Gloucestershire, England, has its annual cheese roll contest, when hundreds of men and women chase a 9-pound round of cheese down a hill so steep that nearly all tumble, fall and crash into one another along the way.
In the fields of Zacatecas, Mexico, families and friends gather in late August to hold a mock battle, La Morisma, to commemorate an ancient battle between Spain’s Christian troops and the Turks.
In Paris, about the time of the summer solstice, hundreds of couples dressed all in white set up tables in public parks and dine alfresco by the light of the moon.
And what does the United States have? Black Friday.
On the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers assemble outside malls, big box stores and outlets so they can get a jump on their holiday shopping. And this year, Black Friday is blackening Thursday as many retailers open on Thanksgiving Day to satisfy the impatient masses.
Black Friday’s climb from marketing ploy to popular craze resists easy explanation. A day of sleeping late, leftover turkey and trimmings and football seems to easily outgun one spent battling strangers to save a few bucks on this year’s cool new toy or gizmo, but last year nearly a quarter of a billion Americans chose the check-out line and not the couch. Why?
Perhaps it’s the economics of it all. People are seeking to maximize the value of their spending dollar, and so are search for high-quality goods priced below market value. Their choice is a rational one: Forgo a bit of holiday relaxation to buy the season’s most popular and so most sought-after products. As many Americans continue to struggle financially, Black Friday makes even more sense since the sale offers them their best chance to purchase the most popular products at reduced prices. Economists explain Black Friday investments are value added for they generate excess return given the capital invested, but regular folks just say “it’s a bargain.”
But if milling about in a mob risking life and limb for a new Xbox doesn’t seem all that rational, how about a more psychological explanation that traces Black Friday back to the quirks of a consumer-oriented mindset? In American society, success is defined not only by the strength of familial bonds (celebrated the day before Black Friday), but also one’s level of consumption of high-priced goods. By joining in Black Friday’s celebration of wanton consumption, people communicate their acceptance of, and relative stature in, a culture that prizes the new over the old and luxury over penury.
Does an anthropological angle offer insights into this Black Friday ritual? Could it be that Black Friday is a modern version of the sharing of communal goods that occurred in earlier times just before the onset of winter? Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance, where the family commemorates the winter harvest with a massive feast. But it also marks the approach of winter and serves as a warning to lay in the supplies that will be needed during the difficult days ahead. Black Friday then is a modern manifestation of an ancient impulse: Having dramatically depleted our reserves, we feel compelled to rush out and get some more.
Or, maybe it’s a form of entertainment. Black Friday transforms the mall into a consumer’s amusement park: Both are expensive, require waiting in long lines and promote prolonged contact with people you would prefer not to associate with. And many shoppers speak of the excitement of the chase for that elusive bargain, the pleasure they take when planning their shopping excursion and the joy of returning home having bagged their quarry. Yet when social scientists take up observation posts in the parking lots outside the doors of stores early in the morning of Black Friday, the people they study don’t seem happy, jubilant or excited. Anxiety, irritability, frustration and aggravation are plentiful, but not too much boisterous exuberance. Each year the stories of overcrowding, long lines, short tempers and even stampedes and injuries cast considerable doubt on the “it’s so much fun” hypothesis.
So, perhaps Black Friday is just one of those mysteries of social life. Humans are the most unpredictable species on the planet, for just when we think we know how they will act, think and feel, they instead head off in a direction that is entirely without precedent.
We can say with confidence that most people — most of the time — flee far from the madding crowd. Except on the day after Thanksgiving. Then they hasten to join it. Go figure.
Reposted from the Richmond-Times Dispatch, November 28, 2013.
Jaap van Ginneken (2007), in his book Mass Movements in Darwinist, Freudian, and Marxist Perspective, reviews with extraordinary care the first scholarly studies of mobs, groups, and crowds. He wonders why, over the years, one person–Gustave Le Bon–was given so much credit for having “discovered” the crowd and the group, even though (a) crowds were described in elaborate detail by other other scholars and writers in the years preceding Le Bon’s work and (b) other social scientists published work dealing with mobs and crows before Le Bon did.
Many writers, responding in part to the changes they observed in many Western societies–shifts from monarchy based governments to democracies, movements of the populace from towns and villages to the cities, increases in nationalism and declines in provincialism–speculated about the unique influences of crowds and mobs on members’ psychological states. de Maupassant, for example, in Sur l’eau (On the Water), quotes the ever quotable Lord Chesterfield who in the 1740s (in his Letters to his son, Philip Stanhope), remarked:
This will ever be the case ; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will. Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob: their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to. Understanding they have collectively none ; but they have ears and eyes, which must be flattered and seduced; and this can only be done by eloquence, tuneful periods, graceful action, and all the various parts of oratory.
de Maupassant then writes how easily one can become submerged in a crowd of spectators, with the result that he is stripped of his humanity, his reason, and his individuality (pages 160-164).
The same phenomenon, a surprising one, is produced each time a large number of men are gathered together. All these persons, side by side, distinct from each other, of different minds, intelligences, passions, education, beliefs, and prejudices, become suddenly, by the sole fact of their being assembled together, a special being, endowed with a new soul, a new manner of thinking in common, which is the unanalysable resultant of the average of these individual opinions.
It is a crowd, and that crowd is a person, one vast collective individual, as distinct from any other mob, as one man is distinct from any other man. A popular saying asserts that “the mob does not reason.” Now why does not the mob reason, since each particular individual in the crowd does reason? Why should a crowd do spontaneously, what none of the units of the crowd would have done? Why has a crowd irresistible impulses, ferocious wills, stupid enthusiasms that nothing can arrest, and, carried away by these thoughtless impulses, why does it commit acts, that none of the individuals composing it would commit
A stranger utters a cry, and behold! a sort of frenzy takes possession of all, and all, with the same impulse, which no one tries to resist, carried away by the same thought, which instantaneously becomes common to all, notwithstanding different castes, opinions, beliefs, and customs, will fall upon a man, murder him, drown him, without a motive, almost without a pretext, whereas each one of them, had he been
alone, would have precipitated himself, at the risk of his life, to save the man he is now killing.
And in the evening, each one on returning home, will ask himself what passion or what madness had seized him, and thrown his nature and his temperament out of its ordinary groove; how he could have given way to this savage impulse? The fact is, he had ceased to be a man, to become one of a crowd. His personal will had become blended with the common will, as a drop of water is blended with and lost in a river. His personality had disappeared, had become an infinitesimal particle of one vast and strange personality, that of the crowd. The panics which take hold of an army, the storms of opinion which carry away an entire nation, the frenzy of dervish dances, are striking examples of this identical phenomenon.
In short, it is not more surprising to see an agglomeration of individuals make one whole, than to see molecules, that are placed near each other form one body.
Nor was de Maupassant the only writer to wax intently on the topic of mobs and crowds: Dickens, Balzac, Scott, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hugo, Manzoni, Poe and Zola all wrote of the power of crowds, the need to merge oneself in a collective, the capacity of large aggregates of individuals to act in unusual ways, and the contagion of emotion within groups. Indeed, Plato, in The Republic, worries about basing any system of government on the will of the general populace and the New Testament discusses the insensitivity of the mob to Christ’s condemnation by the Romans and his subsequent execution. Descriptions of the change a crowd can wrought are not novel.
Le Bon not only fails to acknowledge previous literary analyses of crowds in his classic text on the subject, but he also makes no mention of researchers in the emerging social sciences whose made many of the same points he does in his analysis. van Ginneken suggests that the similarity of Le Bon’s work with the previously published papers by Scipio Sighele of Italy and Henry Fournial of France is very substantial; so substantial that these early crowd researchers engaged in a running debate about who deserved recognition as the “father” of the study of crowds. From van Ginneken (p. 37): “Sighele was outraged by what he saw as a flagrant plagiarism: first on the part of Fournial, and then on the part of Le Bon.”
van Ginneken concludes that Le Bon was no original thinker, and that many modern depictions of him as a “hero” who opened the way to the scientific study of groups and crowds are mistaken, at best, or deliberate deceptions designed to lay claim to others ideas, at worst. He does note, however, that Le Bon was a masterful popularizer (he uses the word “vulgarizer”), and in consequence it was Le Bon who influenced the politicians, researchers, and theorists of the 2oth century by presenting contemporary ideas about social behavior in accessible ways.