1.1 Crowd research: then and now
Let’s start by the Ganges in Prayag, in Northern India, at the Magh Mela – precisely because it is likely that this is a place that you are not familiar with. The Magh Mela is one of the largest annual gatherings in the world. Why would researchers become interested in such a gathering? This is because the Magh Mela case study can be set within the context of contemporary crowd psychology, which has been working to understand the relationship between crowds and collective identity.
Modern crowd research is considered to have started with French polymath and political conservative Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind (1895). Le Bon problematised what we today would see as part of the popular democratic process; he views the crowd not so much as mindless but as of one collective mind acting towards theoretical inclinations. In his view, the psychological crowd is different from a physical crowd. He argues that the organised psychological crowd comes about through ‘a combination of elements, just as in chemistry’ (p.14). These elements are a collective mind, contagion and suggestibility. In short, Le Bon gave birth to what is today called ‘the classical view of the crowd’, stipulating that being in a crowd leads to a loss of identity with potentially irrational and irresponsible behaviour.
In contrast to this, crowd psychologists in the twenty-first century have become increasingly preoccupied with the notion of the crowd as a source of collective empowerment. Theirs is a view of the crowd as the development of a focused political rationality; a crowd whose members discover their identity through the dynamics experienced in the crowd. In short, the contemporary view of the crowd holds that crowd-led events are transformative and a source of identity, empowerment and collective self-realisation.