Sociology Of Collective Behavior Research Paper

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1. Introduction

The sociology of collective behavior begins simultaneously with the inception of modern sociology. Gustave Le Bon published The Crowd in 1895, two years before Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, and two years after Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society. Le Bon’s descriptions and analyses of crowd behavior in the wake of the French Revolution and Paris Commune stimulated further study of crowds and, more generally, collective behavior.

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Collective behavior is noninstitutionalized, unconventional group activity such as panics, crazes, mass delusions, incited crowds, riots, and reform or revolutionary movements. A sociological approach to collective behavior focuses on social conditions such as political structures and shared beliefs as these conditions influence patterns of collective behavior.

Le Bon approached the study of crowds skeptically. He argued that individuals can lose their self-identity in crowds and can commit acts they would not do alone, including physical aggression. He felt the anonymity of crowds permitted passions to surface which could be translated into violent behavior. These ideas were parallel to the distinction made by Gabriel Tarde between a public that rationally considers political issues and a crowd which acts hastily without rational consideration of the matters at hand. Yet Le Bon also felt that crowds were progressive in that they challenged existing social arrangements and often led to social change that would not have occurred without them (Wood and Jackson 1982).

Even pre-dating Le Bon in 1856 was Alexis de Tocqueville who, in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, argued that the French Revolution resulted from social changes occurring over several centuries, culminating in the Revolution of 1789, aided by—using a current term—the widespread sense of relative deprivation among the bourgeoisie (French middle class) and sans-culottes (French masses). He posed a paradox, and then resolved it, by indicating that the country less constrained by classical feudalism, France, was where the Revolution occurred instead of the more constrained England/or Germany, for example. This occurred because France, by gradually dismantling feudalism, had improved the political and economic circumstances of the bourgeoisie and the sans-culottes over the centuries, but these people still felt deprived because it was clear the Old Regime would permit only so much advancement for them. This sense of deprivation relative to what they felt was their just station in life—that their expectations were significantly different from their experience–motivated participation in this monumental movement that toppled the Old Regime and became the exemplar for many subsequent revolutions.

2. Smelser’s Theory Of Collective Behavior

The modern, post-World War II, sociology of collective behavior is initiated by Neil J. Smelser’s Theory of Collective Behavior (Smelser 1963). This book introduced a thoroughly sociological approach to the investigation of collective behavior. Smelser’s theory contrasted with the previously dominant social psychological approach pioneered by scholars such as Robert Park and E. W. Burgess, Herbert Blumer, and Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian, who focused on topics such as crowd interaction, types of collective behavior, and emergent norms in undefined social situations.

Smelser, by stressing such variables as structural conduciveness and structural strain, along with the other variables in his theory—growth and spread of generalized beliefs, precipitating factors, mobilization of participants for action, and weakening of social control—highlighted the importance of sociological conditions as determinants of collective behavior.

In focusing on these six sociological factors, he moved the field of collective behavior away from social psychological theories stressing single variables such as anonymity of crowds, economic deprivation, alienation, and strong leadership (Wood and Jackson 1982).

Smelser showed that these single variables had a place in understanding the development of collective behavior, but that they had to be seen in combination with other relevant variables in order to increase the likelihood of collective behavior actually occurring. Indeed, Smelser argued that the six variables in his system constituted necessary, or required, conditions for the occurrence of collective behavior; and when combined at the same time and place, the six variables constituted a sufficient, or fully predictive, condition for the occurrence of some type of collective behavior. Thus, when the six conditions occurred simultaneously, Smelser predicted that a craze, panic, riot, reform, or revolutionary movement would occur.

Smelser furthermore argued that different aspects of the six conditions, and their particular combinations, could help predict which of the five types of collective behavior mentioned above would be the one to occur (e.g., a reform or revolutionary movement). If, for example, there was considerable economic strain in society, the spread of radical political beliefs, precipitating factors such as the arrest of dissidents, attempts by movement leaders to mobilize politically large numbers of people, and the weakening effectiveness of agents of social control such as the police and army, Smelser’s theory would then ask, in what kind of society did all this occur? If the society was democratic, Smelser argues that this kind of society would be structurally conducive to the development of a reform, or norm-oriented, movement such as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. If instead the society was authoritarian, Smelser argues that this kind of society would be structurally conducive to the development of a revolutionary, or value-oriented, movement such as the Russian Revolution.

Smelser’s theory attracted considerable attention from the start, and it generated a large empirical literature within a decade of its publication, much of which supported the theory (Marx and Wood 1975).

3. Subsequent Approaches

3.1 Resource Mobilization

Smelser’s theory also attracted critics, some of whom developed their own approaches that form the basis of current collective behavior analysis. These other approaches will now be examined for their contributions to the sociology of collective behavior, many of which owe at least indirect inspiration from Theory of Collective Behavior, as is indicated by several themes such as conditions of conduciveness and strain in the seminal collection of articles covering the last decade of social movement research organized by McAdam and Snow (1997). As Klandermans (1997, p. 201) states, ‘One need not concur with Smelser … to appreciate the usefulness of these categories and assess maybe with some surprise how akin they are to other more recent conceptualizations.’

The first well-known approach signaling not only a critique of, but also an attempted alternative to, Theory of Collective Behavior, was resource mobilization theory pioneered by Mayer Zald and John McCarthy. While retaining an interest in the origin of collective behavior and social movements—a key question for Smelser—the resource mobilization approach began to shift the basic question addressed. Resource mobilization, and other subsequent approaches, became particularly interested in social movement success or failure, and the conditions—such as availability of resources like money and media attention—that are associated with movement success or failure.

3.2 Political Process Model

Doug McAdam pioneered another important approach to understanding the success—as well as development—of social movements by focusing on the political process involved in such movement development and success. In his first book on the topic, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency 1930–1970, McAdam (1982) outlined, and documented the importance of, four conditions that he showed to be associated with the rise of militant black politics and black political achievements in the USA in this crucial 40-year period. These four conditions were as follows: (a) ‘the degree of organizational ‘‘readiness’’ within the minority community’; (b) ‘the level of ‘‘insurgent consciousness’’ within the movement’s mass base’; (c) the ‘structure of political opportunities’; and (d) the ‘level of social control’ (McAdam 1982, pp. 40, 53). Using historical examples to show variations in these four conditions, McAdam does a masterful job of explaining the ensuing black political movements of mid-twentieth century America.

In focusing on the four conditions, McAdam has both drawn upon, and extended, the scope of Smelser’s six conditions of social movement development. There is overlap between McAdam’s variables and Smelser’s with, for example, organizational readiness being an aspect of mobilization of participants for action, and insurgent consciousness being an aspect of generalized beliefs. Yet McAdam also extends Smelser’s model by using the four conditions to help explain the successes of black protest in the USA as well as understand its initial development in this historical period. Finally, McAdam, his associates, and others have further extended and applied the political process model to yet other instances of social movement activity (McAdam and Snow 1997).

3.3 Political Opportunity Model

One of the conditions in McAdam’s model is ‘the structure of political opportunities,’ a concept elaborately developed by Sidney Tarrow. In a series of books and monographs, Tarrow (1991, 1998) has utilized the political opportunity model to understand the circumstances whereby contentious social movements can achieve success. Using a wide variety of case studies, often ranging from the social movements of the 1960s to the movements, conflicts, and changes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Tarrow shows how a variety of political structures have influenced the success, or lack of success, of these social movements.

Drawing on the seminal work of Michael Lipsky and others, Tarrow (1991, p. 32) defines political opportunity structure as ‘political situations in which states become vulnerable to collective action and in which ordinary people amass the resources to over-come their disorganization and learn where and how to use their resources.’ This definition clearly incorporates an important element of resource mobilization theory, namely the significance for movement success of masses of people obtaining and utilizing resources such as money, media attention, and/organizational connections. But it also puts these resources in the special political context of governments being particularly susceptible to mass political pressure.

Regarding several scholars’ use of political opportunity theory, such as J. Craig Jenkins and Charles Perrow, Tarrow (1991, pp. 34–6) points to five variables often used by these scholars to identify conditions associated with governments being especially susceptible to the influence of social movements: (a) the degree of openness or closure of the polity, with open polities more favorable to social movements; (b) the stability or instability of political alignments, with less stable alignments more favorable to social movements; (c) the presence or absence of allies or support groups, with more allies and support groups favorable to social movements; (d) divisions or lack of divisions within the elite, with elite divisions favoring social movements; and (e) tolerance or intolerance of protest by the elite, with tolerance of protest favoring social movements. These and other elements of political opportunity theory are woven throughout various complex analyses by Tarrow and others to show how shifting political circumstances significantly affect the fortunes of social movements, often resulting in cycles of protest for the movements.

3.4 Recruitment: Social Network Analysis

One of the more informative later approaches to social movements is social network analysis that helps explain why people with similar ideologies are differentially recruited—that is, why some of them join social movements and others do not. As discussed, Smelser (1963) was the first modern collective behavior analyst to note that single variables such as ideology, by themselves, did not have considerable explanatory power. Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson (in McAdam and Snow 1997) demonstrated that those who belong to social networks are considerably more likely to act upon their ideology by joining a social movement than those without network affiliations. This goes a long way toward explaining why empirical studies since the 1970s have shown low to moderate, as compared to strong, relations between ideological commitment and movement participation (Wood and Jackson 1982). That is, the relationship between ideology and movement participation is influenced by the extent of social network involvement, so that taking network involvement into account strengthens the relationship between ideology and movement participation.

In fact, this latter social network finding was preceded, and influenced by, the earlier finding that membership in secondary organizations—such as business, trade union, church, or even recreational associations—facilitated recruitment to social movements (Marx and Wood 1975, Wood and Jackson 1982). In contrast, mass society theory, as elaborated by William Kornhauser, had previously argued that the absence of such memberships facilitated recruitment. Other discussions of social network analysis have included topics such as the types of networks needed to facilitate recruitment, the role of conflicting group memberships in recruitment, and the size of networks for recruitment (McAdam and Snow 1997). Thus, with its organizational focus, social network analysis provides valuable insights into issues ranging from how political ideology gets translated into social movement participation to the influence of organizational size on movement recruitment.

3.5 The New Social Psychology

Bert Klandermans and his associates have developed a new social psychological approach to social movements, aptly summarized in his book, The Social Psychology of Protest (Klandermans 1997). This new social psychology analyzes recruitment to social movements, as did an earlier social psychological approach, but also includes such topics as framing of social movements, identity politics, new social movements, the transformation of discontent into movement participation, and the relation of social psychology to social movement organizations and interorganizational analysis. Whereas an earlier social psychology of social movements emphasized the influence of single variables such as relative deprivation or ideology on movement participation (Wood and Jackson 1982), or focused on emergent norms influencing such participation (Turner and Killian 1972), the new social psychology sees potentially sympathetic individuals responding to a variety of social and cultural influences that may, or may not, lead to actual movement participation. Among these influences are the social networks and/organizations discussed previously, which are seen to promote participation. The new approach also discusses circumstances, such as a deepening political conscious-ness, favoring—or inhibiting—sustained participation, as discussed by Molly Andrews in Lifetimes of Commitment.

Among the influences more recently discussed is the manner in which a movement is framed, which is its presentation to the public—especially by the media—an approach significantly inspired by Ralph Turner’s important article, ‘The public perception of protest’ (Turner 1969). Is a movement for female reproductive rights portrayed as a movement to enhance the social, economic, and political rights of women, or is it presented as a movement to deprive unborn children the right to live? Is a movement for better hours, wages, and working conditions portrayed as a just cause for exploited working people, or is it an excuse for ‘union bosses’ to expand their power? The new social psychology goes into detail explaining how movements and their oppositions attempt to frame the movements in ways to encourage or discourage actual participation by those with initial interest in the movements.

One of the more controversial emphases discussed by the new social psychology—and which has its own literature by scholars such as Alberto Melucci— focuses on the role of personal identity in under-standing the development of recent movements and why certain people are drawn to these movements. In an informative book entitled Ideology and the New Social Movements, Alan Scott (1990) indicates why social movements such as the student movement of the 1960s, the modern women’s movement, and ethnic movements such as the black movement in the USA should be called new social movements. He argues that these movements are new because, first, they are not the traditional labor movement that arose from conflicts and contradictions between groups of labor and capital involved in the means of economic production, and second, because they are instead based on—and arise from—issues of personal identity such as one’s gender, status as a student, and racial or ethnic background. This type of position draws loosely on Orrin Klapp’s imaginative, though less empirically oriented book, Collective Search for Identity.

Whereas Scott argues that these considerations of identity are paramount in forming the new social movements—and figure in any success of the movements—others such as Todd Gitlin (1995) have argued that excessive involvement with personal identity issues such as these can detract from more general or universal themes such as the fight for decent conditions of work, fair allocation of income in a society, and improvement of lifestyles for all instead of just for particularistic group interests. Still other arguments have focused on the fact that a key basis for organizing women and ethnic minorities, especially, has been the need to improve their status economically, occupationally, educationally, legally, and in terms of lifestyles and life opportunities. Responding to higher education budget cuts in the 1990s, students from varying backgrounds rallied together, along with faculty from varying backgrounds, to fight these cuts and preserve educational and career opportunities (Wood 1998). Thus, identity politics may well be fairly important in organizing given modern social movements, but the continuing issues of economics, education, legal rights, lifestyles, and life opportunities remain as important to the new movements as to the labor movement.

3.6 Historical–Comparative Analyses Of Revolutions

There is a body of highly scholarly, detailed historical and comparative analyses of revolutions. Barrington Moore, George Rude, E. P. Thompson, Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Eric Hobsbawm, and Jack Goldstone are among the major contributors to the understanding of such classical social and political upheavals as the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, English Revolution, and Chinese Revolution. These authors combine analyses of conditions common to several revolutions, such as the weakening of state authority, with analyses of conditions unique to some upheavals but not others, such as differing cultural ideology.

Skocpol (1979), for example, analyzes social revolutions that entail not only political change at the top of society, but also large-scale social–economic change throughout the society. She argues that weakening of the state and military, peasant rebellions, and alienated marginal elites combined to bring about social revolutions in France, Russia, and China. Goldstone (1991) also looks at similar conditions of revolutions, as well as demographic conditions, but adds in an ideological dimension of why social revolutions were more likely to occur in the West with its Judeo-Christian ideology that emphasized large-scale transformations of society. Thus, for Goldstone, social revolutions instead of palace coups or military conquests, for example, were seen as the secular application of Western ideology as compared with non-Western ideologies such as Hinduism or Buddhism that were associated with different political results. This body of literature is complex, but highly informative for deeper understandings of the processes whereby revolutions develop.

3.7 Analyses Of Other Forms Of Collective Behavior: Riots, Panics, Crazes, And Mass Delusions

The sociology of collective behavior has been interested in longer-term, more organized social movements, as well as shorter-term, less organized, and less political forms of noninstitutionalized group behavior. A. C. Kerckhoff and K. W. Back’s interesting study of mass delusion, June Bug, analyzed perceptions in an American city that its inhabitants were being bitten each summer by a June Bug. The two researchers were in this city, determined that no such insect existed, and then utilized Smelser’s (1963) theory of collective behavior to understand the development of this unusual craze.

In the late twentieth century, various cults have been the focus of collective behavior analysis, with discussions including Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult that committed mass suicide, the Heavens Gate cult that acted similarly while anticipating transportation to another planet, and the San Diego-based cult focusing on a goddess, with a public access television show, who also promised her followers transportation to an extraterrestrial land (Tumminia and Kirkpatrick 1995). These studies have focused on the circumstances—social and personal—that would lead people to join such cults, as well as circumstances that keep them involved, especially in terms of members’ susceptibility to suggestions and new influences due to their isolation from familiar surroundings and social net-works.

Riots are a type of crowd behavior studied since Le Bon’s The Crowd. For many years riots—that is, violent crowd activities—were seen as irrational, spontaneous, and unorganized group activities. This picture has changed over the years, with riots now more often seen as outcomes of oppression and deprivation, having some rational connection to anticipated outcomes, and having at least some organization (McPhail 1989). Indeed, Gary Marx felt compelled to add a correction to the increasingly ideological characterization of riots by discussing ‘issueless riots,’ such as crowd violence after athletic victories. Nonetheless riots, along with social movements, are typically seen as responses to difficulties that groups experience that are at least understandable, or even as rationally calculated responses to these difficulties (Tarrow 1991, 1998).

4. Conclusion

The sociology of collective behavior is one of the most dynamic and innovative fields of study in sociology. Indeed, Alain Touraine has stated that the study of social movements is sociology. Collective behavior has always had the ability to inspire and appall. Those sympathetic to the French Revolution remain in awe of the social class changes brought about by it, whereas those in opposition remain dismayed by the violence connected with it. Even a harsh critic of collective behavior like Le Bon felt that progress would not occur without the crowds he nonetheless disliked. As such, collective behavior will continue inspiring and appalling large numbers of people since it persists in dealing with the most electrifying of human dramas.


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