Collective Behavior

What Is Collective Behavior?

The science of group dynamics is based on one core assumption that people act collectively. Much of this collective action occurs when something out of the ordinary happens and people respond by establishing new behavioral norms.

Collective behavior is defined as behavior that occurs when the usual social conventions are suspended and people collectively establish new norms of behavior in response to an emerging situation (Turner and Killian 1988:3).

To shed more light, a collective behavior refers to the action or behavior of people in groups or crowds where, due to physical proximity and properties of the group, individual behavior deviates from normal, tending toward unpredictable and potentially explosive behavior.

People engaging in collective behavior may be divided into crowds Opens in new window and masses Opens in new window.

  • A crowd is a relatively large number in one another’s immediate vicinity (Lofland, 1993). Examples of crowds include the audience in a movie theater or people at a pep rally for a sporting event.
  • By contrast, a mass is a number of people who share an interest in a specific idea or issue but who are not in one another’s immediate vicinity (Lofland, 1993).

Based on this fact, some sociologists asserted that collective behavior involves the actions of a group of people who are responding in a similar way to an event or situation, including people who all occupy the same location (a crowd), as well as mass phenomena in which individuals are dispersed across a wide area (mass behavior).

Important Hint!  

Collective behavior differs from group behavior in three important ways:

  • Collective behavior involves limited social interaction; groups tend to remain together longer than do collectives.
  • Collective behavior has no clear social boundaries; anyone can be a member of the collective while group membership is usually more discriminating.
  • Collective behavior generates weak and unconventional norms; groups tend to have stronger and more conventional norms.

Collective behavior does not reflect existing social structure (e.g., laws, conventions, and institutions) but emerges in a spontaneous way. Examples of collective behavior episodes might include: religious revivals, panics in burning theatres, outbreaks of swastika painting on synagogues, a change in popular preferences in toothpaste, the Russian Revolution, and a sudden widespread interest in body piercing.

The Who Concert Stampede: A Crowd Gone Mad?
The crowd, made up of 8000 fans, was waiting to get into Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum to hear a concert by the ‘70s rock band The Who. In attempt to get a spot near the stage, fans had come to the venue early so they could enter as soon as the doors opened. But logistical problems delayed the staff from opening the doors, so by late afternoon thousands of people were massed outside the building in a tightly packed throng. Eventually the doors opened at 7:30, and the crowd surged forwards. A crowd of 8000 people is loud, but above the din, the concertgoers could hear the band warming up. As those on the periphery pushed forward, people near the doors were packed together tighter and tighter. The ticket takers worked as fast as they could, but too few doors were opened to handle the large collective. The back of the group moved faster than the front, and the flow jammed near the clogged doors. People were literally swept off their feet by the surge and some slipped to the concrete floor. Those around them tried to pull them back to their feet, but the overcrowded mass of people pushed on toward open doors and the music. As the rear of the crowd continued to push forward the crowd swept past those who had fallen, and they were trampled underfoot.
a large crowd of people
Eleven people died that night, killed by the surge of a crowd of people. Most suffocated, caught so long in the press of the crowd that they could not breathe. Many of those who survived were bruised and battered; their “bodies were marked with multiple contusions, bruises” and “hemorrhages” (“The Who,” 1979, p. A-19).

This tragedy is a grim example of collective behavior—the actions of a large group of people who are responding in a similar way to an event or situation.

Collective behavior can include crowd behavior, such as the ‘The Who Concert Stampede,’ but it can also be more sustained and organized than crowds typically are. Thus, collective behavior includes the study of social movements, groups that act with continuity and organization to promote or resist change (Turner and Killian 1988).

Interestingly, collective behavior occurs when something out of the ordinary happens and people respond by establishing new behavioral norms, such as people spontaneously placing numerous shrines on the sidewalks of New York following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

Although collective behavior may emerge spontaneously in response to a unique situation, it is not entirely unpredictable. Established patterns of collective behavior exist, even when unusual, unpredicted events generate such behavior. Collective behavior thus includes crowds, riots, disasters, and social movements, as well as other forms of mass action, such as fads and crazes.

Some of the phenomena defined as collective behavior are whimsical and fun, such as fads and some kinds of crowds.

Other collective behaviors can be terrifying, such as a riot that gets out of control. Whether whimsical or awesome, collective behavior is innovative, sometimes revolutionary, and it is this feature that links collective behavior to social change.

Conditions for Collective Behavior

To understand collective behavior, it helps to understand what the different forms of collective behavior have in common.

1.   Collective behavior always represents the actions of groups of people, not individuals.

The action of a lone gunman who opens fire in a post office is not collective behavior, because it is the action of only one person. However, groups that gather at the scene to observe the emergency response are engaged in collective behavior, as are people who organize to publicly protest a nuclear power plant.

Collective behavior has some of the same characteristics as other forms of social behavior. It is rooted in relationships between people (Weller & Quarantelli 1973) and involves group norms, such as the expression that people in a baseball stadium stand up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the middle of the seventh inning.

2.   Collective behavior involves new or emergent relationships that arise in unusual or unexpected circumstances.

Collective behavior often falls outside everyday institutional social behavior. The behavior of people who commute to work together is not considered collective behavior, because commuting is an ordinary part of their everyday life. However, if traffic comes to a halt because a barge has plowed into a drawbridge up ahead and everyone gets out of their cars to look, their actions constitute collective behavior because they are all responding to the same unusual circumstance.

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Collective behavior arises when uncertainty in the environment creates the need for new forms of action. People may undertake tasks that are new to them (Weller & Quarantelli 1973), perhaps doing things they never imagined themselves capable of before. For example, when a community is struck by a flood, earthquake, or hurricane, suddenly nothing can be taken for granted—not food, water, transportation, electricity, or shelter.

Collective behavior emerges to meet the new and immediate needs that people face. Following a hurricane, people may form neighborhood work groups to clear debris, or they may organize teams to stack sandbags in the threat of a flood.

Following the collapse of the World Trade Center, there were numerous reports of people helping each other to exits, as well as heroic efforts by firefighters and other rescue workers who quickly organized—even at risk of death—to save as many people as they could.

3.   Because of its emergent character, collective behavior captures the more novel, dynamic, and changing elements of society to a greater degree than other forms of social action.

Fads Opens in new window, such as Yu-Gi-Oh among young children, rollerblading, or body piercing among young adults, introduce something new into everyday social life. Although fads may stretch across several seasons, the collective behavior it involves is usually short-lived.

Social movements are a collective behavior that typically develops over a longer period; crowds are more ephemeral. Both long-term and short-term incidents of collective behavior can, however, transform society.

The American Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1968 followed by a seventy-one-day occupation at Wounded Knee, for example, transfixed the nation and called attention to the demands of American Indians. Actions demanding political response can be the basis for long-term and short-term social change.

4.   Collective behavior may mark the beginning of more organized social behavior.

Collective behavior often precedes the establishment of formal social movements Opens in new window. People who spontaneously organize to protest something may develop structured ways of sustaining their protest. One of the best historical examples comes from the community protest at Love Canal.

When the New York state health commissioner announced in 1978 that a toxic waste dump site located at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, presented a “great and imminent peril to the health of the general public residing at or near the said site” (Levine 1982: 28), within days, Lois Gibbs and other housewives residing in the area came together to form the Love Canal Home Owner’s Association (Gibbs 1982). The action of this small neighborhood group was an important first step in the development of social movements to protest the dumping of toxic waste, a precursor to today’s Environmental Justice Movement Opens in new window (Thomas 1995).

Since then, numerous comparable social movements can be found—many of which involve minority communities threatened by the high level of environmental hazards in their communities. The environmental justice movement Opens in new window includes a wide array of Native American, African American, Latino, and other communities that have organized to protest the dumping and pollution that imperils their neighborhoods (Pellow 2002; Bullard 1994a).

5.   Collective behavior is patterned behavior, not the irrational behavior of crazed individuals.

Patterned behavior is activity that is relatively coordinated among the participants. For example, crowd members may all be focused on the same thing, such as a rock band. They attend concerts with their friends and progress to and from the concert site in a more or less orderly fashion.

During episodes of collective behavior, people may follow new guidelines of social behavior. Even episodes of panic, which may appear to be asocial and disorganized, follow a relatively orderly pattern. A good example of collective behavior caused by panic is the actions of the passengers on the flight that was overtaken by terrorists on September 11, 2001 and then crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Although we will never know exactly what transpired on that flight, we do know that passengers, faced with the threat from terrorists, organized to thwart the terrorists’ plan. In doing so, they engaged in collective behavior—quickly changing from a collection of mostly unrelated individuals to an organized social group.

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6.   Many forms of collective behavior appear to be highly emotional, even volatile.

Episodes of collective behavior often exhibit the more emotional side of life, as when hundreds of vigils were quickly organized to grieve the death of thousands killed on 9/11. Not all emotional behavior is collective behavior, however, nor is all collective behavior deeply emotional.

Parents who grieve over a dead child are emotional but not necessarily acting collectively. But if a group of parents gather at the site of a school bus accident, weeping over lost lives, this is collective behavior. Emotionality per se does not define collective behavior; what defines collective behavior is its spontaneous character.

7.   During collective behavior, people communicate extensively through rumors.

Lacking communication channels or disgusting the channels available, people in the political, cultural, or value structures of society. The civil rights movement and La Raza (a Latino rights movement) are examples of social movements promoting change in the racial order of society. Reactionary movements like the militia movement and White supremacist movements are attempts to resist change toward greater racial equality.

Some people may believe the stereotype of collective behavior is irrational and antisocial, but collective behavior involves patterned group activity that is spontaneous and arises when people see the need for new forms of action (Goode 1992). Collective behavior includes different forms of behaviors, such as crowds, riots, panics, and other emergent forms of collective action.