What Is Collective Preoccupation?
Collective preoccupations are forms of collective behavior wherein many people, over a relatively broad social spectrum, engage in similar behavior and have a shared definition of their behavior as needed to bring social change or to identity their place in the society (Tierney 1994).
Fads Opens in new window, fashion Opens in new window, hysterical contagions Opens in new window, and scapegoating Opens in new window are all collective preoccupations. Many of the more interesting, newsworthy, or novel parts of life comprise preoccupations. Beanie Babies and Digimon represent some of the more creative and whimsical parts of human life.
Collective preoccupations can be harmless, such as the fad or of streaking (running naked) on college campuses, or horrifying, such as the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Although collective preoccupations are popularly seen as weird or eccentric, like other forms collective behavior, they are social in nature. It is the social part of these episodes that arouse the curiosity of social scientists.
The distinctly social phenomena of collective preoccupations take on many different forms but share a number of features. First, they often begin within a small group of people involved in face-to-face interaction. Usually, the people must deal with an ambiguous situation form which they attempt to derive meaning.
For example, UFO sightings are often reported in local newspapers. Groups of friends and family members may read these stories and come up with explanations for an unidentified flying object they have seen. Explanations may range from identifying them as experiments, advertising gimmicks for car dealerships or tires, or exploratory vehicles from Mars (Miller 1985).
The point is that groups of people together form a collective definition of the situation to explain an ambiguous event. To become a fad, fashion, craze, or hysterical contagion, the collective definition of the situation must spread beyond the initial group. This usually occurs through the mass media, preexisting friendship networks, or organizational ties (Aguirre et al. 1988).
Most Collective preoccupations also involve some aspect of social change. Social change may bring on the respective preoccupation, as when groups defined as outsiders are targeted for scapegoating Opens in new window. The social change also may be of a very limited sort, as is the case with fads, when a large number of people behave for a brief period in a curious manner.
The various collective preoccupations provide opportunities for participants to belong to a group while differentiating themselves from other groups. The initial collective definition of the situation among group members may bring about a feeling of belonging. However, groups may use their definitions to exclude others or differentiate themselves from other groups. They become members of the in-group and others become part of the out-group who are persecuted by the in-group.