top of page

THE CROWD / Vol. 90, No. 2 (Summer 2023)

James Walkup, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Crowds have diverse meanings and serve varied functions for their participants and observers. To make sense of this diversity, the ontology of crowds can be understood through two dimensions: (1) global/collective processes versus local/individual processes; and (2) symbolic benefits/costs versus concrete benefits/costs. Combining these dimensions yields four ideal types: crowds as symbols, crowds as identities, crowds as networks, and crowds as power. This essay explores how people relate to crowds from these perspectives and the political implications of their doing so.

Crowd psychologist Gustave Le Bon is often seen as emblematic of fin-de-siècle crowd theory. Widely read in the 1890s, Le Bon’s work was later critiqued for its gendered descriptions and political biases. This essay reconsiders fin-de-siècle crowd theory in light of postcolonial critique and asks whether parts of this tradition merit attention in discussion of crowd action today. While Le Bon’s work is based on a racial hierarchy and subscribes to a colonial episteme, the situation is more complex when it comes to sociologists such as Gabriel Tarde and Émile Durkheim. While elements of their work can be subjected to postcolonial critique, their theorization on crowds points to distinctly collective dimensions of crowd action that are important to revive.

Historically, social psychologists have conceptualized the crowd and its members as mindless and irrational. More recent research has emphasized the crowd as an agentic space that offers both emergence and endurance of psychological transformations, as related to social identity. Using a social identity approach, models have taken the social context (inter- and intragroup interaction) into account to explain transformations through crowd participation. We argue for the need to include wider contextual dimensions (including physical, political, and economic) to understand crowd participation and transformative dynamics through collective action across geographical, ideological, and state contexts.

How are ideas transformed into collective causes that can rally and sustain protest crowds? We present a theoretical framework of crowd mobilization through the perspective of distributed cognition. We look at protest crowds as distributed processes that happen across brains, bodies, social interactions, and material-technological resources. This perspective is illustrated by protest crowd dynamics as they are facilitated by social interaction, symbols, narrative forms, and physical and virtual spaces.

Although often ignored in one’s daily routine, monuments can serve as potent magnets for crowd gatherings in unveilings, preservation, and protest. The materiality of the monument provides a point of collective attention that binds participants in common cause within a civic space. When successful, these gatherings depend on enacting a set of processes: planning, organizing, gathering, performing, and dispersing. Each occurs within the context of state sponsorship or opposition. As is evident from cases in colonial New York and contemporary Virginia, monuments, no longer mute, can speak to crowds with shared images of morality and justice in their metal and marble materiality.

This essay explores the relationship between the materiality of signs, crowds, and community, focusing on the territory of the former Russian Empire. The first part traces how emblems of authority carried in crowds have evolved from medieval war flags and gonfalons to twentieth-century military distinctions. The ease of production and distribution in the post-Soviet era ushered in symbolic inflation, prompting state attempts to reestablish control over the meaning of such signs. The second part looks at material markers of dissent since the late imperial era, and argues that the individualized production of protest signs in the twenty-first century has fractured protest communities, and discusses recent examples of collective sign-making as attempts to reestablish protest communities in new form.

This essay argues that aesthetic works offer an understanding of the performativity of democratic protests and crowd action. It analyzes a handful of artworks from the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013–2014. The article demonstrates how aesthetic works express what may be termed political emergence: people who have no say in political institutions come together to change the political order. Aesthetic works enable an understanding of political emergence that is mostly unavailable to the social sciences, history, and journalism. The article contends that analysis of crowd action and twenty-first-century collective protest in particular would gain from theoretical and methodological efforts to conjoin social research and aesthetic analysis.

There are strong continuities between crowd theory, which flowered during the early twentieth century, and theories of populist mobilization. Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1960) bridges these two literatures. Canetti gives us two relatively underappreciated ideas—the sting of command and the impulse for survival—that explain how populist movements change over time. To demonstrate how Canetti’s work speaks to theories of populism, I draw on my fieldwork in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution was, arguably, the most progressive political movement of the twenty-first century, but it veered wildly off course. Crowd theory gives us tools to track this transformation. Rather than imagining that populist movements are vacuous from the outset, Canetti directs attention toward their animating grievances. This article considers how the grievances that fed the Bolivarian Revolution eventually consumed it; this is a modest attempt to understand how one of the most promising political movements in recent memory ended up such a long way from where it started.

Aggrieved crowds throw objects in protest that dole out insult and injury in equal measure. Despite the motley things in a crowd’s arsenal, there is a pattern to pelting and the range of causes for which rocks, tomatoes, eggs, pies, milkshakes, shoes, and water bottles are thrown with regularity. Pelting overcomes distance by touching the body of a powerful enemy by proxy. In hitting the sublime body with “matters out of place,” the crowd relocates the sovereign aura within itself while transgressing the boundaries of high and low. This essay considers pelting in all its joyous, violent, fun, furious, and law-breaking glory and, therefore, as a medium and metaphor of the crowd.


bottom of page