The study of riots, mobs, crowds, and other forms of collective behavior is an important part of the social sciences. Convergence theory is a theory of crowd behavior that emphasizes the coming together of individuals with shared traits to explain why individuals participating in riots, mobs, and protests behave the way they do. There are two main strands of convergence theory. One strand focuses on the shared traits of all humanity and argues that explosive crowd behavior is a result of latent tendencies that are often violent. The other strand emphasizes that crowds are homogenous in their makeup and are a result of like-minded individuals coming together to take action collectively. Critiques of convergence theory include emergent norm theory and other theories of rational behavior that is mostly present in social movement research.
Keywords Battle of Seattle; Crowd; Collective Behavior; Contagion Theory; Emergent Norm; Extrainstitutional; Latent Tendencies; Lynch Mob; World Trade Organization
In 1896, Gustav Le Bon examined the behavior of crowds in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. This work set the stage for the study of crowds and collective behavior for many years to come. In this work, Le Bon emphasizes the psychology of the crowd, but more specifically he emphasizes the pathology of the crowd. To Le Bon, what distinguished a crowd from other social groupings was, in fact, its psychological pathology. Le Bon's interest in crowds, then, came from a perspective of concern for the potential dangers of crowd behavior. Le Bon focused on how, within crowd situations, individuals lose their individual mental faculties and become wrapped up in a sort of herd mentality. This theory of crowd behavior dominated the study of crowds for many years.
Up until recently, when the study of collective behavior turned away from more pathological approaches and toward more organizational and interactional approaches, this view of the crowd as a deviant form of behavior was the dominant approach to the study of collective behavior. One of the theories of collective behavior that emerged which attempted to explain the behavior of individuals within the crowd is convergence theory. Convergence theory attempts to explain why individuals in crowds tend to act outside of prescribed social norms and yet seem to act similarly to one another.
Understanding Collective Behavior
Historically, collective behavior and the way that it has been studied and understood in general has been viewed as masses of people acting together in a deviant manner. Collective behavior — especially crowd behavior — was often viewed as unorganized as well. But as sociologists and social psychologists have begun to study collective behavior in a more systematic fashion they have begun to question these assumptions. Specifically, Turner and Killian (1972) explain that within the study of collective behavior, "the sociologist asks whether there may not be some sort of social organization present and conformity to some norms, no matter how deviant the behavior may seem as measured by ordinary standards" (p. 4). For Turner and Killian, collective behavior is seen as a social system and thus should be studied sociologically, just like any other social interaction. They argue that within collective behavior there is more than just an unorganized mass or unruly mob; instead, they argue that within crowds and other collectivities there are social units that have their own unique sets of interactions and rules (Turner & Killian, 1972).
The study of collective behavior, then, has become more concerned with the actions of groups rather than the behavior of individuals within the group, although this aspect of the study of collective action is not entirely gone. Collective behavior is understood as the interaction within groups and how groups create their own internal dynamics and norms. The study of collective behavior is not just interested in internal dynamics; it is also the study of how these groups act in a concerted way to achieve certain ends or goals. Although scholars have moved away from defining collective behavior as inherently disorganized and deviant, it is still seen as behavior that is extra-institutional, or as outside of traditional social institutions and to a degree is still viewed as irrational. Although collective behavior emphasizes group action and interaction, it is distinguished from organizational behavior because it is characterized by nontraditional forms of authority and membership in a collectivity is not formalized (as would often be the case within organizations). Further, collective action is still often viewed as a more expressive form of group behavior than organizational behavior, although the lines have begun to blur in recent years (Turner & Killian, 1972; Marx & Wood, 1975; Couch, 1968).
Convergence Theory of Collective Behavior
Within the study of collective behavior, one of the many theories that seeks to explain why crowds behave the way they do is convergence theory. Convergence theory places its emphasis on understanding crowds as social units that have a unitary focus, and on how individuals within the crowd tend to behave in similar ways. Convergence theory argues that rather than the crowd itself creating a certain behavioral disposition in individuals, individuals bring these dispositions to the crowd. This approach is distinguished from Le Bon's contagion theory.
Contagion theory argues that individuals in crowds are transformed by the energy and emotions of the crowd. This, combined with the anonymity of the crowd, causes individuals to act out in irrational and sometimes violent ways. In other words, the high energy and rowdiness of the crowd becomes contagious, spreading throughout the crowd to influence all of the individuals within it. Many collective phenomena, such as lynch mobs and urban riots, are held up as examples of contagion theory.
Convergence theory makes an important break from Le Bon's conception of the crowd and how individuals within the crowd behave. For Le Bon, the crowd creates the behavior within the individuals. Once an individual participates in collective behavior, he or she loses the ability to rationalize as an individual. Within the convergence theory approach, then, the crowd is still seen to be deviating from social norms, but this approach argues that individuals bring these dispositions to act with them. The crowd and its behavior is the result of like- minded individuals converging to carry out their actions (Macionis, 2001; Stott & Reicher, 1998; Turner & Killian, 1972).
Convergence theory further argues that the often deviant behavior displayed within crowds is a result of latent tendencies within individuals. These latent tendencies can be understood very broadly as tendencies that all people carry with them, or can be more narrowly focused on specific group traits.
Within the broad conception of convergence theory, it is argued that all people carry with them certain instinctual tendencies that crowds bring to the fore. As explained by Meerloo, crowd behavior such as riots and panics are a "sudden consciousness of biological defenselessness against danger" (as cited in Turner & Killian, 1972, p. 19). Latent tendencies that are expressed in crowd situations, then, are rooted in historic biological programming of all humans. As Turner & Killian (1972) point out, this approach to convergence theory is much more rooted in psychoanalysis than sociology and point out that it is difficult to measure such latent tendencies.
Another approach to convergence is that people tend to act out their frustrations when they are in a crowd. The assumption is that individuals are unable to act out their frustrations, especially in a violent manner, in everyday society. So when people are in crowd situations, they vent their frustrations by directing them toward some object that represents their frustrations. In other words, crowds will find scapegoats on which to blame their frustrations (Turner & Killian, 1972).
More sociological approaches to convergence theory have focused on social traits that might help explain crowd behavior. With this approach the crowd becomes the intervening variable for individuals' latent tendencies to be released. Turner & Killian (1972) explain this aspect of convergence theory:
“The problem is not to explain how heterogeneous individuals come to act in a uniform fashion. It is, rather, to identify the latent tendencies in people that will cause them to act alike, the circumstances that will bring people with such tendencies together, and the kinds of events that will cause these tendencies to be released.” (p. 19)
This approach, then, seeks to understand the variables that come together to create the unruly behavior that is often associated with crowds, rather than how the crowd corrupts individuals and makes them act out.
The lynch mob is often used as an example of crowd behavior. Within convergence theory, the lynch mob is understood as acting out of preexisting tendencies. In this case, it is argued that angry whites who are intent on harming a black person band together to form an angry lynch mob. This is different than the acting lynch mob as explained by contagion theory, which would argue that the crowd itself created the lynching. Beyond lynch mobs though, convergence theory can explain many types of collective action which do not necessarily have such negative connotations. Because convergence theory focuses on the similarities of individuals participating in...
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