Shopping and Crowds
I like crowds. I remember feeling emotionally overcome as part of the group when I was in the front row at a Radiohead concert in Madison Square Garden or at the greatest comeback in NFL history. Being caught up in the moment, succumbing to the mass and losing a sense of one’s own individualism was something sociologist Emile Durkheim called collective effervescence: the emotional energy binding a group and a person. He was more interested in religious rituals, but I thought of this concept when watching this YouTube video of frenzied shoppers on Black Friday:
Thinking about the balance between the needs of the individual and the wisdom of the collective sits at the heart of sociology: Where does the self end and the society begin? Are crowds orderly and productive or irrational and destructive? “The Crowd” can be a pivot point for examining social life, and early sociologists like Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Robert Park all took note of that. Philosopher Elias Canetti called crowd mentality “collective contagion.”
Gustave LeBon (1896) offered an early theory on this kind of deindividualization, believing crowds made individuals irrational and emotional. Mob violence (a la the Salem Witch Trials or sexual violence of the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City) could be examples of how the fervor of the crowd can draw seemingly reasonable people into seeming irrational actions. Both examples, however, are not as groundless as we may first think: the Salem Witch Trials and the events in Central Park show how a crowd can echo existing forms of power and control.
The Black Friday crowds can be similarly linked: In this case, these individual behaviors tied to our overly consumerist society. Allison Pugh’s book Longing and Belonging provides a nuanced and thoughtful account of the symbolic practices surrounding childhood and consumption, but the fever pitch Black Friday shopping serves as a kind of flip-side to those more deliberate buying practices. There’s something to focusing on the”meaning of things” but also something to looking at the social action itself.
And to take that on, we could focus on the positives of crowd formation and collective effervescence and not just overtly negative examples, right? My dissertation research, on walking tours in New York City, highlighted how the tour group bonded, especially when confronted by the occasional cranky local who cursed at the folks blocking the sidewalk. My research on music festivals reinforced the collective warmth of being a concertgoer, and there’s other research on crowds and sports.
I imagine there are similar feelings at religious pilgrimages (almost two million people flood the plain surrounding the Hajj), or at protests like Occupy Wall Street, as they congregate for a collective plea for government oversight and awareness of economic inequality. (Elias Canetti, offering a typology of gatherings, would likely call the Hajj pilgrimage a ”Feast Crowd,” Occupy a ”Reversal” or a “Prohibition Crowd,” and Black Friday Shoppers as a ”Baiting Crowd.”)
There are critiques of commercialism, mirroring the crowd formation as well. Bill Wasik, who is credited for inventing the ”Flash Mob” –a kind of conscious, near-instant gathering, mostly for the point of having a gathering—details the origin of the term, which has both technological and shopping-related foundations:
One blog proprietor gave the concept a name—“flash mobs”—after a 1973 science-fiction short story, “Flash Crowd,” which deals with the unexpected downside of cheap teleportation technology: packs of thrillseekers who beam themselves in whenever a good time is going down. The story’s protagonist, Jerryberry Jensen, is a TV journalist who inadvertently touches off a multiday riot in a shopping mall, but eventually he clears his name by showing how technology was to blame.
Flash Mobs indicate that new technology can also be an answer: consider the hacker-collective of Anonymous, which marries the privacy and placelessness afforded by technology with the power of a collectivity, or the Arab Spring, where crowds gathered to protest government oppression fueled in part by advances in mobile technology. A different manifestation is Improv Everywhere, a Flash Mob/performance art troupe. For this year’s Black Friday they organized a prank to get
Photo courtesy of ImprovEverywhere.com
people to re-think consumerism. Their volunteer- pranksters (they call themselves agents) campedoutside a dollar store in Manhattan as if they were awaiting the latest iPod, and stampeded in when the doors opened to the bemusement of passersby and the dollar store workers. They’ve done other events in a grocery store and Home Depots. All of them make a scene, but they also can tweak the collective consciousness on shopping, consciously or not.
In 1906 Sir Francis Galton wanted to prove that the masses were relatively unintelligent but found they can be, in fact, rather smart. He realized that all the little bits of information individuals hold add to a group’s collective knowledge, increasing the likelihood of the crowd’s intelligence. When asked a question, a collective group has a stronger probability of getting the correct answer. James Surowiecki, in The Wisdom of Crowds, updates this group intelligence idea using the example of how the audience on the TV Show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is correct 91% of the time.
So, there is a dual nature to crowds. They might act emotionally, even dangerously, but they also have the potential for collective intelligence. Crowds can be smart, politically savvy, and effective too. Keep this in mind when you are at the mall shopping for gifts.