Stonewall Riots Collective Behavior Collective Action

¶ … Collective behavior” and the Stonewall Riots

The term “collective behavior” refers to behavior that militates against social norms and conventions regarding the way that individuals should behave in society and differing to the way that they normally behave when not in a crowd environment. A crowd environment causes certain spontaneity to actions and a certain animal emotion that is lacking in regular ‘separate existence’. Scholars have devoted considerable attention to assessing why such is the case, and have generated various theories that may explain the phenomena.

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Examples of instances of collective behavior include religious revivalist meetings where individuals behave in unusual ways, oftentimes totally contradictory to their private persona; panic in a burning location; or the spectacle of Black Friday where frenzy climbs and swirls around bargain hunting. The phenomenon of collective behavior too was clearly evident in the debacle of the “The Stonewall Riots” and we will, therefore, take that event as illustrative of some of the foremost theories that are posited to explain collective action.

The Stonewall riots

It would be interesting to examine the processes through which the gay community mobilized power at a particular time and circumstance in the face of pervasive homophobia, stigma, and pressure. A classic example would be the development of the Stonewall community in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The Stonewall inn was a place where gays, lesbians, transgendered, and runaways came to “be themselves” and relax. The Stonewall was a place they could do that, but the proprietary situation of the Stonewall was less than ideal.

The Stonewall Inn, was a well-known Christopher Street hangout for gay men and lesbians, and located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The conditions at the Stonewall were very much controlled by organized crime families who seized an opportunity to make money from members of the population almost certainly discriminated against in straight bar establishments. With little police enforcement of local laws, the mafia owners were able to cut corners on safety and hygiene. Bartenders did not have access to running water behind the bar, so often served drinks in dirty, used glasses; many Gay Rights groups blamed the Stonewall for a 1969 outbreak of hepatitis among its patrons. In violation of city code, Stonewall also lacked a rear exit, leaving the narrow front door as the only escape in the event of a fire or emergency. The alcohol served at the bar, rumored to be stolen or bootlegged, was watered-down and sold to patrons at top-shelf prices. The Stonewall was routinely raided by police in efforts to shut it down. During these raids officers often would man-handle Stonewall patrons. Although the Stonewall provided them a social outlet, this treatment gnawed in the gullets of the Stonewall community, and finally in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 the last straw was drawn.

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 the police raided the Stonewall inn, man-handled gay, lesbian, and transgendered patrons alike, spawning a frenzy of violence within the bar that quickly erupting onto the streets. The crowd of Stonewall supporters grew with every blink of the eye, and the historically passive were no more at the Stonewall Inn.

This incident is frequently cited as the first instance in American history when gays and lesbians fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted homosexuals, and it has become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.

Sociological Conflict Theories examplified in the Stonewall Riots

As said, various theories inherent in the sociological field of human collection action can be evidenced in the “The Stonewall Riots.” These include the following:

1. Mass Hysteria Theory

The Mass Hysteria Theory addresses the patterns of those individuals who are receptive to and accepting of “movement” beliefs that offer solutions to problems and/or resolve to their issues. Herbert Blumer alluded to a natural cycle for social movements directly related to the escalation, peak, and decline of aroused emotion. This cycle is broken down into four stages with the preliminary stage encompassing the notion of social unrest, or being unhappy with and un-accepting of the status quo or current state of society. The movement is unorganized and composed of “misfits.”

It is a sort of a “group think” situation where people who share some commonality, suchas political or religious perspective, begin under the pressure of the crowd, or under the pressure of one or more charismatic indivdiuals to think and act in the same manner breakignout into unrestrained hysteria (Berk, 1974)

These mass public hysterical reactions are famously known to occur when popular medical problems are publicized by the news media such as the yuppie flu in the 1980s or with movements like McCatharyism that response to and against (but particularly the phenomena itself) was characterized by an atmosphere of mass hysteria. The most recent intriguing example of mass hysteria occurred in China where hundreds of workers at an acrylic yarn factory fell ill. Doctors attributed the mass disease to psychogenic origin (Jacobs, 2009)

2. Contagion theory

This theory, originated by Gustave LeBon (1896), proposes that the anonymity and power of crowds imposes a hypnotic and emotionally charged influence on the crowd that reacts in a frenzied manner. This was the response seen in the Stonewall riots where their action and counter reaction of the mob force played out by the police and the mob force played out by the public generated an exponentially rising atmosphere of frenzy with the contagion feeding upon itself and exponentially growing.

The contagion theory, in other words, states that the frenzy is a property that emerges from the behavior for the crowd rather than being intrinsic in the crowd itself.

Problems with LeBon’s theory include the following:

1. Contagion theory sees crowd behavior as and frenzy as being irrational and uncalled for, but actually much of it may be very rational indeed (McPhail, 1991) such as the fact that the crowd may become increasingly fearful of becoming hemmed in or trapped, or they may become infuriated by a rational sense of injustice (as happened in the Cincinnati race riots).

2. Crowd behavior is often controlled and initiated by individuals. That the furor and frenzy may have a life of its own independent to the stewardship of individuals is something that may be true, but the influence of the individual should not be overlooked.

3. LeBon’s theory was produced during a certain historical period in history — i.e. The French revolution — that pertained to a particular kind of emotional frenzy. Not every kind of mass gathering parallels the depth of animosity and animal emotion that the French Revolution spurred. The Stonewall Riots, for instance, was relatively benign compared to the depth and intensity of the French Revolution.

3. Convergence Theory

The convergence theory argues that crowd frenzy came about due to the like-minded aggregation and meeting of minds of a group of people. The commonality of their goals caused them to become violent, not because it was an accident or emergent property (as the contagion theory states) but because they planned it that way (McPhail, 1991). Support for this theory may come about from the goals of “Black Power” that were distinctly different to the previous Black focus on passive resistance. The objective of the latter was on passive objection and that was the result. The objective of “Black Power” however tended to violence and violence was, subsequently, the consequence of their mass gatherings.

The criticism of this approach is that crowds are often seen to have an undue effect on people and to persuade them to behave in ways that they otherwise would not. The anonymity of the Stonewall Riots, for instance, may well have induced certain police officers, on the one hand, and certain citizens on the other, who would have been polite and docile people in regular life, to have become aggressive and to engage in violent and outlandish behavior that they would normally not engage in. many of these citizens who reacted against the police would have been ordinarily shy of protesting in the slightest against them would it have been a face-to-face individual encounter.

4. Emergent — Norm theory

The Emergent — Norm theory combines the convergent and cognation theory and argues that both propositions exist to result in crowd behavior. Firstly, those like-minded individuals come together with a certain goal in mind and secondly that frenzy is generated from this tight-packed mass of active like-minded individuals protesting and working towards the same goal. Using a symbolic interactionaist approach, the theory proposes that people assemble with specific norms and expectations and that in subsequent crowd interaction, new expectations and norms develop generating crowd behavior among individuals that would normally not occur (McPhail, 1991).

This readily explains the Stonewall Riots debacle where the police gathered with the intention of impeding the chaos, and where a mass of individuals gathered to repel the police. The stimulus that the police felt in withstanding protest generated into crowd behavior, whilst the few individuals of the original protestors grew into more and their grievance against perceived police oppression of the gay community multiplied as the crowd and its behavior increased. Both police and protesters each had their own agenda of like-minded goals. The interactions that followed encouraged norms and expectations to emerge that ordinarily would never have occurred.

4. Crowds as ‘Gatherings”

Recent thought on the subject distinguishes crowds from a posteriori, after the fact events, and what happens once they are formed, to crowds as a priori events and what brings them together as a gathering. The approach posits that most gatherings are only temporary and short-lived and people are usually invited or informed beforehand about the gathering. These groups of homogenous people, invited as a group, usually intend to stay together as a group.

This approach paints crowd behavior as a rational organism with individuals choosing to react or not to react according to their independent judgment. More in line with the convergent model than with the contagion model, this approach also rejects the idea that crowds impair judgment and sees that whilst some substances, such as alcohol, can impair the rationality of the crowd, the intrinsic event of crowd forming itself does not (Schweingruber, 1999).

The problem with this approach, however, is that it fails to apply to situations such as the Stonewall Riots where gatherings are impromptu and made up from individuals who happen to be there at the time of the occurrence or happen to walk in on the scene and are instigated for whatever reason to involve themselves in the conflict. The police, in this specific case, may have been summoned en bloc to the scene; the protesters, however, haphazardly chose to involve themselves and their multiplied presence was drawn from voluntary participation from pedestrians on the scene.


Collective behavior” refers to behavior that militates against social norms and conventions regarding the way that individuals should behave in society. In the anonymity of a crowd, people often behavior in unexpected, unanticipated ways that contradict their normal way of behavior and often go against social norms and conventions. Why this is so has been explained by various theories, but the theories themselves often match different crowd instances and being that collective crowd behavior follows very many different patterns, no one theory can explain all. In that way, the contagion theory is best suited to the intensity and pitch of the French Revolution, whilst convergence may best be equipped to describe a docile political gathering. On the other hand, “crowds as gatherings’ may describe presidential elections whilst emergent-norms theory may characterize the collective agenda of McCarthyism.

As to the Stonewall Riots, the theory most suitable to explaining that phenomena may be the emergent norm theory that combines both the convergent and contagion approach. As spectacle of collective action it has become the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.


Armstrong, Elizabeth A., & Crage, SM. (2006) Movements and Memory: The making of the Stonewall Myth American Sociological Review 71. 724-751. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Baird, Robert M. (1995. ) Homosexuality: debating the issues. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, Print. Notes on Stonewall (PGS 23-30)

Berk, Richard. (1974.). Collective Behavior W.C. Brown Co

Blumer, H. “Collective Behavior,” in A.M. Lee, ed., Principles of Sociology, New York, Barnes & Noble, 1951

Carter, David. (2004). Stonewall: the riots that sparked the gay revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press,..

Duberman, M.B.. (1993) Stonewall. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Dutton.

Jacobs, A., 2009. “Chinese Workers Say Illness Is Real, Not Hysteria.” The New York Times, July 30

McPhail, Clark. (1991). The Myth of the Madding Crowd. .Aldine

Miller, David L..( 2000) Introduction to collective behavior and collective action. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press..

Schweingruber, David S. (1999) A Method for Systematically Observing and Recording Collective Action. Sociological Methods and Research. 27:451-498

“Video: Stonewall Uprising | Watch American Experience Online | PBS Video.” Watch PBS Online | PBS Video. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. .

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