Emergent-Norm Theory

Understanding the Psychology of the Individual in Crowds

Emergent-Norm Theory combines contagion and convergence theories, arguing that it is a combination of like-minded individuals, anonymity, and shared emotion that leads to crowd behavior.

This theory takes a symbolic interactionist approach to understanding crowd behavior—arguing that people come together with specific expectations and norms, but in the interactions that follow the development of the crowd, new expectations and norms can emerge, allowing for behavior that normally would not take place.

Emergent norm theory, propounded by social scientists Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian, emphasizes the importance of social norms in shaping crowd behavior. Drawing on the symbolic interactionist perspective Turner and Killian (1993: 12) asserted that crowds develop their own definition of a situation and establish norms for behavior that fit the occasion:

  • Some shared redefinition of right and wrong in a situation supplies the justification and coordinates the action in collective behavior. People do what they would not otherwise have done when they panic collectively, when they riot, when they engage in civil disobedience, or when they launch terrorist campaigns, because they find social support for the view that what they are doing is the right thing to do in the situation.

Turner and Killian rejected one of the fundamental assumptions of most collective behavior theories—that crowds are extremely homogeneous—and concluded that the mental unity of crowds is primarily an illusion. In their view, crowds, mobs, and other collectives only seem to be unanimous in their emotions and actions because the members all adhere to norms that are relevant in the given situation.

Important Hint!  

Emergent norm theory is an explanation of collective behavior suggesting that the uniformity in behavior often observed in collectives is caused by members’ conformity to unique normative standards that develop spontaneously in those groups.

Turner and Killian (1993: 13) emphasized that emergent norms occur when people define a new situation as highly unusual or see a long-standing situation in a new light. Granted, these emergent norms may be unique and sharply contrary to more general societal standards, but as they emerge in the group situation, they exert a powerful influence on behavior.

Social scientists using the emergent norm approach seek to determine how individuals in a collective develop an understanding of what is going on, how they construe these activities, and what type of norms are involved. For example, in a study of audience participation, the social scientist Steven E. Clayman (1993) found that members of an audience listening to a speech applaud promptly and independently but wait to coordinate their booing with other people; they do not wish to “boo” alone.

Some emergent norms are permissive—that is, they give people a shared conviction that they may disregard ordinary rules such as waiting in line, taking turns, or treating a speaker courteously. Collective activity such as mass looting may be defined (by participants) as taking what rightfully belongs to them and punishing those who have been exploitive.

For example, following the Los Angeles riots of 1992, some analysts argued that Korean Americans were targets of rioters because they were viewed by Latinos/as and African Americans as “callous and greedy invaders” who became wealthy at the expense of members of other racial–ethnic groups (Cho, 1993). Thus, rioters who used this rationalization could view looting and burning as a means of “paying back Korean Americans or of gaining property (such as TV sets and microwave ovens) from those who had already taken from them.

Once a crowd reaches some agreement on the norms, the collective is supposed to adhere to them. If crowd members develop a norm that condones looting or vandalizing property, they will proceed to cheer for those who conform and ridicule those who are unwilling to abide by the collective’s new norms.

Emergent norm theory points out that crowds are not irrational. Rather, new norms are developed in a rational way to fit the immediate situation. However, critics note that proponents of this perspective fail to specify exactly what constitutes a norm, how new ones emerge, and how they are so quickly disseminated and accepted by a wide variety of participants.

One variation of this theory suggests that no single dominant norm is accepted by everyone in a crowd; instead, norms are specific to the various categories of actors rather than to the collectivity as a whole (Snow, Zurcher, and Peters, 1981). For example, in a study of football victory celebrations, the social scientists David A. Snow, Louis A. Zurcher, and Robert Peters (1981) found that each week, behavioral patterns were changed in the postgame revelry, with some being modified, some added, and some deleted.