Collective behavior refers to a miscellaneous set of behaviors that are relatively spontaneous and engaged in by large numbers of people.
Several types of collective behavior exist, including crowds, riots, disaster behavior, social movements, rumors, and fads and crazes.
The early contagion theory emphasized that crowds unduly influence individual behavior to be violent and irrational, but more recent theories emphasize that collective behavior is much more predictable and rational.
Social movements have been important agents for social change. Common types of social movements include reform movements, revolutionary movements, reactionary movements, and self-help and religious movements.
Explanations of social movements address both micro and macro factors. Important issues at the micro level include the question of irrationality, the importance of relative deprivation, and the impact of social isolation. Macro theories address the social, economic, and political conditions underlying collective behavior. Two of the most important such theories are Smelser’s structural-strain theory and resource mobilization theory.
Most social movements go through a life cycle of four stages: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. Decline stems from several reasons, including internal divisions and repressive efforts by the state.
Social movements have political, cultural, and biographical consequences. Research finds that movements are more successful in the political arena when they use more rather than less protest and when they focus on a single issue rather than multiple issues.
Social change involves the transformation of cultural norms and values, behavior, social institutions, and social structure. As societies become more modern, they become larger, more heterogeneous, and more impersonal, and their sense of community declines. Traditions decline as well, while individual freedom of thought and behavior increases. Some sociologists view modernization positively, while others view it negatively. Tönnies in particular lamented the shift from the Gemeinschaft of premodern societies to the Gesellschaft of modern societies. Durkheim also recognized the negative aspects of modernization but at the same time valued the freedom of modern societies and thought they retain a good amount of social solidarity from their division of labor.
A functionalist understanding of social change emphasizes that it is both natural and inevitable. Talcott Parsons’s equilibrium model recognized that gradual change is desirable and ordinarily stems from such things as population growth and technological advances, but that any sudden social change disrupts society’s equilibrium. Taking a very different view, conflict theory stresses that sudden social change is often both necessary and desirable to reduce inequality and to address other problems in society. Such social change often stems from intentional efforts by social movements to correct perceived deficiencies in the social, economic, and political systems.
Several sources of social change exist. These include population growth and changes in population composition, changes in culture and technology, changes in the natural environment, and social and ethnic conflict.
Environmental sociology is the sociological study of the environment. One major emphasis of environmental sociology is that environmental problems are largely the result of human activity and human decision making.
A second major emphasis of environmental sociology is that environmental problems disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. These effects are called environmental inequality and environmental racism, respectively.
You are in your second year in the public relations department of a medium-sized company that owns and operates three factories along the Mississippi River. Each of the factories is discharging toxic chemicals into the river in violation of federal safety standards, and each of the factories is located near a small town populated mostly by low-income residents. The percentage of African Americans in the three towns ranges from 33% to 55%. Having had an environmental sociology course in college, you are very concerned about the factories’ pollution, but you also do not want to lose your job. Do you take any action to try to address this form of pollution, or do you remain silent? Explain your answer.
You are 35 years old and living with your spouse and 3-year-old child in a racially integrated neighborhood in a fairly large city. News reports indicate that two young Latino males from your neighborhood, both immigrants, were attacked and beaten the previous evening by a gang of young white (Anglo) males. Several people from the neighborhood organize a meeting to respond to the beatings. At the meeting, the organizers announce that a protest march will take place the following weekend to protest the hate crime that has just occurred. Do you participate in the march?