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Introduction to Sociology

Ron Hammond, Paul Cheney, Raewyn Pearsey

Chapter 19 - Collective Behaviors

What Are Collective Behaviors?

Imagine a football game where the teams never huddled before each play. That’s the way things were in college football until a bright Gallaudet quarterback noticed that the other teams were trying to spy on their sign language signals. Thus, in the late 1800s the circular football huddle was born (read about Gallaudet on Wikipedia ). Gallaudet is a national historic treasure in the culture and development of education for the Deaf and in progress toward the Americans with Disabilities Act. Gallaudet University began as a federal effort to support the development and education of Deaf persons. It has progressed and grown in many ways as a subculture group that coexisted within, but not always a part of the mainstream culture. There have been some fascinating collective behaviors transpire at Gallaudet which can help you to better understand how and why large numbers of people accomplish their goals in society.

In 1988, Gallaudet experienced a Deaf civil rights process that forever shaped the campus culture and the self-identity of its student body and the Deaf throughout the country. When another president, in a long string of debates a ‘hearing president’ was appointed by the mostly hearing Board of Trustees, the campus collectively expressed their discontent in what eventually came to be known as the Deaf President Now Movement. The outcome was the eventual appointment of a deaf president and the expectation of consideration of the deaf community’s interest in their own self-governance.

In 2005-6, a new President, Dr. Jane K. Fernandez was appointed president. Fernandez was born Deaf. She was born to a deaf mother and hearing father. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents and unless the parents exert tremendous effort to start them out very early in ASL, most grow up as Fernandez did—learning ASL later in their childhoods. As a potential president, she had extensive experience in deaf education and in the leadership of Gallaudet University.

The protest began with the Black Student Association on campus when another presidential candidate who was black was eliminated from consideration. The protest grew as more and more students and faculty began to oppose her appointment. Eventually the faculty voted no confidence and the students shut down the campus. Fernandez stepped down. She refused to take it personally and attributed to cultural issues and growing pains. One side said she was opposed because she wanted Gallaudet to enhance its academic rigor. Another side said she was opposed for not being in touch with the real needs of the Deaf campus. I have interviewed former faculty and students from Gallaudet. I have observed that each one has a strikingly different view of what transpired. But, can we study it as outsiders using a sociological analysis and at least come to understand some of the collective behaviors that took place on campus in an objective way? Yes.

One former professor at Gallaudet, Margaret Weigers Vitullo, wrote an article in the American Sociological Association’s Footnotes about the sociological definition of trust that was at the heart of Deaf culture not just at Gallaudet, but throughout the United States (See "Protest and Trust at Gallaudet University" 2006 found at SOURCE I took the article from the Internet on 21 Oct., 2008). Vitullo argued that the issue makes sense when you understand two types of trusts experienced within groups: "Calculative Trust is trust based on performance and competence (instrumental relationships) and Normative Trust is trust based on a sense of belonging and feelings (families and communities)."

Calculative is more common in modern societies while normative is more common in small traditional societies—Gallaudet’s student body and faculty were more traditional and normative and President Fernandez more modern and calculative. In essence the collective protests created solidarity among students and faculty, but many educators are concerned about the overall outcome of the protest. Among the culture of higher educators a feeling of belonging is not so important. Educators are focused on instrumental accomplishments. They want test scores, graduation rates, and GPA’s. So educators and their task-driven cultural points of view felt threatened by the solidarity that pushed Fernandez out. This explains in part why the accrediting agency that provides Gallaudet with its credentials placed Gallaudet on probation for a few months, but had to rescind that placement because of weak grounds.

The students, faculty, and interpreters who place much more cultural emphasis on unity and taking charge of the destiny of their university perceived themselves as victims (again) of a non-deaf culture. The Deaf Culture is the culture of those who were born deaf, raised using ASL to communicate, and/or educated as adults to serve as interpreters for the Native Deaf. One crucial component of the Deaf Culture is the core belief that "Deaf" is spelled with a big "D" and disability is spelled with a small one (Deaf is not a disability, rather a unique and co-existing ethnic sub-culture).

In the case of Gallaudet as with the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage Movement, and many other collective behaviors, sociology opens a world of understanding about why and how people behave collectively to accomplish their goals and interact together in large numbers. Collective Behavior includes unusual or non-routine behaviors that large numbers of people participate in. There are a variety of types of collective behaviors.

Mass is a large number of people oriented toward a set of shared symbols or social objects (media). The NFL’s Super Bowl draws an enormous mass of viewers in the US and world—over 100+ million in the US alone according to (see also ). The annual final of the FIFA World Cup of Soccer (known as Football outside the US) tends to draw nearly 1 billion each year according to That’s a tremendous number of people in a mass of fans and viewers worldwide.


Crowds are large numbers of people in the same space at the same time. As mentioned above they are not always groups who share a common identity, have roles, and meet together often. Crowds are more often many people in the same place at the same time doing about the same thing (aggregates). My wife and I stayed in Vancouver, British Columbia for the Pacific Sociological Association’s National Conference. While there a world-class marathon was run with thousands of participants. We video-taped the beginning of the race from our 15th floor window of the hotel. When you watch it think about how Sociologists try to get a metaphorically similar view by studying masses and crowds. This gives a uniquely powerful perspective when studying society.

The Why and How of Crowd Behaviors

There have been a number of core research studies on how and why crowds behave as they do. Keep in mind that a crowd at a bus stop that gets on the bus does not necessarily qualify as having participated in collective behavior because of the brevity of their time together and the purpose in which they share the same public space. A crowd coming together to celebrate a State College’s transition to a University does participate in collective behavior (See UVU case below).

Gustav Le Bon (1841-1931) was a French Social Psychologist who studied crowds in his work, "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind." Le Bon believed that when a crowd came together their individual conscious merges into one large collective conscious. Le Bon’s Contagion theory claims that in a crowd people get caught up in the collective mind of the crowd and evade personal responsibility for their actions. Though his idea proved not to be true, it helped other social scientist study the ways in which crowds and the people who comprise them are motivated to act.

Another more viable argument, Convergence Theory, proved to be a better explanation of crowd behavior. Convergence theory claims that motivations are not born in the crowd but develop in individuals who carry them to the crowd. The crowd may provide an outlet for relieving their frustration. By themselves, it would be difficult to act out. Together in the group it becomes much easier with other like-minded people. In other words angry people who feel victimized by a racial injustice might come together (say the KKK or Nation of Islam) and collectively their emotions would contribute to collective actions that probably would not occur if such people were simply by themselves.


Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian (1993) wrote a book about crowd behavior (See Collective Behavior 4th edition Prentice Hall). Emergent Norm Theory claims that as crowds form and people interact, new norms develop in the crowd and facilitate certain actions. In other words events and emotions develop within the crowd while they are together. For example (and I know this is extremely unusual), In Bolivia a drunk man was discovered beating a woman on a neighborhood street. A few men came and stopped him and restrained him until the police arrived. Word spread to the adult son of the beating victim and he and his friends came to defend her honor. They overpowered the original bystanders and began beating the drunk man. Yes, it gets more complicated. The drunk man’s family heard about the new beating of the drunk and an all out mob-on-mob brawl ensued. The police arrived and rescued the drunk (this was on Youtube ).

To understand crowds and how they function you need to think about them in terms of: how they came to be a crowd; how they compare or contrast to other crowds; and fundamentally what the crowd did or did not do together. Consider a more normal circumstance of a crowd at Utah Valley University. I started here as a professor in 1993 when we were Utah Valley Community College and had only 10,000 students. We became Utah Valley State College in the 1990s then became Utah Valley University in 2008 with about 26,000+ students. By the time I retire in 2022 there should be about 35,000 students enrolled here (UVU Factbook, 2007). On July 1st, 2008 a huge crowd gathered for the formal dedication ceremony and ribbon cutting. Hundreds of people came to see state and national dignitaries and local personalities where a series of 2 minutes speeches resonated throughout the campus (see photo below).


This crowd came together to celebrate a new era of campus and community connection. It was a Conventional Crowd is a crowd which gathers for a typical event that is more routine in nature (IE: Moody Blues concert, Super Bowl Game, or Midsummer’s Night Dream play). An Expressive Crowd is a crowd gathered to gather to express an emotion (IE: Woodstock; the Million Man March; or the 9-11 Memorial Services). Solidaristic crowds are crowd which gather as an act of social unity. Breast Cancer awareness events are an example of this type crowd. All three of these types of crowds are safe, non-violent, and mostly predictable in terms of what they accomplish.

Acting Crowds are crowds which are emotionally charged against an event or goal. Some become mobs, but not all of them. This might happen when a large number of fans exit an arena after their team won or lost. When they see police arresting another fan their emotions they become more anger-centered and they collectively move against the police. The fact that the other fan may have been robbing someone at knife point may or may not matter if the others perceive an injustice or overbearing police action. Generally speaking, Acting Crowds are more dangerous that other crowds.

Many crowds have evolved into Riots are a collection of large numbers of people who act violently in protest against some authority or action of others (typically governmental or corporate authority). Fans whose team won or lost, employees laid off from work, neighbors who are angry about a police action, and other scenarios are connected to typical riots. Very few riots are purely protest in nature. In the 1991 Los Angeles Riots they became commodity riots, where the original issue is forgotten as locals loot businesses and stores for commodities. Commodity riots are the norm since about the 1960s in the US. Prior to that, property damage and violence against police were the norm.

The Why and How of Movements


On September 11, 2001 governmental, corporate, and private organizations closed their doors and put their very best security at protecting their people and property. Days later we realized that the real threat was to New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania only. Panic occurs when crowds or masses react suddenly to perceived entrapment, exclusion, or danger. Panics can impacts masses and crowds.

In the 9-11 terroristic attack the panic may have saved lives and property had the terroristic threats been broader than they really were. In the Stock Market, panics damage profits and put the economy in peril. It doesn’t matter if the threat is real or imagined (see Thomas Theorem). When something catches on for a short season of intense interest, we call it a fad. Fad is a novel form of behavior that catches on in popularity but later fades. The Lance Armstrong forever strong wrist band was an example of a popular fad that came and went to some degree of popularity, especially after his revelation of actually having used illegal doping drugs throughout his career ( SOURCE ).

On a larger scale and with more social impact, is the phenomenon of a social movement. Social Movements are intentional efforts by groups in a society to create new institutions or reform existing ones. Social movements are much more organized and goal driven than crowds fad behaviors. They typically organize to promote or resist change at some level of society. They also tend to have the same intensity of organizational leadership that might be found in a government or business organization.

Messianic Movements seek to bring about social change with the promise of miraculous intervention. Almost always these movements are led by a rather charismatic leader and followed by people inclined to need or want to be a part of something exceptional in their lives. Charisma means having outstanding personality which magnetically attracts others to you. In recent years there have been three very similar messianic movements whose charismatic leaders were born and raised in the US, but were not very successful in their individual lives and ended up leading large numbers of people to their mortal demise (See Jones, Koresh, and Applewhite below in Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. A Comparison of Jones, Koresh, and Applewhite Messianic Movements
© 2009 Developed by Ron J. Hammond, Ph.D.

Although the details vary, these movements are very similar in terms of what was accomplished and in terms of how their end was voluntarily self-destructive. Many people feel threatened by social change, especially when their definition of what keeps society together, of what makes a "good" society, or what God would be happy or unhappy with in our own society leads them to distrust the collective direction of their main stream society.

In the three cases listed above, Jimmy Jones and the People’s Temple; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, and Marshal Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate groups all had similar social processes at play, even though there was no apparent connection between leaders of one group and the others (Google "Cults that end in suicide" to read about these cults all over the world). Eventually the leaders, who have enough leadership skills to get the group together and manage them, but not enough leadership skills to negotiate their interactions with social organizations outside of their compounds, run out of options and are content with suicide and murder.

When threatened, the leaders call for more isolation (See discussion of Warren Jeff’s and the YFZ LDS polygamist group). When members question their authority they are exiled or co-opted. Cooptation is the absorption of new (threatening) ideas and people into the policy making structure. In some cases questioning members are sent away. In other cases they are recruited into the leadership structure. David Koresh drifted into the already existent Branch Davidian cult and posed a threat to Rodens (original founder family). Koresh and others violently wrestled leadership from the Rodens (he common law married Lois Roden in her 77th year). With the Rodens gone, Koresh claimed polygamy, and sexual relations only between females and himself. Koresh did not respect police authority but used it to obtain his own goals of power and control. Many members who still believed in the movement defected before the confrontation murder suicide (Google Koresh and Branch Davidian for much more detail).

There are other types of movements that can be classified in terms of their function, similarities, or differences. Revolutionary Movements seek to overthrow existing institutions and class systems while replacing them with new ones. The United States, French, Mexican and other national revolutions fall under this category. Reformist Movements seek partial changes in only a few institutions on behalf of interest groups. In the US the feminist, children’s rights, and animal protection movements are indicative of this type movement. Most efforts work within existing political channels.

Conservative Movements seek to uphold the values and institutions of society and generally resist attempts to alter them. The Conservative Right movement in the US falls under this category. Reactionary Movements seek to return the institutions and values of the past by doing away with existing ones. The Ku Klux Klan is an example. Expressive Movements seek to allow for expression of personal concerns and beliefs. Punk, Goths, and Emos are examples of this type.

Let’s briefly discuss a few sociological theories that support the study of social movements. Deprivation Theory claims that people feel relatively deprived in comparison to some other group or institution and use the social movement to equalize things. Movements are more supported when members feel that compared to others they are worse off and a balance needs to be struck. Structural-Strain Theory claims that social problems/strains on the current social structure combined with discontent lead to movements. Such is the case with the spread of American liberal values across the world via satellite TV. Many conservative cultures world-wide (Muslim, Asian, and others) find the US and other Western nations repulsive in their values on women’s roles, sexuality, and crime. This unites many people in many diverse societies to become like-minded in their values.

Resource Mobilization Theory is a social movement succeeds or fails based on people's ability to gather and organize resources. The environmental movement has made tremendous collective progress because of the vast numbers of key educational, governmental, and social leaders who bring resources to bear on social change.

Given the discussion above, where would sociologists place terrorism on the spectrum of types of social movements? Let’s define it first. Terrorism is the use of murder and mayhem to create a state of fear which can be used to gain political, religious, or ideological advantage. Terrorists can be classified as political, religious, and or cultural (many overlap in terms of functions and goals). At its core, terrorism follows a basic strategy:

  1. Scare average people and force their compliance with desired goals of the terrorist group
  2. Force organized governments to overreact to terrorists in trying to prevent future violence and thereby create sympathy among average people
  3. Direct the attention of people and government to the terrorists’ issues
  4. Obtain the organizational goals of the terrorist group

Terrorism works and there appears to be an unending supply of people willing to support terrorism: for a "noble cause," because they are criminal minded to begin with, or are somewhat insane enough to forfeit their lives. Laird Wilcox wrote a paper in 1988 called, "What Is Political Extremism?" (Google title). In it he discusses some of the characteristics of people inclined to participate in or support terrorism among other extreme politics. Wilcox argues that terrorist take the moral high ground, enjoy the power, appear to be happier when they don’t have to make their own decisions, and find a series of close family-like relationships among other terrorists.

Israel, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Asian Nations, and even the United States have adopted the basic anti-terrorism doctrine of moderate reactions to terrorism; no negotiation with terrorists; use covert deception and detection combined with lethal militaristic action; and unfortunately suppression of civil rights for its citizens. In this regard terrorism always wins if the economy, day-to-day lives, and safety of a society is out of balance then terrorists have power.

Additional Reading

Search Internet for:

  • Moral panic
  • fad
  • social movements
  • Messianic movement
  • Reactive movement
  • Reactionary movement
  • Reform movement
  • Crowds
  • FIFI World Cup
  • Mass Hysteria
  • Group Think
  • crowd motivations
  • bandwagon
  • Online Social Networks
  • Crowd sourcing
  • Arab Spring


  • Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841.
  • Herbert Blumer, "Collective Behavior," in A. M. Lee, ed., Principles of Sociology, New York, Barnes & Noble, 1951, pp. 67–121.
  • Neil J. Smelser, Theory of Collective Behavior, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill., 1962.
  • James B. Rule, Theories of Civil Violence, Berkeley, University of California, 1988.
  • Clark McPhail, The Myth of the Madding Crowd, New York, Aldine de Gruyter, 1991.
  • Jaap van Ginneken, Collective behavior and public opinion – Rapid shifts in opinion and communication, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2003.
  • Giovanni Naldi, Lorenzo Pareschi, Giuseppe Toscani, Mathematical modelling of collective behavior in socio-economic and life sciences, Birkhauser, (2010).
  • Locher, David A., Collective Behavior, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
  • Park, Robert E and Ernest W. Burgess. 1921. Introduction to the Science of Sociology Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Allport, Floyd. 1924. Social Psychology. Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside Press.
  • Miller, Neil and John Dollard. 1941. Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • LeBon, Gustave. 1895. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company.

Web Resources

  • Wikipedia article on Collective Behavior LINK
  • Wikipedia article on Band Wagon Effect LINK
  • Wikipedia article on social movements LINK
  • Wikipedia List of Social Movements LINK
  • University of California Santa Barbara study of social Movements LINK
  • United nations Research for Social Development LINK
  • Notre Dame’s Institute for study of social movements LINK

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