In sociology, the terms social movement and collective behavior are closely related.  Both terms address both the way we behave in large groups as well as the end result we have in mind.  However, they are slightly different in regards to when and how they occur.

According to Brinkerhoff, a social movement is defined as “an ongoing, goal-directed effort to fundamentally change social institutions, attitudes, or ways of life.”  In essence, it is when a group of people band together and promote their cause in the hopes of making a change in the way society works.  For example, the abolitionist movement was a social movement because white and black people worked together to outlaw slavery on the basis that all men are created equal regardless of skin color or origin. 

Abolitionists did this through public speaking and protesting until they achieved their goal and the slaves were freed.  Another example of a social movement which is more recent is the ongoing fight in the LGBT community to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states.  Citizens, politicians, and celebrities from both within the community and outside of it have taken to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in addition to political action in order to gain more supporters and push their cause further towards becoming reality.

Collective behavior, as defined by Brinkerhoff, is “spontaneous action by groups in situations where cultural rules for behavior are vague, inadequate, or debated.”  In emergency situations, individual expectations may become unclear or undefined.  Therefore, people’s actions in such panics are deemed neither conformity nor deviance. 

An example of collective behavior may be found in a “burning theater” scenario.  If a crowd of people were trying to escape from a burning theater, running, which is normally considered chaotic behavior, would now be viewed as a rational solution.  The Columbine shooting provides us with many examples of collective behavior. 

As students and staff caught on to what was occurring, most traditional roles were forgotten and plenty of heroes emerged to protect their classmates from the shooters; students helped other students escape, people warned each other about what was happening, and worked together to reach safety, teachers crowded students into their rooms and barricaded their classroom doors shut.  In one classroom, the door was blocked off by piling the bodies of the deceased in front of it.  This horrific measure is gruesome in retrospect, but given the situation, was justifiable by those involved.

Sometimes collective behavior can evolve into a social movement.  For example, the Boston Tea Party was one of the events that contributed to the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.  What started as an act of protest against the English turned into a conflict with the goal of overthrowing colonial rule.

The difference between a social movement and collective behavior is the way in which it is carried out.  Social movements, being goal-driven, are planned out in advance and are relatively structured.  Everyone involved has a particular goal that they strive to achieve, and have expectations of themselves of how they are to achieve it and what they are expected to contribute. 

Collective behavior on the other hand is spontaneous and is therefore unstructured and unplanned.  Collective behavior often just happens, whereas social movements are deliberate.  The interaction of these concepts influences group behavior every day.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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