After reading this article you will learn about the theories of crowd behaviour.
According to Le Bon (1895), collective outbursts are a feature of the mass society which is characteristic of modern age with huge cities, in which crowd mentality prevails. The origins of Soviet Revolution (1917) and Fascist revolutions in Germany and Italy in the thirties are traced to the conditions in mass society. Next Le Bon deals with the actual street crowd, how it is formed and how the members of the crowd are transformed by it.
According to him men undergo a radical transformation in a crowd; primitive irrational elements emerge; man loses his self-control and becomes a savage. Thus, belonging to a crowd makes a person lose his “conscious personality”; people, irrespective of their intelligence, character and occupation feel, think and act in the way in which the rest of the people in the group do. He postulated the concept of “collective mind” to explain this transformation of man in a crowd.
He postulated that human personality consists of two parts: a superficial conscious layer and a deeper unconscious layer which is similar in all human beings. In the crowd the conscious personality evaporates and alt persons descend to the unconscious level.
As a result the members of a crowd are intellectually inferior and are easily swayed by images and slogans of the leader. They become capable of violent actions since the normal restraints are cast off; they become highly emotional. He described three principal mechanisms to explain the emergence of crowd behaviour, namely, anonymity, contagion and suggestibility.
Freud (1922) tried to uncover the unconscious well-springs of crowd behaviour. He said that the unity of the crowd is due to the libidinal ties. The leader plays the crucial role. There is affection between the leader and the followers. As a result of this there is identification and each member renounces his own super-ego and follows the leader.
All the members of the crowd behave as if they are under the hypnotic influence of the leader losing their respective individualities. Because the leader is the common ideal for all the members, each member of the group also identifies himself with the other members. So the unity in the group arises out of these two sets of identifications. Violence becomes possible because each person is no longer checked by his own super-ego.
Dollard et al (1939) explained mob violence on the basis of frustration. They linked the lynching of Negroes in Southern United States with frustration arising from the decrease in the value of cotton, the mainstay of the economy. Because the white people directly knew and resented the Negroes, they became the target for aggressiveness; it is a case of displacement. Similarly the Germans who were frustrated by the Treaty of Versailles directed their aggressiveness against the Jews.
Turner (1964) formulated the “emergent norm” theory. While the theories of Le Bon, Freud and others are based on the structure of personality and the manner in which the individual is changed by the crowd, Turner employs the concepts derived from the study of small groups. Studies have clearly shown how when a group of people interact freely among themselves, they develop some common norms.
The emergent norm theory holds that the homogeneity of the crowd arises out of the interaction of members and the emergence of norms. The members behave according to these new norms and inhibit contrary behaviour. Thus, a member of the crowd behaves in the given way because he is mechanically infected by group emotion. Thus, this theory dispenses with the “contagion” hypothesis of crowd behaviour.
Smelser (1963) asserts that collective behaviour occurs when people desire some change in society which is not attainable through normal institutions of society. Thus, collective behaviour occurs outside social institutions and is purposefully oriented toward change.
He describes a sequence of six determinants:
(1) Structural conduciveness,
(2) Structural strain,
(3) Growth and spread of belief,
(4) Mobilization for action,
(5) Precipitating factors and
(6) Social control.
Thus, Smelser’s theory is sociological in perspective.
The main problems of collective behaviour which have to be explained are:
(a) The homogeneity of crowds, and
(b) The emergence of violent behaviour.
According to Le Bon both these are due to the common unconscious factors. Freud assumes that both these aspects of collective behaviour arise from the temporary suspension of super-ego in the members.
According to Dollard both homogeneity and violence arise from frustrations. Turner explains in terms of the emergence of new norms. Smelser accounts for the emergence of collective behaviour when the normal institutional methods fail to achieve the desire of the people to bring about a change in some aspects of the society.
It is clear that with the addition of knowledge regarding the actual behaviour of crowds and the conditions of their formation it may be possible to formulate a satisfactory theory.
A Tentative Theory of Crowd Behaviour:
With the knowledge now available it may be stated that the homogeneity of crowd arises from some intense and widespread dissatisfaction with the established government or with the established and prevailing social structure. The wave of student strikes, labour strikes etc., in the latter half of 1972 and in 1973 in India, in the different parts of the country may be due to the steep rise in the cost of living, giving rise to a general social unrest.
When the general unrest is there any precipitating cause will bring the people out into the streets. Among the contributory causes in the current political situation may be the frustration of the opposition political parties which are fragmented and are without power within the legislatures. When the general unrest is there and the precipitating cause occurs, the opposition political parties enter the field and fan up the emotions of the people.
The second problem of collective behaviour is the emergence of violence. Here the frustration- aggression hypothesis provides the answer. The impotent crowds, when they are confronted by the organized limb of the police authority, break off into violence by pelting stones and burning buses, in order to demonstrate to the armed police their own power. Realizing this possibility Gandhiji insisted on truth (satya) and non-violence (ahimsa) among the people so that the crowds gather on the basis of widespread dissatisfaction but do not break-off into violence.