The social nature of being human
The social nature of being human

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The social nature of being human

1.4 Magh Mela: some concluding thoughts

The Magh Mela case study stands in stark contrast to the conception of the anti-social crowd that dominated the early decades of crowd psychology. But the crowd that undergoes a cognitive and relational transformation, and whose members may be intimate and cooperative with each other towards their progressive goals, may also be in political opposition to other groups. It is worth considering both what is present within the Magh Mela crowd that promotes well-being, and also what is absent. There is an absence of tension within the Magh Mela crowd because other groups with different identities are not simultaneously present. This may be a key factor in the way that crowds enhance well-being.

Let us now see what the main author of the Magh Mela study, Nick Hopkins, finds important about the pilgrimage. He is in conversation with Open University academic Kesi Mahendran.

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Well, we've become very interested in your Magh Mela case study and I was wondering, how did you end up getting involved in a case study like that?
The thing that we were trying to do, looking at the Magh Mela, was to apply some insights that people had developed through looking at violent crowds to a very different sort of crowd. So in a sense, what we were trying to do was to say, let's look at this crowd event in India.
Are some of the concepts that we've developed through looking at violent crowds going to help us understand what's going on here? And the thing with violent crowds very often is there's a sense of shared identity. There's a sense of us as a group being able to enact the values that we believe and we've invested in. It's an opportunity for us to assert and to have a voice.
So very often, violence can be seen naturally as a form of the expression of a particular political viewpoint or a standpoint. Through coming together, you are able to realise those values. Well, in a similar way, looking at this pilgrimage site, we were trying to say, let's look here at how people come together and they're able to organise amongst themselves to be able to express these values.
So we just created a proposal based upon some of the work that we've done in these previous attempts with PhD students. We had an idea of what was feasible, what was practical, what was difficult. We had a sense of the sorts of questions that we could ask that would be meaningful in that context.
So we put together a proposal from scratch. And we were very lucky in that we were successful.
And did you have any concepts that drove that proposal?
Yeah, I think as social psychologists, there were a number of us involved at the very outset. And we were interested very much in group processes, of how being part of a group, typically, historically, has always been seen as rather problematic, as something that takes away from your sense of who you are.
But there's a lot of research that suggests actually it's the opposite. Your sense of who you are is bound up with group memberships. So we were interested in this particular event, where people gather on the banks of the Ganges for a month. They stay there. They live there in pretty difficult circumstances.
And there is a very strong sense of this being a collective event, that you've got large numbers of people, but also there is a sense that people have a feeling of connection with others who are there. So although it's large numbers of people, it's not like being in a railway station that's equally crowded. There's something else there. It's that sense of being together, having some sense of a shared identity.
So those were the sorts of ideas that we were interested in. How do people have a sense of connection with other people that they don't necessarily know in this event? How does that shape your relationship with others? How does that impact, then, upon your experience of the whole event?
What would you say was unique about the context?
I guess the scale of it. We're talking about five or six million people gathering on the banks of the Ganges annually for a month. So just the scale of it is massive. The circumstances in which people are living are very, very basic. The early part of January in North India is very, very cold.
People are bathing in the Ganges before dawn and then again in the evening. So visually, when you go there, it is just a stunning environment, crowded, with this cacophony of noise, yet also this tremendous sense of tranquillity and calm. And it's a curious mixture to have all of that in one place at one time.
And did you want to try and explain that calm, do you think?
Yeah. When we did interviews with people, very much from the outside, our sense was, wow, this is amazingly stressful. If you look at a lot of the literature in psychology, being in a noisy environment, a crowded environment, a physically demanding environment, that's going to be a very stressful environment.
That's going to take its toll. It's going to - you're going to be exhausted. And to some degree, I must say that when I was there, I felt exhausted. But of course, if you're there as a believer and if you are there with this sense of connection with other people, that transforms your experience of the whole event.
So can I ask, do you think that when they arrive, their identity changes? Or do they bring the same Hindu identity with them?
Well, certainly, they conceptualise themselves as Hindus. It's a big part of why they're there. It is a Hindu religious festival. But I think the thing that does change is you're then in a context where you're surrounded by other people. You're living cheek by jowl with other people. You're sleeping in large tents, perhaps.
You will be going through rituals with people, some of whom you will know, but some of whom you won't know. Whenever you go to bathe, you're surrounded by people all of the time. Wherever you go, there are other people. And I think there, there is some sense of connection that people establish.
Now, it's not with everybody, for sure. So the kalpwasi, these are the people who stay there for a month, they think of themselves as, I'm a kalpwasi, and this person is also a kalpwasi, and that person's a kalpwasi. And there you have that sense of a shared identity, some sense of connection.
And sometimes that's expressed. As people are going to bathe, they will greet each other. They don't know each other as individuals, but there's a particular greeting that will be given. So there's some sense there, I think, of a recognition that these are people like ourselves who've made a commitment to be here for a month.
They're also struggling with the same sorts of things that we're struggling with - the cold, the pressures of living in this difficult environment. So then, you have a sense of an esprit de corps or some sense of relational intimacy. You don't know them as individuals, but there, there is definitely a sense of a shared identity. So in that sense, I think you can talk about a change in how you conceptualise yourself.
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