Here we will consider the most "macro" dimensions of social psychology, those social forces arising out of the interactions of large numbers of individuals and groups which, in turn, are the master templates patterning the cultural and social orders. One cannot study the behaviors of individuals without devoting some attention to the broader socio-cultural environments--their economic structures, stratification orders, technological systems of communication and transportation, family processes, demographics, and value systems-- structuring their social lives.

Humans have long been fascinated by the processes through which collective social wholes emerge out of individuals' separate activities.  They have probably forever felt the sense of exhilaration and power of their unity in numbers when pressed into crowds.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in the image on the left. In this 1947 photograph by E.O. Goldbeck, 21,765 members of the U.S. Army Air Force are fused into a symbol of their group.


By "collective behavior" social scientists typically mean that realm of action not governed by the everyday rules and expectations which normally shape social behavior: 

Besides being large-scale social phenomena, sociologists' interest in their genesis and development stem from the fact that they are major engines of social change. 

Collective action can be understood as the result of an emerging collective definition of the situation.  This definition includes elements of shared cognitive belief (the "facts" that are commonly defined as being real and relevant), emotional factors (such as the personal needs being frustrated and the dominant emotion evoked), and the predominant motivation of those present.  How such a commonly-shared mindset comes to be gets us into such topics as how information flows through social networks (recall Stanley Milgram's "Small World" thesis, recently mathematically verified, that we are no more than six steps removed from any other person on earth?) and connectivity opportunities provided by email and the Web (also being explored in James Moody's  Electronic Small World Project and at Columbia University's Small World Research Project).

A century ago one of the first social science investigations of collective action focused on the behavior of crowds. Gustave LeBon, in The Selma March, 1965 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1897), wrote of the "crowd mind," emerging from anonymity and deindividuation (which often leads to antisocial behavior), contagion (e.g., epidemic hysteria, a variant of Functional Somatic Syndromes), convergence (such as the Seattle windshield pitting epidemic of 1954), and emergent norms. Though contemporary social scientists have dismissed LeBon's "crowd mind," his antecedents continue to influence social research. Indeed, individuals (whether crowd members or observers) frequently act on the basis of their inferences about what the crowd "thinks, fears, hates, and wants."

The crowds that go mad--such as the 1921 Tulsa race riot  (see also The Nation's story of events)--have long intrigued social scientists.  (See Tony Perez's Annotated Bibliography on Riots and Protest.)  These intensely emotional mobs that violate the social norms and values have been both agents of social change and targets of severe repression by agencies of social control.  Participants, anonymous and deindividualized and hypersensitive to any emergent definition of the situation, may find themselves engaging in acts of wanton destruction that they never envisioned nor intended. 

Being major agents of social change, perhaps the most-studied forms of collective behavior are social movements, such as the American civil rights, anti-war, feminist,  and environmental crusades of recent decades. These can arise, for instance, when cultural values become ambiguous during times of social change or crisis, when people find themselves in unanticipated situations, or when individuals' motives are similarly blocked. Such are the occasions when novel shared definitions of the situation arise and a collectivity is formed, experiences solidarity, and mobilizes for action.

Precisely how such collective action arises has likewise received considerable theory and research.  Neal Smelser, for instance, develops such processes as:

A rich topic for research is the role of the photographer in triggering social movements. Consider the role, for instance, of Lewis H. Hine is bringing about reform in child labor laws.

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-1940 by Thomas Dublin & Kathryn Kish Sklar (SUNY Binghamton)

ASA Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements

The American Social Movement Cultures (Washington State)

Richard Kimber's Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Other Social Movements (broken down by nation)

Protest.Net--discover where protests are percolating across the U.S. and internationally

WTO History Project, from the University of Washington with a focus on the 1999 Seattle protests

Lorry Britt & David Heise, "From Shame to Pride in Identity Politics"

Kenneth Andres & Michael Biggs, "The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion: The 1960 Sit-In Movement in the American South"

Nathan Wolfson on the structural preconditions for anti-semitic mobilization

Yahoo's social movements directory

Prohibition Materials

Underlying Causes of the LA Riots--Listserv Archive from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Movements in the Abortion debate


Institutions are perceptual, cognitive, emotive and behavioral systems--conventional domains of "you knows." As grammar allows one to make sense of a string of words, so institutions provide individuals with consensual ways for deriving meaning from their social interactions. They also provide individuals routine ways for making decisions and acting in various situations with various types of others. As Mary Douglas observes in How Institutions Think (Syracuse University Press, 1986:102), "the instituted community blocks personal curiosity, organizes public memory, and heroically imposes certainty on uncertainty. In marking its own boundaries it affects all lower level thinking, so that persons realize their own identities and classify each other through community affiliation."

From a more social perspective, institutions are social housekeepers in that they program the routine services necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the group. With social evolution, distinctive institutions emerged to address the separate needs of society. For instance, out of society's need for protection against external threats arose the military; out of the social need for an informed and trained citizenry emerged education; and out of the social need for moral consensus and restraint of selfish impulses arose religion. Ideally these social needs addressed simultaneously address the needs of individuals, such as the social need for procreating the next generation of members matching the personal needs for intimacy and connectedness in the institution of the family.

From this social psychological perspective, the methodological tasks are to measure the way a given institution

To illustrate how institutions "work" consider the act of driving a car.

With these point in mind, consider the following findings from "The Diminishing Divide-- American Churches, American Politics" by The Pew Research Center For the People and the Press. In several national surveys (the last conducted in April 1996), Americans were asked for their views on the following issues:

For each issue respondents were also asked "Which one of the following has had the biggest influence on your thinking on this issue: 1) a personal experience; 2) the views of your friends and family; 3) what you have seen or read in the media; 4) your religious beliefs; 5) your education; or 6) something else. Below, for each issue, are the percentages of individuals reporting each influence to be the largest.

CAPPUN 13 6 21 18 21 18
BOSNIA 15 7 35 6 18 16
HOMO MARR 10 7 9 37 17 17
ABORTION 18 7 7 28 22 16
GOVPOOR 26 7 22 6 24 13
ENVIRON 22 3 24 3 36 10
WORKING WOMEN 45 8 7 4 23 11

As can be seen, for only two of the seven issues were Americans' attitudes most influenced by personal experiences. The media, for instance, was the greatest influencer of orientations toward capital punishment and America's Bosnia interventions, while religion was the greatest shaper of opinions toward homosexual marriages and abortion.

To more easily gauge the relative influence of these various sources of opinion we can standardize each row, dividing each percentage by the largest percentage therewithin. For instance, 28 percent of Americans claimed that religion was the greatest shaper of their opinions toward abortion. Dividing each percentage in this row by .28 we find that Americans are only one-quarter as likely to cite the media (and the views of family and friends) as they are to cite religion as the greatest influence on their abortion attitudes.

CAPPUN .62 .29 1.0 .86 1.0 .86
BOSNIA .43 .20 1.0 .17 .51 .46
HOMO MARR .27 .19 .24 1.0 .46 .46
ABORTION .64 .25 .25 1.0 .79 .57
GOVPOOR 1.0 .27 .85 .23 .92 .50
ENVIRON .61 .08 .67 .08 1.0 .28
WORKING WOMEN 1.0 .18 .16 .09 .51 .24
MEAN INFLUENCE .65 .21 .60 .49 .74 .48

Reflecting on the "Mean Influence" row on the bottom, the institutional bearing of Americans' attitudes and values cannot be denied. The concerns of critics of the messages delivered by mass media and educational curricula appear well-grounded as the influence of these two institutions rival that of personal experience.


inequality among men [is] a rich source of much that is evil, but also of everything that is good.


Consider the concept of "The American Dream": the expectation of achieving a higher standard of living than one's parents. Has this expectation changed historically? Has it changed historically more so for some groups--social classes, minorities, or women--than for others (or might the notion historically referred only to the condition of white middle- class males)? What are the social psychological implications of not holding this belief?

Individuals' positions in the stratification orders of sex, race, and social class determine the language the speak, their values, happiness, self-esteem, sense of personal efficacy, physical and mental health, rate of aging and life-expectancy, sexual activities, childrearing practices, and nature of their work.


Suppose that you are a member of a dominant group. What social psychological tactics would you use to ensure that your "social lessers" remain in their place?


In the 1990 NORC General Social Survey, Americans were asked why there are poor people in this country. Two questions dealt with internal loci of control (e.g., they blame the victims): People are poor because of: Loose morals and drunkenness, and Lack of effort by the poor themselves. Two deal with external loci (e.g., they locate the cause in society): Failure of society to provide good schools for many Americans, and Failure of industry to provide enough jobs. Out of these questions was created a scale of poverty attributions, where 1=society's fault, 2=both social and personal faults, and 3=self-fault. Not surprisingly, those identifying themselves as members of the lower class are most likely to see poverty being society's fault (43%) than are the other classes, but there is virtually no difference in attributions of the working, middle, and upper classes (27% of whom blame society). Women are slightly more to blame society (30%) than men (26%), as are those 18-29 years of age (32%) compared to those 70 and older (19%).

Click to see:

Related resources:

T.R. Young's "The Contributions of Karl Marx to Social Psychology"

Dimostenis Yagcioglu's "Psychological Explanations of Conflicts Between Ethnocultural Minorities and Majorities"

Explorations in Social Inequality


Decency is veiled from sight; indecency is exposed to view. Scenes of evil attract packed audiences; good words scaredly find any listeners. It is as if purity should provoke a blush, and corruption give ground for pride. But where else should this happen but in devils' temples, in the resorts of delusion?

--St. Augustine

According to a 1995 Gallup Survey, virtually all Americans (96%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and most Americans (88%) say religion is important in their lives. Certainly any description of American Exceptionalism must include Americans' profound religiosity and their faith in the existence of an afterlife. To see how your personal beliefs match up with those of twenty-six world religions try the Religion Selector by and


In numerous ways, religion acts as a shock absorber that cushions the inevitable tensions between self and society. Social frustrations must be resolved; the incongruities between personal desires and social needs must be explained. Social order may well require individuals' absolute faith in the order, meaningfulness, and justice of social life. Religious faith is a potent source of human motivation, whether directed toward orthodoxy or fanaticism.

Considering the needs of selves and societies addressed by religion, let's first investigate the extent to which religiosity contributes to the happiness of individuals. As can be seen, when controlling for Americans' age and education, those who report being "strongly" religious are significantly more likely to be "very happy" than are their less religious counterparts-- particularly among those 18-30 and those 45-64 years of age.

In addition to emotional health, religion contributes to physical well-being as well, evidenced by Mormons' prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. In the October 1997 issue of The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine is reported a study by Harold Koenig and Harvey Cohen of 1,718 older North Carolinians. They found that those who attended religious services at least once a week were significantly less likely to have high levels of interleukin-6, an immune-system protein implicated with a number of diseases, in their bloodstreams. Perhaps it should not be surprising that one-quarter of Americans report using prayer as a form of health care. For other studies, check out The National Institute for Healthcare Research ("Bridging the Gap Between Spirituality and Health").

Click here to see influence of religion on Americans' outlooks toward science and belief in the theory of evolution.

It is in society's interest that individuals voluntarily become involved in its groups and organizations, particularly in a democratic society such as ours. Being so "plugged into" the social order not only keeps individuals out of mischief but intertwines personal motivations with group objectives. Over the years, the NORC General Social Surveys have asked Americans if they are members of fraternal groups, service clubs, political clubs, school service groups, farm organizations, professional societies, and the like. As can be seen, even when controlling for age and education, religiosity significantly increases the likelihood of individuals belonging to four or more of the sixteen groups inquired of--particularly for those with at least some post-secondary education. And, as developed elsewhere, religiosity is significantly related to volunteerism. For instance, strongly religious individuals were found to be two-thirds more likely (45% vs. 27%) to have volunteered for two or more causes over the previous year. This religiosity effect is most pronounced among the most highly educated: among those with four or more years of college (who were three times more likely than high school dropouts to be high volunteers), the strongly religious were three-quarters more likely (71% vs. 45%) to have volunteered for two or more causes.

From the Independent Sector and the National Council of Churches: Faith and Philanthropy: The Connection Between Charitable Behavior and Giving to Religion (2002)


Click here to see religion's role in shaping Americans' attitudes toward some of the moral issues of our times:

Michael Nielson's Psychology of Religion Page, including full text of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience

Diana Eck's (Harvard) The Pluralism Project

The American Religious Experience Project, a consortium of UWV, UNC, LA State, AZ State, Barnard-Columbia, and Franklin and Marshall

Religion Online--over 900 articles & chapters by religious scholars

From PEW/Public Agenda "For Goodness Sake" --a survey released in 2003 finding the American public strongly equates religion with personal ethics and views faith as an antidote to the nation's moral problems

Rutgers Anthropology/Sociology of Religion links statistics galore on over 4000 religions

Hartford Institute for Religion Research
BBC's Guide

Jeffrey Hadden's New Religious Movements Page

American Religion Data Archive (Purdue): downloadable files in ASCII, SPSS, and MicroCase formats, with such studies as "Anti-Semitism in the U.S., 1981""We all believe in something."
What faith matches your beliefs?

The Pluralism Project--"Our mission is to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity through research, outreach, and the active dissemination of resources."

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

Weberian Sociology of Religion



Briane Turley's American Religion Links

Case study: American Guardian: "America's Frontline Defense Against Perversion"

Ronald Fagan on religion's role in restraining excessive individualism in Habits of the Heart


UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute's National Study of of College Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose--results of the 2004 survey of more than 112,000 students from 236 colleges


Donald G. Mathews, "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice" in The Journal of Southern Religion



When people meet for the first time, a question that invariably arises is, "What do you do for a living?" We believe that to know another person's line of work is to have a highly predictive framework for inferring his or her social status, interpersonal traits and skills, value orientations, personal interests, and even personality type. So central is work to establishing one's social that King John of England proclaimed that people must use surnames pertaining to their trade. As populations were growing rapidly and the social system was becoming increasingly specialized, it was no longer practical to refer to others by their first names (even when coupled with one's residence, such as Edward-of-Dover). What better way to index other selves than by what they do? Those who made carts became Cartwrights and Wainwrights; metal workers became Smiths; and Shepard became the surname of people who tended sheep.

Of all the institutionalized arenas of human activity, work is the most central, both sociologically and psychologically. From a macro perspective, work is a way of keeping social actors "out of mischief" by harnessing and coordinating their energies to produce socially necessary goods and services. The products of work become the basis of trade, which brings cultures into contact with each other, thereby providing opportunities for social innovation.

From a micro perspective, work satisfies a broad spectrum of individual needs, such as the needs for solidarity and a feeling of self-worth. One way to appreciate this function of is to study those who lack it: the unemployed and unemployable, those who have been fired and laid off, and retired people. In many ways these individuals become nonpersons; their activities are no longer perceived as wholly legitimate, since only through working is one generally seen as contributing to the social system. The centrality to individuals' needs is further evidenced by the movements for equal opportunity for women and minorities.

Topic ideas in the social psychology of work:

Economic Beliefs and Behaviour--downloadable discussion papers
How did the Wall Street Crash of 1929 occur? Play the market with this interactive simulation.
Eva Bertram and Kenneth Sharpe's "Capitalism, Work and Character"
Robert Merton's "Bureaucratic Structure and Personality"
David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, "Well-being, Insecurity, and the Decline of American Job Satisfaction" (1999, pdf format)
The Temporalities of Work and Leisure


Working papers from the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations
The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologist
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis


P.S. It is my observation that too many of us are spending money we haven't earned to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like.

--H. Jackson Brown's mother (from "P.S. I Love You")


During the winter of '94-95 throughout the Midwest there appeared the following mall advertisement: "Shop like you mean it." What does this supposed to mean?

The mass production wrought by industrialization required mass consumption, which brings us to the social psychology of materialism and abundance.  How are individuals socialized and conditioned to consume?  One place is in the schools.  Check out Arizona State University's Commercialism in Education Research Unit, the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, and Schools Inc. from PBS's NOW.

Collection of articles and essays on advertising

Mass consumerism requires a buy-now-pay-later mindset. Check out PBS Frontline's Secret History of the Credit Card

Temples of Consumption: Shopping Malls as Secular Cathedrals, an essay written with Beth Gill

"Identity and Desire in Consumption: Interactions between Industry and Consumers by the Use of Commodities", by Mineo Hattori (1997)

Inconspicuous consumption: the sociology of consumption and the environment, by Elizabeth Shove and Alan Warde

Don Slater's "Researching Consumer Cultures" page (with sizable bibliography)

Signaler "Analyzing commercials and advertisements. How products get their meaning and the way they signify."

Richard Taflinger's Taking ADvantage

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History

Celebrating 75 Years of Supermarkets: 1930-2005 facts and figures from the Food Marketing Institute

NPD Group "leading international provider of marketing information...[tracking] retail and e-commerce sales plus consumer behavior and attitudes"

Bad Fads Museum--Look at what Madison Avenue has made us consume

For further mirth, check out a collection of bad ads at The Gallery of the Absurd

Consumerism gotten you down? Check out Overcoming Consumerism: Citizen-Activist's Anti-consumerism site

Have a complaint? Place to gripe is"a better way to complain"

Want to see a future tool of retailers to know precisely what button of yours to push? Check out IBM's BlueEyes software to determine individuals' physical, emotional or informational states by analyzing video and audio information. Other researchers of consumers' minds (and impulses):

Links to Consumer Psychology Research

Ipsos --"features a collection of behavioral tracking products and services that help clients throughout a broad range of industries learn how to marry consumers' behaviors with their attitudes."

The American Marketing Association

Public Relations Society of America Home Page

International Advertising Association

The Institute For Retail Studies

Advertising Age

Journal of Material Culture



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