Collective Behavior, Social Movements, and Social Change

Types of Collective Behavior


Crowds are temporary gatherings of individuals; types of crowds include casual, conventional, expressive, acting, and protest crowds.

Collective behavior often involves crowd behavior. A crowd is a temporary gathering of individuals, whether spontaneous or planned, who share a common focus. Crowds can be classified into five categories: casual, conventional, expressive, acting, and protest. Each type of crowd develops patterns and norms of collective behavior in somewhat distinct ways. Crowds often transform from one type to another.

A casual crowd is a group of individuals who merely happen to be in the same place at the same time and have no group identity. Typically, a casual crowd forms for a very limited time in a public space, such as a grocery store or coffee shop. In a casual crowd, people may or may not know one another. A conventional crowd is composed of people gathered for a specific purpose, such as to attend a concert or sporting event. As in a casual crowd, behavior in a conventional crowd is primarily governed by established conventions, and nothing more than a minimal group identity is established. An expressive crowd is a group of people who gather primarily to participate in a collective experience and express emotion. Examples include the audiences at festivals and political rallies. Expressive crowds include expressions of excitement and emotions, such as cheering or call-and-response interactions. An acting crowd is one that engages or is ready to engage in violent or destructive behavior. The prime example is a mob. In extreme cases, an acting crowd develops into a riot. A protest crowd is a group of people who gather at a planned time and place to protest a social, cultural, economic, or political issue. Crowd behavior is of interest to many researchers. Many theorists consider whether and how being in a crowd can impact an individual in particular ways.

Mass Behavior

Mass behavior occurs when large groups of people engage in similar behaviors without necessarily being in the same place.

Mass behavior is collective behavior in which large groups of people engage in similar behaviors without necessarily being in the same place. Types of mass behavior include mass hysteria, moral panics, rumors, and gossip. Mass hysteria occurs when an event or idea that is potentially harmful causes widespread fear and induces panicked reactions. Some definitions of mass hysteria focus on physical reactions that occur among group members, such as fainting, that have no discernible physiological cause. Mass hysteria is a relatively rare event. A moral panic involves widespread fear that a group or behavior threatens society, resulting in a hostile reaction reaction toward individuals or groups considered to pose a threat. Moral panics often occur due to perceptions about changing moral standards. They sometimes lead to demands for changes to laws or policies. These proposed changes seek to regulate behavior that a society considers closely linked to morality. For example, moral panics over teenage drug use or sexual activity can result in laws or policies that affect schools. Critics of student locker searches for the purpose of combating drug use argue that such searches are evidence of a moral panic rather than based on a demonstrated need to perform such searches. The mass media, particularly news outlets, often fuel moral panics. One case that illustrates the role of the media in moral panics is the backlash against the musician Marilyn Manson after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Reports that the shooters listened to or were inspired by Marilyn Manson led to a boycott of Manson's music. Some parent groups and religious organizations tried to ban Manson from performing. Manson was scapegoated—blamed for the crimes of others. Thus the moral panic around Manson resulted in attempts at censorship, based on a sense that his music was likely to have a dangerous impact on the moral behavior of young people. In the years since the Columbine shooting, many scholars have noted that this type of violent behavior is linked to a complex set of circumstances, despite a public desire to attribute it to a simple cause such as the influence of a musician.

Rumor and gossip are types of mass behavior that are similar in many ways. A rumor is an unverified piece of information that is spread among people before the truth can be verified. While some rumors start off as benign, or not harmful, rumors have real consequences. People may choose to shun or embrace an individual based on rumor. Another potential consequence of rumor is mass hysteria, which can develop either quickly or over time. Gossip refers to a private conversation between at least two people about someone who is not part of the conversation. A key facet of gossip is that much of what is discussed is based on assumptions. Gossip can be a precursor to rumor. Generally, gossip is communication that plants an idea, whereas rumor is taken more seriously and can have more significant consequences.

Forms of Mass Behavior

Most mass behavior departs to some extent from prevailing social norms. Mass behavior is relatively short-lived and perpetrated by unstructured groups.

Social Dilemmas

Social dilemmas are that situations that force individuals to choose between their own interests and the interests of their group, community, or society.

A social dilemma is a situation that forces individuals to choose between their individual interest and the collective interest. In such situations, a person acting selfishly puts the other members of the group at risk. For example, a farmer who can sell more milk can earn more income. However, if the farmers in a given society collectively produce more milk than is needed, there will be a milk surplus. In this case, the price of milk will drop and all farmers will earn less. In response, farmers might organize and agree to hold down production. If all farmers in the society follow the agreement, they will increase their earnings. If almost everyone follows the agreement, but one individual does not, that person's extra production will not affect the price of milk. The one farmer who continues to produce a maximum amount of milk will benefit greatly by defecting, or abandoning the agreement. But if too many farmers defect, all the farmers will lose, because prices will reflect the overall higher production. Another example of a social dilemma is voting. Because one individual's vote does not make the difference in an election, a person might decide that voting is not worth the time it takes away from work or other activities. But if a large enough number of people make the same decision, a democracy cannot function. Sociologists study how groups make, communicate, and enforce norms in social dilemma situations. They also try to learn how individuals react to these and which methods of making, communicating, and enforcing norms are most effective.

Choosing whether or not to participate in a social movement is not always a social dilemma. A free rider is a person who does not choose to invest resources such as time, money, or skills into a collective action because they will benefit regardless of their participation. For example, people who give money to a public radio station that depends on donations are engaging in collective action. Free riders, those who listen to the programming but do not invest their own resources, benefit from this collective action but do not participate in it.