Understanding the Characteristics of Crowd

Crowds tend to spring up when individuals who happen to be located in the same general vicinity share a common experience. Variously labeled street crowds or public crowds, these groups form in public or semipublic places and are made up of people who are strangers to one another—except for the clusters of intact groups that they enfold.

A crowd is a gathering of people who are in the same place (usually in public) sharing a common purpose or reason for being in that place and influence one another.

example of crowd
A crowd of people

Audiences watching a film or students agitating for university reforms are both examples of a crowd. While the former is often called a passive crowd, the latter is an example of an active crowd.

There is a fine line in labeling a group of people as a crowd. It takes a specific event, occurrence, or action on the part of a person or people to turn a group of people into a crowd. Individuals who are sitting on benches in a park, walking along a city sidewalk, or waiting for a bus may all occupy a common location, but they do not become a crowd unless something happens—a fire, a car collision, or street performance, for example—to create a common focus of attention (Milgram & Toch, 1969).

There needs to be a focal point or some reason to draw people together; otherwise, those people are not really a crowd. For example, people who are at the beach on a hot summer day are not considered a crowd. However, if a suntan-lotion company arrives at the beach and starts giving away free bottles of lotion, a crowd may form.

Types of Crowds

In his elaborate study of crowd, Herbert Blumer identified four types of crowds:

1.   Casual crowd

A loosely organized collection of people with no real interaction. For example, a crowd of people waiting to board a bus, as well as, people at the mall.

2.   Conventional crowd

A more strongly organized crowd like spectators watching a cricket match who follow certain norms, or a community meeting organized by political leaders.

3.   Expressive crowd

A crowd at an emotionally charged event. For example, a political rally or soccer game in Europe or Latin America.

4.   Acting crowd

A crowd intent on accomplishing something and is often violent and angry. For example, fans rushing a stage during or after a concert.

When crowd behavior is directed toward a specific, violent end, the result is a mob. Mobs tend to be highly emotional. Examples of mob violence include the lynchings of the Southern U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. Violent crowd behavior without a specific goal is a riot. Because riots do not have a specific end, it is assumed that their intention is to express general dissatisfaction.

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Characteristics of Crowds

Crowds are one form of collectives. Although social scientists differ in their conceptions of crowds, but most agree that crowds share several characteristics.

First, crowds involve groups of people coming together in face-to-face or visual space with one another. This is true of other forms of social behavior as well, but crowds are transitory. They form when groups come together for a specific transient event (a sports event, a spiritual retreat, a rock concert, or a riot). The same group of people will probably never reconvene.

Second, crowds are volatile. As crowds develop, their behavior may change suddenly. The behavior of people in crowds is different from behavior in other social settings. You can find countless examples of crowds, differing in their purposes and behavior, but all following observable sociological patterns.

Third, and finally, crowds usually have a sense of urgency. They are focused intensely on a single event.

An early study of crowd behavior was conducted by Robert .E. Park (The Crowd and the Crowd Dynamics, 1904). He reiterated that people in a crowd are under the influence of a “collective stimulus.” As a result they often behave in a way in which they would never do otherwise.

Blumer also highlighted the suggestive nature of a crowd. If one person shouts the whole crowd is also likely to shout. He said that feelings of anger, excitement, and fear get transmitted from one person to the other and they intensify as shared feelings. This makes them irrational and they tend to behave differently.

You can find countless examples of crowds, differing in their purposes and behavior, but all following observable sociological patterns. Within crowds, people think they are acting as individuals, but like other forms of group behavior, they are being shaped by the collective action of others.

People in crowds seem to take on a collective identity, and it may even be difficult to distinguish individual and group behavior. Crowds seem to act as one even though there may be great diversity within individual members that make them.

Crowds may not have an identified leader, but there is usually some center of attention of focal point. Many crowds form either a circle or semicircle, with the bull’s-eye being the focal point.

Individuals and small groups closer to the center of the circle usually are more intimately involved with the crowd than are those who are on the outer edges. Throwing some light on the structure of a crowd, Jerry M Lewis (1972) said that a crowd consists of an “active core”, “cheer leaders”, and “spectators”.

Membership in most crowds is dynamic—a person or small group might become a member of a crowd for only a few passing seconds, whereas others may be members for much longer.

The nature of the occurrence may influence how long a person or small group is a member of a crowd. If the center of attention piques the curiosity of the bystanders, then they are more likely to be a member of the crowd for a much longer time. If a person or small group happens to be at the interior of the circle, they may remain longer; it might become physically difficult to leave because people gathering behind them block an easy exit.

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