Collective behavior is defined as mass activity among a specified population and is often used to describe action of localized mass public activity. Collective action usually occurs among aggregates who meet and disperse and interact on a temporary basis. Examples range from crowds at sporting events, to a collection of individuals listening to a public speaker, to protest activity and public rallies.
Historically, collective behavior was viewed as deviant behavior. It was assumed that individuals engaging in these activities were somehow disengaged from society and rebelling against society’s norms. However, theorists argue that individuals may be rebelling against society’s norms because they are so connected with the social institutions they seek to change.
Before Robert Park coined the term “collective behavior,” psychologists were analyzing variations on this concept. Freud, Lebon, and others began writing on crowd psychology. This concept differed from the more recent understandings of collective behavior. Early analysts were asking what forces were at play when people were together in mass that led to the occurrence of undesired behavior, usually in the form of deviant acts against social norms. However, sociologists tend to view acts of collective behavior as components of social change, not simply instances of loss of control among individuals usually resulting in violence.
Two primary theoretical paths serve to explain instances of collective behavior. Some theorists have argued that collective behavior can be truly explained only from the perspective that societal strain must exist in order for an instance of collective behavior to occur. Others explain the behavior as a result of a localized mass acting together toward a specific outcome. Following this explanation, protests, rumors, fads, and fashion are also considered types of collective behavior.
Turner and Killian provide an excellent overview of the history and field of collective behavior. They point out three types of collectivities: the crowd, the public, and the social movement. Each of these provides a social setting where collective behavior takes place. Theorists have moved away from the view of collective behavior as pathological and now primarily focus on acts of collective behavior as instances of social change. In their model, they acknowledge emergent norms, feasibility and timeliness, and preexisting groups and networks that are present in order for collective behavior to occur.
Turner and Killian argue that collective behavior is constantly formed and reformed. It may focus on events and individual action in the beginning, but as the process evolves, the meaning of the action changes. Their model takes into account both structural and emotional underpinnings of collective action. Their work continues to provide a quintessential understanding of collective behavior.
Smelser developed another primary model in studies of collective behavior. His model takes into account a series of conditions that need to be present in order for collective action to be defined as such. Based on the concept of social strain, Smelser’s argument poses conditions such as a breakdown of social control, structural conduciveness, and a precipitating incident usually occur prior to the emergence of collective behavior.
Social control is often weaker in collectivities because the individual has no ongoing relationship with the collectivity to worry about consequences of their actions.
The collectivity may develop norms of its own and encourage this behavior among its members. Often, members of the collectivity do things they may never do on their own. Structural conduciveness is another important factor to consider.
Structural conduciveness allows the situation to occur in some way, whether it be by a collective grievance or some other condition that allows the collective action to take place. In the case of a grievance, conflicts of interest that produce the grievance are known as structural strain. In addition, the grievance usually flows from some generalized belief among the population. Smelser also argues that there is usually a precipitating factor, or something that triggers the instance of collective behavior.
Instances of Collective Behavior
Evidence to support these theories can be found in classic cases of collective behavior. The civil rights movement in the United States provides ample evidence of collective behavior activities. In particular, the Freedom Summer riots in June 1964, March on Washington in 1963, and numerous other protests called attention to issues of inequality in the United States.
Other types of collective behavior are classified as less spontaneous and more dispersed than typical crowd or protest behavior. These exist in the form of rumors, fads, and fashions. Examples of dispersed mass behavior are evident changing styles of clothing in a culture, rumors such as urban legends, and popular culture toys and fads.
Does collective behavior have an effect in our daily lives? Cultural norms and values often set out to define acceptable behavior. Collective behavior by nature is a group activity. One is more likely to engage in collective behavior when norms come in conflict with our everyday behavior. Collective behavior ranges from expressions of discontent with society to crowd behavior and even simply following a certain fashion. Researchers have made efforts to make distinctions among types of collective behavior, and this is where searches for causes depart. Some even classify our current society as a global collectivity, where all behavior is somewhat collective—that we are acting and reacting to commonly held values resulting in expressions of collective behavior in the “everyday.”
How do we move from feelings of discontent to actions expressing these feelings? Researchers continue to pose this question today. Usually, a specific grievance or claim of discontent is easily identifiable to offer some explanation of collective action. However, there are many instances when a grievance clearly exists yet no action takes place. Why? What is unique about these situations that no action takes place? Many have attempted to answer this question citing structural conduciveness, feasibility, and current political climate. Emphasis on continual collection of empirical evidence is still necessary for a more complete understanding of the nuances of collective behavior.
- Curtis, R., & Aguirre, B. (Eds.). (1993). Collective behavior and social movements. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- LeBon, G. (1960). The crowd: A study of the popular mind. New York: Viking Press.
- McAdam, D. (1988). Freedom summer. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Smelser, N. (1963). Theory of collective behavior. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Tilly, C. (1979). Repertoires of contention in America and Britain, 1750-1830. In M. Zald & J. D. McCarthy (Eds.), The dynamics of social movements. New York: Little, Brown.
- Turner, R., & Killian, L. (1987). Collective behavior (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.