Crowd dynamics: an alternative narrative of social psychology

ZHOU Xiaohong1

(1.School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Nanjing University)

【Abstract】Throughout history, people have been shocked by the scale and chaos witnessed in the mass, or the crowd, and the emergence of its impulsiveness, irrationality, and tendency of violence. How to understand and grasp the nature of the crowd so as to harness it effectively has remained a widely-discussed issue in the history of human civilization, from Plato, Livius to Machiavelli. The French Revolution of 1789, on the one hand, devastated the feudal system of France and eventually the whole Europe. On the other hand, it created a hundred years of blood, chaos and violence. The debate about the French Revolution has given birth to the discussion of the crowd and its dynamic mechanism by Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde, and Sigmund Freud, which was later developed into an alternative narrative of human behavior in social psychology. Most influential of all was Le Bon’s “the law of the mental unity of crowds,” by which he analyzed the two sides of the crowd’s brutality and heroism, and describes the transformation from heterogeneity to homogeneity in gathered individuals. Le Bon’s research not only influenced subsequent discussion of the relationship between the crowd and the leader, as well as their power relations, but also created the tradition of collective behavior research in American sociology. Furthermore, in our era of globalization, it urges people to reflect on the new form of panic caused by network violence.

【Keywords】 French Revolution; hypnosis and suggestion; crowd dynamics; studies of collective behaviors;


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(Translated by TAN Wenwen)


    [1]. (1) To be precise, McDougall’s work is called An Introduction to Social Psychology, while Ross’s book is called Social Psychology, An Outline and Source Book (see Zhou, 1993: 82). [^Back]

    [2]. (2) Le Bon’s works, apart from Psychological Laws of the Evolution of Peoples: Its Influence on Their Evolution, are all called the psychology of something. For example, The Psychology of Socialism (1898), The Psychology of Education (1902). The Psychology of Politics and Social Defense (1910), The Psychology of Revolution (1912), The Psychology of The Great War (1915) and The Psychology of the New Times (1920), etc. Thus, The Psychology of Crowds should be the most appropriate translation of Psychologie des Foules. [^Back]

    [3]. (3) It should be noted that, for the consistency of this paper, the author sometimes uses “qunmen” (群氓) instead of “qunzhong” (群众) in Chinese translation or works. The original English term is the crowd. [^Back]

    [4]. (4) Regarding that issue, Marx made an excellent statement in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: every time a party advanced the revolution so far that it could neither keep pace nor lead it, it was pushed aside and guillotined by its bolder allies behind it (Marx and Engels, 2012: 691). [^Back]

    [5]. (5)Taine visited Oxford University in 1870, and the Paris Commune revolution broke out the following year gave him a new shock. Based on a misunderstanding or not, after the Paris commune, his academic career became very different: he tried to combine the theories of crowds and psychology with a view to form a psychopathological study of collective behavior (McClellan, 2014: 158). [^Back]

    [6]. (6) In view of the completely different social and cultural atmosphere between America and Europe, Moscovici later analyzed the rise and fall of mob dynamics in America and stated that in America, even in England, intellectuals were not necessarily interested in such problems (Moscovici, 2003: 303). This is why we say that in the transition from a traditional society to a modern one, Europe was confronted with the problem of social or group collapse, while America was facing the problem of prevalent individualism. It was exactly because the two social transitions were focusing on different issues that finally led to the two different historical situations of social psychology (Zhou, 2014). [^Back]

    [7]. (7) The title of Park’s doctoral thesis is Masse und Publicum (in German), which was published in 1905 in Bern, Switzerland. The English edition titled The Crowd and The Public and Other Essays, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1972. [^Back]

    [8]. (8) The author believes that if the crowd is translated into “qunmeng” (群氓) to emphasize its looseness and temporariness, then the mass can be translated into “dazhong” (大众) or “qunzhong” (群众). The advantage of this is that it fits into the Chinese political context. In this case, crowds are the masses. [^Back]

    [9]. (9) In fact, if the word “crowd” is replaced with “mass” or “people,” it is easy to make people think of the statement that Marx and Mao Zedong made about the promotive role that the mass played in the development of history. The most famous one was in Mao Zedong’s On Coalition Government which stated that people, and only the people, was the motivation to create the history of the world. [^Back]

    [10]. (10) On October 27, 2005, two teenagers from Clichy-sous-Bois in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris were electrocuted while running from the police, triggering a massive riot that spread to more than a dozen towns around Paris. When the unrest started, the interior minister promised to use water cannons to clear out the rabble in the suburbs, but it backfired and the riot quickly spread to more towns in the south and north of France. The riots which involved mostly African and Arab immigrants, meant that France’s multi-cultural social policy promoted after the Second World War had collapsed. [^Back]

    [11]. (11) On August 6, 2011, a 29-year-old black male civilian, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by a metropolitan police officer in Tottenham, which caused people to go on streets to protest against police brutality. Three days later, the unrest had spread to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and other major cities in England, forcing Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson to return from their holidays early to deal with the violence. [^Back]

    [12]. (12) In 2010, a Tunisian youth, Mohamed Bouazizi, died of self-immolation after being mistreated by the police, eventually leading to nationwide riots and the downfall of Ben Ali’s regime via the Internet. [^Back]

    [13]. Le Bon’s work, including the forthcoming Chen Pujun’s translation of Psychologies des Foules (cited in this book), has already had more than 50 editions of Chinese translations. It is not only in the top spot among the translation of social science works but also a rare phenomenon in the history of the Chinese translation of western works. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 33, No. 06, Pages 186-211+245-246

November 2018


Article Outline


  • 1 The crowd: definition and pre-historic discussion
  • 2 The emergence of crowd dynamics
  • 3 The spiritual unity of Le Bon and the crowd
  • 4 The continuation of the European tradition and the beginning of the American narration
  • 5 Postscript: the horror in the era of globalization
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