You make your own decisions, right? I mean, you don’t let others influence you, do you? While many of us are inclined to think that our decisions are 100% our own, sociologists point out that we are heavily influenced by the decisions others are making around us. When we you decide to break conventional norms in a group setting because, “everyone’s doing it,” sociologists call this mass deviance Collective Action. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses some sociological theories that may help us understand why sometimes our behavior is shaped by those around us.
You are sitting in class trying to listen attentively, but drifting into a daydream. Today’s class has been fantastically unremarkable; almost identical to all the classes that came before it. Then all of a sudden one of your classmates jumps out of their seat looking down at their phone. “Uh, professor, I’m sorry but I gotta leave, it’s not safe here!” he says before bolting out the door. You grab your phone and get onto Twitter to see if you can figure out what he was talking about. You haven’t even unlocked your phone before two other classmates storm out of the room.
“Everyone, let’s calm down. Please take your seats,” your professor says with the palms of her hands extended out to the class. Eight more students peel off as you check your phone. You check everywhere, but can’t find anything alarming online; there’s no messages, tweets, or news stories suggesting anything is wrong. When you look up from your phone almost everyone in the class is gone. So what do you do? Do you stay or do you jet?
Each of us is profoundly impacted by the actions of those around us. Think about the last time you did something you really got in trouble for or think about the first time you drank alcohol (if you have); were you alone? Chances are you were surrounded by a collection of your peers egging you on to do something crazy. When people in groups behave in similar ways (often by breaking social norms) together to try and achieve a certain goal, sociologists call this collective action. There are multiple theories that try to explain why people give their individuality over to the group, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but today I want to talk about just one: Emergent Norm Theory. But first, who feels like dancing?
What just happened in this video? Let’s start at the beginning. Someone at the Sasquatch Music Festival felt compelled to record an uninhibited man dancing. S/he must have thought that his dancing was remarkable and I think it’s safe to assume s/he felt it was remarkable because his dancing seemed out of place and/or wacky. Let me translate that to sociology-speak: the videographer recorded the man dancing because s/he thought it was an act of deviance. Alright, so we have a deviant man dancing alone at a music festival.
Then another man runs over to join Mr. Wacky-Dancer, then another person joins them, then two more come running, then 6, then 12, and so on until we have hundreds of folks gyrating in a freak out dance party as Santigold performs her song Unstoppable. This is a classic example of what sociologists call Emergent Norm Theory.
We can simplify emergent norm theory down to the idea that in a crowd there are certain people who start behaving in a particular way that quickly become a trend and then become normative (i.e. accepted as “normal” within that group). Sociologists call these leaders/trend setters keynoters. It’s important to note that anyone can become a keynoter.
For instance, if one student in a high school cafeteria stands up and shouts, “Forget this! I’m outta here!” before exiting the building. That person would be behaving deviantly. If seeing their compatriot leave inspires all of the students in the cafeteria to “walk out”, then the first student would be a keynoter and the whole collective action could be explained with emergent norm theory.
We’ve just scratched the surface of collective action theory here, but hopefully you’ll keep your eyes open the next time you are in a crowd. Watch for times that decisions are seemingly made by the collective and ask yourself, “Why did that happen? What’s going on here?” Concerts, mass transit, classrooms, theaters, and every other public setting is an opportunity to get your sociology on. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to start a dance party in my office.
- Go back to the scenario that started this piece. What would you have done? Would you have stayed or ran out of the room? If you would have fled, when would you have left?
- Think of a couple of other situations when the group affects an individuals’ behavior other than the examples discussed in this piece.
- Think of an example of collective action that can’t be explained by emergent norm theory. Put another way, when does collective action happen without a keynoter present?
- What are some examples of collective action that don’t involve behaving in deviant ways? That is, what are some situations were people work together in a face-to-face setting to try and create change without breaking social norms?
Special Thanks to Sociological Images for Introducing This Video To Me
Which is a fantastic song from a fantastic artist. See how I worked that in there? ↩