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The place of anonymity in theories of crowd behaviour Essay

Explain the place of anonymity in theories of crowd behaviour. Is it always associated with a ‘loss of self’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 13)?

This essay will start by explaining the concept of anonymity and how it is used in theories of crowd behaviour namely the contagion, deindividuation theory and social identity theory. Later the essay will focus on critical discussion comparing the above theories in terms of how they perceive anonymity and the loss of self. It will highlight the similarities between Le Bon’s theory and the deidividuation theory but will also point out some of their differences. The essay will also offer the account of the social identity theory which does not see the crowd behaviour as associated with the loss of self and explains it differently in terms of social identity. The essay will also present evidence to support these claims.

The crowd behaviour theories are concerned with how individuals experience being a part of a large group and how this in turn influences their feelings and behaviour. Crowd psychologists would argue that the experience of being a part of a large group necessarily means that a sense of anonymity is created. This anonymity then allows individuals in the crowd to feel somehow ‘safe’ in terms of what they are able to do or say without being directly responsible for it. However different theories view the concept of anonymity differently.

Le Bon argued that the concept of anonymity in the crowd is not beneficial at all. In fact he viewed the crowds as dangerous because individuals lose their rationality which is substituted by a ‘group mind’ and as such crowds are a threat to social hierarchy (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 5). According to Le Bon the experience of being in the crowd involves anonymity thus the individuals are not responsible for their actions and feel a part of the collective therefore are more likely to get influenced by ideas that are sweeping through the crowd – a concept Le Bon called the contagion. This anonymity then leads the individuals to behave in an aggressive and primitive way. The deindividuation theory outlook on anonymity is a bit different. Whilst deindividuation theory would agree with Le Bon on the fact that crowd behaviour generates anonymity and leads individuals to believe that they are not personally accountable for their actions in the crowd, the idea of a ‘group mind’ is dismissed.

Instead Festinger, Pepitone and Newcomb argue that the sense of anonymity individuals experience in the crowds is a psychological shift in individual’s self perception which is clearly measurable (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 6.). From the perspective of the social identity theory crowd behaviour is not necessarily connected with anonymity and the loss of self. According to Tajfel and Turner the loss of self in the crowd behaviour is replaced by the social identity which is constrained by shared social norms amongst the group. Tajfel argues that we posses not just one individual identity but also a social one in terms that we belong to various social groups and share and accept their norms and values. In this light the social identity theory would argue that individuals do not lose their sense of self in the crowd rather they are more constrained by the shared group norms and as such cannot feel anonymous.

It could be argued that Le Bon’s concept of contagion and the deindividuation theory have some similarities. They both start with the assumption that the crowd behaviour involves anonymity which is associated with the loss of self to a certain degree. Both of these theories also agree on the fact that the crowd behaviour alters individual’s feelings and behaviour and makes them more impulsive and less accountable for their actions. However both of the theories use different concept to explain this behaviour. Whilst Le Bon explains the crowd behaviour with the concept of the ‘group mind’ which takes over a rational individual’s mind and leads them to be aggressive and primitive (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 5), Festinger et al. use the concept of deindividuation to explain the psychological shift in individual’s mind whilst being part of the crowd.

Another similarity between the concept of contagion and deindividuation is their perception of crowds being somewhat negative in their nature. Le Bon argues that crowds are dangerous in terms of their primitiveness and possible uncontrolled aggression. These features of crowd behaviour according to Le Bon pose a threat to the social hierarchy and as such should be controlled and prevented (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 5). Similarly the deindividuation theories would suggest that the effects of crowd behaviour on the individual are negative in a sense that they lead to increased aggression. Zimbardo focused on the links between anonymity and aggression in his experiment with administering the electric shocks and the findings suggested that anonymity had indeed intensified the aggression.

Zimbardo explained this phenomenon as a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ and saw it as a by-product of deindividuation. According to Zimbardo being part of crowd (or a social group) makes individuals feel like they are protected by the anonymity surrounding them and therefore they do not feel a moral responsibility for their actions which leads them to being more violent and aggressive. In the light of the evidence presented by Zimbardo it could be argued that anonymity is indeed associated with the loss of self.

On the other hand there are differences to be found between these theories and their outlook on the loss of self. Whilst Le Bon and his concept of contagion and to some degree deindividuation theories would argue that crowds are not beneficial, the social identity theory would present evidence to argue otherwise. As Tajfel and Turner argue crowd behaviour is not necessarily associated with the loss of self rather there is a shift from the individual’s sense of self to the collective one. Social identity theorists do not see this feature of crowd behaviour as negative but rather they explain crowd behaviour in terms of its uniformity and spontaneity. According to the social identity theorists the fact that people belong to a certain social group creates constraints and forces the individuals to behave in a way that is acceptable and shared within the members of the group.

As such the social groups act in a way which is more uniformed and predictable than the individuals themselves. Furthermore the social identity theorists would point out that thanks to the concept of ‘inductive categorization’ the crowds behaviour can be seen as socially coordinated. This concept can be explained using an example of football fans behaviour during the football match where there is no leader who orders the fans to sing and cheer at the same time. Rather if one of the fans starts singing or chanting the others join in because of the ‘inductive categorization’ within this particular social group.

The evidence to challenge the claim that anonymity in crowd behaviour is always associated with a loss of self can be found in a research conducted by Reicher on the St. Pauls riots. Reicher argued that the riots were no random acts of violence as Le Bon or deindividuation theory would suggest, rather the rioters directed their violence towards specific targets and kept them geographically confined to the relevant area. This suggests that the rioter’s behaviour was uniformed and predictable and therefore fits in the explanation of the social identity theory. Further evidence can be found in the research of Reicher and Stott on the London riots in 2011.

From the perspective of the deidividuation and Le Bon’s theory the riots were explained as a prime example of a ‘group mind’ taking over any rationality and resulting in violence and aggression. According to these theories the individuals lost their identity in the crowd hence their responsibility and behaved like primitive animals. However different perspective is offered by the social identity theorists. Reicher and Stott argued that the rioters did not lose their identities in the riots but rather they switched to the social identity which resulted in a collective action. The rioters were not random criminals but were members of the social community with a shared ideas and goals. The actions of the rioters were not random but they were directed at the symbols of authority suggesting collective and uniformed action which was designed to fight inequality. The social identity theorists would therefore argue that there is no such concept as a loss of self in the crowd behaviour rather there is a shift to a social identity which is distinguished by its collectiveness and uniformity.

In summary then it could be argued that from the perspective of the deindividuation theory and Le Bon’s theory, anonymity in crowd behaviour is associated with the loss of self. Le Bon and his concept of contagion argue that individuals in crowd lose their ability to think rationally and are consumed by the ‘group mind’. Deindividuation theories argue for the psychological shift in individual’s mind which is caused by crowd’s anonymity and leads to irrationality and aggression.

Zimbardo’s experiment on the diffusion of responsibility certainly suggests this. On the other hand the social identity theory and its explanation of the crowd behaviour argue strongly against the concept of the loss of the self. This perspective suggests that social groups are far more constrained by its shared social norms to be irrational. Social identity theorists view the crowd behaviour as a positive force in the social change.

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