In this first of an occasional series, Dr. John Drury, senior lecturer in Psychology at Sussex, presents his ongoing research into the behaviour of crowds in different situations. The final paragraph perfectly illustrates the application of the group’s research, and demonstrates the social impact of the results.
I’ve just got an £80k grant from Leverhulme to continue my research on aspects of mass emergency behaviour:
Representations of crowd behaviour in the management of mass emergencies
Studies have consistently shown that mass emergency behaviour is orderly and cooperative. However, there are various popular representations of such events – called “disaster myths” – which include “mass panic”, social pathology, disorder and chaos. These “myths” suggest that crowds in emergencies are psychologically vulnerable and in need of top-down expert care and control.
Our research in the related field of crowd protest has demonstrated a pattern whereby certain forms of police intervention can inadvertently create and escalate the mass conflict that senior police seek to prevent. One factor in this recurring pattern is the adoption by senior police officers of pathologizing representations of the crowd (e.g. inherent crowd irrationality and tendencies to violence). These representations parallel the “disaster myths” surrounding mass emergencies.
The research on police-crowd conflict shows how particular representations of crowd psychology inform crowd management practices, often with negative and unforeseen consequences. Our central research question is the extent to which a parallel process occurs in mass emergencies.
The existence of “disaster myths” in the public is widely acknowledged, but there has yet to be a survey of their endorsement by UK crowd managers. The research that I will be conducting through the support of The Leverhulme Trust will comprise first such a descriptive survey to document the opinions of those in positions of responsibility for the preparation for and management of mass emergencies.
The second part of the project involves an analysis of official guidance documentation, to determine whether such “myths” have endorsement by policy-makers and others in higher authority on the management of mass emergencies.
Finally, we will examine how police and event managers’ representations of crowd events operate in practice, through a case study of two large dance-parties which took place on Brighton Beach. The first, in 2002, overwhelmed the local authorities, stewards and emergency services, as it was dangerously overcrowded. A follow-up event in 2007 was more closely controlled, being ticket only (rather than free). The question here is to what extent were the decisions of the organizers of the second event shaped by their concerns about potential disaster, following the earlier event? What was the balance between these fears, positive representations of the party crowd, and logistical and legal considerations? Finally, to what extent did attempts to prevent “disaster” (a) limit the enjoyment of party-goers, and (b) undermine party-goers’ practical and psychological abilities independently to care for each at moments of stress during the event?
We will be working alongside relevant end-users and existing contacts across the country. The results of this project will develop our theoretical work showing how crowd behaviours vary in relation to the way crowds are managed. This in turn will feed into the practical advice we provide to relevant agencies. Our overall aim is to enhance the scientific input in good practice in all forms of crowd management and policy.
If you’d like to showcase your current research in a future post in this series, email me (Sarah): firstname.lastname@example.org