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Historical Overview of the Field
The field of collective behavior is coterminous with the analysis of social dynamics. Before the emergence of the specialty, there was a concern with social change and societal transformation in the form of well-known and celebrated commentary about society and culture, such as Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and Niccolo Machiavelli’s advice to the prince. Abramson (1961:47–95) (see also Nye 1975; Rule 1988:91–118) provides a succinct account of origins, which by convention, are traced to Gustave LeBon, for he above all other Europeans writing at the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth captured the imagination of the public with his book titled The Crowd, which is both a compilations of the ideas of writers who opposed the ideals of the French Revolution and democracy—most prominently those of Edmund Burke, Hippolyte Taine, Scipio Sighele, Pasquale Rossi, and Gabriel Tarde—and an effective vehicle for conceptions of how people acted together that had and continue to have influence, as shown in Sigmund Freud’s social psychology and in some of Robert E. Park’s views of collective behavior.
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Tarde’s (1969) influence was particularly important. He identified the characteristics of collective behavior as involving a set of psychic and mental interactions of people who are aware of each other, possess similarities of beliefs and goals, share a conviction and passion for what they believe that is relatively new or previously unexpressed, and act in concert. For Tarde, collective behavior was, as was true of all other forms of social behavior, the result of imitative behavior diffusing outward from an initial point of interaction (see his influence on Faris 1926). Imitation came about through contagion. People first imitate the ideas of the new advanced by their social superiors. Crowds occurred earlier than publics in social evolution. In the crowd, imitation is associated with physical proximity and face-to-face interaction. In the public, interaction takes place through newspapers and thus exhibits a spiritual or mental contiguity not limited by space or number of participants. People in publics, contrary with what is the case in crowds, can belong to a number of publics (Steigerwalt 1974).
LeBon employed the racist ideas of his time to describe collective behavior in terms of psychological regression and contagion. People, particularly lower-class individuals, when acting together in a crowd, lost their individuality and regressed to what he presumed they had in common: their race and national origins. The effect of socialization on personality was a thin patina easily removed under the hypnotic influence and emotional interstimulation of the mob. These simple ideas were expressed in scientific-sounding principles such as the law of the mental unity of the crowd. The crowd was capable of acts of heroism and savage horror; it all depended on chance events and the sway of symbols and suggestions. There is also in LeBon a theory of history, although this is not as prominent, in which crowds served a useful purpose of destroying the useless practices of the past and facilitating the emergence of the new; periods of intense and concentrated crowd activity mark the end and the beginning of historical epochs. The ambivalence is never resolved in his writings: The crowd both destroyed individual personality and brought about social change and the possibility of progress.
The American Context
Collective behavior as an area of sociological specialization starts in the United States with the pioneering efforts of Robert E. Park (Turner 1967), who in 1899 traveled to Germany, where he studied at the Universities of Berlin, Strasbourg, and Heidelberg. His doctoral dissertation (Park  1972) is titled Crowd and Public—it reflects many of the ideas in vogue at the time in Europe. Particularly noteworthy is his use of G. Tarde’s concept of the public to identify a collective behavior form quite different from the crowd, in which deliberative and rational discussion and assessment of alternative viewpoints and interests were seen as the foundation of collective behavior and decision making. Later on, in his classic statement appearing as a chapter in his textbook coauthored with Ernest Burgess titled Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Park and Burgess 1921), Park laid out the contours of the field of specialization. Here we see the enduring characteristics of his scholarship. Reflecting the ideas in vogue at the time, Park to varying extents borrows from LeBon’s view of the crowd as irrational and dominated by psychological regression. But this is never the dominant form of collective behavior in his writings, which advanced the field considerably by identifying a multiplicity of forms and by arranging these forms in a continuum of institutionalization, from elementary forms of collective behavior, to mass behaviors and social movements, to the emergence of institution. It is a natural sequence approach to social change. Institutions fail to satisfy human needs, and people who are affected by their failures become dissatisfied. Thus, there is first a stage of individual unrest, which is the foundation of social unrest, which then provides the grievance base for the possible occurrence of collective behavior, which in turn is the possible basis for the institutions that exist in the society, both as providing reasons to change them and as sources of ideas and resources for the direction of the change that is sought. Collective behavior becomes the mechanism for change and social adjustment of institutions. In its optimism and pragmatism, it is a quintessential American view of the mechanics of social change very different from the pessimism and reactionary perspective of LeBon and the European intellectual tradition he represented.
A psychological tradition to the study of collective behavior also exists (Locher 2002; Rule 1988:200–24). For Floyd Allport (1924), individual predispositions explained the phenomena of collective behavior, understood as an aggregate of individual cognitions. People previously interested in the same sort of activities converged to specific places to satisfy their interests. He also incorporated some of LeBon’s ideas, arguing that once in a crowd, people expressed impulses that otherwise they would not be willing or able to acknowledge. Neil Miller and John Dollard (1941) also presented an individual-level explanation of collective behavior in their learning theory of human behavior: People learn similar responses to similar situations or stimuli and thus respond in a similar fashion to them. In crowds, they also experience heightened stimulation, caused in part by human density, anonymity, and the impact of the crowd leader. McPhail (1991) provides a critical summary of this tradition.
Diverging Perspectives in the Collective Behavior Tradition
Many scholars studied under R. E. Park and later with Herbert Blumer at the University of Chicago and then at Berkeley and with Talcott Parsons at Harvard University and carried out the traditions of the field. Some of the most renowned members of these second and third generations are Neil Smelser, John Lofland, Gary Marx, David Snow, Joseph Gusfied, Kurt and Gladys Engel Lang, Ralph Turner, Lewis Killian, E. L. Quarantelli, Norris Johnson, William Feinberg, Bert Useem, Anthony Oberschall, and Orrin Klapp.
Herbert Blumer (1939, 1969), Park’s student at the University of Chicago, early on in his career repeated in his writings many of the ideas initially advanced by Park and developed a view of collective behavior that had the unwelcome effect of helping to marginalize it from mainstream sociology, for he created a distinct social psychology for it. In his view, collective behavior was characterized by circular interaction rather than by symbolic interaction: People participating in instances of collective behavior did not evaluate and then respond to the acts of others but responded automatically and emotionally to them (Zygmunt 1986). There are other criticisms of Blumer’s scholarship (McPhail 1991), but these do not mention the many other conceptual breakthroughs and lasting contributions he made. Among them are his understanding of social problems as collective behavior (Blumer 1971), his criticisms of public opinion polling (Blumer 1948), and his empirical analysis of fashion (Blumer 1969). In these other writings, Blumer used symbolic interaction to make sense of the social life he was explaining.
Herbert Blumer’s analysis of social problems was one of the pioneering efforts that provided the basis for the current dominant view of social problems as social constructions. From its perspective, the acceptance of a claim as a social problem is the outcome of a set of stages in which many of the claims presented by collective actors are discouraged. Throughout it is characterized as a complex political process in which the outcome of any claim is uncertain and is very often determined by established interests, the effect of differential social power, and access to centers of public persuasion such as the mass media and government agencies.
Similarly, his criticism of public opinion polling emphasized that such polling often conveys the erroneous impression that every opinion counts equally in the setting of the public agenda. Instead, Blumer pointed out that this is the case only if the link between the opinion and the outcome is unmediated by social organization. In instances in which public opinion is vulnerable to the effect of structures of power and control, the opinions of persons central to institutions in which this power resides are much more important and influential than others in affecting outcomes. Blumer’s statement on fashion continues to be one of the key articles in the study of this form of collective behavior. Based on months of observation and conversations with members of fashion houses in Paris, France, he pointed out the cultural fields in which fashion was prone to occur and the specific practices that accompanied the setting of fashion, in what he characterized as a process of cultural selection that negotiated the paradox of continuity and discontinuity of popular tastes.
In the case of H. Blumer and N. Smelser, as well as other scholars included in this review, it is possible to underestimate their scholarship to build up our own arguments and theories. It is more useful, however, to recognize the situated nature of all knowledge and the strengths and weaknesses of their contributions in the light of present-day understanding in the discipline. To go back to Park, his institutionalization continuum allows us to appreciate the fabricated nature of some collective behavior, in which centers of social power such as the corporation and the state construct instances of collective behavior and social movement organizations (SMOs) as part of their increasing sophisticated efforts to control culture and politics. It is no longer collective behavior on one side and institution on the other but their mixing that must be assumed nowadays. Park never examined these matters but pointed to the link between the two.
The Chicago tradition of collective behavior established by Park and Blumer, and to a lesser extent the strands of structural functionalist theorizing from Harvard, was used by a number of other important contributors to develop often-divergent scholarly contributions. Most of their writings combined an abiding interest in versions of symbolic interaction with historical, complex organizational, and other structural emphases.
Kurt and Gladys Lang (1961), in their textbook on social dynamics, continued the ways of thinking about collective behavior found in Blumer’s earlier writings, defining collective dynamics as “those patterns of social action that are spontaneous and unstructured inasmuch as they are not organized and are not reducible to social structure.” Collective dynamics are marked by transformations of social systems, or the emergence of a collective definition, the undermining of expectations and trust on established definitions of the situation, anxieties, mass conversion or changes in values, and the crystallization of new forms of social life. Particularly problematic for more recent understanding of the subject matter of the specialty is their emphasis on spontaneity and contagion, and the separation of collective behavior from the institutions of society. They also wrote a number of monographs on mass communications, politics, and symbols (Lang 1983) and have shown a particular interest in the study of the interface of generations and social change (Roberts and Lang 1985).
Different from the Langs is Richard LaPiere (1938), who sponsored a radical nominalist social psychological perspective on collective behavior, defined as the “interaction which occurs between two or more socialized human beings for the duration of the particular situation in which the interaction occurs” (p. 3). He then classified social interactions in terms of origin and function, the members in the situation, the relationship between overt behavior and covert feelings, and the elements of leadership (pp. 45–46). Elsewhere (LaPiere and Farnsworth 1936: 465–84), he makes the distinction between normal and abnormal forms of collective behavior: fads, booms, crazes, and fashion are presumably normal; the audience fanatique, lynching mobs, uncoordinated riots, panic, mobs or coordinated riots, and revolutions are abnormal. These conceptual boundaries, definitions, and types, with an emphasis on momentary interaction, create an idiosyncratic understanding of collective behavior that stands apart from most other conceptualizations.
Quite different from both the Langs and LaPiere is Orrin Klapp (1962, 1964, 1969), who made important and unique contributions to the specialty of collective behavior. For Klapp, social life is dramaturgical, theaterlike, and can be understood using symbolic interaction. He located collective behavior in the post–World War II period. He argued that dramatic improvements in mass communication created breakdowns in meanings and deficits in social recognition. It was predominantly one-way communication from the mass media to the individual. In this context, he identified collective behavior as a solution to alienation and anxiety in modern society. According to Klapp (1970), collective identity is a system of reference group identifications people need to have a satisfactory conception of selves. Those who lack them are identity seekers, people searching for new selves. Pervasive shortcomings in meaning lead to collective identity searches such as style rebellions.
Klapp’s approach is a type of convergence explanation: Identity seekers have predispositions that make them participate in collective acts. Some of his most provocative writings are his identification of style search as a form of collective behavior—a collective search for a distinctive expression of mass identity via personal appearance and life style. Symbolic leaders are charismatic people whose public gestures and styles represent an identity solution to seekers. The identity solution is through what Klapp called an open symbolic transaction in which values and meanings are not all known in advance and into which parties enter expecting bargaining, a dialectic, carrying off roles. The chief way symbolic transaction is done is through anonymous interpersonal communication, or communication from an unidentified source, a network not defined, or from people the person does not control and who are strangers. Klapp also devoted attention to social types, such as the fool, the villain, and the hero. For example, his major classification of heroes includes winners, splendid performers, heroes of social acceptability, independent heroes, and group servants, each composed of subcategories. Even though mass society theory of collective behavior is not in vogue nowadays, and even as we disagree with Klapp’s notion that collective behavior takes place among strangers, it is still the case that he dealt with very important forms of collective behavior that go mostly unrecognized nowadays. As one example among many, Edelman’s (1988) and other social science literature on the spectacle owes much to Klapp’s pioneering efforts.
David Snow also combined symbolic interaction and drama. He was among the first to use Erving Goffman’s dramatist theory to examine a victory celebration to excellent effect. He and his collaborators (Snow, Zurcher, and Peters 1981) used the metaphor of the theater to identify the various groups of actors in the celebration, their on-stage and off-stage behavior, and the effect of distant spectators, such as merchants, in the eventual cessation of the activities, as they exerted pressure on the police to stop what they eventually came to perceive as a public nuisance. Subsequently, he and his collaborators have also shown greater interest in the study of SMOs, particularly of homeless people (Anderson, Snow, and Cress 1994; Cress and Snow 2000). Borrowing the concept of frame from Goffman but favoring a hierarchical view of power and influence, they have advanced a widely used perspective on types of movement frames as rhetorical mechanisms used for resource acquisition and mobilization (Benford and Snow 2000; Snow et al. 1986).
Joseph Gusfield (1986) examined status politics in his study of the temperance movement. He understood it as an organized reaction of native-born, Protestant, small-town, and rural folks to the reality of industrialization, immigration, and urbanism in the post-Civil War period. Prohibition legislation, the main goal of the movement, was a cultural affirmation of their claims for continued cultural preeminence and control of the state. Important in this work is not only his attempt to understand the importance of symbols in the struggle for control of state institutions but also his conception of moral passage, based on Émile Durkheim’s ( 1951,  1997) approach to public morality, which allowed him to recognize the ebb and flow in interpretations of behavior as either legal or illegal and to link them to the struggles by mobilized collectivities. Later on, Gusfield and his colleagues wrote on the characteristics of new social movements (Larana, Johnston, and Gusfield 1994).
Anthony Oberschall’s (1973, 1993) approach is even more different from the others’and similar to Gusfield’s, in that his sociology is imbued with a profound sense of history. He has studied social conflict, particularly opposition movements, riots, and rebellions. He has examined opposition movements, stressing their rational components of choice and decision making as well as emotional outrage, misconceptions, and anger. Social conflicts occur in episodes with elements of action and reaction during which large groups of people express grievances, voice demands, and organize marches, demonstrations, and other collective behaviors. He examined the process of mobilization of aggrieved people in pursuit of collective goals, and how central organization, ideology, and leadership are central to the production of mobilization as well as to its cessation. Oberschall examined the patterns of diffusion in the civil rights movement (Oberschall 1989a, 1989b) and the processes that marked its quiescence (Oberschall 1978), developed an important analysis of witchcraft epidemics of deviance, and wrote monographs on social movements. His structural explanation of the witchcraft epidemic ties the practice to the emergence of rationality in the West, which in his view facilitated the increased severity of the sanctions attached to the deviance and the number of people punished; in the Middle Ages, prior to the rise of science, people expected miracles and supernatural acts, among them witchcraft. In another very worthwhile paper, Oberschall (1978) argues that the decline of the 1960s social movements (student, antiwar, and civil rights movements) did not come about from government efforts to suppress them. Instead, it was the outcome of the internal disorganization and chronic conflict and division among the movements, and the eventual disinterest of the mass media as other public concerns emerged, such as environmental degradation and the condition of women. Without the media attention and without effective internal organization, the movement collapsed. Most recently (Oberschall 1994), he has carried out extensive research in Eastern European countries to provide explanations to the patterns of collective behaviors that marked their transitions to postcommunist political systems.
E. L. Quarantelli is another of the writers included in this review who, while he was influenced by symbolic interaction, has developed a lifelong interest in the study of social organization and its transformations during moments of crises. He wrote a number of papers on collective behavior topics. In work coauthored with Hundley (Quarantelli and Hundley 1969), he tested Smelser’s theory of collective behavior and pointed out that the omnipotence of protesters, a key characteristic that presumably made up their hostile generalized belief, could not be confirmed. In another paper, Quarantelli (1974) wrote about the lack of a critical mass of trained scholars in the specialty as an important structural impediment to its maturity as a field of specialization in sociology. He found that there was an insufficient degree of consensus among practitioners about the definition of the field and what it contained and about the key analytical and empirical challenges it faced. Yet in another paper, he and Weller (Weller and Quarantelli 1973) amended and expanded Turner and Killian’s theory of emergent norm to argue for the inclusion in it of emergent social relations—it is not just culture but social relations that must be considered in a theory of collective behavior. More recently, he and his collaborators helped clarify the characteristics of cycles of fads, which, contrary to common assumptions, are not inconsequential social behavior without histories and lasting effects and whose diffusion cannot be predicted (Aguirre, Quarantelli, and Mendoza 1988). One of his most important contributions, explored elsewhere in this review, is his lifelong attempt to understand disaster phenomena using his own perspective of collective behavior mediated by social organization.
John Lofland (1966) also mixed symbolic interaction with the analysis of social organization of religious social movements and the dynamics of religious conversion. He resurrected the examination of dominant emotions in instances of collective behavior (Lofland 1985) as involving, to varying degrees, the emotions of fear, hostility, and joy. Unfortunately, to this day the study of collective behavior has not profited from the sustained attention of specialists in the sociology of emotion, an increasingly important field in the discipline. He also developed an analytical model of collective behavior as types of surges (Lofland 1993a) that can be used to understand fads and other forms of collective behavior. More recently, Lofland (1996) offered a comprehensive inventory of key empirical generalizations about the most important analytical issues in the study of social movements.
Gary Marx and Bert Useem are well known for their abiding interest in the study of formal social control and the action of the state. Marx (1974) contributed a classic analysis of the ways government infiltrates SMOs and encourages them to break the law and wrote about issueless riots (Marx 1970). He has also examined the increasingly institutionalized practices that undermine privacy and make people vulnerable to government surveillance (for a near complete list of his publications, see http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/garyhome.html). Also emphasizing the effect of social control is Bert Useem. He and his collaborators have developed what is arguably the best-known explanation of prison riots in the breakdown model of social control in prisons (Useem 1985, 1998; Useem and Kimball 1989). In it, they argue, based on comparisons of prison reforms in different states, that the action of state bureaucracies, particularly prison administrators and state and national governments, can create the conditions under which social order breaks down or is restored; attempts to improve prisons can have the unintended consequence of disrupting the established order of the prison and facilitating riots. Useem has published on a number of other subjects, to include the dynamics of movements and countermovements (Zald and Useem 1987).
Different from the works of other scholars included in this review are Norris Johnson and William Feinberg’s pioneering efforts to construct computer simulations of crowd behavior. They have used computer simulations to examine “intra and inter group interaction resulting in individual and group responses to cues for action” (Feinberg and Johnson 1989) and understand the effect of outside agitators in crowds (Feinberg and Johnson 1988), the effects of ambiguity on crowds (Feinberg and Johnson 1990) and the emergence of consensus in crowds (Feinberg and Johnson n.d.). They have developed Firescap (Feinberg and Johnson 1995), a computer simulation model that simulates the behavior of crowds reacting to a fire hazard, and have made a number of contributions to fire science (Feinberg and Johnson 1997a, 1997b, 1998), such as examining the effect of the number of exits on the emergency evacuation behavior of computer-simulated crowds. The importance of this work is that it is one of the few approaches to simulation that incorporates accurate assumptions regarding collective behavior of emergency egress. They have also used documents, interviews, and other information to study how people behave in these situations and have documented the pro-social nature of collective behavior in instances previously characterized as panic. This research has had a profound effect on current understandings of these situations of collective anxiety and crisis (for a review of the panic literature, see Aguirre 2005).
The Chicago tradition, as developed in part by H. Blumer’s symbolic interactionism, provided the foundation to R. Turner and L. Killian’s (1987) theory of emergent norm. Emergent norm theory (ENT) is based on a symbolic interaction conceptualization that emphasizes the importance of norms and social relations. It posits that nontraditional, collective behavior emerges from a normative crisis brought about by a precipitating event that, depending on how the event is collectively perceived and interpreted by the participants, destroys, neutralizes, or no longer allows the preexisting normative guidelines, division of labor, power, and other social arrangements to be collectively defined as appropriate guides for action to respond to the crisis. The crisis creates a sense of uncertainty and urgency forcing people to act, and participants are forced to create a new, emergent normative structure to guide their behavior in the crisis. They mill about as they attempt to define the situation, propose cues for appropriate action, evaluate their relevant skills in terms of the new demands of the situation, and try out alternate schemes to solve the problem. Forced by the crisis to abandon their previously established social relationships, statuses, and normative guidelines regarding legitimate ways of acting, people engage in collective behavior to solve the problems created by the crisis, in the most extreme case (Weller and Quarantelli 1973) in effect reconstituting groups and social relationships. ENT theory assumes the presence of heterogeneous actors with different backgrounds, relevant skills, perceptual abilities, and motives about what is going on, what should be done to respond to the crisis, and who is responsible to do what and when. ENT assumes that collective behavior is not irrational but social, normative behavior.
Subsequent research has pointed out problems with ENT, which, while not invalidating it, still must be addressed. Quarantelli and Weller (see also Levy 1989; Neil and Phillips 1988) observed that emergence is not only normative and cultural but is also socially relational. McPhail has argued that the emergent norm cannot explain the on-and-off nature of participation of people in the stationary demonstrations and rallies he has studied; ENT does not tell us much about the longitudinal dimensions of emergent norms and about how they change. Marx and McAdam (1994) solved it in a little-noted contribution that addressed the lack of specificity that scholars had identified in the concept of the emergent norm. These analysts specified the characteristics not of the emergent norm but of the emergent situation that is typical of instances of collective behavior (Marx and McAdam 1994). From this perspective, it is no longer a norm but a series of dimensions, including norms, that typifies sociocultural emergence, such as whether or not the culture specifies who are the members, how they are going to assemble and disassemble, the emotive and linguistic practices that are expected, the extent of regularity in the occurrence of the event, its purpose, its division of labor, and its connection to broader patterns of social life, to name some of the most important dimensions. It is possible to extend this insight into a view of collective behavior as involving institutionalization and deinstitutionalization (see the following).
Yet another issue that has become apparent is that in a large gathering typically there are multiple groups that have divergent and at times conflicting perspectives orienting their collective action. ENT does not incorporate an explicit understanding of the ecological elements of the social organization of collective behavior, such as multiple groups trying to come to some coordinated collective action. Instead, its focus is on social interaction in a collectivity of people. Key to understanding riots and emergency evacuations, to name only two collective behaviors, are the multiple collectivities sharing multiple ecological settings. Part of these problems could be addressed by incorporating Goffman’s (1963) dramatistic view of social life. Following Goffman (for an excellent review, see Brown and Goldin 1973, chap. 8), crises—what in Goffman’s term are topics for focused interaction in encounters—disrupt culturally specified occasions in specific physical settings. There is an occasion and the gathering of people enacting it. Such gatherings are composed of single individuals and of small groups. Then there is the crisis, the precipitating event that starts focused interaction in an encounter and the period of the mobilization and collective behavior. For Goffman, interactions in these encounters are face-to-face, rich in meaning, revealing, rapidly changing, augmenting “attention to detail, an intensification of mutual dependence, and an absorption in the interactive moment” (as cited in Brown and Goldin 1973:154), with people moving about, facilitating information dissemination.
Goffman argues that encounters develop two types of norms that regulate them and permit their continuation through time and space. These are rules of irrelevance and of transformation. The first helps people engaged in reconstituting their groups to identify what is relevant and irrelevant about their situation, what they must attend to; the second help people incorporate into their social organizations extraneous items in such a way that the encounter is preserved (as cited in Brown and Goldin 1973:155–56). Still in need of research is the process of proselytizing of groups in instances of collective behavior as they attempt to convince others to accept their viewpoints about what is going on and what needs to be done. There is some evidence that in evacuating collectivities the existence of multiple groups slows down the process of decision making of groups (Aguirre, Wenger, and Vigo 1998).
Neil Smelser’s (1963; see also 1968, 1992) value-added approach to collective behavior has also been influential in the specialty (see, e.g., Adamek and Lewis 1973; Cilliers 1989; Lewis 1989; McAllister 2002; Weeber and Rodeheaver 2003). It provides a drastically different perspective on collective behavior. It is derived from Talcott Parson’s (1971) structural functionalism, starting with the analysis of the components of social action and their hierarchical relationships (facilities, motivation, norms, and values) and then developing the concept of strain among the components in the context of a set of five broad determinants of collective behavior also arranged from the most to the least inclusive. It defines collective behavior as behavior by people attempting to resolve inappropriately the strains under the influence of a generalized belief that is, in Smelser’s view, akin to a magical belief. It claims that there is a short-circuiting effect, so that resources of the components are misused and misapplied. This is perhaps the most controversial part of the theory. Still, there are other, more positive elements, such as the insight that comes from considering the notion of structural conduciveness. Other worthwhile aspects are (a) that it circumscribes all collective behavior to a finite and rather small set of forms and associates each form with specific generalized beliefs, (b) the value of the description of the characteristics of the precipitating events, and (c) the theory’s distinction of pre- and postmechanisms of social control. Subsequent writings that do not mention Smelser still develop concepts, such as repertoires of contention by C. Tilly (1978), that are vaguely reminiscent of Smelser’s ideas. More recent writings by Smelser (in Alexander et al. 2004: chap. 2 and epilogue) use the logic of parallels to apply insights from Sigmund Freud (1938) and other writers concerned with the structure and dynamics of the personality system to study social and cultural systems. This is most apparent in his recent analysis of cultural trauma in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack of the World Trade Center complex and the Pentagon.
Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, collective behavior as a specialty experienced its own form of a fad of collective reproach. It was a surge characterized by the use by scientists of established concepts in a new way, a form of cultural emergence; a prevailing locus of interaction revolving around a professional ideology; the prevalence of the emotion of hostility; and an international arena of discourse occurring over a period of years and bounded by class-professional identities (for cults in sociology, see Martin 1974; for a surge in the sustainable development discourse, see Aguirre 2002; on the postmodernist fad, see Best 1995).
The surge was in part facilitated by the rapid social change that occurred during the 1960 to 1980 period in the United States and that contrasted rather sharply with the relative absence of social movement activity in the 1950s. The civil rights, antiwar, women’s, and environmentalist movements mobilized the sympathy of sociologists and provided the experiences and historical context for the reaction in the specialty, which at the extreme considered anything other than explicit political social movement activity inconsequential and not worth studying (Aguirre and Quarantelli 1983). Even as a critical mass of practitioners emerged that established the study of social movements on firm grounds, this was not the case for collective behavior. The opposite was more nearly true; the surge discouraged the emergence of a critical mass of scholars interested in its study.
The surge ignored the many strands of scholarship in the specialty and grouped most collective behaviorists as LeBonians and irrationalists (see, e.g., Melucci 1988; more extensive criticisms of the surge in Aguirre 1994). Despite a number of voices counseling restraint (Aguirre 1994; Killian 1980, 1984, 1994; Lofland 1993b; Rule 1989; Smelser 1970; Turner 1981), it brought about a much greater emphasis on models of rationality and formal organization, as typified by the writings of Olson (1971), which established the conundrum of the free rider in collective action (or the idea that people are motivated to maximize profits and minimize costs and that if they can get individual profit from collective efforts without contributing to the effort, they will do so). Also part of this emphasis was Granovetter’s (1978) threshold model of collective action, which argued that participation was determined by the distribution of thresholds to participate in collective action in a population of would-be participants rather than by the willingness to participate of the individuals. Marwell and Oliver’s (1993) theory of the critical mass added a very worthwhile correction and specification to Olson’s theory, while more marginally, Berk’s (1974) attempted to identify rational principles in crowd behaviors and Gamson (1990) argued for the importance of complex organizational features such as centralization as predictors of successful efforts of SMOs. The surge provided ideological support to the resource mobilization approach (RMA) to social movements and its variants (McCarthy and Zald 1977).
The surge, in what has come to be known as the collective action school, has received extensive critical attention (see, e.g., Buechler and Cylke 1997; Ferree and Miller 1985; Piven and Cloward 1979, 1991). It was dominant during the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s in American sociology and was only recently challenged by the cultural turn in the discipline. The same is not true of Continental sociology, which continued to show an appreciation of collective behavior scholarship, as shown by efforts to understand football stadia disasters in the United Kingdom (Elliott and Smith 1993; Lewis 1982, 1986, 1987), hooliganism in Belgium (De Vreese 2000), and public disorder and riot in England and Canada. Particularly noteworthy is the research of Waddington and his collaborators, centered on the flashpoints model (Waddington 1992; Waddington, Jones, and Critcher 1987; see also Lebeuf and Soulliere 1996 and Drury and Reicher’s  social identity model of crowd behavior).
The Social Behavioral Interactional Perspective
McPhail’s (1991) is perhaps the most sophisticated statement of the collective action formulation. He proposes what is known as the social behavioralinteractional (SBI) perspective. In it, collective action is conceptualized in terms of the organization of convergent activity or the number of people marching, and the degree to which they do things in common, such as jumping, moving sideways in the same direction at the same speed, gesticulating in the same way, and raising their arms. These are some of the behavioral elements. The symbolic elements are the instructions people receive to act collectively that they use to adjust their behavior to the behavior of others in the gathering. There are many types of instructions identified in the theory. The theory borrows from Goffman’s emphasis on the gathering, examining not only what happens in the gathering but also the assembling or convergence behavior that makes it possible as well as the stage of dispersal. SBI examines the subunits acting in the gathering, the most common of which are small groups of friends and others forming clusters and semicircles.
McPhail and his collaborators (McPhail and Tucker 2003) deny the usefulness of the concept of collective behavior and emergence. They have developed a cybernetic model to account for the behavior of people doing things together and taking others into account as they behave. This cybernetic model has had very limited use so far, for it does not predict the collective behavior presumably at the center of SBI interests. Despite its rejection of sociocultural emergence, other aspects of McPhail’s SBI model are valuable, particularly its emphasis on looking at what people do together in gatherings and instances of collective behavior. Such data are worth collecting in any case, as shown by Wright’s (1978) earlier examinations of crowds and riots; Seidler, Meyer, and Gillivray’s (1976) approach to collecting data in gatherings (see also Meyer and Seidler 1978); the analysis of the riot process by Stark et al. (1974); and studies of the effects of crowd size (Milgram, Bickman, and Berkowitz 1969; Newton and Mann 1980).
Continued Relevance of the Approach
Despite its undeniable impact in the discipline of American sociology in downgrading the scholarship that had taken place in the specialty and in blocking the creation of a critical mass of scholars interested in the study of collective behavior, the surge did not succeed entirely in wiping out the collective behavior tradition. In a curious turn, other disciplines in the social, natural, and physical sciences, while not showing a unified set of theoretical ideas and a program of research that would generate cumulative knowledge among them, nevertheless continued to study subject matter that could be understood as examples of collective behavior. This is true, for example, of research on robotics (Baldassarre, Nolfi, and Parisi 2003), ecology (Ward, Gobet, and Kendall 2001), fire science (Santos and Aguirre 2005), structural engineering, disaster studies, the economics of market crashes (Kaizoji 2000; Mann, Nagel, and Dowling 1976; Prechter 2001; Sornette 2003; Spotton Visano 2002), the impact of the new electronic technology on convergence behavior and politics (Rheingold 2002; see also Rafael 2003), group-level cognition in philosophy (Wilson 2001), expressive voting (Schuessler 2000), social control and policing of gatherings of various types (De Biasi 1998; Schweingruber 2000; Stott and Reicher 1998a, 1998b), the sociology of religious and political movements (Davis and Boles 2003; Eyerman and Jamison 1998; Mattern 1998), the history of rioting in the United States (Gilje 1999), epidemics of deviance (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994), public opinion (van Ginneken 2003), studies of relative deprivation (Walker and Smith 2002), and the examination of urban legends, to name some of the most relevant, which consider the emergence and impact of group-level effects and ask questions outside the cost-benefit calculus of the free rider.
In anthropology, the writings of Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and their students on ceremonies and celebrations of various types are traditions of scholarship through which the study of collective behavior has continued (for a summary of this literature, see Mukerji and Schudson 1986). This is also true of recent writings by Brass (1996, 1997; see also Tambiah 1997), a political scientist, in which he uses Smelser’s value-added model to construct a model of an institutionalized riot system. He identifies a set of structured interests such as those of political parties and candidates for elected offices in India, as well as the chronic corruption of the police, to understand the production by riot specialists of ethnic, communal, and racial riots. These are people who profit from riots and who have access to the resources needed to make them happen; often riots are mistakenly attributed to ancestral hatreds. Similarly, the scholarship that attempts to understand the Eastern European revolutions marking the end of the Soviet Union is based on carefully constructed, nuanced accounts of the personalities, institutions, organizations, and historical events that participated in the transition that is reminiscent of previous efforts to understand social change in the collective behavior tradition. Among the best works of this scholarship are the analyses by Jadwiga Staniszkis (Gross 1984), Piotr Sztompka (1993), Timothy Garton Ash (1990), Mate Szabo (1996), and Jan Pakulski (1986).
A review of a field with which I am well acquainted, disaster studies, shows that many aspects of disasters continue to be understood from a collective behavior perspective. This is particularly true of the scholarship produced by the Disaster Research Center (DRC) founded by E. L. Quarantelli and Russell R. Dynes (https://www.drc.udel.edu/) and by other social scientists studying disasters, in which institutional change in moments of collective behavior— the continuity and discontinuities between structure and social dynamics during these crises—is profitably examined. Group emergence, convergence of material and people to the site of the disaster, the often unplanned and yet effective coordination and cooperation that takes place among responding organizations, the unofficial volunteering collective behavior that typifies most disaster response and search-and-rescue activities, these and many other topics of investigation continue to be understood using collective behavior formulations (for some of DRC’s publications, see https://udspace.udel.edu/). The sociology of disasters is perhaps the exception to the rule, in that it has developed a critical mass of practitioners who apply collective behavior formulations to understanding the social aspects of disasters. In turn, the social science of disasters is increasingly recognized as an important field by the National Science Foundation and other disciplines such as fire science, in which computer simulation models of building evacuations are incorporating much of the knowledge accumulated in the social sciences of disasters to render their calculations of time to evacuate and the behavior of evacuating units more valid and thus more useful to the engineer and architect designing for the safety of the built environment.
Synthesis and Prospects for the 21st Century
There is value in attempting to provide an answer to the question of what is collective behavior. A number of critics have argued that there is no established conceptual boundary to this field of specialization and no growth of cumulative scientific knowledge in it because of the plethora of processes and forms of social organizations that are included in it; in the words of one of these critics, “it is a miscellany, a heap of odds and ends that we choose to classify under one heading” (Professor Joel Best, personal correspondence, July 2005). Contrary to this view, it is possible to synthesize elements from a number of conceptualizations available in this literature to make explicit its underlying unity. Irrespective of the often-heard assertion about the presence of seemingly irreconcilable differences in some of these writings, many existing approaches in fact can be fruitfully assembled together to bring coherence to the specialty area.
It is useful to recognize, as did Park and Burgess at the inception of the study of collective behavior in the United States (Park and Burgess 1921), that many types of social behavior take place in collectivities of people and yet are not collective behavior in the sense of the rubric and practice of the profession, for they do not represent sociocultural emergence. Furthermore, as Herbert Blumer (1946) advised us, the behavior of small groups is different from collective behavior, for in small groups, patterns of social interaction and social control are more immediate. Small groups are the most frequently found constituents of gatherings, which may, if the necessary conditions are met, be the foundation of most instances of collective behavior. Finally, present in the work of these and other contributors to the specialty are the insight that all forms of collective behavior and action are enmeshed in social control systems. Collective behavior and action is inextricably linked to the systems of institutions and cannot be understood outside these contexts.
A static view of the key dimensions that identify the boundaries of the field of collective behavior involves the following.
The units of social organization that are found in instances of collective behavior: Taking a cue from the seminal typology-centered work of R. E. Park (see Turner 1967), it can be assumed that there are three master units that may be present to a greater and lesser extent in all empirical cases of collective behavior. They are small groups, associational networks of individuals and complex organizations, and SMOs.
The cultural and socio-organizational features of instances of collective behavior: As initially discussed by Gary Marx and later published in his book (Marx and McAdam 1994:1–17), these cultural features are to be understood as arranged in a continuum of emergence and institutionalized relevant cultural elements such as norms, power arrangements, division of labor, and social relationships in instances of collective behavior. This dimension of sociocultural emergence, partly emphasized in the writings of Turner and Killian (1987) and Weller and Quarantelli (1973), and with roots in the seminal contributions of Park and Burgess (1921) and Blumer (1946), is an important defining characteristic of collective behavior, allowing the differentiation of collective behavior and action from institutionalized social life. Marx and McAdam argue that there is no collective behavior and action in the absence of such emergence, irrespective of the unit of social organization present in the situation. Nevertheless, all conceptions of role playing extant in the social sciences acknowledge the universality of sociocultural emergence in social life (Strauss 1993). Thus, it is a matter of degree rather than kind; a significantly greater amount of sociocultural emergence must occur that will allow us to differentiate collective behavior from institutionalized patterns of social life.
The third and final element in the definition of collective behavior is the concept of dominant emotion. As argued by N. Smelser (1963:67–130) and more recently formalized by John Lofland (1985:35–88), who rescues emotion from the link to irrationality present in G. LeBon, among others, three prevailing emotions are present to varying extents in all instances of collective behavior. They are fear, hostility, and joy. Unfortunately, at the present time not much research exists on this dimension. A lot more research attention placed on the reception and understanding of emotions during instances of collective behavior such as their presence, manipulation, effects, transformation, and their uses during precipitating events, the mobilization of participants, and the rhetorical explanations of social action is needed.
Emergence Embedded in Institutionalization
Collective behavior is part of the process of institutionalization (and deinstitutionalization) that takes place in society. Institutions consist of acts that are objective, repeatable by others, and exterior, defined by many people in similar ways so that they constitute part of the reality of their lives. They are both objective and exterior to the actor. The term institutionalization captures the procession, the flow that either strengthens or transforms these structured realities. In the words of Zucker (1977), “institutionalization is both a process and a property variable. It is the process by which individual actors transmit what is socially defined as real and. . . . (a) more or less taken-for-granted part of social reality” (p. 728). Acts that are institutionalized are more uniform and easily shared, more capable of resisting change, and easier to transmit (p. 729). As stated earlier, the actors in collective behavior are individuals, small groups, social networks of individuals and complex organizations, and SMOs acting in compact gatherings or in diffuse collectivities of people. Collective behavior is not small-group behavior but rather is the behavior of large collectivities of people. Collective behavior in the context of institutionalization means emergent behavior that takes place both in terms of culture and social relations; the large size of acting collectivity and sociocultural emergence that is part of the social change of the institutions of society is the essential characteristic of collective behavior.
The dramaturgical view of collective behavior (Brown and Goldin 1973) complements the emphasis on sociocultural emergence. It is based on the use of the metaphor of the theater to make sense of instances of collective behavior, allowing for the systematic examination of its contents and the effects of power and social control in it. Moreover, broadly defined and shared preoccupations revolving around current-day master categories of age, race/ ethnicity, class/occupation, gender/sex, and ethnocentrism/ nationalism also provide the context for most instances of collective behavior taking place today.
Instances of collective behavior and action differ in their time and space coordinates. Attention to time and space allows the differentiation of instances of collective behavior in terms of their relative complexity, in what is a morphological analysis of forms of increasing complexity (Lofland 1993a; McPhail 1991). It includes in its spatial referent a continuum from the microspace to local, regional, national, and international arenas of interaction. Temporally, it is also a continuum from the fleeting instance of collective behavior and action of less than one hour or a few hours to those that occur over a period of weeks, months, and even years. However, there are also social space and time (Sorokin and Merton 1937) associated with institutional processes that are of great importance to the specialty, the so-called institutional rhythms whose changes are associated with the occurrence of institutional transformations and instances of collective behavior.
It is useful in this context to also make the parallel division that the RMA (McCarthy and Zald 1977) makes between social movement organization and social movement as preference structure toward social change in a population, to provide a theoretically meaningful connection between the study of social movements and the study of collective behavior. Thus, the field of collective behavior, as Tarde recognized, is concerned with two ideal-type spheres of social action: compact gatherings and diffuse collectivities. The first type would include a number of collective behavior forms such as marches, protest demonstrations, emergency egress behavior, and convergence behavior in the aftermath of disasters, and rallies, in which participants share space and time and are potentially available to each other by sight and sound. The other ideal type would be represented by forms of collective behavior in which participants are diffuse in time and space, such as fads, fashion, rumors, and urban legends. These are social forms that reflect topics of interest to segments of public opinion, such as leisure, music, and styles of consumption. Empirically, these two ideal-type collective behavior spheres are interdependent. For example, mass migrations are characterized by compact gatherings and also by currents of public opinions, rumors, and collectively shared evaluations of places of destination of the would-be immigrants; fashion is created, as Blumer pointed out, by fashion houses and yet adopted and enacted by a broad category of men and women; mass rallies in Nazi Germany developed symbols and images that helped in creating hatred against Jews among a large proportion of the population of the country; more recently, the xenophobic acts of skinheads keep alive hatreds of aliens (Watts 2001). The relationship between these two master types of collective behaviors should be the topic of sustained scientific research efforts in the future.
Examination of diffuse collectivities focuses attention on the social organizational mechanisms that participate in the creation of concerted action among dispersed people. The mass media immediately come to mind, both the traditional types of mass media and present-day changes in the industry, such as the Internet, cyberspace, and other communication technologies that are transforming the manifestations of collective behavior even as they are changing other aspects of social life. An example is music sharing in the Internet, a new form of collective behavior that is based on emergent definitions of what constitute nondeviant behavior. Moreover, there are other mechanisms that inform diffuse collectivities and create social life, bringing about collective reactions such as the networks of complex organizational activities of organized religion, political parties, and the interconnected instrumentalities of the state.
A very important topic for future research is the determination of the key elements of compact gatherings that are relevant to understanding their transformation into collective behavior forms, as well as greater scientific understanding of the structure and dynamics of a finite number of collective behavior forms. What is needed is a tradition of scholarship on these forms that would come about from the work of a critical mass of scholars interested in them.
The aforementioned conceptual dimensions would constitute the boundaries of the specialty area of collective behavior at present. It is useful to think of them as forming a multidimensional space composed of different regions in which different forms of collective behavior can be placed. They summarize a large amount of research and theorizing in the specialty area of collective behavior and point to needed research. When considered together, they remind us of the great variability of forms and contents in empirical instances of collective behavior, of their fluid, unstable, transformation-prone nature, and of their connectedness and continuity with institutionalized social life. The dimensions help us identify the prototypical cases of collective behavior while reminding us of the difficult problem of identification at the margins and of the embeddedness of instances of collective behavior in institutionalized arrangements in society and culture that they seek to transform.
The scheme does not give a priori preference to the study of avowedly political instances of collective behavior, for reasons presented elsewhere (Aguirre and Quarantelli 1983). Instead, it is a catholic understanding of the field of specialization, which would reintegrate to it topics of research that are increasingly marginalized from it, such as the study of religious movements and religious effervescence, and of publics and public opinion. It also recognizes the limited use of the concept of the crowd and the mass as the prototype forms of collective behavior. Its starting point is different, namely, the presence of people in concentrated gatherings and diffused collectivities—an understanding central to the writings of E. Goffman, John Lofland, and Clark McPhail, among other scholars. As modern scholarship attests, the so-called crowds are in most times and places aggregations of small groups of kin, neighbors, acquaintances, and friends that are differentially impacted by the characteristics of the precipitating event and the outcome of proselytizing among small groups in the gatherings (Brown and Goldin 1973).
SMOs are recognized in the proposed synthesis as one of the basic units of social organization that may act in instances of collective behavior. General social movements often bring about episodes of collective behavior and the collective action of SMOs. Likewise, instances of collective behavior are often found at the inception of social movements and SMOs. Attention to the social movement– collective behavior interface and its iterativeness may help bring about the much-needed reintegration of the study of collective behavior/action and social movements while preserving the distinct features of both.
Not all collective actions of SMOs are relevant to the proposed synthesis. Rather, only a certain type of collective action of SMOs and voluntary organizations showing sociocultural emergence would interest collective behaviorists. Similarly, most actions of states and corporations would not be germane to the specialty. Nevertheless, the collective action of corporate entities that represent the manufacture of instances of collective behavior and SMOs would indeed be of interest, apart from the collective behavior that takes place inside corporations (Zald and Berger 1971). A case in point is the creation, organization, and mobilization by the tobacco industry in the United States of pro-corporate activism from small groups of smokers to attempt to discredit the opposition to smoking (Santos 2004); similar efforts by corporations to attempt to discredit the environmental movement; and the organizational and interorganizational emergence that takes place in the immediate aftermath of disasters during search-andrescue efforts and in other efforts to help stricken communities. This corporate activity becomes much more frequent in the increasingly state- and corporate-directed cultures of advanced capitalism and are key processes of interest to collective behaviorists. Thus, for example, the Stalinist purges would be fertile ground for investigations, as is the creation and use by governments throughout the world of SMOs and instances of collective behavior (Aguirre 1984). The 2004 U.S. presidential election political campaigns are another case in point.
The concept of prevailing emotion in instances of collective behavior (Lofland 1985) is useful for describing instances of collective behavior and is thus incorporated into the proposed scheme, although complex sociocultural events made up of both collective behavior and institutionalized social life occurring in many places over comparatively long periods of time are often typified by more than one dominant emotion. The World Trade Center’s September 11, 2001, terrorist attack is an example in which multiple instances of institutionalized action and collective behavior took place, dominated at various stages by both fear and hostility. Chronologically and anecdotally, they ranged from the anxiety and fear of the evacuees of the doomed towers and the first responders to the dread and sorrow typifying the search and rescue and the convergence of assistance and sympathy from throughout the country and the world, to the nationwide hostile public opinion, mass anger, and war preoccupations that followed the attack and that eventuated in the U.S. assault on Afghanistan. Still to be understood are the shifts of dominant emotion over time in these complex events.
The proposed scheme does not conflict with the substantive emphases of the two models of the citizen surge and of loosely structured collective action forms, respectively advanced by John Lofland (1993a) and Anthony Oberschall (1980), or with Waddington et al.’s (1987:158–63) model of “flashpoint” events, with its emphasis on structural, political/ideological, cultural, contextual, situational, and interaction levels of analysis of disorders. It can also accommodate moral panics of the type Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) discuss, such as satanic scares—a collective behavior form suffused by fear and hostility, concerned with a behavior, satanism, enacted by all units of social organizations, regional and national in scope, bounded by class, lasting for months if not years. It can also accommodate financial panics and panics in crowded places such as theaters, the latter involving crowds, fear, emergent sociocultural and social relational elements, behavior centered, localized in time and space and the former involving diffuse behavior, conventionalized, object centered—money, national and international, limited both by time and class boundaries. Similarly, the Red Scare of the 1950s involved ethnocentrism/nationalism, was nationwide, deeply affected by the political institutions of the American state, lasted for years, was dominated by hostility and fear, with both emergent and conventionalized cultural and relational elements, and all units of social organization participated in it. Episodes of hysteria typically are of two subtypes. One involves a circumscribed place, is short lived, age and gender related, in which small groups evince either fear or hostility. The other subtype is more diffuselike, dominated by more complex features such as multiple acting units and bigger space and time referents.
The framework could facilitate the accumulation of consistently gathered information about instances of collective behavior. This is particularly true if in the future a critical mass of specialists were to develop, for as Quarantelli (1974) documented, to this day there is an insufficient number of scientists working on such matters. What is needed for fads, fashion, rumors, and the other manifestations of collective behaviors is what has taken place in the study of SMOs, in which an international scientific community has emerged and created a tradition of scholarship and a base of shared knowledge about the subject matter of interest to it. Perhaps, once this critical mass came about, the framework offered here could facilitate the understanding of forms of collective behavior as belonging to common sense and scientific genres, as these are understood in the methodology advocated by Wendy Griswold (1987) to study cultural objects, which would make it amenable to historical-cultural documentation and comparative analysis. The cumulative effects would be to increase the professional interest of social scientists in the study of collective behavior, helping identify analytical questions and empirical issues that are unknown or that have not received much attention at present, with the end result of developing a richer understanding of social change.
This research paper reviewed the origins and the controversies in the specialty of collective behavior and identified directions for its future. It also offered a synthesis of key ideas to identify the boundaries of the field. Such identification is useful, particularly for a field that has experienced so much controversy and soul-searching during its recent past. In its terms, collective behavior incidents are suffused by sociocultural emergence, are inextricably dramaturgical in nature, exhibit a limited range of dominant emotions, are carried out by a limited number of social units, and are located both in time and space and in social spaces reflecting issues associated with the master categories of age, race/ethnicity, class/occupation, gender/sex, and ethnocentrism/nationalism. The proposed synthesis has attempted to provide a coherent sense of the existing scholarship and to encourage interested scholars to join with others in locating fruitful areas of research and theorizing and thus fill the many lacunas in our knowledge base. It is only a preliminary first step, for typological exercises, while important, are only precursors to the development of theory; if adopted by others, it will serve to organize and orient research in collective behavior and to facilitate the disciplined accumulation of scientific findings in the specialty, a program of research that will eventually permit the identification of genres of instances of collective behavior, their comparative treatment as cultural objects, and their elucidation following established methodologies for the study of culture (see Griswold 1987). So far, the scheme has proven to be useful in understanding the surge of sustainable development (Aguirre 2002).
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