Crowd Behavior Essay

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Crowd behavior is a misleading concept suggesting unanimous and continuous action by actors with similar motives. Three decades of observations of hundreds of demonstrations, celebrations and sporting events have debunked those stereotypes. Late-twentieth-century students of collective phenomena discarded ”the crowd” as a useful descriptive or explanatory concept. They embraced ”the gathering” as a concept that refers only to two or more persons in a common location in space and time without reference to the solitary or collective actions in which they might engage. The majority of gatherings are temporary; they have a life course beginning with an assembling process that brings persons from initially disparate locations to a subsequent common location; they end with a dispersing process that vacates that location. The most characteristic feature of temporary gatherings is the alternating and varied individual and collective actions that compose them.


Studies of assembling processes consistently indicate factors responsible for who assembles and who does not. Various designations and prescriptions constitute assembling instructions and ordinarily emanate from some family member, friend, colleague, or acquaintance in the same social networks as the recipients. Research shows that whether recipients assemble or not is primarily a function of their availability at the time in question and their access to the alternate location. Research also shows that most individuals don’t assemble alone; instead, most people assemble for most gatherings with one or more companions, with whom they remain until they disperse together.

Actions in Gatherings

Individuals engage in many solitary actions but also in a variety of collective actions with or in relation to their companions or other individuals and small groups. Collective actions develop in at least three ways. The most common are interdependently generated collective actions exemplified by the conversations that occur among companions or with strangers in close proximity. Third-party generated collective actions are common in political or religious gatherings when a speaker solicits singing, chanting, praying, or other actions and at least some (but seldom all) gathering members comply. Independently generated collective actions are illustrated by gathering members engaging in unsolicited clapping and cheering immediately following some speaker’s or performer’s audible or visible actions.


Most temporary gatherings routinely disperse without incident or injury because individuals and their companions exit in staggered and orderly fashion. Explosions, fires, or floods requiring immediate and often simultaneous dispersal of gatherings illustrate emergency dispersals. Individuals may fear the risk of injury or fatality to themselves or their companions but incapacitating fear (panic) is rare. Research shows that reason trumps fear and altruism trumps selfishness. Individuals are far more likely to attend to and extricate their companions than to abandon them. Coerced dispersals occur when state agents of social control judge that gatherings threaten routine social order or the political status quo.


  1. McPhail, C. (2006) The crowd and collective action: bringing symbolic interaction back in. Symbolic Interaction 29: 433-64.
  2. Schweingruber, D. S. and McPhail, C. (1999) A method for systematically observing and recording collective action. Sociological Methods and Research 27: 451-98.

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