Counting crowds

Every once in a while, a single sociologist gets a mention in the news. But two? In one article? Maybe it takes Salon to pull it off. The protest-crowd numbers game discusses just how to measure the size of a crowd, as done by collective behavior/social movement scholars Clark McPhail and John McCarthy. Both have studied various aspects of collective behavior and social movements for many years.

McPhail’s Myth of the Madding Crowd is still ambitious (by the way, McCarthy wrote the foreword). McPhail argues that sociological (and other) explanations for “collective behavior” as spontaneous or irrational are inaccurate. McCarthy, along with Mayer Zald, wrote some very significant pieces of contemporary social movement theory that also served to shift perceptions of movement activity from irrational or disorganized to being fundementally about collective, organized pursuit of objectives.

As for measuring crowd size, McPhail describes it in the Salon article as being nothing more than a relatively simple set of calculations. But size isn’t everything. McPhail and McCarthy observed a great number of affluent and middle-aged people at this weekend’s DC demonstration. Numbers, then, can suggest only so much. After all, by McPhail’s calculations there were 450,000 people at the Million Man March in 1995. That’s less than organizers expected or advertised, but still, by any measure, it was an enormous crowd. Yet that group has not become a significant political force. Meanwhile, he says, in the antiwar demonstrations of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the protests became effective once Middle America started turning out. At that point, the size of the rallies mattered less than who attended. Once the mainstream turned against the war, it had to end.

“In the Vietnam era, it was when middle-aged folks and middle-class folks, doctors and lawyers began coming out and participating that public opinion began to turn,” he says. “I don’t know if this will be a harbinger of a similar kind of change or not, but I was really struck on Saturday by the visible presence of a larger proportion of older people. I think it was impressive.”

For an entirely other perspective on sociology, see this thread on Slashdot. It’s a lot like when a subject involving women comes up; lots of bluster compounded by the uncomfortable feeling of never really read anything but the Turbo C Bible. Boundary maintenance? You decide.