Collective Behavior

views updated May 18 2018

Collective Behavior

Collective redefinition

Collective processes and forms

Crowd behavior as process


Collective behavior is the field of sociology that focuses on the sequences and patterns of interaction that emerge in problematic situations. The phenomena studied range from responses to disaster, the disorderly street mob, or the radical social upheaval to the peaceful and comparatively trivial shifts in the orientations of individuals and small groups that, occurring en masse, can produce major changes in taste, fashion, or public opinion. Indeed, subtle shifts of sentiment and opinion, in themselves difficult to detect, are often the first signs of more explosive occurrences such as panics, booms, crazes, psychic epidemics, and revolutionary uprisings.

Problematic situations are defined here as those in which participants lack adequate guides to conduct. Whenever imagery that is conventionally accepted or officially sanctioned fails to take account of, or runs counter to, deeply felt sentiments or common perceptions of reality, people create currents of agitation by their actions. They are stirred from the planes along which they normally move and remain agitated until they settle back again into a pattern resistant to further change. What takes place during the interlude is elementary collective problem solving rather than structured social action.

What initially attracted much interest to collective behavior was the element of drama almost invariably present in certain “mass” phenomena, whether in the form of novelty, bizarre behavior, exaggerated emotionality, violence, extremist ideology, or some kind of oddity. But fascination with and criticism of these unusual and “irrational” aspects of collective behavior soon gave way to more basic sociological concerns. Collective problem solving, it was observed, occurred not only in the midst of widespread chaos, confusion, and uncertainty but also in the most highly institutionalized settings. Some elementary aspect is actually present in every social encounter, since the behavior of the participants is never completely determined by prior expectations associated with the positions they occupy in stable social structures. Therefore, in this more theoretical sense, collective behavior is in fact ubiquitous, and every analysis that focuses on the dynamic (and therefore problematic) aspects of interaction deals to that extent with collective behavior phenomena.

The nature of collective behavior. Every elementary collective behavior episode involves a partial derailment of social interaction from its normatively structured or expected course. The significance of the derailment is more evident when it affects a large number of people who are agitated and actively concerned over some condition that they are trying to alleviate or redress. Although normative standards continue to have some influence on the direction in which activities unfold, the interaction is characterized by relatively greater spontaneity, volatility, and transitoriness than it would be if the behavior of the participants were more securely anchored in recognized norms.

To say that elementary collective behavior occurs spontaneously is to point to the role played in its initiation by individuals who experience greater subjective freedom or psychological compulsion to express unconventional ideas, to engage in unconventional behavior, or otherwise to deviate from established standards. But a lowering of the threshold of inhibition does not imply a total loss of the capacity for critical self-appraisal, even in states of extreme agitation. Few participants even in a highly excited crowd are acting either randomly or blindly; fewer still are governed by an impulse irresistible in any absolute sense. In fact, collective behavior can be, and often is, the product of highly self-conscious individual actions; for instance, bizarre as a fad may appear to the outsider, faddists themselves often act deliberately and see nothing strange in their actions. Hence, what happens in collective behavior is spontaneous in that it is rarely the product of prior consensus or design.

Volatility refers to the explosive force with which intense affect, intemperate opinions, or clear misapprehensions of reality are sometimes communicated and acted out. It also refers to the instability of responses under these conditions. Once the situation is “unfrozen” and orientations are no longer firmly anchored in conventions, participants begin to pay more attention to cues directly inferred from the behavior of others. Leadership passes to individuals because their actions are congruent with the prevailing psychological atmosphere. As a collective mood develops, the responses to directives from established authorities become uncertain and participants can get caught up in a vicious cycle of self-validating definitions. Thus, the more widespread a rumor, the more acceptance it gains; or fashions, once adopted, can reach the height of absurdity—yet both may be abandoned and forgotten not long after.

The elementary and spontaneous phase of agitation or enthusiasm is always of transitory duration. Spontaneous acts of defiance can, to be sure, spark a movement of radical protest; a charismatic prophet can bring divine inspiration to his following. However, unless an organized nucleus or core group continues to arouse and provoke the participants, their interactions are not likely to become form-defining. The behavior, if satisfying and followed by desirable consequences, will quickly congeal into new conventions with their own supporting structure and legitimate basis, though the spirit will soon pass out of these initially spontaneous forms.

Collective redefinition

All social conduct rests on a fabric of common meanings, on an imagery shared by relevant persons. This represents the collective definition of the situation. The processes by which such a definition arises or changes to support new and disjunctive behavior are best observed in situations that are inherently unstable, namely, where the presence of an element of choice, novelty, crisis, attrition, competitiveness, or conflict creates a problem. The collective definitions that develop in these situations tend to be highly dependent upon what participants themselves feel and directly experience at the given moment.

Choice implies the existence of alternatives and the freedom to select but no generally accepted criterion for making the selection. A novel situation is created by unfamiliar circumstances that have no precedents in the experience of participants. Crisis arises from extraordinary demands during an emergency that threaten to overtax the capacity of some organized group. Attrition develops when collective effort weakens as the result of a persistent and apparently irremediable difficulty. A competitive situation is one in which the reward structure, perceived as favoring an individual solution, interferes with a cooperative solution. Finally, conflict arises when one party attempts to enforce a dominant claim whose legitimacy is challenged by another.

When any of the above situations becomes problematic for many people, the conventionally accepted imagery will lose its authenticity. It may leave important areas of ambiguity, or it may be deliberately questioned and contradicted by some of those involved. The collective redefinition which then takes place provides the key to the new behavior likely to emerge. Though most problematic situations combine several elements—choice, novelty, etc.—each of these entails its own dynamic in generating a particular incident, episode, or movement clearly recognizable as collective behavior.


In the pure choice situation, the preference for one or the other of several alternatives reflects essentially subjective moods or tastes. Without an accepted utilitarian criterion to govern personal choice, people will orient themselves to the inferred appraisals of other persons, that is to say, to some transitory definition of what is “fitting” or in “good taste.” Such a situation gives rise to fashion. Not only the choice of dress but also all kinds of consumption, conduct, and intellectual, artistic, and even political pursuits become subject to fashion to the extent that the selections are functionally irrelevant, passing fancies whose chief value lies in the image of up-to-dateness which they convey. Once the new standard has diffused, most others will feel compelled to conform.


Novel situations brought about by changes in external life conditions or within the structure of the group also involve choices, but—in contrast with the pure choice situation—the selection among the alternatives is sought in terms of functionally relevant assessments. An innovation compatible with cultural definitions and social commitments can gain acceptance solely on the basis of its demonstrated effectiveness, because it requires only minor modifications in the collective image. Another innovation, whose acceptance would have far-reaching implications for several areas of behavior and belief, will need the support of prestigeful individuals to demonstrate its utility and thus to overcome resistance and inertia. This is all the more necessary where a collective decision is the only means of implementation. The propaganda and proselyting efforts by which images are manipulated to support an innovation are important attributes of social movements, which by their collective action seek to reconstitute the social order in some significant way.


The problematic aspects of the crisis situation (and of attrition) involve not so much choice and decision as coordination and control. An emergency calls for quick and decisive action. Though there is always a risk that the initial response to a crisis will be based on less than a full and accurate assessment of what is happening and of what needs to be done, the element of novelty in a crisis caused by an unprecedented situation is likely to aggravate any confusion. Often communication channels break down from the overload; activities cannot be fully coordinated. Hence the interpretations people make will be based to an unusual degree on chance observations, hearsay, and other unofficial sources of information. The transmission of “rumors” should be viewed as an improvised effort to elicit responses that will contribute to a working definition of the situation, and not primarily as a product of cognitive error.


The high level of activity demanded by a crisis cannot be sustained indefinitely. An attrition situation induces emotional adaptation of one kind or another to persisting and extreme demands. In the case of continuing threat, the inherent danger often comes to be minimized by a growing collective disbelief about its actual presence. The illusion that war is impossible (“unthinkable”) because our weapons are too destructive is one form such adaptation can take. More often, the persistent problem that defies a solution promotes fatalism as a justification for apathy. Or the cumulative irritability aroused in these circumstances can be displaced against whatever targets are available. Likewise, it can be converted into hysterical beliefs and symptoms that interfere with effective collective action to deal with the source of the difficulty.

Competition and conflict

Individual responses to a competitive situation and collective responses to conflict have a special propensity for generating a vicious cycle of reciprocal reactions whereby the initial condition that the responses are intended to alleviate is instead aggravated. For example, competitive scare buying in anticipation of future short-ages raises prices, thus confirming the expectation and justifying still more anticipatory purchases. Collectively these responses help produce the short-ages individuals had anticipated. In like manner, reactive interaction between antagonists who feel threatened escalates whatever conflict already exists. The image of the opponents changes; they become transformed into enemies. Fear, hostility, and suspicion magnify the original source of dispute, often to the point where violence and treachery are condoned and an open test of strength must precede any serious negotiations.

In terms of social control, competition or conflict can lead either to a crisis or to an attrition situation. Unfettered competitive dumping on the stock market, for example, can drop prices and create a crisis of confidence; prolonged conflict to the point of stalemate is inevitably accompanied by signs of serious attrition on both sides, even to a point where continued exertion no longer seems worthwhile.

Collective processes and forms

Each of the problematic situations described above generates changes in the collective imagery (redefinitions) that legitimate changes in established social forms and lead to the emergence of new group properties. The problem-solving activity causes both temporary disruptions and permanent modifications of social structure. To understand the collective dynamics of these transformations, one must look not to the accidental attributes of the forms themselves but to the processes of trans-formation and the effects they have in different circumstances.

The first of these processes is convergence, either physical or behavioral. It results in a focalized response. Other collective responses develop from different processes, which may occur either concurrently or in temporal sequence. Demoralization culminates in an atomized response; collective defense in a solidary response; polarization in a reactive response; mass conversion in an apostate response; and crystallization in a schismatic response. To study processes is to depict the collective dynamics by which a particular incident, outburst, or movement develops.


Some collective behavior is nothing but the outcome of convergence. In physical convergence, the actual movements of people who flock to the scene of an accident, rush to get on the same train, make a pilgrimage to the same shrine, or take their vacations at the same resort produce “crowds.” Behavioral convergence refers to individual actions that coincide solely in being oriented toward the same object, as among those who purchase the same product, interest themselves in the same event, or adopt the same behavior, without all of the participants necessarily being in physical contact or even in communication with one another. Purely behavioral convergence by a sufficiently large number of individuals (or local groups) produces a “mass” rather than a crowd (Blumer 1939).

Sometimes convergence is the accidental product of independent but simultaneous actions by individuals (or local groups) that just happen to coincide; at other times, the convergence is largely imitative and occurs in stages. In either case, convergence is essentially an ecological phenomenon that does not depend on a cooperative response but merely on the exercise of individual (or unit) choices. Yet the convergence of choices can have serious implications. Accidental physical convergence, as in a traffic jam or during a disaster, creates bottlenecks, which constitute a problem and require special effort to resolve. At the same time, the density of any crowd and the difficulties in controlling it increase the likelihood that interaction will be derailed. Once such a multitude gets out of hand, new behavior often spreads by imitation, but accidental convergence, unless it becomes imitative, usually produces only the most transient forms of interaction. The spread of a fashion or fad, or the gradual acceptance of a new implement, technique, or policy, illustrates convergence that is both behavioral and imitative. Rapid diffusion of an innovation is usually made possible by a novel element that both attracts the attention of people and appeals to their hankering.


The simplest way to define demoralization is as the process by which morale is undermined. Morale is a condition or state that measures the capacity of members of a collectivity to pursue, despite disruptive influences, a socially legitimate objective. Groups, organizations, movements, and even whole societies have varying levels of morale. When morale is high, members of a collectivity individually or collectively confronted with a problematic situation will continue to exert themselves to cooperate. Demoralization sets in when changes in the perceived balance of rewards make cooperation no longer seem attractive or worth the effort. It leads to the atomization of responses.

By and large, the cohesiveness of a group, as well as the confidence its members have in the efficacy of any joint endeavor, will be adversely affected by prolonged and serious frustration, deprivation, threat, and other types of adversity. Moderate stress, however, promotes learning without causing loss of confidence in the collective enterprise. It gives the members an opportunity to rehearse and internalize the responses appropriate for overcoming specific difficulties they encounter. In general, when group morale is high, fear of failure (“letting the group down”) will help counter fears of personal harm or injury, whose disruptive effects on performance are potentially greater. But the effects of severe or prolonged stress tend to become cumulative. They make focal to each individual the risks he personally faces, and ultimately weaken the group ties that can be invoked to counter the effects of harm anxiety. As studies of military groups and of communities in disaster have shown, the relationship between stress and demoralization is essentially curvilinear. Danger successfully weathered without serious loss or damage usually increases solidarity and the capacity to cope with similar situations.

Collective defense

The solidary response signifies the successful development of a collective defense against demoralization through the spontaneous coalescence of individual reactions. Most collective defenses are socially structured. All societies develop standard practices that function as mechanisms for containing anxieties, practices that are analogous and correspond to the characterological defenses of individual persons. Similarly, societies provide ritualistic occasions during which certain expressions in contradiction to moral standards are evoked. The latter function as safety valves for blocked emotions. In their ritual version such excesses tend to be explicitly condoned, but during an organized demonstration, a strike, or a celebration, behavior that is worrisome or even repugnant to authorities may simply be permitted to take its natural course. The process of collective defense represents the coalescence of behavior to serve as a spontaneously shared mechanism of defense against demoralization. Particularly in an emotionally charged group atmosphere, where there is considerable tension between the desires of individuals and the demands of group membership, any successful disguise or neutralization of this tension produces an elementary solidarity conducive to the acting out of impulses or to making demands whose open expression would not be tolerable.

Among the more common expressions of collective defense are bodily symptoms, convulsive laughter, and action based on hysterical beliefs. These can quickly become collective when the real source of anxiety, experienced by all, is poorly understood or cannot be acknowledged because of existing taboos. Disturbances that appear irrational—like witch hunts, nativist phenomena, violent mob action, and even some religious revivals—are typical of the forms collective defenses may take when institutional means for resolving tensions on the intrapersonal and interpersonal levels are lacking. The members of a mob typically refer to some norm of justice, personified by their particular heroes or violated by the villain against whom vengeance or redress is sought, which their action is intended to uphold.


A solidary response achieved on the subgroup level at the expense of over-all consensus constitutes, in terms of the larger social system, a polarized or reactive response. The process of polarization develops from the reactive escalation of antagonisms that progressively harden divergent viewpoints into partisan commitments. Through mutual withdrawal, participation and communication gradually come to be confined within each sector, and mutually dependent but opposing definitions of the situation emerge.

Factional alignments that coincide with already existing social divisions have a high potential for polarization. The issues that emerge merely rein-force the cleavages already endemic within the collectivity, particularly if the effects of a persisting difficulty or of a disaster have very different effects on these segments. In such a case, the many issues that emerge will tend to coincide with the single dominant axis of polarization. Conversely, a highly pluralistic structure—whether in a society or in an organization—will tend to produce shifting coalitions that moderate the intensity of conflict on any single point. Only an issue with far-reaching moral ramifications can generate sufficient pressure to force all individuals to choose one of two sides and to disrupt all competing group allegiances that cut across the particular factional alignment.

Mass conversion

While polarization produces a strain toward consistency that sharpens endemic divisions and increases their salience, the process of mass conversion involves a drastic reorganization of experience through the assimilation of culturally and ideologically disjunctive attitudes and the development of new group affiliations to sup-port them. In short, mass conversion culminates in collective apostasy.

Despite its evident historic significance, the dynamics of mass conversion and apostasy are poorly understood. The acceptance of a new ideology and of “culture change” seems to hinge on “critical” life experiences. Novelty, crisis, and attrition highlight inadequacies in prevailing imagery and weaken traditionally binding commitments. But the positive adherence to a new ideology by an individual involves a status change and the severance of existing interpersonal ties, or at least their redefinition. By the same token, collective apostasy entails parallel status movements, as when mass migrations, coercive acculturation, or structural change in the stratification system forces many people, more or less at the same time, to adapt to a new milieu.

The importance of status change is perhaps best documented by reference to ideological conversion (“brainwashing”) fostered by techniques of coercive indoctrination in a controlled milieu. Here individuals are isolated together from their normal social relationships. But the crucial mechanism of conversion is to be found in the inevitable disruption of status relations by the succession of generations. Not only do unique “historical” experiences shared by members of one generation influence the way the present is viewed, but the “rising” generation is always under pressure to redefine its relation to the older generation, whose members are “on the way out.” Disjunctive ideological changes are most likely to occur where the power monopoly of an older cohort prevents a younger one from asserting what it considers as its rightful claim. Sometimes, however, military defeat, economic depression, and other calamities bring status deprivation primarily to the old, who then transmit deviant ideological images to younger people whose status relations are not directly affected by the new conditions. [SeeGenerations.]


The earliest articulation of dif-fuse unrest into ideologically deviant tendencies occurs within schismatic groups—gangs, sects, and other sectarian associations that usually recruit among alienated individuals disenchanted with culture-forming institutions. Such groups offer these individuals a fellowship and understanding they do not find elsewhere in the society. The nuclei of such groupings form by a process of crystallization that involves a conscious act of disaffiliation. Thus the activities and beliefs of sectarians do not naturally evolve from group relations linked to other statuses they occupy in society; rather, being a sectarian presupposes a willingness to subordinate all competing social relationships to the demands of the schismatic group.

As a consequence of their self-imposed insulation, the world of the radical sectarians is correspondingly narrowed. Common access to ecstatic experience and esoteric wisdom, not available to outsiders, promotes a mentality with low tolerance for dissent and invites frequent internal schisms to preserve the purity of the group from contamination. In the gang, the rejection of the dominant order is expressed in contempt for social constraints imposed by outsiders, but contempt may be coupled with a concern for reform or exploitation of the existing order. The rigoristic sect, by contrast, turns its attention away from a world defined as corrupt; its members seek a purer morality, some-times realizable only in the hereafter. Sometimes the two forms exist together, as among the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit, who, by virtue of their doctrine of immanence, believed that each of them incorporated the divine principle and hence was no longer subject to any law higher than himself. [SeeSects and cults.]

In the schismatic group, one observes the direct influence of the deviant with charisma whose “inspired” message exerts a magnetic appeal to the culturally déraciné, to those suffering from marginality and downward mobility, and those who find in it a legitimized outlet for their intrapsychic conflicts. Thus, the schismatic group may offer a reliable source of support for pathological tendencies (for example, the adolescent gang leader’s paranoid projections confirmed by gang codes). Schismatic groups are properly encompassed under collective behavior because (1) they form through the spontaneous sharing of sentiments expressed in fluid and transient patterns of interaction, whether or not these crystallize thereafter; (2) given the total commitment and fanaticism of their members, they provide the active cells and core groups of social movements, whose agitation and proselytizing efforts are directed, explicitly or unintentionally, toward the reconstitution of the social order in some significant way.

Crowd behavior as process

Crowd episodes are strategic research sites in which to observe collective problem-solving activity in its natural setting. Any large gathering of people at one place can properly be designated as a crowd; yet the behavior of such a gathering arouses interest primarily when participants, reacting to the presence of others, engage in some highly emotional, unusual, or disapproved activity or when this activity results in some significant harm or damage to persons or to property. Responsibility for this orientation can be traced to the nineteenth-century progenitors of the theory of the crowd—the collective psychologists, among whom Gustave Le Bon (1895) was the best-known, though certainly not the most systematic, thinker. Their speculations, spawned in decades of political disturbance, increasing industrial conflict, and rising patriotic fervor, dwelled on the “psychological crowd” and the “mass” as forms of collective behavior through which the lower orders exerted their will by sheer numbers. By metaphorical ex-tension, these concepts then came to be applied not only to the actions of street mobs but to all traces of irrationality evident in even the most central institutions of bourgeois society, such as the parliament, the press, and the money markets. Caught up in the pathological contagion of the crowd, men were thought to be transformed and to be removed from the influence of society and culture, while all institutions responsive to the influence of large numbers (the “mass”) were thereby corrupted. [SeeMass society.]

The current theory of the crowd has only gradually freed itself from this mystique. Before it could do so, such diverse phenomena as riots, revolutionary crowds, lynch mobs, marauding mobs, collective revelry, solemn assemblies, excited audiences, noisy demonstrations, hysterical outbursts, panic flights, competitive stampedes, and so forth had to be viewed in their specific historical, social, and cultural settings instead of being attributed directly to the peculiar psychological forces inherent in large numbers. Although the images and collective definitions guiding participants may be changed, elaborated, and intensified within the crowd situation, they rarely spring full-blown from these interactions. The problem is to distinguish analytically between the ecological basis of crowd behavior, including the images and ideas that bring people to the scene, and the collective processes that account for its dynamic. Hence most crowds, far from being a simple antithesis to organized society, actually originate within some established group or express cleavages and divisions existing within the society at large.

Collective processes in crowd episodes

Any unusual event occurring in a public place which many people traverse or where they congregate will quickly attract a large number of onlookers. By their physical convergence, those drawn to the scene collectively form a “crowd.” Ordinarily their interactions will have no significance beyond momentary curiosity, which is satisfied once they have found out what is going on. There is some collective redefinition, but it does not culminate in what is usually thought of as crowd behavior.

When the physical convergence of a multitude results from individual actions of persons intent on gaining some highly valued object in scarce supply, the ecology of participation has significance beyond the mere focalization of responses. In an escape mob or a competitive stampede, for example, the efforts of individuals to attain their objectives are intensified as they become aware of the breakdown of social control. Their coincidental movements toward a narrow passageway to safety, toward some esteemed idol, or to gain some competitive advantage produce crowding that interferes with the movements of other individuals toward the same objective. While behavior on any individual’s part can continue to be purposeful and adaptive, the interaction of all these individuals together results in chaos and disorder. It is because the individual responses remain atomized that the pattern, collectively, becomes one of demoralization. Collectively, these responses preclude concerted or cooperative action; the affective ties that may have united the participants before cease to be binding.

The individualistic crowd depicted here hardly provides an adequate model for the study of crowd behavior. First, its occurrence, like that of the crowd of onlookers, has a highly accidental character and hinges on very special ecological circumstances. Though the formation of an escape mob, for instance, is facilitated in situations where group ties are weak to begin with, such disengagement of individuals from their social obligations is more typically expressed in apathetic withdrawal, low personal esprit, violation of norms in private, psychiatric malaise, etc. Second, participants in other crowd episodes, as in a riot, a lynching, or a looting expedition, usually manifest some sense of common purpose. The psychic unity of the “crowd,” no matter how rudimentary, signifies some degree of structuring that the individualistic crowd cannot develop unless the behavior of participants is reoriented and thereby ceases to be “individualistic.” Third, many disorders treated as “crowds” involve behavioral rather than physical convergence. The collective pattern results as the behavior of a group in one area is repeated in other areas. A spate of racial incidents throughout a city adds up to a “race riot”; the cultivation of the paroxysms characteristic of chorea minor by many groups comes to be defind as an epidemic of “dancing mania.”

Periods of special stress and tension have been marked by both a rise in crowd activity and an increased tendency toward demoralization. Thus, collective disturbances in custodial institutions, such as prison riots, tend to coincide with administrative changeover; outbreaks of the dancing mania in medieval Europe and Japan have been related to epidemic scourges and social dislocations; peaks of rioting in France, England, and Mexico have been shown to occur together with a sharp increase in the price of bread or a drop in wages; interethnic mob violence has its background in the competition for jobs, housing, or public facilities and benefits. The fact that the same precipitating conditions are associated with both a tendency toward demoralization and with outbursts of crowd activity points to a link between the two. Therefore, the physical suffering and status deprivations that contribute to demoralization appear to be necessary but not sufficient conditions for the increased activity of “crowds.”

The second critical element is to be found in the adequacy of socially structured defenses for coping with stress. The activity developed by crowds can be understood as a spontaneously shared defense against demoralizing tendencies whenever acceptable modes for coping with anxiety generated within a situation are lacking. Through collective rather than individual action some of the stress experienced by individuals is transferred to the larger social system. This process whereby individuals and groups collectively defend themselves against demoralization can be observed en masse as well as among physical contact groups.

Three major elements involved in collective defense against the demoralizing effects of stress are situationally sanctioned collective license, mass hysteria, and the coercive enforcement of norms by illicit and extralegal methods of intimidation. A single episode or incident can involve all three elements, but the element predominating will vary according to the nature of the anxieties generated and the manner in which a collective response develops.

The licentious crowd. Collective license is usually triggered by the impulsiveness of some individuals who, lacking effective personal controls, are forever seeking opportunities for self-indulgence. Such personalities are exceedingly skillful in sizing up situations that permit them to violate norms while minimizing the risk of punishment or even having to face up to the full implications of antisocial acts. Large assemblages, especially after they have gotten a bit out of hand, attract persons with whose pathological dispositions these initial acts may coincide. Psychopaths, always found in prison populations, frequently touch off major disturbances; the probability of a disturbance can be inferred from the number of such psychopaths among the inmates of a prison.

Still, personality obviously represents only a condition that predisposes toward acting out. The effective neutralization of culpability and guilt constitutes an equally important condition: temporarily, at least, normative restraints must be perceived as having for practical purposes become inoperative. The failure of authorities to intervene decisively is of particular importance. It generates the impression that the acts of the “crowd” are at least tacitly condoned. Similarly, the image of authorities as hypocritical or corrupt negates the legitimacy of such intervention but gives tacit sanction to the contravention of norms.

The hysterical crowd. Where hysteria is the predominant element, outbursts more likely involve persons who normally restrain their inclinations toward self-indulgence and impulsiveness but whose defenses are of such primitive character that they verge on panic when environmental pressures build up and habitual defenses are no longer adequate. The point is that the nature of the problem causing the anxiety is obscure to the participants. They feel in danger of being overwhelmed in ways that they cannot themselves accept and which they feel are equally unacceptable to other members of their group. In the classical form of the hysterical epidemic, the anxiety of persons, each of whom experiences inner conflict, is converted into a somatic disturbance, usually of a markedly stereotyped character. The behavioral symptom of the individual first or most shaken gives objective expression to the diffuse anxiety and hence becomes the catalyst around which the collective behavior crystallizes.

A highly repressive setting that offers few opportunities for individualized expression—a strictly supervised boarding school, or nunnery, or reformatory—is most conducive to outbreaks of epidemic hysteria. Many major social dislocations have been accompanied by the massive sharing of psychopathological symptoms. Convulsions, paroxysms, and other forms of hysteria are often deliberately elicited in religious revivals and by prophetic cults or nativist movements that arise as collective responses to stress. These first stammering attempts at collective problem solving are readily superseded by more effective forms of remedial action. The Welsh revival, for example, was replaced within a decade by militant trade unionism in the very areas in which it had its strongest hold. Similarly, the cargo cults of the southwest Pacific and the African prophet phenomena have been the precursors of political movements once new means for the articulation of grievances could be worked out. [SeeNativism and revivalism.]

The acting crowd. The character of crowd behavior as collective defense is most evident when an aggrieved population acts directly and coercively to assert its own norms against established authority or to impose its own conception of justice against deviants defined as a threat. Although such action often involves a deliberate defiance of authorities, the willful violation of laws, and savage acts of intimidation, violence, and destructiveness, it nevertheless represents a method of social control, however primitive the means employed. This type of acting crowd forms when institutional channels for the expression of grievances are ineffective or totally lacking. In such circumstances, crowds can usurp authority simply by virtue of the power that resides in superior numbers. The lynch mob sees that “justice” is done; the mass demonstration forces the recognition of its demands; and acts of destructiveness often succeed in drawing attention to social grievances (for instance, the Luddites destroyed machinery in order to intimidate the owners into complying with standards and practices by which handicraftsmen were trying to protect their interests). As Rudé (1964) in particular has pointed out, most crowds are far from indiscriminate in their selection of objects on which to heap vengeance. Their threats and destructiveness are confined to those who pose some direct or implied danger.

In its disposition to raise nondebatable demands, the acting crowd—much more than the licentious or hysterical crowd—underscores the breakdown of intergroup norms as a condition for its emergence. A rigidly stratified society without channels for airing protests or conducting negotiations to adjust grievances encourages the riot and the revolutionary demonstration as the only effective means of seeking redress. The typical race or ethnic riot is likewise indicative of a degree of polarization before mediating roles and accommodationist institutions have had a sufficient chance to emerge as a means of softening conflict. Each provocation, especially one involving direct action, arouses reactive responses that diminish the faith in orderly procedures and even-handed justice. Many incidents, in themselves of only minor significance, contribute to an atmosphere of suspiciousness in which violence becomes expected. In such an atmosphere, threats and response to threats are likely to reinforce each other, so that hostility on both sides is dramatically increased.

Explaining crowd behavior

The fact that much direct action by crowds arises from the activity of groups leads to the temptation to attribute whatever course is pursued to the influence of instigators and agitators who seek to turn the anxieties and grievances of some susceptible population to their own advantage. Accordingly, a looting crowd is seen as a pillaging expedition led by a few daring individuals; a street brawl becomes a clash between groups led by paranoid leaders; or a political disturbance is denounced as the product of professional sectarian agitation. This class of explanations tends to overlook the internal dynamics by which a single crowd episode can pass through several mutations.

These mutations can be accounted for without recourse to uncanny psychological forces. The composition of a specific crowd supplies clues about the problems its activities mean to resolve. But most urban centers that contain dense populations also harbor many diverse elements who are likely to dilute the unity of purpose of any specific crowd. Thus, the confusion and disorder exploited by some persons as an opportunity for all kinds of license aggravates the anxieties of others and provides a focus for their hysterical fears. Mutations in behavior also occur as responses to the competitive efforts of agents provocateurs to gain the attention of and to influence those present. Most crowds contain not only participants—active and passive—but also victims and innocent bystanders, who respond to rumors and misapprehend the situation or who inadvertently find themselves swept up in the line of march. The involvement of these people in the crowd contributes to its unpredictability. Furthermore, the ecology of a crowd is such that persons experience it from different perspectives and no participant can have an overview of all that is going on. Physical crowding limits the view and confuses the picture. Under the cover of this confusion still other unanticipated acts of collective defense are committed by groups of persons who are reacting to what happens from their own particular perspective.

Finally, the experience in crowds can be related to the conversion process, since it may produce new images (ideological commitments) or new groupings out of which social ferment and social movements grow. It must be pointed out, however, that claims about the number of conversions effected during the crowd excitement of a mass revival have rarely withstood the objective scrutiny of the researcher. As a rule, such conversion experiences mark merely a rite de passage into a new status that the neophyte has eagerly sought; most others among the apparent converts backslide as soon as the excitement fades. On the other hand, crowd action that successfully defies authorities or brings governments tumbling down opens new spheres of participation that were never previously envisaged.

The special mystique with which the crowd has so often been invested—that of a pathological force compelling men to act contrary to their usual behavior—must finally be put to rest and be replaced by a sociological analysis. The main task for such analysis is to find links between the specific content of the impulses, fears, grievances, and demands that characterize the participants in any crowd episode and the conditions under which the crowd comes to form and the goals it pursues. The conceptualization of crowd episodes in terms of collective processes emphasizes the relationship of such apparently irrational outbursts to inadequacies and strains in the social structure. Crowd behavior needs to be studied as collective problem-solving activity within the larger context of social and organizational breakdown and change.

Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang

[Directly related are the entriesFashion; Mass phenomena; Social movements. Other relevant material may be found inAttitudes, article onattitude change; Brainwashing; Cohesion, social; Social control; and in the biography ofLe Bon.]


Blumer, Herbert(1939) 1951 Collective Behavior. Pages 167-222 in Alfred M. Lee (editor), New Outline of the Principles of Sociology. 2d ed., rev. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Gluckman, Max 1954 Rituals of Rebellion in Southeast Africa. Manchester Univ. Press.

Grosser, George H. et al. (editors) 1964 The Threat of Impending Disaster. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press. → On the process of demoralization.

Jacques, Elliott 1955 Social Systems as a Defense Against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety. Pages 478–498 in Melanie Klein, Paula Heimann, and R. E. Money-Kyrle (editors), New Directions in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

Lang, Kurt; and Lang, Gladys 1961 Collective Dynamics. New York: Crowell.

Le Bon, Gustave (1895) 1947 The Crowd. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Psychologie des foules. A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Viking.

McGill University, Montreal, Department of Sociology and Anthropology 1956 The Formation, Nature, and Control of Crowds, by William A. Westley. Ottawa: Dept. of National Defense, Defense Research Board. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Park, Robert E. (1913–1944)1950–1955 Collected Papers of Robert Ezra Park. 3 vols. Edited by Everett C. Hughes et al. Glencoe, iii.: Free Press. → Volume 1: Race and Culture, 1913–1944. Volume 2: Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology, 1916–1939. Volume 3: Society: Collective Behavior, News and Opinion, Sociology and Modern Society, 1918–1942. → See especially Volume 3.

RudÉ, George 1964 The Crowd in History: 1730–1848. New York: Wiley.

Smelser, Neil J. (1962)1963 Theory of Collective Behavior. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press.

Swanson, G. E. 1953 A Preliminary Laboratory Study of the Acting Crowd. American Sociological Review 18:522–533.

Turner, Ralph H. 1964 Collective Behavior. Pages 382–425 in Robert E. L. Faris (editor), Handbook of Modern Sociology. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Turner, Ralph H.; and Killian, Lewis M. 1957 Collective Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Collective Memory

views updated May 21 2018

Collective Memory


Contemporary usage of the term collective memory is largely traceable to Émile Durkheim (18581917), who wrote extensively in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) about commemorative rituals, and to his student, Maurice Halbwachs (18771945), who published a landmark study on The Social Frameworks of Memory in 1925. For Halbwachs, who accepted Durkheims sociological critique of philosophy, studying memory is not a matter of reflecting on the properties of the subjective mind; rather, memory is a matter of how minds work together in society, how their operations are structured by social arrangements: It is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories (Halbwachs 1992, p. 38). Halbwachs thus argued that it is impossible for individuals to remember in any coherent and persistent fashion outside of their group contexts. Group memberships provide the materials for memory and prod the individual into recalling particular events and into forgetting others. Groups can even produce memories in individuals of events that they never experienced in any direct sense. Halbwachs thus resisted the more extreme intuitionist subjectivism of philosopher Henri Bergson (18591941) (whose work had nevertheless led Halbwachs to his interest in memory), as well as the commonsense view of remembering as a purelyperhaps even quintessentiallyindividual affair.

In contrast to Halbwachss discussion in The Social Frameworks of Memory, howeverin which he argues that what individuals remember is determined by their group memberships but still takes place in their own mindsin The Legendary Topography of the Holy Land (1941) and elsewhere Halbwachs focused on publicly available commemorative symbols, rituals, and representations. This more Durkheimian discussion in turn undergirded Halbwachss contrast between history and collective memory not as one between public and private but as one based on the relevance of the past to the present: Both history and collective memory are publicly available social factsthe former dead, the latter living. Halbwachs alternately referred to autobiographical memory, historical memory, history, and collective memory. Autobiographical memory is memory of those events that we ourselves experience (though those experiences are shaped by group memberships), while historical memory is memory that reaches us only through historical records. History is the remembered past to which we no longer have an organic relationthe past that is no longer an important part of our liveswhile collective memory is the active past that forms our identities.

While rightly credited with establishing collective memory both as a concept and as a subject for sociological research, Halbwachs is far from the only scholar to have thought systematically about the (changing) relationship between the past and the present. Before Halbwachs, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (17701831) had distinguished among original history (eyewitnessing and chronicling), reflective history (scientific), and philosophical history (teleological). Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) in turn distinguished among antiquarian, monumental, and critical uses of the past.

In contemporary scholarship, the so-called history of mentalities has pursued a collective psychology approach to cultural history, seeing images of the past as part of the whole complex of ideas, aspirations, and feelings which links together the members of a social group (Goldmann 1964, p. 17), and thus forms an important topic for historical investigation. In Germany, many historians and social scientists have revived an older, philosophical concept of historical consciousness (Geschichtsbewusstsein ) to guide analysis, linking it to concerns about the politics of history (Geschichtspolitik ), which indicates both the role of history in politics and the role of politics in history. Yet another camp has employed the awkward yet insightful term mnemohistory, which unlike history proper is concerned not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered (Assmann 1997, p. 9). Mnemohistory thus calls for a theory of cultural transmission that helps us understand history not simply as one thing after another nor as a series of objective stages, but as an active process of meaning-making through time, the ongoing work of reconstructive imagination (Assmann 1997, p. 9). Yet another similar argument comes out of the hermeneutic tradition, particularly as articulated by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (19002002), in which the meaning of life can be found in our ongoing making and remaking of self-consciousness through interpretation without end.

No matter what the specific conceptualization, what may be called social memory studies (Olick and Robbins 1998) has become a prominent feature of scholarly discourse in recent decades, when Western societies in particular have been experiencing a sort of memory boom (Winter 2006). Indeed, explaining this boom has been an important topic for social memory studies. Scholars have variously sought to explain the rise of interest in the past, memory, commemoration, nostalgia, and history in contexts ranging from consumer promotions, popular culture, interior and exterior design, and public space, as well as the rise of reparations, apologies, and other forms of redress in domestic and international politics. Answers have included the decline of the nation-state as a carrier of identity, the end of faith in progress, the rise of multiculturalism, and postmodernity more generally. Most famously, and most generally, the French historian and editor Pierre Nora has claimed that we spend so much time thinking about the past because there is so little of it left: Where we earlier lived lives suffused with pastness the continuities of habit and customwe now live disconnected from our pasts, seeing ourselves as radically different than our forebears. In Noras terms, where once we were immersed in milieux de mémoire (worlds of memory), we moderns now consciously cultivate lieux de mémoire (places of memory) because memory is now a special topic. In a related manner, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has distinguished between worlds of custom and worlds of invented tradition. Since the late nineteenth century, not only have nation-states sought to shore up declining legitimacy by propagating fictional pasts and a sense of their institutions ancientness, people have invented the very category of tradition (as opposed to custom): the idea of self-conscious adherence to past ways of acting (whether genuine or spurious) is itself a product of our distance from the past, which has come to be seen as a foreign country (Lowenthal 1985).

SEE ALSO History, Social; Identity; Memory


Assmann, Jan. 1997. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg, 1989. Truth and Method. 2nd ed. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad.

Goldman, Lucien. 1964. The Hidden God: Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Ra. Trans. Philip Thody. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Routledge.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Trans. and ed. Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 1992. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lowenthal, David, 1985. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nora, Pierre. 1989. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations 26 (Spring): 725.

Olick, Jeffrey K., and Joyce Robbins. 1998. Social Memory Studies: From Collective Memory to the Historical Sociology of Mnemonic Practices. Annual Review of Sociology 24: 105140.

Winter, Jay. 2006. Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jeffrey K. Olick

Collective Behavior

views updated May 23 2018


Collective behavior consists of those forms of social behavior in which the usual conventions cease to guide social action and people collectively transcend, bypass, or subvert established institutional patterns and structures. As the name indicates, the behavior is collective rather than individual. Unlike small group behavior, it is not principally coordinated by each-to-each personal relationships, though such relationships do play an important part. Unlike organizational behavior, it is not coordinated by formally established goals, authority, roles, and membership designations, though emergent leadership and an informal role structure are important components. The best known forms of collective behavior are rumor, spontaneous collective responses to crises such as natural disasters; crowds, collective panics, crazes, fads, fashions, publics (participants in forming public opinion), cults, followings; and reform and revolutionary movements. Social movements are sometimes treated as forms of collective behavior, but are often viewed as a different order of phenomena because of the degree of organization necessary to sustain social action. This essay will include only those social movement theories that also have relevance for the more elementary forms of collective behavior.

Theories of collective behavior can be classified broadly as focusing on the behavior itself (microlevel) or on the larger social and cultural settings within which the behavior occurs (macrolevel or structural). An adequate theory at the microlevel must answer three questions, namely: How is it that people come to transcend, bypass, or subvert institutional patterns and structures in their activity; how do people come to translate their attitudes into significant overt action; and how do people come to act collectively rather than singly? Structural theories identify the processes and conditions in culture and social structure that are conducive to the development of collective behavior. Microlevel theories can be further divided into action or convergence theories and interaction theories.


Convergence theories assume that when a critical mass of individuals with the same disposition to act in a situation come together, collective action occurs almost automatically. In all convergence theories it is assumed that: "The individual in the crowd behaves just as he would behave alone, only more so," (Allport 1924, p. 295), meaning that individuals in collective behavior are doing what they wanted to do anyway, but could not or feared to do without the "facilitating" effect of similar behavior by others. The psychological hypothesis that frustration leads to aggression has been widely applied in this way to explain racial lynchings and riots, rebellion and revolution, and other forms of collective violence. Collective behavior has been conceived as a collective pursuit of meaning and personal identity when strains and imbalances in social institutions have made meaning and identity problematic (Klapp 1972). In order to explain the convergence of a critical mass of people experiencing similar frustrations, investigators posit deprivation shared by members of a social class, ethnic group, gender group, age group, or other social category. Because empirical evidence has shown consistently that the most deprived are not the most likely to engage in collective protest, more sophisticated investigators assume a condition of relative deprivation (Gurr 1970), based on a discrepancy between expectations and actual conditions. Relative deprivation frequently follows a period of rising expectations brought on by improving conditions, interrupted by a setback, as in the J-curve hypothesis of revolution (Davies 1962). Early explanations for collective behavior, generally contradicted by empirical evidence and repudiated by serious scholars, characterized much crowd behavior and many social movements as the work of criminals, the mentally disturbed, persons suffering from personal identity problems, and other deviants.

Rational decision theories. Several recent convergence theories assume that people make rational decisions to participate or not to participate in collective behavior on the basis of selfinterest. Two important theories of this sort are those of Richard Berk and Mark Granovetter.

Berk (1974) defines collective behavior as the behavior of people in crowds, which means activity that is transitory, not well planned in advance, involving face-to-face contact among participants, and considerable cooperation, though he also includes panic as competitive collective behavior. Fundamental to his theory is the assumption that crowd activity involves rational, goal-directed action, in which possible rewards and costs are considered along with the chances of support from others in the crowd. Rational decision making means reviewing viable options, forecasting events that may occur, arranging information and choices in chronological order, evaluating the possible consequences of alternative courses of action, judging the chances that uncertain events will occur, and choosing actions that minimize costs and maximize benefits. Since the best outcome for an individual in collective behavior depends fundamentally on what other people will do, participants attempt to advance their own interests by recruiting others and through negotiation. Berk's theory does not explain the origin and nature of the proposals for action that are heard in the crowd, but describes the process by which these proposals are sifted as the crowd moves toward collaborative action, usually involving a division of labor. To explain decision making, he offers a simple equation in which the probability of a person beginning to act (e.g., to loot) is a function of the product of the net anticipated personal payoff for acting (e.g., equipment or liquor pilfered) and the probability of group support in that action (e.g., bystanders condoning or joining in the looting.)

Granovetter's (1978) application of rational decision theory focuses on the concept of threshold. He assumes that each person, in a given situation, has a threshold number or percentage of other people who must already be engaging in a particular action before he or she will join in. Since it can be less risky for the individual to engage in collective behavior (riotous behavior, for example) when many others are doing so than when few are involved, the benefit-to-cost ratio improves as participation increases. Based on the personal importance of the action in question, individual estimation of risk, and a host of other conditions, individual thresholds will vary widely in any situation. Collective behavior cannot develop without low-threshold individuals to get it started, and development will stop when there is no one with the threshold necessary for the next escalation step. Collective behavior reaches an equilibrium, which can be ascertained in advance from knowing the distribution of thresholds, when this point is reached. Like Berk, Granovetter makes no effort to explain what actions people will value. Furthermore, intuitively appealing as the theory may be, operationalizing and measuring individual thresholds may be, for all practical purposes, impossible.


Contagion Theories. Early interaction theories, which lay more emphasis on what happens to people in the context of a crowd or other collectivity than on the dispositions people bring to the collectivity, stressed either the emergence of a group mind or processes of imitation, suggestion, or social contagion. Serge Moscovici (1985a, 1985b) is a defender of these early views, stressing that normal people suffer a lowering of intellectual faculties, an intensification of emotional reactions, and a disregard for personal profit in a crowd. The fundamental crowd process is suggestion, emanating from charismatic leaders. During the twentieth century, the breakdown of social ties has created masses who form larger and larger crowds that are controlled by a few national and international leaders, creating an historically new politics or appeal to the masses.

Herbert Blumer (1939) developed a version of the contagion approach that has been the starting point for theories of collective behavior for most American scholars. Blumer explains that the fitting together of individual actions in most group behavior is based on shared understandings under the influence of custom, tradition, conventions, rules, or institutional regulations. In contrast, collective behavior is group behavior that arises spontaneously, and not under the guidance of preestablished understandings, traditions, or rules of any kind. If sociology in general studies the social order, collective behavior consists of the processes by which that order comes into existence. While coordination in publics and social movements and involving more complex cognitive processes called interpretation interaction, coordination in the crowd and other elementary forms of collective behavior is accomplished through a process of circular reaction. Circular reaction is a type of interstimulation in which the response by others to one individual's expression of feeling simply reproduces that feeling, thereby reinforcing the first individual's feeling, which in turn reinforces the feelings of the others, setting in motion an escalating spiral of emotion. Circular reaction begins with individual restlessness, when people have a blocked impulse to act. When many people share such restlessness, and are already sensitized to one another, circular reaction can set in and create a process of social unrest in which the restless state is mutually intensified into a state of milling. In milling, people move or shift their attention aimlessly among each other, thereby becoming preoccupied with each other and decreasingly responsive to ordinary objects and events. In the state of rapport, collective excitement readily takes over, leading to a final stage of social contagion, the "relatively rapid, unwitting, and non-rational dissemination of a mood, impulse, or form of conduct."(Blumer 1939) Social unrest is also a prelude to the formation of publics and social movements. In the case of the public, the identification of an issue rather than a mood or point of view converts the interaction into discussion rather than circular reaction. Social movements begin with circular reaction, but with persisting concerns they acquire organization and programs, and interpretative interaction prevails.

Emergent Norm Theory. Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian [(1957] 1989) criticize convergence theories for underemphasizing the contribution of interaction processes in the development of collective behavior, and found both convergence and contagion theories at fault for assuming that participants in collective behavior become homogeneous in their moods and attitudes. Instead of emotional contagion, it is the emergence of a norm or norms in collective behavior that facilitates coordinated action and creates the illusion of unanimity. The emergent norm is characteristically based on established norms, but transforms or applies those norms in ways that would not ordinarily be acceptable. What the emergent norm permits or requires people to believe, feel, and do corresponds to a disposition that is prevalent but not universal among the participants. In contrast to convergence theories, however, it is assumed that participants are usually somewhat ambivalent, so that people could have felt and acted in quite different ways if the emergent norm had been different. For example, many rioters also have beliefs in law and order and fair play that might have been converted into action had the emergent norm been different. Striking events, symbols, and keynoting—a gesture or symbolic utterance that crystallizes sentiment in an undecided and ambivalent audience—shape the norm and supply the normative power, introducing an element of unpredictability into the development and direction of all collective behavior.

Emergent norm theory differs from contagion theories in at least six important and empirically testable ways. First, the appearance of unanimity in crowds, social movements, and other forms of collective behavior is an illusion, produced by the effect of the emergent norm in silencing dissent. Second, while the collectivity's mood and definition of the situation are spontaneously induced in some of the participants, many participants experience group pressure first and only later, if at all, come to share the collectivity's mood and definition of the situation. Third, unlike collective excitement and contagion, normative pressure is as applicable to quiet states such as dread and sorrow as it is to excited states. Fourth, according to emergent norm theory, a conspicuous component in the symbolic exchange connected with the development of collective behavior should consist of seeking and supplying justifications for the collectivity's definition of the situation and action, whereas there should be no need for justifications if the feelings were spontaneously induced through contagion. Fifth, a norm not only requires or permits certain definitions and behaviors; it also sets acceptable limits, while limits are difficult to explain in terms of a circular reaction spiral. Finally, while contagion theories stress anonymity within the collectivity as facilitating the diffusion of definitions and behavior that deviate from conventional norms, emergent norm theory asserts that familiarity among participants in collective behavior enhances the controlling effect of the emergent norm.

Emergent norm theory has been broadened to make explicit the answers to all three of the key questions microlevel theories must answer: The emergent normative process as just described provides the principal answer to the question, why people adopt definitions and behavior that transcend, bypass, or contravene established social norms; participants translate their attitudes into overt action rather than remaining passive principally because they see action as feasible and timely; and action is collective rather than individual primarily because of preexisting groupings and networks and because an event or events that challenge conventional understandings impel people to turn to others for help in fashioning a convincing definition of the problematic situation. In addition, these three sets of processes interact and are mutually reinforcing in the development and maintenance of collective behavior. This elaboration of the emergent norm approach is presented as equally applicable to elementary forms of collective behavior such as crowds and to highly developed and organized forms such as social movements.

Other Interaction Theories. Although all interactional theories presume that collective behavior develops through a cumulative process, Max Heirich (1964) makes this central to his theory of collective conflict, formulated to explain the 1964–1965 year of spiraling conflict between students and the administration at the University of California, Berkeley. Common action occurs when observers perceive a situation as critical, with limited time for action, with the crisis having a simple cause and being susceptible to influence by simple acts. Heirich specifies determinants of the process by which such common perceptions are created and the process by which successive redefinitions of the situation take place. Under organizational conditions that create unbridged cleavages between groups that must interact regularly, conflict escalates through successive encounters in which cleavages become wider, issues shift, and new participants join the fray, until the conflict becomes focused around the major points of structural strain in the organization.

Also studying collective conflict as a cumulative process, Bert Useem and Peter Kimball (1989) developed a sequence of stages for prison riots, proceeding from pre-riot conditions, to initiation, expansion, siege, and finally termination. While they identify disorganization of the governing body as the key causative factor, they stress that what happens at any one stage is important in determining what happens at the next stage.

Clark McPhail (1991), in an extensive critique of all prior work, rejects the concept of collective behavior as useless because it denotes too little and fails to recognize variation and alternation within assemblages. Instead of studying collective behavior or crowds, he proposes the study of temporary gatherings, defined as two or more persons in a common space and time frame. Gatherings are analyzed in three stages, namely, assembling, gathering, and dispersing. Rather than positing an overarching principle such as contagion or norm emergence, this approach uses detailed observation of individual actions and interactions within gatherings and seeks explanations at this level. Larger events such as campaigns and large gatherings are to be explained as the "repetition and/or combination of individual and collective sequences of actions."(McPhail 1991, p. 221). These elementary actions consist of simple observable actions such as clustering, booing, chanting, collective gesticulation, "locomotion," synchroclapping, and many others. The approach has been implemented by precise behavioral observation of people assembling for demonstrations and other preplanned gatherings. A promised further work will help determine how much this approach will contribute to the understanding of those fairly frequent events usually encompassed by the term collective behavior.


Microlevel theories attempt first to understand the internal dynamics of collective behavior, then use that understanding to infer the nature of conditions in the society most likely to give rise to collective behavior. In contrast, macrolevel or structural theories depend primarily on an understanding of the dynamics of society as the basis for developing propositions concerning when and where collective behavior will occur. Historically, most theories of elementary collective behavior have been microlevel theories, while most theories of social movements have been structural. Neil Smelser's 1993value-added theory is primarily structural but encompasses the full range from panic and crazes to social movements.

Smelser attempted to integrate major elements from the Blumer and Turner/Killian tradition of microtheory into an action and structural theory derived from the work of Talcott Parsons. Smelser describes the normal flow of social action as proceeding from values to norms to mobilization into social roles and finally to situational facilities. Values are the more general guides to behavior; norms specify more precisely how values are to be applied. Mobilization into roles is organization for action in terms of the relevant values and norms. Situational facilities are the means and obstacles that facilitate and hinder attainment of concrete goals. The four "components of social action" are hierarchized in the sense that any redefinition of a component requires readjustment in the components below it, but not necessarily in those above. Each of the four components in turn has seven levels of specificity with the same hierarchical ordering as the components. Types of collective behavior differ in the level of the action components they aim to restructure. Social movements address either values, in the case of most revolutionary movements, or norms, in the case of most reform movements. Elementary collective behavior is focused at either the mobilization or the situational facilities level. Collective behavior is characterized formally as "an uninstitutionalized mobilization for action in order to modify one or more kinds of strain on the basis of a generalized reconstitution of a component of action." (Smelser 1963 p. 71). The distinguishing feature of this action is a shortcircuiting of the normal flow of action from the general to the specific. There is a jump from extremely high levels of generality to specific, concrete situations, without attention to the intervening components and their levels of specificity. Thus, in Smelser's view, collective behavior is intrinsically irrational.

In order for collective behavior to occur, six conditions must be met, each of which is necessary but insufficient without the others. Smelser likens the relationship among the six determinants to the value-added process in economics, with each adding an essential component to the finished product. The first determinant is structural conduciveness, meaning that the social structure is organized in a way that makes the particular pattern of action feasible. The second determinant is structural strain, consisting of ambiguities, deprivations, conflicts, and discrepancies experienced by particular population segments. Third (and central in Smelser's theorizing), is the growth and spread of a generalized belief that identifies and characterizes the supposed source of strain and specifies appropriate responses. The generalized belief incorporates the short-circuiting of the components of action that is a distinctive feature of collective behavior. Fourth are precipitating factors, usually a dramatic event or series of events that give the generalized belief concrete and immediate substance and provide a concrete setting toward which collective action can be directed. The fifth determinant is mobilization of participants for action, in which leadership behavior is critical. The final determinant is the operation of social control. Controls may serve to minimize conduciveness and strain, thus preventing the occurrence of an episode of collective behavior, or they may come into action only after collective behavior has begun to materialize, either dampening or intensifying the action by the way controls are applied. These determinants need not occur in any particular order.

Addressing a more limited range of phenomena, David Waddington, Karen Jones, and Chas Critcher (1989) have formulated a flashpoint model to explain public disorders that bears some resemblance to the value-added component of Smelser's theory. Public disorders typically begin when some ostensibly trivial incident becomes a flashpoint. The flashpoint model is a theory of the conditions that give a minor incident grave significance. Explanatory conditions exist at six levels. At the structural level are conflicts inherent in material and ideological differences between social groups that are not easily resolvable within the existing social structure, meaning especially the state. At the political/ideological level, dissenting groups are unable to express their dissent through established channels, and their declared ends and means are considered illegitimate. At the cultural level, the existence of groups with incompatible definitions of the situation, appropriate behavior, or legitimate rights can lead to conflict. At the contextual level, a history of past conflicts between a dissenting group and police or other authorities enhances the likelihood that a minor incident will become a flashpoint. At the situational level, immediate spatial and social conditions can make public control and effective negotiation difficult. Finally, at the interactional level, the dynamics of interaction between police and protesters, as influenced by meanings derived from the other five levels, ultimately determine whether there will or will not be public disorder and how severe it will be. Unlike Smelser, Waddington and associates make no assumption that all levels of determinants must be operative. Also, they make no explicit assumption that disorderly behavior is irrational, though their goal is to formulate public policy that will minimize the incidence of public disorders.

Resource mobilization theories have been advanced as alternatives to Smelser's value-added theory and to most microlevel theories. Although they have generally been formulated to explain social movements and usually disavow continuity between social movements and elementary collective behavior, they have some obvious implications for most forms of collective behavior. There are now several versions of resource mobilization theory, but certain core assumptions can be identified. Resource mobilization theorists are critical of prior collective behavior and social movement theories for placing too much emphasis on "structural strain," social unrest, or grievances; on "generalized beliefs," values, ideologies, or ideas of any kind; and on grass-roots spontaneity in accounting for the development and characteristics of collective behavior. They assume that there is always sufficient grievance and unrest in society to serve as the basis for collective protest (McCarthy and Zald 1977), and that the ideas and beliefs exploited in protest are readily available in the culture (Oberschall 1973). They see collective protest as centrally organized, with the bulk of the participants "mobilized" much as soldiers in an army are mobilized and directed by their commanders. In explaining the rise of collective protest they emphasize the availability of essential resources, such as money, skills, disposable time, media access, and access to power centers, and prior organization as the base for effectively mobilizing the resources. Resource mobilization theorists favor the use of rational decision models to explain the formulation of strategy and tactics, and emphasize the role of social movement professionals in directing protest.

There has been some convergence between resource mobilization theorists and the theorists they criticize. The broadened formulation of emergent norm theory to incorporate resources (under "feasibility") and prior organization as determinants of collective behavior takes account of the resource mobilization contribution without, however, giving primacy to these elements. Similarly, many resource mobilization theorists have incorporated social psychological variables in their models.

Alberto Melucci (1989) offers a constructivist view of collective action which combines macro-and micro-orientations. Collective action is the product of purposeful negotiations whereby a plurality of perspectives, meanings, and relationships crystallize into a pattern of action. Action is constructed to take account of the goals of action, the means to be utilized, and the environment within which action takes place, which remain in a continual state of tension. The critical process is the negotiation of collective identities for the participants. In the current post-industrial era, conflicts leading to collective action develop in those areas of communities and complex organizations in which there is greatest pressure on individuals to conform to the institutions that produce and circulate information and symbolic codes.


Allport, Floyd H. 1924 Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Berk, Richard A. 1974 "A Gaming Approach to Crowd Behavior." American Sociological Review 39:355–73.

Blumer, Herbert 1939 "Collective Behavior." in Robert E. Park ed., An Outline of the Principles of Sociology 221–280. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Davies, James C. 1962 "Toward a Theory of Revolution." American Journal of Sociology 27:5–19.

Granovetter, Mark 1978 "Threshold Models of Collective Behavior." American Journal of Sociology 83:1420–43.

Gurr, Ted R. 1970 Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heirich, Max 1971 The Spiral of Conflict: Berkeley, 1964. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Klapp, Orrin E. 1972 Currents of Unrest: An Introduction to Collective Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

McPhail, Clark 1991 The Myth of the Madding Crowd New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Melucci, Alberto 1989 Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moscovici, Serge 1985a The Age of the Crowd: A Historical Treatise on Mass Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

——1985b "The Discovery of the Masses," In C. F. Graumann and Moscovici, eds., Changing Conceptions of Crowd Mind and Behavior, 5–25 New York: Springer-Verlag.

Smelser, Neil J. 1963 Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press.

Turner, Ralph H., and Lewis M. Killian (1957) 1987 Collective Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

Turner. Ralph H. 1994 "Race Riots Past and Present: A Cultural-Collective Behavior Approach." Symbolic Interaction 17:309–24.

——1996 "Normative Emergence in Collective Behavior and Action" Solidarity: Research in Social Movements. 1:1–16.

Useem, Bert, and Peter Kimball 1989 States of Siege: U. S. Prison Riots, 1971–1986. New York: Oxford University Press.

Waddington, David, Karen Jones, and Chas Critcher 1989 Flashpoints: Studies in Public Disorder. London: Routledge.

Ralph H. Turner

Collective Wisdom

views updated Jun 11 2018

Collective Wisdom


The term collective wisdom refers to the notion that the totality of knowledge, experience, and skills possessed by the members of a group, whether large or small, typically exceeds that of any individual in the group, and that the members acting in concert are thus capable of judgments, problem-solving, and decision-making that will lead to better outcomes than one could expect of any one of them acting alone. Such a belief, in part, lies at the base of democratically organized groups, as well as larger, more complex social entities. It is also reflected in such popular expressions as, Two heads are better than one.

The above presumptions have been objects of skepticism historically, as James Surowiecki (2004) has aptly illustrated in citing the less than charitable views of such notable figures as Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Carlyle, Gustave Le Bon, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all of whom took a dim view of the virtues of collective judgment and action. Surowiecki credits Carlyle, for example, with the observation, I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance (p. xvi). The derogatory phrase pooling of ignorance, which one frequently hears critics ascribe to group decision-making and problem-solving, clearly resonates with Carlyles cynicism, as well as that of others.

Underlying the skepticism, unfortunately, is a misrepresentation of the concept. The notion of collective wisdom does not entail the presumption that informed thought, judicious choice, and effective action result in some magical, inexplicable way from the combination of individuals who are not singly capable of these things. Rather, it assumes that the knowledge, experience, and skills of those acting as an entity are often complementary, as well as compensatory. As a result, the entity enlarges its potential for effective judgment, choice, and action. The potential of the group, however, does not exceed the limits of its members. Hence, a group whose members, for instance, lack relevant task-related expertise and ability is not one we would expect to surpass the performance of a single individual who does, let alone a group whose members are all in possession of such expertise and ability. Indeed, evidence supports this presumption (see Beach and Connolly 2005; Shaw 1981).

Collective wisdom was the focus of a good deal of scholarly interest early in the history of social psychology and the concept has continued to attract attention. From the 1920s to well into the 1960s, much attention was paid to questions concerning the relative superiority/inferiority of individuals versus groups in respect to judgment (e.g., Jenness 1932), problem-solving (e.g., Davis and Restle 1963), and learning (e.g., Yuker 1955). Comparative inquiries provided reasonably substantial evidence in support of the presumptions associated with the concept of collective wisdom, as in many cases groups were revealed to make better judgments, show greater effectiveness in problem-solving, and experience larger gains in learning than individuals with whom they were compared. Other later evidence from research on brainstorming further indicated that groups are capable of generating more ideas, as well as a higher proportion of high-quality and novel ideas, than individuals acting alone. Such findings by no means have been unequivocal, however, especially in respect to brainstorming (see Beach and Connolly 2005, Frey 1997; Shaw 1981).

Determining reasons for the discrepancy between the potential collective wisdom affords and the observed performance of groups in particular has been a focus of at least three different areas of scholarly inquiry: diversity of membership, the influence of social variables, and, most recently, collective information-sampling bias. Each offers a different understanding of and insight into the reasons for the inconsistency.

The oldest of the areas of inquiry mentioned is that relating to diversity. Early research had as a focus similarities and differences among the members of groups, initially in respect to abilities and demographic characteristics and later on the basis of personality profiles. On the whole, heterogeneous groups have been found to outperform homogeneous groups (Frey 1997; Shaw 1981). One explanation for why groups do not consistently outperform individuals, then, is suggested by such outcomes. Specifically, groups whose members are too similar to one another have little potential for displaying collective wisdom that exceeds the abilities of any given individual member. Conversely, diversity, while often an asset to a group, can also be a source of disruption that impairs relationships among members and thereby impedes performance (Porter and Samovar 2003).

Social variables can also limit the potential for collective wisdom to operate consistently. This has been demonstrated by Irving Janiss studies (1972, 1982, 1989) of groupthink, its sources (such as pressure for uniformity, the desire to maintain a harmonious climate, and the undue influence of those in positions of authority), and the heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to which the members of groups often resort when under groupthinks influence. If the interaction among the members of such groups does not function to overcome the constraints that contribute to the abandonment of rational forms of judgment and choice, one cannot expect to see groups perform more effectively than individuals (Gouran and Hirokawa 1996, 2003). In fact, one would have reason to predict that such bodies might well perform less effectively.

Finally, and most recently, some scholars have begun to focus on an interesting phenomenon in group interaction that has further explanatory value in accounting for the inconsistently demonstrable superiority of groups as compared to individuals: collective information-processing bias (see Beach and Connolly 2005; Propp 1999; Stasser and Titus 1985). There has been much evidence of a tendency for the members of groups to focus in decision-making and problem-solving discussions on the information they all have in common rather than information they as individuals uniquely possess. Under these circumstances, there is no reason to expect that a group would be more likely to arrive at better decisions and more effective solutions to problems than the most knowledgeable, experienced, and able individual member.

In conclusion, scholarship has established through empirical evidence that collective wisdom is a property of groups. It is not, however, a property that universally enables a group to surpass the performance or exceed the wisdom of its most competent member. How well it functions to assist groups in maximizing their performance depends on the amount they possess, as well as the extent to which other counteracting variables become intrusive.

SEE ALSO Attitudes; Attitudes, Political; Conformity; Decision-making; Democracy; Elitism; Groupthink; Knowledge; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Rational Choice Theory; Rationality; Social Judgment Theory; Social Psychology; Thoreau, Henry David


Beach, Lee Roy, and Terry Connolly. 2005. The Psychology of Decision Making: People in Organizations. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Davis, James H., and Frank Restle. 1963. The Analysis of Problems and Prediction of Group Problem Solving. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66 (February): 103116.

Frey, Lawrence R. 1997. Individuals in Groups. In Managing Group Life: Communicating in Decision-Making Groups, eds. Lawrence R. Frey and J. Kevin Barge, 5279. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gouran, Dennis S., and Randy Y. Hirokawa. 1996. Functional Theory and Communication in Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Groups: An Expanded View. In Communication and Group Decision Making, 2nd ed., eds. Randy Y. Hirokawa and Marshall Scott Poole, 5580. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gouran, Dennis S., and Randy Y. Hirokawa. 2003. Effective Decision Making and Problem Solving in Groups: A Functional Perspective. In Small Group Communication Theory and Research: An Anthology, 8th ed., eds. Randy Y. Hirokawa, Robert S. Cathcart, Larry A. Samovar, and Linda D. Henman, 2738. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Janis, Irving L. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. 2nd rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Originally published as Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).

Janis, Irving L. 1989. Crucial Decisions: Leadership in Policymaking and Crisis Management. New York: Free Press.

Jenness, Arthur. 1932. The Role of Discussion in Changing Opinions Regarding a Matter of Fact. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 27: 279296.

Porter, Richard E., and Larry A. Samovar. 2003. Communication in the Multicultural Group. In Small Group Communication Theory and Research: An Anthology, 8th ed., eds. Randy Y. Hirokawa, Robert S. Cathcart, Larry A. Samovar, and Linda D. Henman, 230238. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Propp, Kathleen M. 1999. Collective Information Processing in Groups. In The Handbook of Group Communication Theory and Research, eds. Lawrence R. Frey, Dennis S. Gouran, and Marshall Scott Poole, 225250. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shaw, Marvin E. 1981. Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small Group Behavior. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Stasser, Garold, and William Titus. 1985. Pooling of Unshared Information in Group Decision Making: Biased Information Sampling during Discussion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48 (6): 14671478.

Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations. New York: Doubleday.

Yuker, Harold E. 1955. Group Atmosphere and Memory. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 51 (1): 1723.

Dennis S. Gouran

Collective Psychology

views updated Jun 08 2018


Collective psychology, or human psychological behavior within communities, has been a subject of study in the Bible and among the ancient Greeks, hence since the origins of Western culture. In the nineteenth century, new fields of investigation opened up: schools of anthropology in Great Britain, folk psychology in Germany, and sociology in France. Sigmund Freud's predecessors and contemporaries within these schools of thought were his favorite interlocutors. From the outset, Freud collaborated in his works on individual and collective psychology (see his letters to Wilhelm Fliess dated December 6, 1896; January 24, 1897; and May 31, 1897 [1950a]).

This form of debate, if not actual borrowing, between psychoanalysis and collective psychology continued throughout Freud's work. A vivid and systematic picture thus emerges in which Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a) formed the basis for the Schreber case (1911c) and anticipated "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c); in which Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) is a response to Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) and paves the way for The Ego and the Id (1923b); and in which The Future of an Illusion (1927c) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]) led Freud to develop and elaborate, between 1923 and 1927, his structural theory (the castration complex, the superego, and the theory of anxiety) in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d [1925]).

Some other works also relate to Freud's first topography: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c), a contribution to the study of central European Jewish culture; "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices" (1907b), the first major analogy between individual and collective psychology; and "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d), in which Freud proposes that society reduce cultural sexual repression as a collective prophylaxis for neurosis. Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays (1939a [1937-1939], one of Freud's last works, brought together and explained the themes developed on collective psychology and went on to analyze Jewish and Christian monotheistic cultures. Finally, there is Freud's work between 1930 and 1932 on U.S. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1966).

The nexus between individual and collective psychology is the family, as the origin of the Oedipus complex and of totemism, which connects the transference neuroses with collective manifestations. Previously Freud had investigated more localized analogies of the connection between individual and group, such as analogies between the observances and rituals of obsessive neurotics and those of religion. From Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) on, he proclaimed collective psychology to be part of psychoanalysis and established his metapsychology on this basis. He discussed the libidinal dynamics of the formation and stabilization of groups in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) and explained the economic point of view in The Future of an Illusion (1927c) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), where he related the economic point of view to hatred and fear. The topography characteristic of groups consists of reduced and simplified forms of the individual psychic agencies of the ego, ego ideal, and superego, as a result of the identifying ties that groups impose: "A primary group of this kind is a number of individuals who have put one and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego" (1921c, p. 116). Depending on the form of authority and its degree of symbolic elaboration, these reductions are more or less extremehence the importance of the great man, capable of representing the ideal at the highest level of elaboration. There are three paradigmatic groups: the horde, the matriarchy, and the totemic clan (in political science, they correspond to rule by one person, by a few, and by all). They differ according to type of representative of the ideal, which ranges from the flesh-and-blood leader to such symbolic forms as the totem and the stated ideal, which substitute for the leader after the greater or lesser elaboration of his murder.

Freud created or developed some core concepts in the course of this research: primal ambivalence, narcissism, the Oedipus complex (1912-1913a); identifications, the ego ideal, aim-inhibited drives, sublimation (1921c); the superego and guilt feelings, dereliction and its consequences, the conflict between Eros and Thanatos (1927c, 1930a); and splitting of the ego, constructions in analysis (1939a).

Criticisms have abounded, impeding work on almost half of the body of Freud's work. Freud's method of analogy (between individual and collective psychic processes) has not been accepted, nor has his dynamic method. Freud's explicit Lamarckism concerning the transmission of mnemic traces in groups has been rejected. Freud has been criticized for a narrow view of religion that ignores its cultural contributions by considering it as a collective neurosis or delusion. Finally, although Freud considered matriarchy at an early stage (1911f), he neglected other similar figures of identification.

Two further qualifications were formulated by Freud himself: collective psychic processes have to be understood in isolation from any form of therapeutic activity; the analysis of these processes requires the analyst to be separated from groups, especially groups to which the subject belongs, which is difficult to achieve.

Psychoanalysis has made a clear contribution to anthropology, yet collective psychology has mainly been used with small groups in clinical practice. The metapsychological, sociological, and political dimensions of Freud's work have yet to be turned to account.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Alienation; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Christians and Jews: A Psychoanalytical Study ; Civilization and Its Discontents ; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; "Dreams and myths"; Ego ideal; Fascination; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego ; Identification; Le Bon, Gustave; Narcissism of minor differences; Otherness; Racism, anti-Semitism, and psychoanalysis; Schiff, Paul; Totem and Taboo .


Bion, Wilfred R. (1961). Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.

. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.

. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.

. (1911c [1910]). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (dementia paranoides ). SE, 12: 1-82.

. (1911f). "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." SE, 12: 342-344.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1939a [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

Freud, Sigmund, Bullitt, William C. (1966b [1930-1932]). Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States: A psychological study. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gillibert, Jean. (1985). Le psychodrame de la psychanalyse. Paris: Champ Vallon.

Kaës, René, & Anzieu, Didier. (1976). Chronique d 'un groupe, le groupe du "Paradis perdu": Observation et commentaires. Paris: Dunod.

Porte, Michèle. (1998). Pulsions et politique: Une relecture de l 'événement psychique collectifà partir de l 'œuvre de Freud. Paris: Harmattan.

Further Reading

Scheidlinger, Stuart. (1990). Internalization of group psychology: the group within. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 18, 494-504.

Tuttman, Saul. (1991). Psychoanalytic group theory and therapy: essays in honor of Saul Scheidlinger. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Collective Memory

views updated May 21 2018


Collective memory is a representation of the past that is shared by members of a group, such as a generation or nation-state. The concept is usually traced to writings of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1887-1945), who argued that remembering is shaped by participation in collective life and that different groups generate different accounts of the past (Halbwachs, 1952).

Collective memory and related notions such as public memory (Bodnar, 1992) have been examined in academic disciplines including anthropology (Cole, 2001), history (Novick, 1999), and sociology (Schudson, 1992). Collective memory is also a part of popular culture discussions about the Vietnam War and the Holocaust. One of the hallmarks of collective memory is that it is tied to identity. Deeply held notions about the past are often the source or pride or shame, and they can give rise to legal, and even armed conflict. For example, the Serbs' collective memory of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 has often been cited as a factor that made it possible to mobilize against Bosnian Muslims in the twentieth century.

Strong and Distributed Accounts of Collective Memory

Collective memory is often understood in terms of loose analogies with memory in the individual. Many discussions of America's memory about Vietnam, for example, seem to presuppose that America is some sort of a large organism that has intentions, desires, memories, and beliefs just as individuals do, something reflected in assertions such as, "Our memory of Vietnam makes us unwilling to accept combat deaths."

Assumptions about this issue are often not well grounded and as a result have been the object of criticism. For example, one of the fathers of modern memory studies in psychology, Frederic Bartlett (1886-1969), was critical of the "more or less absolute likeness [that] has been drawn between social groups and the human individual" (Bartlett, p. 293), and he warned that collectives do not have some sort of memory in their own right. Bartlett did believe, however, that memory of individuals is fundamentally influenced by the social context in which they function. Indeed, a central point of his argument is that "social organization gives a persistent framework into which all detailed recall must fit, and it very powerfully influences both the manner and the matter of recall" (p. 296). In short, Bartlett accepted the notion of "memory in the group, and not memory of the group" (p. 294).

Claims about memory "of the group" constitute a "strong version" of collective memory (Wertsch, 2002), and, when made explicit, they have usually been rejected. An alternative that recognizes memory in the group without slipping into questionable assumptions about memory of the group is a "distributed version." From this perspective, memory is viewed as being distributed socially in small group interaction; as well as "instrumentally" (Wertsch, 2002). In the case of social distribution, for example, Mary Sue Weldon (2001) has examined the "collaborative remembering" that occurs when groups of individuals work together to recall information or events from the past.

In the case of instrumental distribution, memory is viewed as involving an active agent and one or more cultural tools such as calendars or other written records. An important transformation of memory in human cognitive evolution occurred with the emergence of "external symbolic storage" (Donald, 1991). This does not mean that such memory somehow resides in texts or records, but it does mean that with the rise of new forms of external symbolic storage such as written texts or the Internet the possibilities for remembering undergo fundamental change.

Such change has both psychological and social dimensions. By becoming skilled at using a certain set of cultural tools, new mental habits and "schemata" (Bartlett, 1995) emerge that shape remembering for members of a collective. New forms of collective life also derive from the appearance of novel cultural tools. For example, Benedict Anderson (1991) has tied the development of modern nations and other "imagined communities" to the rise of print media.

Collective versus Individual Memory

Collective memory is widely understood as inherently involving conflict and negotiation in the social sphere (Bodnar, 1992; Wertsch, 2002). Reflecting its ties to identity, it is often assessed in terms of its ability to provide a "usable past," even when this representation comes at the expense of accuracy. In contrast, while recognizing a connection to identity studies of individual memory tend to focus on a criterion of accuracy. This is not to say that psychologists believe memory is fundamentally accurate. Indeed, many studies point to the myriad ways humans can generate incorrect accounts of what actually occurred. The point remains, however, that psychological studies formulate memory largely in terms of its degree of accuracy.

A question that is sometimes asked about collective memory is whether it is anything more than a set of individual memories and hence whether it could be reduced to a personal level. Any attempt to answer this question must say something about the social processes involved in collective memory without falling into a strong version. This is often done by focusing on how narratives and other textual resources for memory are produced, discussed, and understood by members of a collective.

For example, modern states devote major attention to these issues. They produce official accounts of the past through textbooks and other materials used in schools, national commemorations, the media, and other forms of popular culture. In carrying out this project, states seek not only to promulgate their own account but also to control access to alternative accounts. As depicted by George Orwell in his futuristic novel 1984 (1949), such control can be almost total, but in fact every modern state exerts some control over the account of the past presented to its citizens.

This focus on the textual mediation of collective memory raises the question of whether collective memory is really memory at all. What does it mean to say, for example, that a generation of American teenagers remembers World War II when they were born four decades after the event? This might involve memory for textual resources, or perhaps semantic memory, but is it really the kind of episodic memory often assumed?

Such questions provide a reminder of the problems that arise when loose analogies between individual and collective remembering are employed. In order to address them, one must again turn to the instrumental distribution of collective memory, and in the end it may be more appropriate to discuss this in terms of knowledge about a set of shared textual resources rather than memory per se. What is striking about collective memory, however, is the ways in which it goes beyond what would normally be described as knowledge or semantic memory. This is so first because of the social conflict and control involved in producing the textual resources, and second because much more than neutral knowledge is involved. When discussing highly charged historical events, it is very easy to slip into heated discussions about what "really happened" and deny others' accounts in such a way that narrative texts become emotionally powerful tools of collective identity and memory.

One of the ways that studies of individual and collective memory have overlapped concerns generational differences. Martin A. Conway (1997) and others have examined the "reminiscence bump" that exists for members of a generation for events that occurred when they were between fifteen and twenty-five years of age. Research suggests that such events provide the foundation for a generation's lifelong collective memory. Providing another hint about the close tie between identity and collective memory, Conway argues that the reminiscence bump and its power to shape a generation are inherently tied to processes of identity development in young adulthood.

Collective Remembering versus History

Notions of collective memory and history often overlap. In both cases, the events involved are likely to have occurred before the lifetime of the individuals or group doing the remembering, and in both cases there is a tendency to assert that the account being presented is true. Furthermore, both rely on narrative as a cultural tool. Despite such shared properties, it is possible, indeed essential, to distinguish between them.

Among the properties of collective memory that tend to distinguish it from history are the following:

  1. it reflects a single, subjective, committed perspective of a collective, whereas analytic history strives to be objective and distance itself from any particular perspective;
  2. collective memory leaves little room for doubt or ambiguity about events and the motivations of actors (Novick, 1999), whereas analytic history strives to take into account multiple, complex factors;
  3. collective memory presupposes an unchanging essence of a group across time, whereas analytic history focuses on the transformations that collectives undergo.

These three properties of collective memory characterize, for example, the highly charged dispute between China and Japan over whether events in 1937 constitute the "rape of Nanking" (Chang, 1997) or the "incident in Nanking" (as mentioned in some Japanese textbooks).

A final property that characterizes collective remembering is that it tends to be heavily shaped by "schemata" (Bartlett, 1995), "implicit theories" (Ross, 1989), or other simplifying and organizing frameworks. Such frameworks also shape individual memory and history, but in the case of collective memory they take on a particularly important role due to the processes of conflict and negotiation involved. What is shared in collective memory is often little more than a "schematic narrative template" (Wertsch, 2002) in which detailed information, especially contradictory information, is distorted, simplified, and ignored; this schema stands in contrast to what are at least the aspirations of analytic history. It is for this reason that collective memory often appears to be impervious to new information that might challenge it.


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Bartlett, F. C. (1932; reprint 1995). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bodnar, J. (1992). Remaking America: Public memory, commemoration, and patriotism in the twentieth century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chang, I. (1997). The rape of Nanking: The forgotten holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books.

Cole, J. (2001). Forget colonialism? Sacrifice and the art of memory in Madagascar. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Conway, M. A. (1997). The inventory of experience: Memory and identity. In J. W. Pennebaker, D. Paez, and B. Rimé, eds., Collective memory of political events: Social psychological perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Halbwachs, M. (1952; reprint 1992). On collective memory, ed. and trans. Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Novick, P. (1999). The Holocaust in American life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ross, M. (1989). Relation of implicit theories to the construction of personal histories. Psychological Review 96 (2), 341-357.

Schudson, M. (1992). Watergate in American memory: How we remember, forget, and reconstruct the past. New York: Basic Books.

Weldon, M. S. (2001). Remembering as a social process. In D. L. Medin, ed., The psychology of learning and motivation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (2002). Voices of collective remembering. New York: Cambridge University Press.

James V.Wertsch

collective behaviour

views updated May 29 2018

collective behaviour 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 reality sui generis, since ‘it forms a single being, and is subjected to the law of the mental unity of crowds’. He suggested that all individual responses were lost in crowds, and that a ‘collective mind’ emerged which made people ‘feel, think and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would’. Crowds emerged through the existence of anonymity (which allowed 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 following 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’.

Smelser's sixth determinant attaches the same importance to social control as do transactional (notably labelling) theories of deviance. Within the interactionist tradition more generally, special attention has been paid to social typing, and to the way in which role models are created and diffused in the wider society (see, for example, R. H. Turner and and L. M. Killian , Collective Behaviour, 1957
). This volume also includes some of the earliest sociological work on fads and fashions. More recently, the study of the specific conditions under which organized collective actions (such as strikes) take place has been greatly influenced by rational choice theory, following the classic analysis by Mancur Olson (The Logic of Collective Action, 1965)

Collective Responsibility

views updated May 09 2018


Collective or mutual responsibility (krugovaia poruka ), often reinforced through legal guarantees or surety bonds.

It is first documented in the medieval period in an expanded version of the Russkaya Pravda that mandated that certain communities would be collectively responsible for apprehending murderers or paying fines to the prince. In the Muscovite period collective responsibility was frequently invoked to make communities collectively responsible for the actions and financial obligations of their members. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, state officials shifted much of the responsibility for apprehending criminals and preempting misdeeds to groups that could monitor and discipline their members. Surety in the form of financial and legal accountability was frequently demanded by the state from groups to insure that their individual members would not shirk legal obligations or responsibilities such as appearing in court, performing services for the state, or meeting the terms of contracts. Although the state moved away from the pervasive application of the principle of collective responsibility in the eighteenth century, it was still used in certain situations such as military conscription and collection of delinquent taxes. Even after the Great Reforms, local police officials retained the right to hold large peasant communes collectively responsible for major tax arrears as a measure of last resort. Although theoretically state officials could inventory and sell individual holdings to cover communal arrears, in practice this occurred infrequently. In Soviet legal procedures collectives could be called upon to monitor and vouch for their members, and individuals accused of committing minor legal infractions could be handed over to a collective for corrective measures as an alternative to incarceration.

See also: great reforms


Dewey, Horace W., and Kleimola, Ann M. (1970). "Suretyship and Collective Responsibility in Pre-Petrine Russia." Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 18: 337354.

Brian Boeck

collective conscience

views updated May 18 2018

collective conscience Defined by Émile Durkheim as ‘the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of members of a society’, it comprised a form and content which varied according to whether society was characterized by mechanical or organic solidarity. In the former, the collective conscience was extensive and strong, ranging far and wide into people's lives, controlling them in detail through various religious or other traditional means of sanction. It emphasized the primacy of society over the individual and his or her dignity. However, with the coming of the Enlightenment the collective conscience waned, becoming less extensive, weaker in its grip on the individual, secular, and sanctioned through the imposition of general rule rather than specific codes. The growth of individualism, albeit moral individualism in Durkheim's view, undermined the collective conscience. In the transition to organic solidarity this could be observed in the replacement of repressive by restitutive systems of law. Whereas the former punished for the violation of solidarity itself, the latter sought simply to maintain the normal contact and social intercourse in society. Durkheim's argument is that a society-wide collective conscience can only hold a segmental society together; a more differentiated society must be held together by a more differentiated moral consciousness, whose foci (at least in his view) would be occupational groups and the specialized norms issuing from them. The collective conscience becomes a diffuse, abstract ‘cult of the individual’ which, as a civil religion, supplies ultimate principles and justifications, but cannot bear the whole weight of social cohesion. See also ANOMIE; DIVISION OF LABOUR; DYNAMIC DENSITY.

collective consumption

views updated Jun 11 2018

collective consumption This concept was central to neo-Marxist urban social theories developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Manuel Castells and others argued that advanced capitalism required increasing state involvement in the so-called means of collective consumption. To reproduce an adequate labour-force, provision of individual means of consumption (commodities such as food and clothing) was no longer enough; services such as education and mass transportation were also needed. Unlike individual commodities, the latter were consumed collectively, being services used by many people rather than goods consumed individually. Particular features of collective consumption, notably the state's role in its provision and the opportunities it appeared to offer for political mobilization of consumers, underlay the significance of the concept for these urban social theories.

Subsequently, however, the distinction between collective and individual consumption was much disputed. It is difficult, for example, to see just how services such as education are consumed ‘collectively’—although they may be collectively provided. As used in practice, therefore, the term collective consumption now has no very precise meaning, although it normally refers to services (rather than goods) which are directly provided by state agencies instead of by the market; or, at least, to services provided with considerable state involvement, for example through subsidies or regulation. (In that sense, of course, it is a misnomer—since it does indeed indicate collective provision of services which are then consumed individually.) Later writers have developed more complex classifications of the social organization of consumption, and used these to analyse the nature of urban politics and the role of so-called consumption sector cleavages in social stratification and in determining political attitudes. For an overview see Peter Saunders , Social Theory and the Urban Question (1986)

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Collective Behavior

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