Emergent-Norm Theory Research Paper Starter

Emergent-Norm Theory

(Research Starters)

This article examines the emergent norm theory of collective behavior. Emergent norm addresses several perceived deficiencies in prior theories of collective behavior, including contagion theory and convergence theory. A description of what is collective behavior is included, as well as a description of norms, followed by an examination of the major points of emergent norm theory. This includes a discussion of the social organization of crowds, a discussion of the role of anonymity and familiarity in crowd behavior, and the process of emergent norms in the public. A short discussion of the applicability of the theory for sociologists, authorities, and social movement leaders is also included. Finally, there is a discussion of the critiques and potential shortfalls of the theory. These include the lack of emphasis on preexisting social relationships and power structures.

Keywords Collective Behavior; Contagion Theory; Convergence Theory; Crowd; Keynoter; Norm; Protests; Riots; Social Structure; Symbolic Interactionism; The Public

Emergent Norm Theory


The behavior of crowds and other acting collectivities has interested social scientists since Gustav Le Bon wrote The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind in 1896. In this work, Le Bon focuses in on the pathology of the individuals within a crowd and their tendency toward violence. To him, the highly emotional and often violent behavior of crowds is seen in terms of a contagion. In this analysis of crowd behavior, the crowd has undue influence over otherwise rational people who then become infected with the excitement of the crowd, leading to antisocial and destructive behavior. This theory of crowd behavior is known as contagion theory because of its emphasis on the contagiousness of crowd excitement (Macionis, 2001; Marx & Wood, 1975).

Later research on crowd behavior emphasized that crowd excitement does not necessarily infect otherwise rational people and make them act irrationally, but instead it emphasizes that crowds are made up of like-minded individuals who come together to act on preexisting tendencies. This theory of crowd behavior is known as convergence theory. This theory of crowds does not see crowd excitement as contagious, but it still assumes that crowd behavior is deviant or irrational. Early research suggested that more psychological strains of convergence theory emphasize that individuals come together in crowds in order to act out preexisting instinctual and violent tendencies. More recent sociological approaches, however, emphasize the similarity of social characteristics of crowds and social movement participants. This approach emphasizes that crowds are instances of like-minded individuals coming together to act on collective grievances rather than on instinctual tendencies (Macionis, 2001; Morrison & Steeves, 1967; Turner & Killian, 1972).

As a response to both contagion theory and convergence theory, both of which view crowd behavior as pathological, Turner & Killian (1972) developed the emergent norm approach to the study of collective behavior. They explain that, "a common view of collective behavior implies that it consists simply of the violation of usual norms by a large number of people at the same time—that it is disorganized, deviant behavior" (p. 4). Instead, they argue that "collective behavior is regulated by a norm, but a norm that arises in a special situation" (p. 4). Thus, following the model of symbolic interactionism, they argue, rather than norm violation, the interaction of individuals within collective behavior episodes produces emergent norms, or norms that are appropriate to the changing and often chaotic situations of collective behavior episodes.

Description of Collective Behavior

Collective behavior as a distinct field within sociology is wide-ranging. It encompasses everything from crowds in disaster situations to social movements (although the study of social movements has increasingly become its own distinct division within the discipline). Collective behavior can be localized in its orientation, such as a crowd situation, or very broad, as would be the case with fads or fashions. Therefore, it is sometimes hard to clearly delineate its boundaries. One of the key distinctions of collective behavior is that it refers to the study of collectivities. Turner and Killian (1972) explain, "collective behavior refers to the action of collectivities, not to a type of individual behavior" (p. 4-5). They further explain, "As a group, a collectivity is more than simply a number of individuals. A group always consists of people who are in interaction and whose interaction is affected by some sense that they constitute a unit" (p. 5). A collectivity, then, shares sense of identity and acts in concert with one another. The action is not necessarily planned ahead of time, but it can be.

Three traits of collectivities have been defined in order to make more clear the distinctions between them and other social groupings. These three traits are:

  • Collectivities are based on limited social interaction;
  • Collectivities have no clear social boundaries; and
  • Collectivities generate weak and unconventional norms (Macionis, 2001, p. 600).
  • As these three traits make clear, the study of collective behavior is focused on non-institutionalized groups. This means that the groups under investigation do not usually constitute a formal organization such as a business, political party, or even family. Instead, collectivities are groups that are often fleeting and emergent. For example an acting crowd at a political demonstration may come together for a short period of time and then disperse. Further, the demonstration participants may come and go as they please without officially joining some organization, or even the movement. Finally, participants in the demonstration may cheer or "boo" speakers because it is expected of them, not just because they agree or disagree with what is being said. This final point of behavior is what emergent norm theory addresses.

    Emergent Norm Theory

    Emergent norm theory addresses many of the perceived weaknesses in both contagion and convergence theories. Firstly, emergent norm theory does not presuppose unanimity of the crowd either in action or disposition. Nor does it assume that crowd behavior is pathological, as is implicit in both contagion and convergence theories. Instead, emergent norm assumes that all human interaction is guided by norms, and that collective behavior is not exceptional in this regard. During episodes of collective behavior, social norms and social organization emerge as a result of various factors including the behavior of keynoters, and interaction between individuals in the crowd. Secondly, an emergent norm approach addresses the supposition that individual action within crowds is a result of anonymity. Emergent social structures often guide the action of individuals as well as constrain them. Finally, the emergent norm approach can be applied to both localized collectivities and diffuse collectivities, whereas both contagion and convergence assume localized collectivities. To understand emergent norm theory, it is first helpful to understand what a norm is.

    Social Norms

    Social norms are rules of behavior that individuals within any given society or social situation are expected to follow. Norms can be either proscriptive or prescriptive. Proscriptive norms tell individuals how they should not act, while prescriptive norms offer guidance on how individuals should act. Norms are not encoded in law, but there are often social repercussions when they are broken (Macionis, 2001).

    Turner and Killian (1972) offer a notable psychological experiment conducted by S. E. Asch as an example of the power of norms. The Asch experiment involved individuals in a laboratory environment who were set up to be in a minority position regarding their opinion on the length of three different lines. The experiment involved groups of seven to nine students who were shown three lines of different lengths. Only one student was not an associate in the experiment. They were then asked to compare the three lines to a forth, separate line and decide which of the three was the same length of the fourth, separate line. In the experiment, it was clear that none of the three lines was the same length as the fourth.

    The goal of the experiment was to gauge to what degree the unknowing student in the group would be influenced by the other students who were instructed beforehand to unanimously choose a line that matched the fourth. In the experiment, one third of the students went along with the majority opinion of the crowd despite the clearly different lengths of the lines. In follow-up interviews with the subjects, Asch discovered that nearly all of the subjects felt the pressure of the group to go along with their decision, including those that did not choose the same line as the rest. Further, they considered themselves to be the source of trouble rather than the rest of the members of the group, despite the fact that their senses told them the lines were clearly different. A number of subjects even became confused and began to doubt their own senses. Subjects also reported going along with the group even if they did not necessarily agree with their judgments (Turner & Killian, 1972). This experiment illustrates the power that group norms can have over individuals. As was explained, some began to doubt their own judgment, while others (even if they did not submit) felt the pressure of the group to go along and began to feel like troublemakers. This illustrates that people may often follow the group in order to get along.


(The entire section is 4525 words.)