Are the concepts of contagion and deindividuation adequate explanations of rioting and looting behaviour? Discuss this in relation to other explanations of collective behaviour in Book 1, Chapter 1 (Dixon and Mahendran). This essay will explore whether the concepts of contagion and deindividuation theories are relevant to explaining rioting and looting behaviour, using a critical view point. Discussions on explanations of collective behaviour and the interrogative theme power relations will be incorporated into the argument. Whilst at the same time linking rioting, looting and collective behaviour through the examination of evidence and examples to support the argument.
Before moving on to close with a summarisation of the findings and evaluating a conclusion.
Contagion was developed by Le Bon (1895) where he studied how an individual’s behaviour can change when in a crowd. He argued that once people were in crowds they would retreat to a more primitive state of being, where the individual losses all sense of reason and rationality to become associated with a ‘group mind’.
He also argued that when individuals were in a crowd ‘submergence’, a term he used, that this was an association with a process of ‘contagion’, where ideas and emotions take over an individual rapidly through a crowd.
Deindividuation as defined by Festinger et al., (1952) is a process where the individual immerses themselves into a group to which they no longer see themselves as separate and individuals; this causes a psychological shift towards anonymity with that group, where they feel that they cannot be personally identified and held accountable for their actions. Anonymity is a key factor in regards to contagion and deindividuation theories as it slots in perfectly. It is defined as an individual that is immersed in group/crowd behaviour, no longer is seen as an individual, and therefore is cloaked in anonymity as part of the collective. The personal responsibility of one’s own behaviour has been reduced. As it’s a position that the individual has taken in the crowd otherwise known as ‘loss of self’.
Le Bon argued that ‘the experience of being but one among many’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 5) where members felt that they were anonymous and become lost in the group meaning that they become less accountable for their actions. Using examples from the 2011 London riots, where a peaceful demonstration for Mark Duggan ‘was met by riot police’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 17) and in an attempt to disperse the crowd police were filmed hitting a young female demonstrator. The actions from the police notably caused the anti-police riots; they ignited a reason for criminals to jump on the wagon and react. The police’s behaviour was seen to be aggressive, forceful and unacceptable. By them acting in a different way could have possibly prevented the end result of the riots. Stott argues that their social identity model where ‘expression of identity in crowds’ (Cliff Stott assessment of 2011 riots) allowing free positive expression of opinion and views without the police viewing it as a negative expression where they control the crowd because they see the people as dangerous and questioning the legitimate expression of identity then turns ‘the sense of illegitimacy among participants that’s fundamental to the emergence of a riot happens’ (Cliff Stott assessment of 2011 riots).
Le Bon’s theory explains how the looting behaviour can sometimes accompany crowd riots depending on the type of crowd. A number of studies conducted on crowds that supported some of Le Bon’s argument notably, Freud (1922) and Reicher (1996), although some psychologists believed the actions of individuals depended on the type of crowds being observed. Festinger et al.’s theory would explain the looting behavior that sometimes accompanies crowds from the respect of individuals becoming anonymous in a crowd. As a result of the bullying, harsh and violent act by the police in the London, 2011 riots looting began. The social media played an important part in spreading the word as it was used by those wanting to cause mayhem and chaos.
Stott explained that ‘get the police to understand they need to facilitate a positive identity expression, to facilitate the legitimacy of crowds, and through facilitation and creating an environment where identity expression can take place we not only maintain human rights, democracy, but we also manage to avoid the dynamics of a riot’(Cliff Stott assessment of 2011 riots). The actions and behaviours of the police during the start of the riots could have had a different affect if they had adapted a different approach. Stott explains that they have worked with the police to help them to understand how crowds work enabling them to crowd manage effectively. Police policy is to use force to control crowds but for it to be managed ‘policing should be less confrontational and should utilise more the opportunity for dialogue, liaison and communication’ (Cliff Stott assessment of 2011 riots). Critics of deindividuation theories suggest that ‘crowd behaviour is often more and not less socially regulated than individual behaviour’ (Dixon and mahendran, 2012, p. 12).
Le Bon’s work on crowd behaviour lacked the evidence to support his views and findings and critics argued that Le Bon’s findings around crowds are situated in a time of political bias. He himself did not like or spent time in crowds and therefore could have led to his misrepresentation of crowd behaviours. His work paved the way for other theorist to study behaviours and provide their own findings by developing the argument further ‘the rather vague notion of a “group mind” was abandoned and replace with a systematic theory focused on the effects of social context on individual psychology’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 6). Zimbardo, Diener, Prentice-Dunn amonsgt other psychologists developed and redefined Festinger et al.’s work. However, Zimbardo was more ‘interested in the relationship between anonymity and aggression’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 7), where he argued that individuals when in a social group feel lost and less responsible for any harm as a result of their behaviour.
Morally the responsibility is then distributed throughout the group, paving the way for individuals to be aggressive and violent. In contrast, crowds are not just anti-social mobs of aggression focused solely on chaos and disorder but are also used positively for good social gatherings. In regards to the interrogative theme power relations, this can be viewed as positive or negative in the discussion of behaviours ‘it is a two-way dynamic, not just something that the powerful imposes on the powerless’ (Hollway, 2012, p. 47). Power is not only liked with oppression but that of being positive ‘not in the value judgement sense but in the wider sense that it has effects’ (Hollway, 2012, p. 47) and whether the effects have value and are positive or negative or even both especially in relation to crowds and individuals behaviours.
Although contagion and deindividuation provide possible theories around why people act the way they do as a result of catching negative behaviour from others and or becoming less of an individual, social identity theory approach to crowd behaviour demonstrates a different viewpoint in the argument to account for crowd behaviour and that of collective behaviour. Social identity theory, understood as a cognitive-social approach was developed by Tajfel and Turner in the 1970s and 1980s and used as a ‘general framework for understanding intergroup relations’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 13). Tajfel stated that when in social groups individuals tend to define themselves in relation to their identifications within social groups. This process known as self-identification has important effects for inter-group relations.
He also went on to explain that not only does social identification represent labelling it also take on the views, behaviour and attitudes of the group to which the individual feels that they belong to. These individuals have an emotional belongingness that enhances the positive values of their associated group at the expense of ‘others’ for example, the ‘Arab Spring’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 3) where a mass protest took place in order to challenge the social order in many countries.
Another example, in the 2011, London riots the police tried to carry out a ‘stop-and-search on two males’ (Dixon and Mahendran, 2012, p. 17). As a result, bystanders got involved leading to a riot, where looting, arson and disturbances spread in other cities in England. Sensitive images of student Asyraf Rosli who was injured, being helped and then mugged and Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir killed for trying to protect their property. Those social groups had no consideration or care for others that were affected. It is important to note that examples used to support the concepts of contagion and deindividuation could also have been used here.
In conclusion, it’s clear to say that with anything there will always be two sides to the story whether good or bad, positive or negative. The concepts of contagion and deindividuation provide reasonable explanations for rioting and looting behaviours as crowds produce aggressive and impulsive behaviour leading to a feeling of being anonymous when in a group. Individuals reduce their social evaluation and responsibility of taking control of their own actions, where they become an unrecognisable character ‘loss of self’.
Whereas, social identity theory provides a more sustainable explanation to collective behaviour in relation to the 2011, London riots as individuals identified with the crowd as a social group rather than a ‘loss of self’. They motivated one another and act in ways that form a togetherness creating group norms and values to promote a social change. Stott commentary provided valuable reasons and explanations to how the police needed to understand the crowd’s legitimacy identity before having a negative outlook as it being illegitimate. Instead of forcing their power and control maybe the outcome of the peaceful protest would not have escalated into the riots and looting behaviour.
Cliff Stott’s assessment of the 2011 riots (2012), Block 1 audio, DD307 Social Psychology: critical perspectives on self and other, Open University.
Dixon, J. and Mahendran, K. (2012) ‘Crowds’, in Hollway, W., Lucey, H., Phoenix, A. and Lewis, G. (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, The Open Univeristy.
Hollway, W. (2012) ‘Social psychology:past and present’, in Hollway, W., Lucey, H., Phoenix, A. and Lewis, G. (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, The Open Univeristy.
Part 2 Reflexive comment
My understanding of social psychology is about understanding ourselves, people and the social interaction of people every day. It contributes to our thinking of what we expect from other people and how we react in regards to how we treat them and ourselves. We as individuals need to understand the behaviours of individuals in a social environment. Whilst focusing on human behaviour once it has been influenced by other people, in a particular social environment in which it occurs. I am interested in learning about the chapter family and am already starting to scan the chapters for exam ideas as I really want a pass 2 as my final grade. I’m hoping that the project is not as scary as other people have made it out to be and I am able to enjoy researching and investigating the required information to undertake it.
I hope that I obtain a good grade as I do enjoy researching and investigating information as I find it to be a challenge. I hope that I am able to cope with what is required in relation to the TMA’s and the project as I am a full time mother to two small children under 5 years old and work full time plus undertaking this degree. Psychology has opened my mind and helped me to look at everyday things differently and to assess and understand why and how things have happened as there is always a reason behind something. Social psychology has also contributed to broadening my horizon of the world and human beings actions and reasons for doing things. One day I would like to be a psychologist to help people to explore why they feel or acted the way they did in a particular situation.
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