Types of Collective Behavior

Learning Objectives

  1. List the major types of collective behavior.
  2. Explain the difference between conventional crowds and acting crowds.
  3. Describe the behavior that typically occurs during and after a disaster.

Collective behavior is a term sociologists use to refer to a miscellaneous set of behaviors in which large numbers of people engage. More specifically, collective behavior refers to relatively spontaneous and relatively unstructured behavior by large numbers of individuals acting with or being influenced by other individuals. Relatively spontaneous means that the behavior is somewhat spontaneous but also somewhat planned, while relatively unstructured means that the behavior is somewhat organized and predictable but also somewhat unorganized and unpredictable. As we shall see, some forms of collective behavior are more spontaneous and unstructured than others, and some forms are more likely than others to involve individuals who act together as opposed to merely being influenced by each other. As a whole, though, collective behavior is regarded as less spontaneous and less structured than conventional behavior, such as what happens in a classroom, a workplace, or the other settings for everyday behavior with which we are very familiar.

As just noted, the term collective behavior refers to a miscellaneous set of behaviors. As such, these behaviors often have very little in common with each other, even if their basic features allow them to be classified as collective behavior. Common forms of collective behavior discussed in this section include crowds, mobs, panics, riots, disaster behavior, rumors, mass hysteria, moral panics, and fads and crazes. Of these forms, some (crowds, panics, riots, and disasters) involve people who are generally in each other’s presence and who are more or less interacting with each other, while other forms (rumors, mass hysteria, moral panics, and fads and crazes) involve people who are not in each other’s presence—in fact, they may be separated by hundreds or thousands of miles—but nonetheless share certain beliefs or concerns.

Another common form of collective behavior is the social movement. The study of social movements exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, and social movement scholarship now dwarfs scholarship on other forms of collective behavior. The second part of this chapter thus focuses solely on social movements.


A crowd is a large number of people who gather together with a common short-term or long-term purpose. Sociologist Herbert Blumer (1969) developed a popular typology of crowds based on their purpose and dynamics. The four types he distinguished are casual crowds, conventional crowds, expressive crowds, and acting crowds. A fifth type, protest crowds, has also been distinguished by other scholars.

Casual Crowd

A casual crowd of people crossing the street

A casual crowd is a collection of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time. It has no common identity or long-term purpose. This gathering of people waiting to cross the street is an example of a casual crowd.

A casual crowd is a collection of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time. The people in this type of crowd have no real common bond, long-term purpose, or identity. An example of a casual crowd is a gathering of people who are waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection in a large city. True, they are all waiting to cross the street and to this degree do have a common goal, but this goal is temporary and this particular collection of people quickly disappears once this goal is achieved. As Erich Goode (1992, p. 22) emphasizes, “members of casual crowds have little else in common except their physical location.” In fact, Goode thinks that casual crowds do not really act out collective behavior, since their behavior is relatively structured in that it follows conventional norms for behaving in such settings.

Conventional Crowd

A conventional crowd is a collection of people who gather for a specific purpose. They might be attending a movie, a play, a concert, or a lecture. Goode (1992) again thinks that conventional crowds do not really act out collective behavior; as their name implies, their behavior is very conventional and thus relatively structured.

Expressive Crowd

An expressive crowd is a collection of people who gather primarily to be excited and to express one or more emotions. Examples include a religious revival, a political rally for a candidate, and events like Mardi Gras. Goode (1992, p. 23) points out that the main purpose of expressive crowds

is belonging to the crowd itself. Crowd activity for its members is an end in itself, not just a means. In conventional crowds, the audience wants to watch the movie or hear the lecture; being part of the audience is secondary or irrelevant. In expressive crowds, the audience also wants to be a member of the crowd, and participate in crowd behavior—to scream, shout, cheer, clap, and stomp their feet.

A conventional crowd may sometimes become an expressive crowd, as when the audience at a movie starts shouting if the film projector breaks. As this example indicates, the line between a conventional crowd and an expressive crowd is not always clear-cut. In any event, because excitement and emotional expression are defining features of expressive crowds, individuals in such crowds are engaging in collective behavior.

Acting Crowd

As its name implies, an acting crowd goes one important step beyond an expressive crowd by behaving in violent or other destructive behavior such as looting. A mob—an intensely emotional crowd that commits or is ready to commit violence—is a primary example of an acting crowd. Many films and novels about the Wild West in U.S. history depict mobs lynching cattle and horse rustlers without giving them the benefit of a trial. Beginning after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, lynch mobs in the South and elsewhere hanged or otherwise murdered several thousand people, most of them African Americans, in what would now be regarded as hate crimes. A panic—a sudden reaction by a crowd that involves self-destructive behavior, as when people stomp over each other while fleeing a theater when a fire breaks out or while charging into a big-box store when it opens early with an amazing sale—is another example of an acting crowd. Acting crowds sometimes become so large and out of control that they develop into full-scale riots, which we discuss momentarily.

Protest Crowd

As identified by Clark McPhail and Ronald T. Wohlstein (1983), a fifth type of crowd is the protest crowd. As its name again implies, a protest crowd is a collection of people who gather to protest a political, social, cultural, or economic issue. The gatherings of people who participate in a sit-in, demonstration, march, or rally are all examples of protest crowds.


A riot is a relatively spontaneous outburst of violence by a large group of people. The term riot sounds very negative, and some scholars have used terms like urban revolt or urban uprising to refer to the riots that many U.S. cities experienced during the 1960s. However, most collective behavior scholars continue to use the term riot without necessarily implying anything bad or good about this form of collective behavior, and we use riot here in that same spirit.

Terminology notwithstanding, riots have been part of American history since the colonial period, when colonists often rioted regarding “taxation without representation” and other issues (Rubenstein, 1970). Between 75 and 100 such riots are estimated to have occurred between 1641 and 1759. Once war broke out with England, several dozen more riots occurred as part of the colonists’ use of violence in the American Revolution. Riots continued after the new nation began, as farmers facing debts often rioted against state militia. The famous Shays’s Rebellion, discussed in many U.S. history books, began with a riot of hundreds of people in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Rioting became even more common during the first several decades of the 19th century. In this period rioting was “as much a part of civilian life as voting or working” (Rosenfeld, 1997, p. 484), with almost three-fourths of U.S. cities experiencing at least one major riot. Most of this rioting was committed by native-born whites against African Americans, Catholics, and immigrants. Their actions led Abraham Lincoln to observe in 1837, “Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times…Whatever their causes be, it is common to the whole country” (quoted in Feldberg, 1980, p. 4).

Rioting continued after the Civil War. Whites attacked Chinese immigrants because they feared the immigrants were taking jobs from whites and keeping wages lower than they otherwise would have been. Labor riots also became common, as workers rioted to protest inhumane working conditions and substandard pay.

Race riots again occurred during the early 20th century, as whites continued to attack African Americans in major U.S. cities. A major riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917 took the lives of 39 African Americans and 9 whites. Riots begun by whites occurred in at least seven more cities in 1919 and ended with the deaths of dozens of people (Waskow, 1967). During the 1960s, riots took place in many Northern cities as African Americans reacted violently to reports of police brutality or other unfair treatment. Estimates of the number of riots during the decade range from 240 to 500, and estimates of the number of participants in the riots range from 50,000 to 350,000 (Downes, 1968; Gurr, 1989).

Types of Riots

Several types of riots may be identified according to the motivation and goals of the participants in the riots. One popular typology distinguishes between protest riots and celebration riots (McPhail, 1994). Protest riots express discontent regarding a political, social, cultural, or economic issue, while celebration riots express joy or delight over an event or outcome, such as the celebration of a football team’s championship that gets out of hand. Protest riots are fundamentally political in nature, while celebration riots are decidedly apolitical.

Another popular typology distinguishes four types of riots: purposive, symbolic, revelous, and issueless (Goode, 1992). Purposive riots arise from dissatisfaction regarding a particular issue and are intended to achieve a specific goal regarding that issue. The colonial riots mentioned earlier are examples of purposive riots, as are many of the riots that have occurred in U.S. prisons during the past few decades. Symbolic riots express general discontent but do not really aim to achieve a specific goal. The early 20th-century riots by whites, also mentioned earlier, are examples of symbolic riots. Revelous riots are the same as the celebration riots already discussed, while issueless riots have no apparent basis or purpose. An example of an issueless riot is the looting and general violence that sometimes occurs during a citywide electrical outage.

An important factor in understanding rioting is the type of people who take part in a riot. The “Sociology Making a Difference” box discusses this issue.

Sociology Making a Difference

The “Scum of the Earth” View of Rioters

When a riot occurs, it is almost natural to think that the rioters must be out-of-control, violent individuals who come from and represent the dregs of society. In the study of riots and rioting, this belief is called the “scum of the earth” view. Reflecting this view, about a century ago an Italian scholar called rioters “criminals, madmen, the offspring of madmen, alcoholics, the slime of society, deprived of all moral sense, given over to crime” (Rule, 1988, p. 95). In scholarly circles this view, though often expressed in less extreme terms, was fairly popular from the end of the 19th century, when it was first formulated, through the 1960s.

If scholars and the public have this view of rioters, then it becomes easy to dismiss a riot as the irrational action of people not worthy of our attention and thus to not respond to any possible economic or political conditions that might have given rise to the riot. After the urban riots in U.S. cities began in the 1960s, politicians and the news media often depicted the urban rioters in negative terms that basically reflected a “scum of the earth” view. This depiction helped delegitimize the riots, which were thus seen not as protests against poverty and other conditions affecting U.S. cities but rather as wanton violence by the dregs of society.

Sociologists’ research on the social backgrounds of the 1960s urban rioters provided an important corrective to this common view of the rioters. These sociologists found that the rioters were fairly typical of the average resident—in terms of employment, economic status, and other factors—of the areas in which the riots occurred. For example, a study of almost 3,400 people arrested during the large 1965 riot in the Watts district of South Los Angeles found that more than half had no previous criminal convictions and that the remainder had been convicted only of minor offenses. In fact, these offenses were less serious than those leading to the arrests of Los Angeles residents in 1965 for nonriot reasons. Researchers also found that the median educational level of the arrested rioters was the same as that of other residents of South Los Angeles, and their political views were also similar to the views of residents who had not participated in the riot.

An important conclusion from these and other findings on the 1960s urban rioters was that instead of being the “scum of the earth,” the rioters were fairly typical and representative of the people in the communities where the riots occurred. These findings indicated that the riots could not easily be dismissed as the actions of the dregs of society but instead should be regarded, despite their violence, as protests against urban poverty that deserved to be heeded. By providing this perspective, the work by sociologists helped make a difference. (McPhail, 1971; Oberschall, 1967; Rule, 1988)

Social Movements

A social movement is an organized effort by a large number of people to bring about or impede social, political, economic, or cultural change. We have much more to say about social movements later in this chapter, but for now simply identify them as an important form of collective behavior that plays a key role in social change.

Disaster Behavior

A disaster is an accident or natural catastrophe that causes many deaths and much property destruction. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, and floods are the most common natural disasters, while the sinking of the Titanic and the April 2010 BP oil well explosion are among the most well-known accidents that had disastrous consequences. Some disasters, such as plane crashes and the Titanic sinking, are very “localized” and affect a relatively small number of people, however tragic the consequences might be for those directly affected. Other disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, affect a much larger geographical area and number of people and thus have far-reaching consequences.

Some sociologists study why disasters occur, but sociologists interested in collective behavior study another aspect of disasters: how people behave during and after a disaster. We call this form of behavior disaster behavior.

When disasters occur, people’s daily lives and normal routines are disrupted. As David L. Miller (2000, p. 250) observes,

Disasters often strike without warning, and when they do, people face unexpected and unfamiliar problems that demand direct and prompt action. There is the obvious problem of sheer survival at the moment when disaster strikes. During impact, individuals must confront and cope with their fears while at the same time looking to their own and others’ safety. After disaster impact, people encounter numerous problems demanding life-and-death decisions as they carry out rescues and aid the injured.

Over the next several days, weeks, and months, they must make many adjustments as their lives slowly return to normal, or at least as close to normal as can be expected. How do people generally behave while all this is going on?

A common belief is that people look out for themselves after a disaster occurs and that they panic and engage in “wild, selfish, individualistic, exploitative behavior” (Goode, 1992, p. 181). However, sociologists who study disaster behavior generally find that the opposite is true: people stay remarkably calm after a disaster occurs and for the most part do not react with terror or panic. As Goode (1992, p. 181) observes, “People tend to confer with others about the appropriate line of action. They weigh alternatives, consider consequences, and come up with socially and collectively reasoned solutions.” In addition, relatively few people experience emotional shock. Friends, relatives, and even strangers tend to help one another and generally display a “high level of concern for and generosity toward disaster victims” (Miller, 2000, p. 274). Grief, depression, and other psychological consequences do occur, but these generally are no more serious than the reactions that follow the deaths of friends and family members caused by reasons other than disasters.

Rumors, Mass Hysteria, and Moral Panics

The types of collective behavior discussed so far—crowds, riots, and disaster behavior—all involve people who are often physically interacting with one another. As mentioned earlier, however, some forms of collective behavior involve people who are much more widespread geographically and who typically do not interact. Nonetheless, these people share certain beliefs and perceptions that sociologists classify as collective behavior. Two broad categories of these beliefs and perceptions have been distinguished: (a) rumors, mass hysteria, and moral panics; and (b) fads and crazes.

Rumors, mass hysteria, and moral panics all involve strongly held beliefs and perceptions that turn out to be not true at all or at least gross distortions of reality. A rumor is a story based on unreliable sources that is nonetheless passed on from one person to another person. A rumor may turn out to be true, but it often turns out to be false or at least to be an exaggeration or distortion of the facts. The defining feature of a rumor, though, is that when it arises it is not based on reliable evidence and thus is unsubstantiated (Goode, 1992). In today’s electronic age, rumors can be spread very quickly over the Internet and via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. In October 2010, a rumor quickly spread that Apple was planning to buy Sony. Although there was no truth to the rumor, Sony’s stock shares rose in value after the rumor began (Albanesius, 2010).

Mass hysteria refers to widespread, intense fear of and concern for a danger that turns out to be false or greatly exaggerated. Episodes of mass hysteria are relatively rare. One that is often-cited is the “War of the Worlds” episode (Miller, 2000). On October 30, 1938, actor and director Orson Welles aired a radio adaptation of this famous story by H. G. Wells, which involved a Martian invasion of Earth. The show depicted the invasion occurring in New Jersey and New York, and thousands of listeners reportedly thought that an invasion was really occurring. This was decades before the Internet, so they called the police, National Guard, hospitals, and other sources for information and got in touch with friends and family members to share their fears. Although the next day newspapers carried many stories of stampedes in theaters, heart attacks, suicides, and other intense reactions to the radio show, these stories turned out to be false.

A moral panic is closely related to mass hysteria and refers to widespread concern over a perceived threat to the moral order that turns out to be false or greatly exaggerated. Often people become very concerned about a moral problem involving such behaviors as drug use and sexual activity. Their concerns may have no basis in reality or may greatly exaggerate the potential and actual danger posed by the problem. In either case, their strongly held moral views about the situation heighten their concern, and they often seek legislation or take other actions to try to battle the moral problem.

Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (2009) describe several moral panics in American history. One of the most important was the concern over alcohol that motivated the Prohibition movement of the early 20th century. This movement was led primarily by rural Protestants who abhorred drinking as a moral and social sin. They thought drinking was a particular problem among urban residents, many of whom were Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants. Their Catholic faith and immigrant status contributed to the outrage that Prohibition activists felt about their alcohol use.

Another moral panic over a drug occurred during the 1930s and led to antimarijuana legislation. Marijuana had been legal before then, but Anglo Americans became concerned about its use among Mexican Americans. Newspapers began to run articles about the effects of marijuana, which was said to turn its users into rapists and other types of violent criminals. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics provided “facts” about these effects to the news media, which published this misleading information.

As these two examples illustrate, moral panics often center on social groups that are already very unpopular, including the poor, people of color, and religious minorities. Prejudice against these groups fuels the rise and intensity of moral panics, and moral panics in turn reinforce and even increase this prejudice.

Fads and Crazes

Fads and crazes make up the second category of beliefs and perceptions that are considered to be collective behavior. A fad is a rather insignificant activity or product that is popular for a relatively short time, while a craze is a temporary activity that attracts the obsessive enthusiasm of a relatively small group of people (Goode, 1992). American history has witnessed many kinds of fads and crazes throughout the years, including goldfish swallowing, stuffing people into a telephone booth, and the notorious campus behavior known as streaking. Products that became fads include Rubik’s Cube, Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch dolls, and Beanie Babies. Cell phones were a fad when they first appeared, but they have become so common and important that they have advanced far beyond the definition of a fad.

Key Takeaways

  • Collective behavior involves large numbers of people and is relatively spontaneous and relatively unstructured. Its major types include crowds, riots, rumors, and fads.
  • Riots have been common in American history since the colonial era. Two major types of riots are protest riots, which are political in nature, and celebration riots, which are apolitical.
  • Most disaster behavior is fairly calm and altruistic. Disaster victims generally do not react in a panicky or selfish manner.
  • Moral panics often focus on unpopular groups in society, including the poor, people of color, and immigrants.

Self Check


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