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.