Collective behavior can be defined as the activities that large and loosely-organized groups engage in. Types of collective behavior include how people act in crowds, in panic situations, with fads, with fashion trends, cult behavior, and the followings of individuals and more-organized behaviors such as engaging in reform and revolutionary work. It differs from the study of individual behavior by the fact that people are acting together in a more spontaneous, sometimes more volatile, and less predictable manner. In contrast, individual behavior involves groups that hold more established rules and traditions that define their purposes, membership, leadership, and methods of operation.
Collective behavior generally involves studying the activities of crowds of people. Herbert Blumer developed a system of analyzing crowds. His four categories of crowds include casual crowds, conventional crowds, expressive crowds, and acting crowds. A casual crowd is a group of people who are in the same place at the same time. In this type of crowd, there are no common bonds, purposes, or identities. One type of casual crowd is a group waiting to cross the street. A conventional crowd is a group of people who are united by a single purpose such as watching a movie, listening to a lecturer, or attending a play. Expressive crowds are gathered to express certain emotions such as those seen at religious revivals, political rallies, and social events such as a Mardi Gras celebration. Acting crowds are crowds that respond emotionally to a situation but do so in a violent or sensational manner such as looting or mob-type behavior. Panic situations, such as when groups engage in self-destructive or risky behavior, could also be described as an acting crowd.
The term collective behavior was coined by American sociologist Robert E. Park, who defined it as “the behavior of individuals under the influence of an impulse that is common and collective, an impulse, in other words, that is the result of social interaction.” Park specified that participants in collective acts share attitudes and behave similarly due to a unique group process. What makes collective behavior volatile is the lack of formal rules that distinguish between members and outside influences as well as leaders and lack of collective decision making. As mentioned previously, there could be a desire for social change in the way groups interact. American sociologist Herbert Blumer defined this as “a collective enterprise to establish a new order of life.” Some types of collective behavior include milling, rumor, and social unrest.
Milling was given its name because early scholars of collective or crowd behavior likened the activity of crowds to the gathering of cows before a stampede occurs. There is a sense of restlessness and agitation among the crowd gathered for events such as late-night programs or news of a catastrophe. Milling also can entail observations of the feelings of other individuals such as sweating, nervousness, and any changes in voice or tone. Four effects of milling include making people more sensitive to others’ feelings, realizing a common expression among those interacting with one another, the development of a mutual interpretation of a given situation, and a redefinition of what type of behavior is most suited to a given situation.
Rumors such as gossip spread quickly and two American psychologists, Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman, believed that the intensity of a rumor is higher when there is greater interest in an event and when there are very ambiguous details about the event. Two conditions that need to exist for a rumor to spread are a need to act when there are enough details about the situation, and a desire for unified action within a group. Rumors spread quickly in social networks of friends and family members and when the rumor is first heard by a group that is related to the event.
Social unrest is more organized and involves frequent gatherings of people and a recurring theme among the crowd. This is the definition of social unrest and examples throughout history include uprisings among black Americans in cities during the 1960s, and the Russian Revolution. What led to each event occurring was turmoil and tension. There are five distinct characteristics of social unrest that include impairment of life routines, such as a lack of focus on work or activities, oversensitivity which leads to a response that is more intense than necessary, a collective sense of restlessness that leads to a higher form of suggestibility, lack of specificity to issues or activities, and a high potential for volatile behavior.