Crowds and Leisure

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A crowd is a large number of people engaged in non-routine activities. Because such behavior is not planned and supervised, participants are able to decide collectively and spontaneously how they wish to behave. A crowd then is not controlled by an outside authority who defines what behavior is expected, but rather is able to define its own behavior. At work, bosses or the task itself determines activities. Activities within most organizational settings, such as school or church, home or hospital, are similarly determined. Even playing organized games, as contrasted to watching, structures the activity of a group and thus removes it from the non-routine category of crowd. Groups not engaged in such organized activity are crowds whose behavior may be unpredictable. Spectators more than participants are likely to be such crowds. Gatherings of hobbyists, for example, are unlikely to be called crowds.

A crowd, therefore, is a group that presents a problem of social control, especially when the group gathered together for leisure is composed of people of subordinate status. Crowds may easily slip from control by authority and become a mob, as elites from Edmund Burke to Gustave LeBon used to characterize crowds. Similarly, modern historians and social scientists have conceived crowd actions as the lower class means to exercise power.

The perennial elite concern about leisure in public places has been about control of crowds. Parades, festivals, even indoor entertainment created crowds that periodically rioted. Carnivalesque events were especially dangerous because authority over subordinate groups traditionally loosened. Such concerns about sports spectators and rock concert crowds continue into the new millennium.

Authorities of all sorts wished to alleviate these concerns by imposing a regimen of discipline for most activities. Employers excluded free time for workers during work hours and disciplined the workday using the clock. Hospitals, prisons, and schools regiment their inmates' movements minute to minute. Social historians have documented a wide range of social control efforts by public and private authorities over the activities of subordinate groups in public spaces, the only place where such people could usually gather.

In the nineteenth century, elites as either reformers or repressors attempted to control the leisure of working people. The Progressive parks and playground movements hoped to supervise the free time of lower-class children and adults, and to cultivate and "Americanize" them. Frederick Law Olmsted believed his physical landscapes would not only offer relaxation, but also channel behavior and shape minds.

The state joined in these efforts, deploying police, social services, and public recreational and park facilities. Metropolitan police were organized to maintain order, that is, control street crowds, and to enforce a whole range of laws about behavior in public places. These laws, which were often posted in parks and other civic spaces, defined "order" and provided legal grounds for police to enforce this order.

Restriction on use of open land in rural areas and on behavior in urban public spaces by police drove lower classes onto private property, where owners could control and charge admission to lower classes seeking to pursue leisure not allowed in public, and to upper classes seeking to withdraw from such crowds. At first, leisure entrepreneurs found subordinate groups ready customers who had few alternatives where they could "be themselves" rather than conform to norms of higher classes. They provided what reformers denied lower classes. But gradually some owners and managers of commercial amusements sought greater profits and lower costs by reining in crowd behavior, and they gained the legal power to police behavior within their own establishments.

In the twentieth century, as working people became a significant consumer market and leisure was increasingly commercialized, social control became less overt. Advertising and a culture of consumption replaced police as the means to manage people's behavior. The recent rising concern about consumption is in part a concern about the social control of leisure through commercial products and services. Essentially, advertising is an attempt to persuade people to buy goods and services that presume specific scripted enactments. Dress and equipment, among other purchases, imply their use for specific performances and specific situations. In other words, they provide a script and rules of behavior that suit the goods purchased. A. G. Spaulding sold not only sports equipment, but also literally the rules of the games. Unregulated "sandlot" play was organized by rules and equipment from manufacturers and transformed crowds of kids into teams and leagues.

The recent scripting of spectators' time has done the same, changing unorganized crowds into regulated groups. Professional sports arenas provide not only a game but music, half-time entertainment, videos on big screen scoreboards, and even TV monitors at concession stands and in hallways. Such orchestration of activities specifically for crowd participation throughout the game reduces the likelihood of rowdiness or riot by spectators.

By the same token, crowds have not always succumbed to such discipline. Efforts to transform crowds into disciplined groups have not been ipso facto successful. Crowds rebelled, rioted, or moved to places where their rowdy behavior was acceptable. Even as some entrepreneurs sought higher-class clientele and broader markets, others continued to find profit serving lower classes by accepting and tailoring amusements to their culture. This autonomy, however, created a dilemma, greater probability that patrons might "get out of control," refuse to pay, demand refunds, or, worse, damage or destroy the property and even attack the entertainers, managers, or owners.

More subtle forms of imposing control were also common. The strain between autonomy and control was played out in many leisure settings. Lower-class blood sports such as bull and bear baiting, cock fights, and prize fights (but not fox hunting) were banned or restricted in the nineteenth century. Yet they thrived in illegitimate settings. The parks and playground movements were unsuccessful in removing lower-class kids and adults from the streets and saloons and placing them in locations where middle-class professionals could better supervise their leisure. Commercial amusements like Coney Island succeeded where reformers failed, attracting crowd from streets and saloons. They allowed lower-class patrons to talk, move about, eat, and flirt as well as enjoy the purchased entertainments.

Despite mechanisms of control, sports spectators still are unruly, and rock concert fans still sometimes riot, demonstrating the continued existence of uncontrolled, autonomous leisure crowds. Media critics typically abhor such behavior and call for police control of such lower-class displays—in contrast to newspapers' tolerance of Ivy League football fan rowdiness at the turn of the twentieth century. Privatized leisure in the home, such as radio and television, solved the problem of uncontrolled crowds by dispersing them to their homes, where danger would be contained by their families and small numbers. Such private leisure inspired different worries, most notably of a too-passive audience.

The history of theater audiences illustrates the perennial strain between control of gatherings in public and their autonomy or resistance. From the beginnings of European and American commercial theater in the early modern era, it was customary for audiences to "manage" performances by calling for tunes and encores as well as calling performers and managers before the curtain for criticism, and even to riot when their "rights" were not recognized. This custom has been called audience sovereignty. These rights had their roots in street performances, where performers played to crowds whose entry and behavior they did not control. Commedia dell'arte performances in Italy incorporated audience participation through asides to and repartee with the audience. Performers stepped down from improvised stages to mingle in and accost the crowd as part of the performance. Similar outdoor performers were typical at fairs and market days in England and France also. These circumstances gave the crowd significant control over the performance. As performances moved indoors, the lower classes in the pit or gallery continued to assert control over performances.

The history of American theater audiences has been one of gradual erosion of audience sovereignty, resulting in subdued audiences disciplined by their reduced legal prerogatives, managerially established rules of conduct, and norms of middle-class decorum. Before 1850, American theater audiences, particularly the lower classes in the pit and gallery, exhibited typical crowd behavior of rowdiness. Theater riots were not uncommon. These riots typically involved mostly lower-class participants objecting to some incursion on their right or politics. By the 1850s, however, with cities becoming sufficiently large to demand regular amusements, and the middle class growing sufficiently large to support and sufficiently accept such amusements, theater managers began to tame such rowdy audiences through a number of measures: replacing benches with individual seats, bolting these seats to the floor, and issuing reserved seat tickets; introducing rules of conduct and hiring ushers to enforce these rules in cheaper sections; excluding prostitutes, restricting alcohol and cigars, and changing the entertainment to appeal to women and middle-class more than male and working-class clientele.

Nevertheless, other theaters continued to service lower classes where rules of conduct were less stringent. The crowds in these theaters were freer to converse, move about, hiss, and behave in ways akin to the era of audience sovereignty. Immigrant theaters were particularly noted for this atmosphere. Riots were rarer, but they still occurred occasionally.

Nickelodeon movie audiences continued this same tradition. Some observers referred to these storefront theaters, especially in working-class neighborhoods, as social clubs because so much socializing occurred while movies were being shown. As movies moved into buildings built for that purpose and capital investment increased, theater owners sought a higher-class clientele and eschewed the "social club" atmosphere. The epitome of this trend was the movie palace. By the 1930s neighborhood theaters had lively audiences, but mostly during Saturday matinees for children.

With the rise of rock and roll and teenager culture in the 1950s, teenage crowds became feared as sources of trouble. At such music venues raucous audiences were more prone to acting as a crowd than the more mature audiences in adult theaters. Gatherings of working-class teenagers anywhere—dances, drag races, drive-in movies, and restaurants—were seen as a problem. Police were encouraged to disperse them. Teen dances and clubs were organized to supervise and control their behavior. Today, such rowdiness among young audiences continues and appears periodically in news reports.

See also: Coney Island, Country Music Audiences, Rap Music Audiences, Raves/Raving, Regulation and Social Control of Leisure, Rock Concert Audiences, Urbanization and Leisure


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Richard Butsch