17 Crowds and Collectives

The mob has no judgment, no discretion,
no direction, no discrimination, no consistency

A detailed study of groups would be incomplete if it did not consider the dynamics of larger social collectives. For centuries people have wondered at the seemingly inexplicable actions that people undertake when part of a large mass of humanity. Juries, teams, squads, clubs, and cults are all intriguing, but so are riots and rumors; crowds and crazes; and mobs and movements. This chapter describes collectives, explains their dynamics, and seeks to repair their reputation.

  • What is collective behavior?
  • What theories explain collective behavior?
  • How different are collectives from other types of groups?

Chapter Case Study

General Resources

  • The Stanford Crowd project is a rich resource of information about all things related to crowds, with a particular emphasis on crowds and collective behavior in literature and the arts.
  • The politics of “mob mentality” in the Atlantic.
  • The Tragedy at the Who Concert: Crowdsafe provides detailed information about large groups that attend events, including rock concerts. They provide a detailed analysis of the tragedy at the Who concert at Cincinnati (here). This site includes the entire report developed by City of Cincinnati examining the incident. Also, the World News Map includes a category for human stampedes
  • Poking Holes in the Theory of ‘Broken Windows’, by D. W. Miller, examines the evidence that supports the idea that small changes can generate large, revolution changes in these systems (Warning: Paywalled).
  • The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell provides various links to his books and articles on social change.
  • Mass Psychogenic Illness: Role of the Individual Physician, by Timothy Jones, examines the spread of atypical ideas through groups
  • Social movements and culture: A Kahn-academy video on social movement groups and organizations.
  • Transforming People into Perpetrators of Evil (The Robert L. Harris Memorial Lecture), by Philip G. Zimbardo, is available here in text form


Chapter Case: The Arab Spring

  • Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation by Ashraf Khalil (2011) provides a detailed, street-level view into the dynamics of Egypt’s 2011 revolutionary social movement.

Collective Behavior

  • Markets, Mobs, & Mayhem: A Modern Look at the Madness of Crowds by Robert Menschel (2002) draws on literature, case studies, and even cartoons to provide a general overview and analysis of collective action.
  • Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior by Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew (2009) is a comprehensive and well-researched analysis of all manner of collective behavior that corrects many misconceptions and myths about famous cases.

Theoretical Perspectives

  • “Collective Behavior: Crowds and Social Movements” by Stanley Milgram and Hans Toch (1969), although written over 40 years ago, still offers fundamental insights into collective behavior.
  • “Collective Behavior” by Ralph H. Turner (2001a) is a succinct yet comprehensive overview of the key theories of “those forms of social behavior in which the usual conventions cease to guide social action and people collectively transcend, bypass, or subvert established institutional patterns and structures” (p. 348).
  • “The Human Choice: Individuation, Reason, and Order Versus Deindividuation, Impulse, and Chaos” by Philip G. Zimbardo (1969) is a wide-ranging analysis of the causes and consequences of the loss of identity that sometimes occurs in groups.
  • “Toward an Integrative Social Identity Model of Collective Action: A Quantitative Research Synthesis of Three Socio-Psychological Perspectives” by Martijn van Zomeren, Tom Postmes, and Russell Spears (2008) provides a scholarly review of the vast literature on social movements, as well as results from their meta-analysis of the impact of injustice, efficacy, and identity on social participation.

Collectives as Groups

  • The Myth of the Madding Crowd by Clark McPhail (1991) expertly synthesizes prior theoretical work on crowds with McPhail’s field studies of actual crowds to dispel many absurd myths about crowds and replace them with data-based propositions.
  • Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots by Steve Reicher and Cliff Stott (2011) provides a theoretically insightful description of the events leading up to the 2011 protests and riots in England, casting those events into a modern, crowd-as-group perspective.


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