of survey data in the form of public opinion polls now almost amounts to an academic discipline in itself. But Blumer excoriates its practitioners: Their highly sophisticated studies are based on the idea that each participant in the public can be counted as one, and that the percentage of persons holding one opinion or another on the issue in question, thinking this or that about it, accurately measures the strength of public opinion. Blumer complains that in fact participants enter into discussion to different degrees, and that they have differing amounts of influence on the public's final decision. A skid row bum, he reminds us, is not as influential as an archbishop.

To the crowd and the public Blumer added a third form of collective behavior, the mass. It differs from both the crowd and the public in that it is defined not by a form of interaction but by the efforts of those who use the mass media to address an audience. The first mass medium was printing. After many years, another mass medium was invented, and the rate of invention has accelerated over the years. Over the years the impact of the mass on society has become greater and greater. In our time the mass has an enormous social impact.

The mass media attempt to persuade the mass to choose among a set of options which are offered--some brand of refrigerator, computer, or deodorant. Just as the public acts by resolving an issue, so the mass acts when its members choose among the options offered. It can inspire new institutions and destroy old ones, thereby affectong many lives. If members of the mass choose to watch a popular TV show, commercial breaks give viewers the chance run to the bathroom at the same time, forcing the city fathers to float bond issues to increase sewage disposal facilities.

Contrary to Blumer, evidence confirms the common sense view that consumers do not usually act in isolation. They frequently discuss their choices. For this reason, Turner and Killian suggest that the mass is best thought of as what Max Weber calls an "ideal type" -- not an accurate description of empirical cases, but a concept created by the sociological observer, who finds it useful in interpreting particular events insofar as they approximate it. It would be reasonable to suggest that most or all terms in the field refer to ideal types. Clearly there are crowds whiuch exhibit the properties of both panics and crazes, and there are many other mixed cases.

We change intellectual gears when we confront Blumer's final form of collective behavior, the social movement. He identifies several types of these, among which are active social movements such as the French Revolution and expressive ones such as Alcoholics Anonymous. An active movement tries to change society; an expressive movement tries to change its own members.

The Social movement is the form of collective behavior which satisfies least well the first definition offered at the beginning of this article. These episodes are less fluid than the other forms, and do not change as constantly as the other forms do. Furthermore, as can be seen in the history of the labor movement, a social movement may begin as collective behavior but evolve over time to become a firmly established social institution.

For this reason, social movements are often considered a separate field of sociology. The books and articles about them are far more numerous than the sum of studies of all the other forms of collective behavior put together. In fact, social movements are considered in many Wikipedia articles, and an article on the field of social movements as a whole should properly be much longer than this esay.

There have never been many specialists in collective behavior. These few have typically been students of Park and Blumer at Chicago, or, more recently, of Blumer and Smelser at Berkeley. Thus, collective behavior has been a school of thought as well as a subfield of sociology. Like the subfield of social change, it may be interpreted as an incoherent enterprise which in fact does not. This is not true of fields of subfields defined by common sense, such as the sociology of the family, of politics, or of religion.

The study of collective behavior spun its wheels for many years. This lack of progress came to an end with the appearance of Neil Smelser's Theory of Collective Behavior (1962), a book which has been hailed as the most important book on the topic during the twentieth century.

Social disturbances in the U. S. and elsewhere in the late 60's and early 70's inspired another surge of interest and of empirical studies in the field. These studies present a number of challenges to the armchair sociology of earlier students of collective behavior.

Criticisms and Evidence[]

Richard Berkhas used game theory to suggest that even a panic in a burning theater actors may conduct themselves rationally. This idea is striking, given that some have described panic as the purest form of collective behavior. 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. Berk's idea is only a plausible hypothesis: there has been no empirical study on the matter.

Finally, in recent years one student has actually taken a close look at human gatherings. In (The Myth of the Madding Crowd), McPhail concludes that such assemblies can be seen as lying along a number of dimensions. Traditional stereotypes of emotionality and unanimity often simply do not describe what happens.

See also[]


  • Herbert Blumer, "Collective Behavior," in A. M. Lee, ed., New Outline of the Principles of Sociology, 1951.
  • Neil J. Smelser, "Theory of Collective Behavior," 1963.
  • Ralph H. Turner and Lewis M. Killian, Collective Behavior, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, 2d ed., 1972; 3d. ed. 1987; 4th ed. 1993.
  • James B. Rule, Theories of Civil Violence, Berkeley, University of California, 1988.
  • Clark McPhail, The Myth of the Madding Crowd, New York, Aldine de Gruyter, 1991.

External links[]

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