Home > Crowds and Collectives > The Origins of the Scientific Study of Groups

The Origins of the Scientific Study of Groups

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
alone?

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.

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