Collective Behavior in Diverse Social Settings: the American civil rights movement

Collective Behavior in Diverse Social Settings: the American civil rights movement 

In order to understand collective behavior, one must analyze it independent of the setting in which it occurs. The study of any mass or crowd does not necessarily preclude the study of collective behavior. Collective actions like crowds, masses or rights movements are considered part of collective behavior by studying what is occurring within them (Blumer, 1969). The setting, behavior and process are three different concepts that should be individually studied. Traditional sociologists did their studies in less formal settings which allowed them to collect much more information. Modern sociologists however have been more preoccupied with analyzing settings, behavior and processes and how they relate towards each other.

Earlier theorists assumed that contexts in formal organizations formed the primary source of studying collective behavior. There is an elaborate distribution of schedules, roles, directives and labor in formal organizations which makes this setting less prone to non-institutional behavior. Organized settings help in the provision of solutions to problems that have been developed and observed over time. These organized settings also do have many social control mechanisms. This means that collective behavior might not be exhibited in these settings or may be stopped by mobilization of social control structures. Additionally, the fact that players in organized settings are identifiable makes them lack the anonymity that is afforded by large crowds hence inhibiting collective behavior.

Social movements are difficult to define. They are neither political parties or interest groups which have regular access to the political elite and power nor are they mere masses that tend to be unorganized and without goals. De la Porta and Diani characterize them as being “involved in conflictual relations with clearly identified opponents while being linked by dense informal networks and sharing a distinct collective identity” (2006, p. 20). The civil rights movement was perhaps one of the most well known social movements that occurred in the between the 1950s and the 1970s in America. This means that the movement was an organized affair that was largely informal but which engaged in conflicts of an extra-institutional nature and had a clear goal. The major goal of the movement was advocacy for rights of minorities in the US, mostly African Americans in the south. Social movements can however have narrow specific goals or can be aimed at a major cultural change, which was the case in the civil rights movement.

Early scholars viewed collective actions as being geared towards change in a certain societal aspect. Some of the earlier works centered on why it is that people gravitate towards these collective actions and to what conditions were necessary for the collective actions to thrive. This was largely based on the mass society theory. The theory stems from the increased industrialization of the society which leads to individuals feeling alienated. This, individuals feel, occurs due to the breaking down of social support networks and traditional social structures.

Historical definitions of collective behavior as being unorganized, unstructured and having unique properties led the study away from organized groups. Newsworthy and dramatic characteristics of the civil rights movement and other social movements led sociologists to focus their attention on masses and large crowds (Jureidini & Poole, 2002). The fact that collective behavior is less institutionalized does by no means attempt to delink it from formal organizations. There are three major links between collective behavior and formal organizations. They include: their direct role in inducing collective behavior, their potential source of discontent and problems which may lead to collective action and their conduciveness to the mobilization of collective behavior. Formal organizations usually have periodic assembly of people and have pre-established formal or informal communication channels that may be used to draw people together. In the case of the civil rights movement, religious groups, special interest groups and trade unions were especially pivotal in mobilizing people.

Social movements are usually more fluid in their initial stages. Here, they may exhibit many characteristics of formal organizations. They also provide situations where collective behavior is produced in diffuse settings like crowds and masses (Jureidini & Poole, 2002). This is in order to communicate the intended message to a mass audience. The civil rights movement used short term collective behavior incidents like peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins and marches in order to get their message across. In picketing, demonstrating, engaging in civil disobedience and other such like acts, the activists wanted to impose costs to their adversaries so that their demands could be met. In many cases, such activities cease whenever the demands of protestors are met. Collective behavior that is targeted at a more diffuse mass is done with the hope that the movement will gain sympathizers and in turn more followers who will help in making a particular plea even more public.

Social movements are borne out of widespread discontent. The civil rights movement started with expression of unhappiness with segregation occurring against black people in the US. This discontent festered for a long time in the minds of many victims before they took any steps to redress it. The Montgomery bus boycotts were borne out of the singular acts of later heroes of the movement like Rosa Parks. This action was neither strategic nor collective but it communicated the feeling of many African Americans at the time. The action led to more media coverage and attention was drawn to the negative conditions and unpopular policies that confronted black people. The early stages of the civil rights movement were propelled by specific social movement organizations (Boren, 2001). Examples of these were the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP. These organizations, together with others served as the agitators of the movement. It was until after the Supreme Court decision of 1954 on the Brown v. the Board of Education case that the American civil rights movement came into prominence.

Social imagination asserts that all actions done in the society have outcomes that affect others differently. The definition of social imagination encompasses norms and motives in a specific social context (Giddens, 1996). It also entails situations, values and the society in general. The civil rights movement was necessitated by the segregation of the black community especially in the south. African Americans believed that although they were free, they did not enjoy the same rights as whites. This led to an agitation that occurred in the society leading to collective action in the form of a social movement. In understanding social imagination, one understands how collective action relates to specific conditions and is influence by those societal conditions. Outcomes, like boycotts, sit-ins, demonstration and civil disobedience were necessitated by societal norms that segregated a certain part of the population. They were also necessitated by the fact that people desired to enjoy the same freedoms as others. The context in which this played out was the American society that is comprised of diverse cultures. All these factors came together and resulted in the civil rights movement.

Social change is an inevitable part of our social existence and relations. This change is broad and encompasses a wide array of civic and social outcomes (Jureidini & Poole, 2002). These ranges from increased understanding, awareness, building public goodwill, change in attitude, to a change in policies with the aim of bringing about social justice. Social change usually starts with an individual and then builds up to organizational and group levels. In the civil rights movement, individual African Americans felt that there was no social justice for them as they were continuously treated as second class citizens. Individual acts of defiance, like that of Rosa Parks and other dissenting voices, gave these concerns a base of operation. Eventually, there was a full blown social movement that culminated in the amendment of certain laws in order top bring about the desired social justice.

The civil rights movement and other social movements and collective actions are borne out of a common feeling of injustice. This usually occurs when certain sections of the society feel alienated due to lack of access, equality, equity and inclusion in matters political, social or economic. These frustrations that are common to people of color, the poor and marginalized lead to organizations, both spontaneous and planned, aimed at changing policies and institutions. If the change does not arise through conventional behavior, then the victims result to collective behavior in an attempt to force the required change.


Blumer, H., (1969). Collective behavior. In Lee A.M., (Ed.), Principles of sociology (3rd Ed.). New York: Barnes and Noble Books.

Boren, M. E., (2001). Student resistance: A history of the unruly subject. New York: Routledge.

De la Porta, D. & Diani, M., (2006). Social movements: An introduction (2nd Ed). Malden MA:Blackwell Publishing.

Giddens, A., (1996). Sociological Imagination. Introduction to Sociology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc

Jureidini, R. & Poole, M., (2002). Sociology (3rd ed). Sydney: Allen & Unwin.




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