Content Review of Clark McPhail, The Myth of the Madding Crowd.
Aldine, 1991.
crowds header hiram caton whither-progress  

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In his Foreword, John McCartney lavishly praising the author as ‘the intellectual leader without peer in chronicling and categorizing [crowds] . . . he reveals that most theorists made almost no attempt to observe crowds systematically . . .’ High praise indeed. Yet the book provides no discussion of the typology of crowds and proposes none of its own. The reader is left to guess at what sorts of crowds may be under discussion. There is frequent reference to what is and isn’t observed, but there’s no discussion of observational methodology, nor any description, qualitative or quantitative, of the behavior of a single real crowd acting in a specific place and time.
So this isn’t a book about crowds. It’s about theories of crowds. The argument is that the theory introduced into American sociology by Robert Park and elaborated by a series of subsequent scholars is entirely without observational basis. On the old view, crowds are volatile aggregations carried away by self-induced emotions to irrational acts. The crowd’s self-stimulation transforms individuals from their normal condition of self-control. Individual self-identity is submerged in the collective identity, such that the crowd can act as a unit in the commission of acts that would be morally repugnant to each individual acting alone. In a word, the crowd mind can transform law-abiding individuals into madcaps, bullies, assailants, vandals, arsonists, agents of sedition, and worse.

This view, McPhail declares, is ‘without logical or empirical foundation’. He proposes instead the rational actor model, in which ‘the individual in the crowd, as elsewhere, controls his or her behavior by means of self-instructions for behavioral adjustments in relation to the goals or objectives he or she is pursuing’ (p 17). The ‘unconventional’ behaviors sometimes observed are not, as sociologists previously, irrational, but rather are merely indirect methods of obtaining purposive goals.

There’s obviously a very deep observational discrepancy here. Anyone who has participated in the frenzy unleashed in rock concerts must hesitate to apply the label ‘rational actor’. The selling point of these revels is to break free of conventional constraints, to ‘rage’, to ‘go crazy’, in imitation of the performers. McPhail seems to be saying that the wild and risky things that happen in rock revels are merely unconventional means of achieving a purposive goal—raging. Or have a peak into a sports venue. Over there are exuberant hundreds who’ve painted their faces in the colors of the team. Looks awfully silly. Still others are wearing zany costumes that mimic the team totem. They’re jumping up and down, hollering their heads off. Rational? Don’t think so. Maybe things are better on campus? Flashback to the Sixties. Thousands swarm into the quad, and wildly applaud speakers who exhort them: ‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible!’ and give them the action slogan to intimidate their teachers: ‘Up against the wall, Motherf**ker!’ If this is rational action, there’s not much that doesn’t qualify. But in that case, repudiation of the irrational actor model amounts to little more verbal manipulation.

The impossible burden of supporting the rational actor thesis is perhaps the reason why McPhail avoids discussing crowd typology. That discussion compels one to consider mobbing, shaming, ostracism, threats and intimidation, collective brainwashing, rioting, looting, cultic orgies, panic and stampede, and collective suicide. Most of these behaviors were experienced on a large scale and over long times in those sorrowful orgies of fervor that were Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the reign of Iran’s ayatollahs.

A proper typology of crowds would quickly identify and eliminate the error that drives this study: insistence on an Either/Or classification of crowds as rational or irrational. Why may we not have both? Civil disobedience is a model of the individual self-control that McPhail wishes to highlight. It has been one of the most widespread, and effective, techniques used in this century. It has been abundantly described and closely observed. Yet there is not a word about civil disobedience in the book!

The old model of the irrational crowd, which stems basically from Gustav LeBon, certainly needs updating. It’s a century old, and there has been a vast change in the psychological and biological sciences on which the model rested. The mechanisms of collective behavior in animals—the astonishing feats of flocking, schooling, foraging, mobbing—are understood today far better than a century ago. So is the evolutionary and physiological continuity of these mechanisms with our species. But that field of investigation lies beyond sociology.

Hiram Caton

© 2008