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  • 8/13/2019 Crowd Theory and Management of Crowd

    1/19 Sociology online version of this article can be foundat:

    DOI: 10.1177/0011392113486443

    2013 61: 584 originally published online 11 July 2013Current SociologyChristian Borch

    Crowd theory and the management of crowds: A controversial relationship

    Published by:

    On behalf of:

    International Sociological Association

    can be found at:Current SociologyAdditional services and information for Alerts:

    What is This?

    - Jul 11, 2013OnlineFirst Version of Record

    - Aug 19, 2013Version of Record>>

    at PONTIFICIA UNIV CATOLICA on December 16, 2013csi.sagepub.comDownloaded from at PONTIFICIA UNIV CATOLICA on December 16, 2013csi.sagepub.comDownloaded from
  • 8/13/2019 Crowd Theory and Management of Crowd


    Current Sociology61(5-6) 584601

    The Author(s) 2013Reprints and permissions: 10.1177/0011392113486443


    Crowd theory and themanagement of crowds: Acontroversial relationship

    Christian BorchCopenhagen Business School, Denmark


    Sociologists of policing and collective protest have made a plea for eradicating frompolice literature and training programmes which aim to provide guidelines for crowdmanagement any references to classical crowd theory where crowds are depictedas irrational entities. Instead, these scholars suggest, rational conceptions of crowdsshould inform contemporary crowd management. This article questions this plea

    on two grounds. First, it demonstrates that there is no unidirectional connectionbetween sociological crowd theory (whatever its content) and practical strategies forgoverning crowds. The tactical polyvalence of crowd theory is illustrated by showinghow the irrational conception of crowds has given rise to very different strategies forthe management of crowds (urban reform programmes in the Progressive Era andHitlers mobilization strategies, respectively). Second, the article argues that, in spiteof its current scholarly popularity, there is no guarantee that the call for a practicalemployment of the rational notion of crowds will necessarily be successful. This isdemonstrated by stressing, on the one hand, that irrational notions of crowds continueto thrive, thereby rendering a turn towards rational approaches difficult, and, on theother hand, that the rational approaches in their ignorance of collective emotionalarousal present an inadequate picture of crowds and consequently have limited scopeas guidelines for crowd management strategies.


    Collective emotions, crowd control, crowd theory, London riots, policing, tacticalpolyvalence of discourse

    Corresponding author:

    Christian Borch, Copenhagen Business School, Porcelnshaven 18A, Frederiksberg, 2000, Denmark.Email:

    CSI615-610.1177/0011392113486443Current SociologyBorch2013


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    Borch 585


    The UK riots in 2011, which had their centre in London but soon spread to other British

    cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, have stirred great debate in academic and polit-

    ical circles. What were the reasons behind the events and how might such massive vio-lence and looting be prevented in the future? In a letter published in The Guardianon 11

    August 2011, Professor John Brewer, then president of the British Sociological

    Association (BSA), and Howard Wollman, vice-chair of BSA, argued that sociology as

    a discipline has much to offer in terms of explaining the riots. Specifically, they asserted,

    the sociology of crowds offers a valuable starting point for understanding such events:

    Crime is a motive [for a minority of the rioters], but crowd behaviour is a more complex

    process, and it is sociology as a discipline that best understands crowd behaviour. Crowds are

    irrational. Crowds dont have motives thats far too calculating and rational. Crowd behaviour

    is dynamic in unpredictable ways, and reason and motive disappear when crowds move

    unpredictably. (Brewer and Wollman, 2011)

    This reference to crowd theory as a resource for explaining the UK riots has not been

    received positively by all sociologists. For example, Hugo Gorringe and Michael Rosie

    (2011) have objected that by evoking classical images of crowds as irrational, conta-

    gious entities beyond the reach of knowledge, Brewer and Wollman essentially recap-

    tured a sociological tradition which has long been contested by sociologists. Since

    especially the 1960s sociologists have argued that, rather than being paradigmatic of

    irrationality, collective protest often has good reasons and is meaningful to the protest-ers themselves (say, as a legitimate response to perceived injustices). Yet, Gorringe and

    Rosie admit, despite being severely criticized by the post-1960s wave of more rational-

    ist approaches, the classical imagery of irrational crowds persists, and not just in the

    Guardiancomment by Brewer and Wollman. Indeed, as studies of policing have shown,

    the notion of irrational crowds has not least inspired police tactics for many years,

    thereby in effect lending (performative) reality to this notion. More troubling, perhaps,

    studies have demonstrated that police strategies that adopt this discourse might increase

    tensions and escalate violence rather than reduce it (e.g. Goringe and Rosie, 2011;

    Hoggett and Scott, 2010; Reicher et al., 2007). Consequently, scholars such as DavidSchweingruber have argued that this irrationalist conception of crowds (what

    Schweingruber terms mob sociology), which is still present in [US] police literature

    and training programs should be replaced by contemporary social science research

    and theory, i.e. more rationalist notions of crowds and collective behaviour

    (Schweingruber, 2000: 371). Indeed, for Schweingruber, the continued presence of

    mob sociology in the police literature is an embarrassment (2000: 385; see also Reicher

    et al., 2007; Schweingruber and Wohlstein, 2005).

    The aim of the present article is to challenge this call for basing practical crowd con-

    trol strategies on a rationalist understanding of crowds. The point is not so much todefend an irrationalist account, nor is it to argue that rationalist conceptions are necessar-

    ily wrong. Rather, the central ambition is to demonstrate (1) that there is no unidirec-

    tional or causal connection between sociological crowd discourse (whatever its content)

    and practical strategies for governing crowds: the same discursive register might be

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    586 Current Sociology 61(5-6)

    employed for very different practical strategic purposes, thereby making manifest what

    Michel Foucault referred to as the tactical polyvalence of discourses, i.e. the s