“The Crowd” today?

Le Bon’s ideas of the crowd’s irrationality and one-mindedness crop up regularly in public discourse about crowd actions today. Descriptions of “crazy protestors” or “mindless rioters” are used to make sense of crowd actions.

In this Scientific American article and in an excerpt in the Guardian from a recent book on crowd psychology, the psychologist Steve Reicher contests notions of crowd irrationality that appeared in the popular press in regard to the 2011 London Riots occurring after the police killing of Mark Duggan. Prime Minister David Cameron described the riots as “criminality, pure and simple” and local member of parliament David Lammy described the rioters as “mindless, mindless people.” Reicher argues that contemporary psychological research on crowd behavior shows that there is no such a thing as a “collective mind” (p. 15) of crowds as Le Bon suggests, nor are they as suggestable to the hypnotic sway of charismatic leaders (p. 18). Instead, he lands somewhere between Le Bon-like conceptualizations and those of more reductionistic psychological models of human behavior that emphasize cognitive individuality imbued with economistic rationality.

Interestingly, in the Scientific American article Reicher also notes the role of social scientists in publicizing knowledge about social issues in the press – that in the age of impact factors, REF rankings, and alt-metrics, scholars are under pressure to publicize their research in ways that may simplify complex ideas or even regurgitate outmoded ideas that current scholarship has left behind but still resonates with popular discourse.

What might be a better way for social scientific knowledge to enter the public sphere? Is Reicher’s presence in these news outlets (as well as a few more UK specific publications) after the London Riots an example of better use of publicity by scholars?

Furthermore, Is Le Bon’s conception of crowd behavior completely wrong as some psychologists would suggest? Were David Cameron and MP Lammy addressing a “public” closer to the conception of Tarde, as opposed to Le Bon’s undifferentiated mass of rioters unamenable to education and rational deliberation?


– Patrick Sweeney


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