Chapter I: The Study of Collective Behavior
A. What Is Collective Behavior?
As we review these pages for the final time sections of Los Angeles are in flames in response to a jury verdict exonerating police whose beating of an African American man was captured on videotape. Supporters and opponents of abortion take to the streets daily. Mexico City searches for answers to a gas explosion that leveled a 40 square block area. The number of men wearing pony tails and one earring and the number of people saying and understanding "yo, dude" seems to be increasing. These diverse actions fall within the area sociologists call collective behavior. Some fields in sociology are relatively easy to define and their meaning can be grasped immediately, e.g. the family, deviance, politics or organizations. Collective behavior is not one of them. It includes an enormous array of behaviors, processes, structures and contexts. It encompasses parts of many sociological sub-fields. It tends to focus on a particular kind of behavior, rather than on a particular institution such as schools, on abstract group properties such as social stratification or bureaucratic structure, or on a single social process such as socialization. To be sure many areas of sociology involve the study of behavior --but they tend to be restricted to particular types e.g., religious, criminal or political behavior. In contrast collective behavior is not restricted to a given type of behavior or social process. It is more general and inclusive. What do sociologists mean by the term collective behavior? College catalogues usually define this course as involving the study of crowds, fads, disasters, panics and social movements. A listing of such nouns is descriptively accurate. Yet what binds these things together? Why are elements included or excluded? Would a marching band be included? What about a labor dispute in a context where workers have the right to strike as part of their agreement with management? What about an orderly crowd watching the construction of a large office building? Is a weekly church revival meeting with the same participants an example of collective behavior? What if the number attending rapidly expanded and many new revival groups appeared? What if most of those attending suddenly stopped coming? Is a reform-seeking political party or interest group an example of collective behavior? What (if anything) does a highly organized social movement which endures over decades share with the most ephemeral crowd or fad? Defining the field by merely listing empirical phenomena does not permit answering such questions and leaves us with a jumble of seemingly unrelated topics. Thus, a crowd is a type of group. A fad is a type of behavior. Disaster refers to a type of social setting. Panic refers to an individual psychological state. A social movement often refers to a type of organization. Awareness of this diversity has led to a lively debate about what the field ought to consist of. One strand of criticism argues that the field has little internal unity and is held together only by accidents of tradition. The first collective behavior theorists in the Nineteenth century chose to include the above elements. These were then rather uncritically accepted by later theorists such as Park and Burgess (1924), and then Blumer (1951), whose intellectual legacy has shaped contemporary views. Because of these accidents of tradition, the field can be seen as a residual category: what can not be studied as social structure, or from a perspective of cultural definitions, falls within the province of collective behavior. Some critics argue the field would be improved by excluding social movements from it. These more organized and enduring phenomena are seen to belong to political or organizational sociology. Others argue that the field would be better were it to be more concerned with a particular group structure such as the crowd, regardless of whether the behavior...
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