FOREWORD to Neil Smelser's Theory of Collective Behavior
By Gary T. Marx

This foreword and a new preface by Neil Smelser to his Theory of Collective Behavior are from a new 50th anniversary publication of this foundational work. Quid Pro Books, as part of its Classics of the Social Sciences series, has published the book in modern formatting, in both digital (with the original page numbers) and new paperback and hardback editions.

Gary T. Marx Notes  |  Gary T. Marx References  |  Neil J. Smelser Preface 2011  |  Back to Main Page

Foundational Works and Dancing Bears

Frango ut pate faciam.
— Paleontological Society Motto
That motto ("I break in order to reveal") aptly fits Neil Smelser's classic Theory of Collective Behavior—a book that radically broke with conventional treatments of collective behavior in order to reveal new ways of understanding. The breaking was complemented by a reassembling of collective behavior into its fundamental components.

What happens to 50-year-old out-of-print books that were welcomed as major achievements when first published? 1 Most often, as General Douglas MacArthur said of old soldiers, "they just fade away." But some do not experience this fate and, if their authors are lucky, they get reissued in paperback and electronic book form so that the grandchildren of those who first encountered a work can see what the fuss was all about.

Why are influential books abandoned? They may be abandoned because their content lacks empirical support or conceptual inadequacies. Subsequent empirical work may find their ideas to be limiting, rather than universal, as with one model of scientific development. A book may be attacked by those who would be king by slaying the reigning monarch. A book may be misunderstood and deemed worthy of being forgotten by those led by their ideology rather than their intellect.

A book may become a ritualized object killed by a surfeit of sacred obeisance by those who have never read it. In perhaps the greatest compliment, many of a book's ideas may become so accepted into a field's background assumptions and perspectives that their original source is forgotten. Its ideas may even filter into popular consciousness.

A volume may be displaced by what Thomas Kuhn referred to as a paradigm shift that has little to do with new empirical evidence and much to do with the careers of scholars. The attention a book receives may vary across decades as a result of broader fashions and cycles of intellectual interest apart from a book's content. But an important book's success may contribute to the cycle—as its critics are later criticized for what they ignored or overemphasized in their initial attack, bringing renewed interest to the original work.

In the case of this volume all of the above apply. Neil Smelser is a trained psychoanalyst and it is perhaps fitting that this book can be seen as a giant Rorschach test, perhaps saying more about the observer than the thing observed. 2 Overall assessments of the book's contemporary relevance vary from "it has fallen off the map" to "everyone still uses Neil's classic typology of the major factors," and points in-between.

Judged by the usual criteria the book has been very successful. It has received far more citations than any other comparable general work (more than 2,000 through 2010) and continues to be cited. 3 Parts of the book have appeared in foreign translations and edited collections. Its ideas and related concerns have been conveyed to Neil Smelser's more than 50 PhD students whose committees he chaired—and to countless others on whose committees he served, taught in classes or assisted as an editor. The book also certified him as a genuine "expert" for the popular press. 4

The book is elegant, original, carefully crafted and forcefully argued. In its totality, it is a fine example of an effort to define a field, identify major types and systematically connect central variables. This is done to organize an amorphous collection of behaviors that seem to be intuitively linked, but which had not previously enjoyed an equivalent framework for identifying those links. 5 His innovative treatment of the form known as the craze nicely illustrates this. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of economic history and applying stages of the value added process, he shows commonalities across areas previously seen as distinct—such as economic swings, expressive crowds and fads and fashion—and offers a systematic way to differentiate these from other forms. The sense of craftsmanship and the care in construction can serve as a model for theorizing and for the effort to both acknowledge and yet reduce the indeterminacy of social phenomena. The volume sought to bring logic and empirical evidence to an area more steeped in emotion and entangled with the politics of the analyst than in many other areas. Early scholars' pursuit of knowledge was not helped by their class-based fears of the rabble presumed to be in the crowd and by unqualified comparisons to milling and stampeding cattle (G. Le Bon, E.D. Martin, E.A. Ross).

Smelser (1968, 1970) saw his book as a challenge to earlier one-sided psychological or mammalian reductionist, irrationalist antidemocratic perspectives offered from above, and to theories that assumed that the conventional categories of explanation for social behavior were inadequate for collective behavior. He sought to acknowledge the idiosyncratic, unique and fluid aspects and the degree of indeterminacy of collective behavior situations, while also offering a way to order reoccurring patterns and processes and make comparative statements.

In focusing on change and conflict as ubiquitous features of social life seen across institutions, time periods and societies, the book served as a counter to those who saw the structure-functionalist approach as overemphasizing the presence of order. Societies were dynamic, imperfectly fitted together systems whose very mechanisms of stability brought instability (or the potential for it). The potential for instability was also found in factors external to a society. Societies were nothing if not dynamic and filled with internal contradictions (some intentional) that might even add to stability, or at least the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Many forms of collective behavior fit within this dynamic.

Ironically, in the politicized decade of the 1960s and beyond Smelser was nipped in the posterior by some on the left who saw his work in the tradition of Le Bon and even supportive of counter-insurgency. 6 That cohort-centric criticism speaks to how powerfully contemporary events can shape an analyst's views of work based on earlier periods that involved very different events. Le Bon was troubled by the excesses associated with the French Revolution. In the United States scholars through the mid-twentieth century were troubled by the crowd and social movement behavior they saw in lynch mobs, fascism and communism in Europe and in Huey Long, Father Coughlin, McCarthyism and related forms in the United States. It is not surprising that scholars in a democratic tradition would look negatively on such behavior and would seek ways of understanding it in order to prevent it. To varying degrees those value concerns seeped into the assumptions and language used by those in the collective behavior tradition.

In contrast, the 1960s and later democratic and identity social movements (and the anti-colonial movements that preceded them) were viewed positively by new scholars who had not lived through the earlier period. Views that saw collective behavior as out of the ordinary, unduly emotional, driven by deep psychological needs or being irrational were seen to be wrong and managerial-establishment biased, and (whether intended or not) harmful to positive social change.

Such scholars suggested that movements with political goals were better seen as pursuing their interests with the means available to them, rather than as some exotic species of necessarily innovative human activity. From this view a social movement was simply a form of politics by other means (Gamson 1975). That view is hardly disputable, but it was sometimes applied too broadly to disparage insights from the collective behavior approach that applied to other types of social movement and other forms of behavior, and it neglected important social process issues that might cut across all forms. While not stated directly, there was also sometimes the assumption that good goals (or at least those supported by the analyst) were likely to be associated with mental health and rationality, while collective action and authorities associated with goals the analyst did not support necessarily showed the opposite.

Ever the civil scholar, with one exception Smelser (1970) chose not to respond to his critics, preferring to let the work speak for itself. Over his career he has avoided the frequently ad hominem, heat-filled and light-deprived slugfests that some scholars engage in.

But apart from the social location of critics and clear weaknesses in the book's approach to be discussed, there are places in the book that, lacking clarity or context and qualifications, lend themselves to interpretations Smelser did not intend (particularly the "short-circuiting" of belief associated with the generalized belief). As with the legal definition of crime, a scholar's intentions matter.

Short-circuiting in popular culture implies that something has necessarily gone wrong; a more neutral, preferred term would be a short-cut. Good intentions are not enough if the critic can easily exploit a lack of clarity or examples taken out of context. Scholars need to call it as they see it, yet be on guard for saying things in ways that contribute to misuse and misunderstanding. While poets as solipsistic artists may write to understand (as Cecil Day-Lewis suggested), the scholar needs also to write to be understood.

I imagine if Smelser were to rewrite the book today he would not use language so subject to misinterpretation, and that he would make even more explicit the ways that his work differs from, and offers an alternative to, the hardly synonymous Le Bon and Blumer.

The recognition the book has received is well deserved. Any history of the field's development over the last half-century would view it as a foundational statement. That status brings imitators, but also challengers. The dialectical processes of social life are also seen in intellectual life. Since every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing and times change, there is always room for critics. To be criticized is to be acknowledged and hopefully to at least have your name spelled correctly. A new generation of readers should be aware of the book's continuing relevance (as with studies of identity, symbolic actions and passion in the study of social movements, and new ways of classifying strain), as well as of the questions that have been raised about the book's approach. Later developments in the field, particularly work on social movements, were in part a response to the intellectual gambit, gamble or gauntlet that Smelser offered. Many fair criticisms have appeared over the last 50 years.

Perhaps the most fundamental challenge to the book lies in the breadth of its goals. In retrospect, in its ambition, the book overreaches and the fullness of its argument generally proved to be too complex, abstract, circular, operationally under-defined, deterministic (and sometimes ambiguous or conflicting) for widespread use of the full theory (as distinct from some of its parts). The book's enduring contribution lies with elaboration of the components of collective behavior.

With respect to the book's ambitious goal of a comprehensive theory of collective behavior, the story about a dancing bear who fell down during a show applies. The point is not that the bear failed to deliver a perfect performance, but that the bear danced at all. In an age where the fragmented field of sociology has many competitors and is dominated by centrifugal forces with little center, it is ever more necessary to look at ways of integrating the field's specializations and to look across areas and topics to ask about the fundamental nature of social organizations and society.

A Little Genealogy

Like ET in the film, the scholar is not alone. Our writing is located within an intellectual genealogy of previous scholars—whether those encountered only through their writing, or more directly as teachers in face-to-face settings. With respect to the history of the field of collective behavior, as a student Neil Smelser was privileged to have had direct contact with major figures such as historian Crane Brinton (1954), a pioneer in the development of the natural history approach and revolution; social psychologist Gordon Allport (1947), who studied rumor and racial violence; and Pitirim Sorokin (1925), a participant in, and a scholar of, revolution. Smelser's preface expresses gratitude to Gordon Allport for his introduction to the field. Smelser's contact with Crane Brinton was through Harvard's Society of Fellows. The book devotes only one sentence to Sorokin and their contact was minimal. 7

The major influence on Smelser was Talcott Parsons. In the 1950s when Smelser received his formative training, there was optimism about the role of positivism and a social science modeled on the natural sciences. There was encouragement for thinking large and looking across varied behavior, institutions, societies and the social sciences for broad principles that were presumed to govern social life. Such an environment was supportive of ambitious theoretical endeavors such as this book. That ambitiousness was rewarded in 1962 as Smelser was promoted to full professor on the strength of this book—only four years after being hired as an assistant professor. Today, in more modest times, scholars are rewarded for thinking small and there is indifference (or worse) to grand theories.

Another important historical figure whom Smelser had contact with was Herbert Blumer. Blumer had been influenced by Robert Park (Turner 1967) at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. Park had studied with Georg Simmel in Berlin. Blumer (1951) provided an influential early effort to organize the field. He was a central figure in building the University of California—Berkeley Sociology Department in the 1950s and was chair of the department when Smelser was hired in 1958. Smelser graciously and diplomatically (if, as it later appears, with less than full candor) thanks Blumer in his preface for carefully critiquing the manuscript of the book. 8

Changes in the Field

The life and subsequent development of a work of scholarship is much conditioned by the presence of communities of scholars interested in the topic. Such groups are abetted by funding sources, meeting and publication outlets, and centers for training graduate students. In the early 1960s, in contrast to the decades that followed, there were no journals devoted exclusively to the topic, few public funds designated just for such research, and no journals or centers emphasizing it.

At the time Smelser published his book the field was dominated by the eclectic tradition of those trained at the University of Chicago by Everett Hughes and Herbert Blumer, Oren Klapp, Ralph Turner, Lew Killian, Kurt and Gladys Lang and Tom Shibutani. 9

In 1963 most students of collective behavior had a general concern with the topic. There were few specialists just in the study of fads, crowds, panics, hysteria or social movements. Classes and textbooks were inclusive. Not many people self-identified as researchers in disaster, crowd or social movement. Each of the types was of interest, as were processes of communication such as rumor and collective problem definition. There was attention to social psychological questions involving how being part of a crowd or social movement might change (or—in the overstated, empirically undocumented work of Le Bon and many that followed him—did change) the individual relative to more conventional activities. Another approach was to ask whether certain kinds of person were more predisposed to collective behavior than others.

It is against this background that Smelser sought a framework for integrating these forms and presciently noting the ways in which they were and were not distinct from conventional behavior. The idea that collective behavior (or much of it) was set apart because it was often novel and outside conventional ways of behaving, or lacked defined directives for behavior, was nonetheless a defining characteristic.

Weller and Quarantelli (1973), Ralph Turner (1996) and many others have usefully wrestled with the enduring connections and distinctions of collective and conventional behavior. This is part of the eternal issue of when things are the same or different and how big an umbrella to open. The answer partly lies in the reasons for wanting to know and the tool(s) for measurement.

However, even when things seem obviously different at first glance—such as the civil rights movement with its instrumental political goals, as against the mass suicide of a retreatist religious cult as in Jonesville; or a fad like streaking among college students, as against a panic—those with Smelser's broad sociological sensibility see common issues.

Variation in social organization, networks, resources, opportunities for participation, mobilization, motivation, identification, cultural ideas, social control and social influence, communication and career processes and patterns offer much for comparative analysis across forms that may seem unrelated. Simmel's observation applies: that the task for social analysts is to demonstrate the ways in which things that look the same may be different and how things that look different may be the same. If one wants to understand a particular example in its descriptive, resonant empirical fullness, then a focus on a particular form such as political social movements is appropriate. But if one is concerned with understanding a particular process such as rumor or diffusion or how types intermingle and evolve then looking across forms is necessary. Criticizing a scholar for the questions asked is a less elevated activity than criticisms based on theory, method and findings.

In 1980 those sharing a broad interest in the topic became a formal section on "Collective Behavior and Social Movements" within the American Sociological Association. Under the initial leadership of John Lofland its goal was to "foster the study of emergent and extra-institutional social forms and behavior, particularly crowds and social movements." Other related forms were disasters, riots, rumors, panics, strikes, revivals and revolutions.

This section, among the largest in the sociology association, has been thriving ever since. However, the individual scholar's interest across a variety of its forms characteristic of earlier scholars is largely gone, as is the effort to think holistically about the topic, whatever form is studied. The section has become something of a holding company for those with diverse specializations—the vast majority are interested only in instrumental, secular social movements and then usually in one facet such as the political or, in recent decades, the cultural or psychological. More specialized organizations and publishing outlets have appeared for the study of social movements, disasters and social psychological process.

In the remarks below I offer a quick tour of this vast field in order to help locate Smelser's book. The literature is immense and far flung. One can hardly even identify all that is relevant across academic fields in English for Anglo-American and European countries, let alone in other languages or countries—not to mention reading it and then trying to remember it. The humility-engendering internet makes one aware of the breadth and depth of relevant material that there will never be time to look at.

Regarding citations I offer a few representative examples to illustrate the points made. For starters the interested student with plenty of time might begin by looking at the many articles on and around the topic in the Annual Review of Sociology over the last 35 years. Most of the 30-plus articles deal with social movements. Annual reviews for anthropology, political science and psychology also have pertinent material. The three decades of the Critical Mass Bulletin of the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the American Sociological Association offer rich material for tracking the field's contours and detours. The international journal Mobilization provides a chronicle of major concerns regarding contentious politics and more since its founding in 1996, and Social Movement Studies treats similar themes.

The first annual review article (Marx and Wood 1975) covered the full range of topics. Subsequent reviews focused on particular types or processes involving social movements. Only one deals with crowds (McPhail and Wohlstein 1983); three with disasters (Quarantelli and Dynes 1977, Krepps 1984, Tierney 2007); and the rest with types of social movements or issues that may cut across movements. Among types reviewed: right-wing (Lo 1982, Rydren 2007, Blee and Creasap 2010); religious (Robbins and Anthony 1979, Barker 1986, Emerson and Hartman 2006); civil rights, women's and new movements (Pichardo 1997, Morris 1999, Ray and Korteweg 1999); self-help (Katz 1981); revolutionary (Goldstone 1982, Turk 2004); and general political (Tarrow 1988, Andrews and Edwards 2004). Other social movement related articles deal with methods (Olzak 1989, Earl et al. 2004); theories and models (Jenkins 1983, Oliver 1993, Useem 1998, Strang and Soule 1998, Meyer 2004); processes of identification (Benford and Snow 2000, Snow and Machalelek 1984, Polletta and Jasper 2001); social control (Earl 2011); and consequences (Giugni 1998, Stecklov and Spilerman 2009, Amenta et al. 2010).

If the generalists of Smelser's day (and earlier) had continued to dominate the field, the impact of his book might have been different across the decades. There would have been greater attention to continuing to think comparatively about the different forms, to expand on a more general theory and concepts applicable to all types, and to account for why one rather than another form was present. 10 But instead, with the splintering of the field and even the atrophying of some segments, the book's full approach was largely passed over, even as subgroups expanded on particulars of its questions and themes.

One subfield represented by Henry Quarantelli, Russell Dynes, Dennis Mileti and their students came to specialize in disaster research. Another represented by scholars such as Clark McPhail (1991) and Ben Aguirre (1984) focused on the empirical study of crowds wherever they might be found (in collective or conventional behavior). Still another subfield came to focus on the role of social control in inhibiting or encouraging collective behavior (Marx 1979, Waddington 1994, Della Porta and Reiter 1998, Cunningham 2004, Noakes and Gillham 2007, Oliver 2008, Fernandez 2008, Soule and Davenport 2009).

By far the largest group of social movement researchers since the later 1970s have ignored the collective behavior tradition and have restricted their attention to political movements and to a narrower set of questions and collective behavior components.

Scholars such as Anthony Obserschall (1973), Bill Gamson (1975), John McCarthy and Mayer Zald (1977), and Craig Jenkins (1983) emphasized the causal role of existing organizations and resources (including government responses). Restricting attention just to political movements, Charles Tilly (1978), Doug McAdam (1982), Aldon Morris and Cedric Herring (1994), and Sidney Tarrow (1998) emphasized contentious politics, the pursuit of group interests and political opportunities. The journal Mobilization has emphasized these topics.

The political social movement scholars above stressed the continuities and commonalities, rather than the differences between social movements and conventional politics. They gave greater prominence to the rational pursuit of group and individual interests than had earlier theorists. The emergent, unplanned and less institutionalized aspects drew little attention, as did non-political (e.g., traditional religious and cult-like) movements. While rarely referring to the book, many of the themes these scholars treat involving resources, opportunities and ecological and spatial factors connect with Smelser's categories of structural conduciveness, mobilization, situational facilities and social control (see in particular his discussion of social control and the value-oriented movement, and factors conditioning whether a norm- or value-oriented movement appears and subsequent developments).

Interest in other forms such as fads, hysteria and panic studied by earlier students has also lessened. Political social movement scholars tended to de-emphasize objective strains and the role of ideas (and culture more broadly) in mobilization, and to give little attention to the psychology of individuals with respect to beliefs, motives and emotions.

Other scholars however continued to study these important elements. David Snow et al. (1980) and Rob Benford (2000), and their colleagues, have studied how movements present general and sometimes competing ideas (or ideologies) to potential participants who, through framing interaction, align (or at least position) their concerns and values relative to a social movement. Framing is a more individual, creative and fluid process than is the case for the generalized belief which is a property of culture that transcends the individual, but it connects to it.

More recently, a newer generation of scholars has sought to bring the study of culture and social psychology to a more prominent place in the field. Related cultural concepts that can to some degree be tied to the generalized belief include collective identity (Taylor and Whittier 1992); discourse (Steinberg 1998); and narrativity (Polletta 1998). Morris and Mueller (1992), Melucci (1996) and Jasper (1997), Jeff Goodwin et al. (2001), and colleagues, argue that passion and rationality in pursuit of goals need not be in opposition. These scholars suggest how various aspects of a heterogeneous culture can be applied to social movements—reintroducing a central concern of Smelser. With respect to these developments Chazel (2001) observes, "this new interest in collective beliefs might be considered as Smelser's revenge."

Four Books in One

A book such as this involves multiple ideas, and their importance and impact has varied across the above (and other) subfields and over time. So even to talk about the fate or impact of a book can be misleading. Theory of Collective Behavior rests upon 4 components of social action, 6 value-added determinants (including 5 types of generalized belief, and 12 types of strain), 6 kinds of collective behavior, and the complex and highly varied connections that are possible between these analytic elements. Wow! An analysis of impact needs to consider a book's distinctive components. Their impact has not been uniform.

When the work is broken into parts one can argue that there are really four books here. These can be approached independently and their contemporary relevance varies markedly. The first (chapters 2, 4) is an effort to show the applicability of a general theory of social action to dynamic, conflictual and changing behaviors.

The second is an elaboration of key components found with that form of collective behavior which involves an "uninstitutionalized mobilization to reconstitute components of social action on the basis of a generalized belief" and an explanatory theory (chapters 1, 3-5).

The third book (chapters 3 and 5 in particular, although not exclusively, shorn of the heavy conceptual colonizing, deterministic apparatus of chapters 1,2 and 4), is an elaboration of key concepts involving the structures, processes, objective conditions of the social order, cultural belief systems and perceptions whose form, degree and multitudinous possibilities of connection are essential to studying the topic.

Finally, and fourth, the book illustrates the above three elements in offering a comprehensive summary and critique of relevant empirical and theoretical work on collective behavior through the 1950s with an emphasis on the panic, the craze, the hostile outburst and norm- and value-oriented social movements (chapters 610).

The first book should appeal to those interested in the history of sociology and the social theory of Talcott Parsons. Exploring the presumed universal components of social action as developed by Parsons and Edward Shils (1951) was a major concern of sociological theorists in the 1950s. As Parsons' student, Smelser sought to apply this to social change. This general book on collective behavior followed his more specific 1959 inquiry into social change and the protests of British workers during the industrial revolution.

The second book—apart from the Parsonian baggage—offers a fine example of theory building and an effort to think systematically about social behavior. In the typological tradition of Georg Simmel and Robert Merton (1957), it seeks to bring conceptual parsimony to behaviors that seem unrelated, while also noting how those that seem similar may be different. It offers a way of defining the field and it elaborates core concepts and variables. Independent of its content per se, it can be read as a methodology guide for theory construction and an illustration of the comparative case study method. This involves both the naming of key concepts and their systematic linkage in a form intended to lend itself to empirical assessment.

A third book, shorn of Smelser's tightly crafted theory of collective behavior, rests in the discussion of key variables. From this view the book is read not for an explanatory theory, or for an essentialist a priori definition of what collective behavior "really" is (rather than a definition of a major form of it), but as a guide to asking empirical questions about events and ordering and contrasting the answers.

A fourth book lies in the vast amount of empirical detail offered about diverse approaches, behaviors and historical events across societies, groups, contexts, times periods and places. It surveys, summarizes, critiques and seeks to integrate the literature of several disciplines (particularly history, sociology, political science and social psychology) up to the late 1950s. It will likely remain the most comprehensive treatment of the collective behavior literature in English up to the early 1960s.The bibliography is usefully organized into sections on general works and the specific forms.


Neil Smelser chose not to write a revised version of this book (or any of his other books), preferring, as the Beatles sang, to "let it be." But if he were to revise it, a list of questions I hope he (and other researchers) would consider follows.

In hindsight, with the passage of five decades of commentary and the expansion of the literature (particularly that of social movements), some limitations of the book are apparent as is the need to extend it in light of subsequent theoretical and empirical work. 11

The second chapter in Smelser's (1959) book on social change and the industrial revolution is titled, "Some Empty Boxes"; this is followed by a chapter called "Filling in the Boxes." The same deductive approach is used in the collective behavior book and has troubled critics. Searching for examples to fill in the boxes is not a robust form of evaluation.

Concepts and conceptual frameworks are necessary containers that ideally bring order to the unbounded empirical. While many of the basic concepts existed in some form in the prior literature, Smelser offered a deeper explication and filling in or rounding out of these, and he showed a way of linking the concepts. In using the value added model from economics he acknowledges the levels and types of causation that can be applied to even the simplest behaviors.

But however elegantly stated, the book both under-reaches and over-reaches. The deductive logic of a theoretical scheme that is too narrow in its definition of the topic runs the risk of excluding empirical aspects that others would include. In putting such a clear definitional border around collective behavior, Smelser has little to say about behavior that most researchers would place within the field such as victory celebrations; looting during a blackout or police strike; a protest event or movement secretly organized and paid for by the state; the sudden spread of a belief, emotion or behavior as with the outpouring of concern and resources after a disaster; collective acts of civil disobedience taken only out of individual conscience (with no guiding belief that such actions will lead to social change); and much of the crowd behaviors so carefully observed and inductively conceptualized by McPhail (1991).

For Smelser, "collective behavior" in this book is only found in readily observable behavior such as attacks on persons and property or in a crowd chanting in unison when it is accompanied by a generalized belief. This not only puts the cart before the horse, it assumes that the horse is the best pulling device and that what needs pulling is the cart.

An alternative path begins with questions, not with a theory or method. Variables are sought that can help account for the different forms and processes. John Lofland (1993) adroitly applies what he terms an answer improving approach to the study of social movements. Marx and McAdam (1994) adopt such an approach to other forms of collective behavior as well as to social movements in suggesting a series of questions around the degree of emergence in various kinds of behavior across several basic contexts.

This big toolkit method starts with identifying the topic to be explained and the questions it raises. It then asks what methods, concepts and theories help in understanding. Such an approach does not run the risk of confusing a deductive concept with the fullness of the empirical, nor of being tautological.

In this approach one starts with the small pieces of various puzzles with the hope of linking these into little puzzles that can then be joined into a big puzzle. The extent to which less institutionalized behaviors are driven by a generalized belief to reconstitute social order and the characteristics of the belief are of the utmost importance. Most observers today view the generalized belief as a variable present in different degrees and forms whose correlates and consequences for collective behavior need to be analyzed and also contrasted with cases where such beliefs are absent.

It is not ideal to define a topic by a variable closely related to a factor later used to explain the behavior. If a definition is not sufficiently distant from the conditions needed to produce it, it will be accused of being "true" by definition and impossible to falsify. To define collective behavior on the basis of a generalized belief seemed to many readers to equate the concept with a condition that is later used to explain it.

It could be argued that the concerns noted above are a misreading or misinterpretation and that the systematic deductive scheme is airtight and offers a program for research. A careful reading of the book's 400 plus pages will note qualifications and escape hatches in which the author warns against some of the above concerns (e.g., the value added model should be viewed in analytic not temporal terms; collective behavior forms need not involve a linear move from less to more institutionalized forms; 12 short-circuiting is not restricted to collective behavior beliefs).

Pedants can argue endlessly about what a book "really" says.

The book's general goal was to establish analytic relations among variables Smelser thought were central to the genesis of collective behavior, not to explain any particular empirical case. Yet a key factor in assessing a theory is whether or not it is used. As noted the book's full theoretical approach has rarely been applied. The lack of application reflects the fact that very few scholars are concerned with broad theoretical questions across the diverse forms of collective behavior, nor with comprehensive understanding involving questions and insights across social science disciplines. Instead they generally prefer more focused empirical topics as viewed from one level of analysis or disciplinary strand. But the lack of application of Smelser's theory also reflects its logical challenges, complexity and the absence of means for operationalizing concepts, and only a few hypotheses for direct testing.

Neil Smelser's reflections on the book and the field 50 years later would be most welcome (we had some a few years after the book was published (Smelser 1968, 1970, 1972)). 13 What would he say about the historical events of the 1960s and later such as the civil rights, anti-war, women's, gay, environmental and anti-globalization movements that gained prominence shortly after his book appeared? How would he analyze the new resources for mobilization such as the cell phone and the internet? What insights would he find in data drawn from new methods such as the analysis of video tapes and newspaper databases? Would he make greater use of methods beyond that of systematic comparative illustration? To illustrate is important, particularly in the early stages of inquiry; it can bring us close to understanding what a cigar is, but doesn't provide a cigar.

With respect to substance, would he still offer a framework that promised to do so much? Would his expectations for what a theory could reasonably be expected to deliver be more modest? Would a revised definition of collective behavior be offered to include elements now excluded?

Would greater attention be given to locating collective behavior showing no, or varying degrees of, association with any or all of the following: strain, the presence of a generalized belief within the culture, the attitudes actually held by leaders and various types of activists, and the presence or absence of a precipitating incident? Would he go further in noting the degrees of independence between these important variables and the consequences associated with various combinations?

In doing the above it would be useful to unpack Smelser's three central defining characteristics of collective behavior and allay them in a typology to more systematically take account of context variation. The three are a belief about the need to reconstitute the social order at some level; a belief that involves more exaggeration and short-cuts than is usually the case; and undefined or unstructured situations. Applying a simple "yes" or "no" value to each of the dimensions would yield 9 types.

Contrast for example settings involving contested norms and values as in political conflicts (here there is the call for change, but the key issue is not the need for new beliefs in an unstructured situation, but dissensus over meaning or application in a well defined—if challenged—setting); settings that are permissive and even encouraging or tolerating of new ideas such as fashion and fads (here we see mobilization based on an effort to "reconstitute components of social action" which is partially institutionalized—if that isn't a contradiction in terms—but without elaborate belief systems); and finally, in perhaps the purest example within Smelser's boundary conditions, some disaster settings do show unconventional ideas and behavior in efforts to reconstitute the social order in the absence of institutionalized rules and means.

While Smelser cannot be accused of neglecting social structure, there are aspects he did not emphasize. Today, would he find a systematic place for the different structures within which collective behavior occurs (e.g., the face-to-face crowd, mass, or an ongoing social organization)? Would he go further in connecting the variables he emphasizes to content-neutral ecological variables suggested by McPhail (1991), such as the number of persons involved or the duration of the behavior?

Would a revised version of the book explain the asymmetry in the attention given to the basic determinants? While there are six general determinants, only two (strain and the generalized belief) are granted their own chapters. If the determinants are all of equal importance as Smelser suggests, why are the others given less press? Elsewhere however he suggests that they may not be equal, "in certain respects this final determinant [social control] arches over all the others" (p. 17). This makes the absence of a chapter devoted to it all the more noteworthy. The issue is not only time order (social control can be stretched to apply to structural conduciveness as well as the dynamics of events) but the relative importance of the determinants. As noted there has been much subsequent research devoted to the topic of social control, given its importance for analysis and for democracy.

Would he define structural conduciveness so that it is less circular? Would he more clearly differentiate immediate precipitating events (e.g., what Waddington (1989) and colleagues call "flashpoints" that fit with prior beliefs and mobilize activity as in a riot after a police incident) from those also called precipitating events but that in fact are perhaps better seen as sources of both conduciveness and/or strain such as mass migrations?

Would he further develop the notion of short-circuited beliefs as applied to traditional, as well as collective, behavior? Short-circuiting is a vivid metaphor that finds support in research on brain functioning in normal and abnormal people and situations. It is hardly restricted to magical beliefs or simplistic group-think party lines. What you look at is not necessarily what you see and beliefs are a map not the territory. Any complex organization's understanding and presentation of itself will involve cognitive leaps.

Would he suggest a richer set of criteria for assessing and comparing beliefs —relative to their form and degree of "short-circuitedness"—perhaps adding dimensions regarding their claims about, or implications for, human dignity, equality, due process and fairness or the presence of a causal logic that can be empirically evaluated? Those in an environmental movement concerned with a worst case global warming scenario and the members of a doomsday cult predicting the end of the world are both leaping in their forecasting. Yet in the first case, a researchable causal logic is provided, while the second offers no such measurable logic.

Some short circuits are much longer and more irrational than others and some are more compatible with the idea of citizenship and individual rights than others. Such distinctions need not imply any lessened objectivity on the scholar's part and are necessary to avoid an unduly neutered cultural relativity.

Smelser's categories are rather static, even as he realizes the dynamic nature of the field. Can he find a way to more systematically link his structural and cultural categories to process categories of interest to earlier theorists? These may cut across and run through the basic types defined by their organizational and ideational aspects. Important process forms include social influence, communication, and diffusion (e.g., number of participants, rumors, and unexpected surges or sudden declines in behavior, respectively).

Would he clarify the important role of mobilization and various kinds of it, only some of which are dependent on the leaders whose importance he stresses? Mobilization is the determinant that "marks the onset of panic" or "the outbreak of hostility" (p. 17). But the occurrence of such behavior is what the approach seeks to explain. Applied at the same time, the same factor shouldn't be treated as both a cause and an effect. This suggests a clearer time delineation and focus on process aspects (particularly networks and communication), and then seeing whether (in the temporal order implicitly present, but explicitly denied) collective behavior event(s) follow from efforts to generate it by leaders (however broadly defined).

Would he modify the following strong causal statement—"Once an episode of collective behavior has appeared, its duration and severity are determined by the responses of the agencies of social control" (p. 384)—by giving greater attention to the agency and mobilization resources of collective behavior actors and to the interaction between control agents and their subjects?

By its very nature collective behavior evolves; so too do its best students. Based on Neil Smelser's subsequent writing on the nature of sociological understanding and a recent integrative book on terrorism, I think the answer to the questions above is undoubtedly "yes."

In a 1991 book reviewing theoretical efforts to explain British working class education, Smelser observes that any approach is "incomplete, limited, incapable of answering certain problems, and perhaps even incompatible with the others." In this book (1991) his approach is conciliatory and synthetic drawing on a variety of theoretical perspectives. He resists the imperialistic urge to overextend any given approach. In an appreciative essay on psychoanalysis as a tool for inquiry, he warns against the hubris of claiming too much for a theory (Smelser 1998). He applies these limits to the functionalism that was so central to Parsons, and to own early work.

Given his shift away from the general theory of Talcott Parsons and a turn toward more middle-range approaches incorporating a variety of causal factors, he would likely adopt a less grandiose and more inductive approach today. In his 2007 book on terrorism, he does just that in elaborating a multitude of social and psychological and other dimensions rather than making claims for a (or the) theory. The book's appendix (2007), entitled "The Infernal Problem of Definition and Designation," can even be read as, if not an apologia, at least a critique of his own approach in Theory of Collective Behavior, serving as a bookend to the latter.

Yet even if Smelser were to make no changes after 50 years, scholars must be appreciative of the book as foundational to the broad field and for solidifying and expanding key concepts. For many young readers this book will be an introduction to historical events such as the millenarian movements of the medieval period, the 1636 tulip bulb mania in Holland, the anti-conscription riots of the civil war, and the mid-nineteenth century revolutions in Europe. But as 2011 events such as the Tsunami in Japan and the unexpected uprisings in the Middle East suggest, the importance of the field and the need to advance knowledge is not just historical. This book remains a rich contribution toward that advancement.

Gary T. Marx
Professor Emeritus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 2011
(Neil Smelser's own 2011 preface to the new edition follows after the Foreword notes and references, below.)

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Notes to the Foreword

  1. Every social and psychological location is of course a window and a curtain complicit in the observer's fashioning of perceptions. Windows get foggy with time and curtains restrict vision. In that regard, this foreword has relied on the kindness of colleagues who shared their views of the book a half century after it was published: Ben Aguirre, Pat Gillham, Jim Jasper, Craig Jenkins, John Lofland, Doug McAdam, John McCarthy, Clark McPhail, Pam Oliver, Henry Quarantelli, and Mayer Zald.

  2. For some biographical information, see Smelser (1999, 2000) and Alexander, Marx and Williams (2004).

  3. A Google Scholar search revealed 172 citations for 1970-1979 and over 200 for each of the three following decades. However, since Google only displays the first 1,000 results in its database, and it is not known what algorithm is used for the ordering of 1,000 citations first displayed, it is impossible to determine the distribution of the undisplayed results. Thus, we cannot know from this method whether there is a noticeable pattern, such as an increasing or decreasing number of citations across the years.

  4. When Smelser became an assistant to the Chancellor following the Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1965, the San Francisco Chronicle's headline read, "Meyerson [acting Chancellor] Appoints Expert on Mobs." Smelser was subsequently called upon by the media for comments on a wide variety of topics, many only tangentially connected to collective action (including public reaction to Humphrey the Humpbacked Whale who strayed into the San Francisco Bay and got lost, and on why jigsaw puzzles had recently spiked in sales).

  5. I was first aware of this need in auditing a class from Herbert Blumer in the early 1960s shortly after taking Neil Smelser's class on contemporary social theory.

    Blumer's warmth (if tinged with noblesse oblige), his depth of knowledge, his work on symbolic interaction, his empirical studies (fashion, the mass media), his courage in standing up to the Klan, and his playing professional football for the Chicago Cardinals (while a graduate student no less!) were much appreciated. Yet explanation required more than simply understanding the other's point of view, individual agency, description and the give and take of interaction. That there were obvious limitations of structure-functionalism did not mean one could ignore the patterning and consequences of the structures within which interaction occurs, and it also seemed to preclude the study of culture as a system of ideas apart from any given individual. A major form of explanation involved generalizing across situations and subjecting claims to the logic of peer-reviewed scientific inquiry–whether this involved quantitative or qualitative analysis.

  6. The inapplicability of the counter-insurgency charge can be seen in contrasting this unclassified book by an independent scholar with the U.S. Army's covert Project Camelot undertaken in 1964. In that project social scientists were to be engaged in identifying the causes of violent rebellion and the actions a government could take to prevent being overthrown. Chile was to be the test case. The program was criticized as a misuse of research and was cancelled (Horowitz 1967). Today with airplanes flying into American buildings, efforts to use social scientists are less controversial and researchers are on the ground in battle theaters. This is more widely accepted than in 1964, although there is controversy. See for example the debates at

  7. Sorokin was involved in a bitter professional fight with Smelser's mentor Talcott Parsons. Sorokin's interest in collective behavior was both personal and professional. He knew of revolutions from his scholarship, his role in the Russian revolution and as leader in the Kerensky government. When the Bolsheviks took over in October of 1917 he was sentenced to death. Another sociologist (or at least sociologically trained person) to play such a leading national role was President Ronald Reagan, a figure not particularly drawn to revolutions.

    Charles Tilly (whose career and some intellectual interests paralleled Smelser's) was more affected by Sorokin. Tilly also worked closely with George Homans and Barrington Moore Jr. It would be interesting to trace the impacts of their respect mentors on differences in the work of these two stellar figures, as well as the commonalties as a result of undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard during that time period. By a simple turn of fate, if as a result of chance factors they had reversed mentors would they have traded places re the nature of their questions, focus and work? Or did they select mentors who fit with their needs, interests and styles–pulled toward some and pushed from others?

  8. He writes (p. x): Herbert Blumer "deserves a special word. His own pioneering work on collective behavior is well known; reading it stimulated [read as provoked! –GTM] me to new lines of thought. More directly, he gave me his extraordinarily painstaking criticism of an earlier draft of Chapters I-IV."

    However, later in a more forthcoming statement, he notes their relationship was formal and distant, in spite of shared ethnicity and Missouri roots. These remarks are at the end of Smelser's (2009) reflections on Erving Goffman (another Berkeley colleague, poor poker player, and member of a theory study group that helped the book with "merciless criticism").

    Blumer appeared to tolerate the book, but was hardly strong in his support (at a deeper level he may have wished the book had never been written). The book made clear the limitations of Blumer's approach, important as it was for some purposes. As a symbolic interactionist (and indeed the founder of the term) he objected to the emphasis on structure and what he saw as inadequate attention to the actor's perspective, interpretation and meaning. Had Smelser acted on Blumer's criticism he could not have written the book he did. Later, Smelser (1968) more directly deals with links between the psychological and social aspects.

    As a graduate student in the shadow of the Gods (both Blumer and Smelser, along with S.M. Lipset and Erving Goffman, were on my PhD orals committee), I was blithely unaware of any tension or competition and thrilled to bask in what seemed to be the warm glow of our shared cooperative and communal pursuit of truth.

  9. For example, Klapp (1972), Turner and Killian (1987), Lang and Lang (1961), and Shibutani (1966).

  10. One of the interesting issues is of course to what extent (and when) the forms are distinct or interwoven. Oliver (1989) noted the neglect of the latter in arguing for attention to how crowd and social movements can be joined. A related issue is how the emergent mingles with the conventional and expected–whether in jazz performances, efforts to create "buzz" around new products and fashion, or sports competition, where the conventional can coexist with the inventive, emergent and unexpected. These settings build in significant indeterminacy. Norms of tolerance permissiveness and innovation have a distinctive quality, and paradoxically as one strand of conservatism notes, can be the fuel for their own destruction.

  11. An assessment after the first decade and efforts to apply the approach (or at least its theoretical categories) is in Marx and Wood (1975: 406-413).

  12. However, to illustrate the value added model by the example of iron ore, which moves in ever more restrictive steps forward to end in a car (precluding other outcomes), leaves the less careful reader to see the collective behavior determinants as sequential and unidirectional and to miss the more varied career patterns and even reversals. The model refers to levels of generality not time sequences.

  13. These offer early hints of how Smelser might revise the book. The thrust of these articles is the opposite of what some critics saw and the accompanying mythology around the book. In the 1972 article he notes that the book stressed social structural aspects and "underplayed the importance of social-psychological mechanisms." In the 1968 article he sought to more closely link the social and the psychological through Freud's analysis of ambivalence in motivation. Whatever that term's considerable analytic and empirical power (for persons as well as for the contradictory themes of culture), it can easily engender misunderstanding, just as the term magic did as applied to the generalized belief. As one activist said, "I am not ambivalent about my civil rights."

    Other areas he would give greater attention to include internal organizational dynamics, social control as it applies to the agents of both collective behavior participants and authorities (and their interaction with their constituencies and each other), temporal ordering, and the precipitating incident. The latter introduces a time order pattern that breaks with the purely analytic character of the other determinants.

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By Neil J. Smelser

May I express my delight at the republication of Theory of Collective Behavior. It is especially moving because I believe it is rare for an author to witness such an event a half-century after a book's birth. I would like to thank Alan Childress for selecting it for the "Classics of the Social Sciences" series. More, I would like especially to thank Gary Marx, my former student and esteemed colleague and friend, for writing such a grand Foreword for this re-edition. It is the mother of all Forewords—a balanced and exhaustive intellectual masterpiece in itself.

Gary's complex assessment, along with the variegated history of reactions of readers and critics to the book over the decades, has left me with a dilemma: what kind of Author's Preface should I write? If I were to give in to the impulses of either self-satisfaction or defensiveness—both of which are generated by his words and by that history—I would have to write an equally long and detailed essay, and I know the results would be tedious, obsessive, and unhelpful. As Gary notes, I have resisted revising the book over the decades despite repeated exhortations, and, except for one occasion, have refrained from quarreling with critics. Perhaps this has been the wrong policy, but I have been guided by the unhappy biographies of some scholars who have written an original and important piece of work early in their careers and then have spent subsequent decades defending, extending, qualifying, correcting, modifying, musing, and fussing about it and what others have said about it. That is a tempting but wasteful enterprise, both because no one seems to win such battles, and because they detract from other original projects one might have undertaken.

Be all that as it may, I will settle for making a few general observations in these introductory pages. The first arises from Gary's suggestion that I would have spared myself some grief if I had chosen more felicitous language in the book. As an example he chose the term "short-circuiting" to characterize generalized beliefs that accompany episodes of collective behavior. I would add another phrase he did not mention: that collective behavior is the "action of the impatient" (p. 72), also reflecting a feature of short-circuiting. Gary has a point. I would have been well-advised to choose less evidently colorful and evaluative words. They were certainly magnets for my critics in the late 1960s and 1970s, many of whom were happy to consign my work to the odious traditions of Le Bon and psychoanalytic irrationalism, from which I was trying to break. Yet in retrospect I am not certain how important his point about specific phrases is. Such was the power of the intellectual, ideological and emotional impulses in that period of protest and criticism—and so diverse were their targets—that I am convinced that the book would have suffered much the same fate even if I had not provided critics with some inexpensive intellectual ammunition.

I cannot prove this last assertion because it is a counterfactual. Yet the point is strengthened when I notice the very different ways that the book was treated in subsequent decades. Some of the "irrationalist" indictments stayed around, of course, but became staler, more stereotyped, less salient. And when the resource-mobilization and rational-choice approaches waned in the face of their own critics in the 1980s and 1990s, different aspects of my work became more noticed as scholars returned to emphasize ideology via the route of frame analysis and explicitly re-introduced emotion as a vital force in social movements. It seems plausible, given such vicissitudes, to argue that the context in which a complex book is read is the main force at work, not its specific content. Gary speculated that my book has been like a Rorschach test, and that is consistent with what I am saying.

I would also like note of another point of curiosity: certain ideas in the book were under-noticed. To say "curiosity," of course, is to assert that I believe they should have been more noticed and others didn't, and that might be a point of dispute—who knows whether they should have been more noticed? In any event, I mention two particulars:

  1. When I was working out the classification of types—panic, craze, hostile outburst, norm-oriented movement, value-oriented movement—I incorporated a certain logic to depict the cognitive-emotional beliefs of each. It was a cumulative logic. I treated panic beliefs as the simplest, combining threat, anxiety, and the perception of closing exits; craze combined those elements with a simplified resolution; the hostile outburst had both those elements plus assignment of responsibility and rage; and the last two included all those elements, plus envisioned reconstitutions of the social order. What I thought was important about this conceptualization is that it imparted some structure to these cognitive-emotional ingredients and established some systematic relationships among them. I believed this scheme was imaginative and helpful as a conceptual-comparative device for the study of beliefs and ideologies, but as far as I can determine nobody paid much attention.

  2. As part of my effort to fashion a social-structural approach to episodes of collective behavior and social movements, I employed the concepts of structural conduciveness (referring to the possibilities or opportunities for collective expression) and social control (referring to the reactions of authorities, leaders, and others in response to collective movements). Another key concept was the collective mobilization of participants in the name of a generalized belief. Gary remarked that these were less developed analytically than other elements of my theory. That is perhaps true, but they were central to the determinants I assembled. They also turned out to be central to the work of resource-mobilization theorists, who built most of their apparatus around the ideas of resources available for mobilization, social-movement organizations, and the opportunity-structure for movements (including state responses). Yet this continuity was seldom acknowledged; exponents of that approach tended to emphasize, instead, the biases and inadequacies of my formulations of strain and generalized beliefs (see McAdam, McCarthy and Zald, 1988). This omission is no doubt understandable in part as an expression of the scholarly impulses (including my own) to distance one's approach from past approaches and to assert originality and distinctiveness. It is an interesting little chapter in the dynamics of conflict, displacement, and continuity-discontinuity in the social sciences.
One final point: Gary laid out a long list of revisions I might like to make if I were to revise the book. That prospect is unlikely—better, impossible—given the long-standing rigidity of my preferences in this matter. I will say, however, that the item on the top of my list for reformulation would also be that complex of factors I included under the interrelated headings of structural conduciveness and social control. I think I separated the two factors too much in my original formulations. I made "structural conduciveness" too structural, if you will—pre-existing features of the social structure that inhibited or encouraged certain types of collective responses. If I were to reformulate, I would make this category less brittle—more like a process, in which the possibilities and limits of behavior are continuously redefined and re-negotiated among interested parties. I also think that, in developing the idea of social control, I portrayed the reactions of authorities as too reactive, i.e., consisting mainly of responses to collective outbursts and social movements after they have already appeared. In reality, agents of social control are also continuously involved in surveillance of potential points of "disturbance" and protest and in negotiation and other activities with interested groups. Such modifications of both variables would bring them closer to one another as a continuous process, without, however, abandoning altogether the distinction between constraining structures and reactive behaviors.

While on the topic of revision, I should mention my very recent work on the social and psychological aspects of terrorism (Smelser, 2007). I did not intend it as a revision of Theory of Collective Behavior, but as a work to stand on its own. It might even be argued that contemporary manifestations of terrorism do not fit comfortably into my original scheme, even though they frequently emanate from social, political, and religious movements. Many parts of the new work, such as the complex individual and social responses to terrorist threats and attacks, go well beyond anything I have written, as do the sections dealing with discouraging terrorism. Nevertheless, there are threads of continuity: a less formal "valueadded" explanatory framework is employed; the discussions of dissatisfaction and structural opportunities echo the earlier book's discussions of strain and structural conduciveness; and the dissection of terrorist ideologies reveals many threads found in my earlier analysis of belief systems. Above and beyond these differences and similarities, the new work testifies to my enduring preoccupation with the family of behaviors that caught my attention fifty years ago.

These few points recorded, I would like to reiterate my pleasure and gratitude in witnessing this republication.

Neil J. Smelser
University Professor Emeritus
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California, July 2011

REFERENCES to the 2011 Preface

McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald. 1988: "Social Movements," in Neil J. Smelser (ed.), The Handbook of Sociology, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. Pp. 693-738.

Smelser, Neil J. 2007: The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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