Collective Behavior Sociology and Its Implications

 

the mystery of crowd behavior

Emergent-Norm Theory: Understanding the Dynamics of Collective Behavior in Sociology

July 10, 2023

Collective behaviour sociology refers to a group of people’s spontaneous and unstructured behaviour in response to a particular event or situation. In sociology, collective behaviour is an unplanned group action that occurs suddenly as people look to each other for cues to act appropriately. Over time, through this social interaction and negotiation, the group develops emergent norms that shape and guide their collective behaviour.

These emergent norms arise through a process where tentative norms are suggested, tested, and modified through social interaction and negotiation. Eventually, certain norms become established, though initially, they are temporary and fluid, changing as the situation changes. New information, events, or the actions of influential individuals can cause the group’s norms and behaviour to shift in new directions. This phenomenon of emergent norms provides the foundation for the emergent-norm theory, a framework for understanding collective behaviour’s dynamic and adaptive nature.

Emergent Norms and Collective Behavior

When people come together in response to an ambiguous situation, they often develop shared norms and behaviours through social interaction. This process of emergent norm formation helps shape collective behaviour.

Emergent norms arise as group members look to each other for cues on acting. Tentative standards are suggested and tested through social negotiation. As more people adopt a particular norm, it becomes established within the group. However, these norms are initially fluid and adaptive, changing as new information arises.

The formation of emergent norms is driven by social influence and negotiation. Group members observe and imitate the actions of influential individuals. They also discuss and debate which norms are most appropriate. Over time, certain norms gain widespread acceptance.

Emergent norms help coordinate collective behaviour and action. They provide guidelines for what is considered acceptable and unacceptable. However, as the situation changes, so do the group’s norms and behaviours. New developments can shift norms in different directions.

The adaptive nature of emergent norms highlights the dynamic nature of collective behaviour. Groups develop shared behavioural guidelines through ongoing social interaction and renegotiation. There is a constant interplay between models, social influence, and collective action. The emergent-norm theory seeks to understand this complex, evolving relationship.

 

Types of Collective Behavior

There are several types of collective behaviour in sociology, including crowds, riots, panics, disasters, and social movements. Crowds form spontaneously and can range from small groups of people gathering on the street to massive crowds of thousands. Crowds tend to be transient and short-lived, lasting only as long as the event or situation that drew people together. Groups can become more organized through interaction and shared experiences, potentially evolving into social movements.

Riots involve large crowds that turn violent, often in protest or response to some perceived injustice or grievance. Riots typically involve property damage, looting, and physical violence. Panics occur when a threat is perceived, and people act based on their emotions rather than reason. Panics can spread quickly through crowds as fear and anxiety spread from person to person.

Disasters, both natural and man-made, often produce collective behaviour as people come together to respond, rescue victims, and provide aid. The shared experience of surviving a disaster can foster social solidarity and cooperation. Social movements are more organized and sustained types of collective behaviour that aim to promote or resist social, political, economic, or cultural change through collective action. Social movements use various strategies, from protests and demonstrations to media campaigns and lobbying, to achieve their goals and spread their message.

Crowds and Riots

Crowds form spontaneously around an event or situation without a clear agenda or purpose. Riots involve violent and chaotic behaviour by a group, typically in reaction to a grievance of some kind.  They unfold rapidly but are usually short-lived. Riots typically involve property damage, clashes with authorities, and acts of vandalism or looting. However, riots can also be politically motivated and aimed at drawing attention to grievances or injustices. The conditions that give rise to riots include poverty, oppression, inequality, and lack of political power.

 

Panics and Disasters

Panics refer to situations where a group perceives a threat that causes sudden fear and anxiety, prompting an irrational flight response. Disasters can bring about chaotic collective behaviour in groups. Emergencies disrupt normal social structures, often leading to new forms of collective behaviour. During disasters, people may exhibit panic behaviours like stampeding or hoarding resources. However, disasters can also bring out more positive collective behaviours like altruism, volunteering, and community self-organization to aid in relief and recovery efforts.

 

Social Movements

Social movements refer to organized efforts by groups of people to bring about or resist social change. They are more structured and purposeful than crowds or riots but still rely on collective behaviour to mobilize people around a shared goal or ideology. Social movements employ protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts to apply pressure and raise awareness of their cause. They utilize collective identity, shared beliefs, and solidarity among members to sustain momentum over time.

Effective social movements strategically frame issues in a way that resonates with the public and potential recruits. They employ organizational structures, division of labour, and communication networks to coordinate members and plan actions. Social movement organizations often emerge to institutionalize a movement’s goals, coordinate activities, and maintain the collective identity beyond specific events or campaigns.

Social movements demonstrate how collective behaviour can be channelled for positive social change when organized around a clear purpose. They highlight the power of collective identity, solidarity and coordinated action to challenge the status quo and transform social norms. While some movements fade away, others succeed in altering public opinion, influencing policy, and even bringing about revolutionary change in society. Through social activities, we see how collective behaviour at scale can shape history.

 

Explaining Collective Behavior

Several theories seek to explain the emergence of collective behaviour:

The emergent-norm theory highlights how groups develop shared norms and guidelines through social interaction and negotiation. It focuses on colonial influence, imitation, and renegotiation in shaping collective action.

Contagion theory

It posits that collective behaviour spreads through a “contagion” effect as people imitate the actions of others. As more people participate, the behaviour becomes “contagious” and spreads rapidly through the group.

Convergence theory suggests that individuals drawn to collective behaviour events share common characteristics and grievances. They “converge” around a focal concern, enabling collective behaviour to emerge.

Relative deprivation theory argues that collective behaviour arises when people feel unjustly deprived or disadvantaged compared to others. This sense of deprivation and injustice motivates collective action.

Value-added theory

This theory proposes that collective behaviour emerges when it provides some “added value” to participants, like socializing, excitement, or a sense of identity. The perceived benefits of participating make the behaviour self-reinforcing.

These theories provide different lenses for understanding how and why collective behaviour emerges in sociology. They highlight the importance of social influence, shared grievances, and the perceived value of participation in driving collective action.

 

Conclusion

Collective behaviour refers to spontaneous group actions that emerge in response to unstructured social situations. Collective behaviour often arises spontaneously in ambiguous or chaotic situations where normal social structures break down.

Studying collective behaviour provides insights into human social psychology and group formation dynamics. It also helps us understand how new social norms develop and spread within crowds and movements. While collective behaviour can sometimes lead to negative outcomes like riots and panics, it also enables people to come together, take action, and enact positive social change through movements.

As society grows increasingly interconnected through social media and globalization, collective behaviour will likely become more common and impactful. Therefore, sociologists argue it is important to study collective behaviour to gain a more comprehensive understanding of group processes, social change, and the human condition. With further research, we may develop strategies to maximize the constructive potential of collective behaviour while minimizing its disruptive effects.

 

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