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Collective Behavior

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.

Microlevel Convergence 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.

Micro-level Interaction Theories

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.

Macrolevel or Structural Theories

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 macroand 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.

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