The paradox of mass psychology
by Chetan Parikh
 Mail this article to a friend
Previous Back  

In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on the paradox of mass psychology.


“THE MASS OF MATERIAL that I have consulted all indicates that in an age of optimism and reason mass psychology appeared as a science dealing with disturbing phenomena. And with unreason. It obstinately concentrated on things at once exotic and ephemeral and not forming part of the general picture of society: crowds, beliefs, mass suggestion and other matters of that ilk.


But it takes more than that to create a scandal. It needs a ground tremor that will overthrow established convictions. These were dealt a tremendous blow by crowd psychology since, despite economic and technological progress and the feverish destruction of past traditions, it claimed to reveal a human nature rooted in something beyond the troubled waters of history. It even declared that the past exerted an invincible force on the present and was of great political and cultural influence. Those who thought that they were changing human nature, abolishing the family, leaders, the hierarchy and religion, it seemed to say, were mistaken. Such things were still there and functioning. Anything that was truly real would not die or fade away.


That did not mean that there was no change of any kind. What crowd psychology was basically saying was that human nature, even if it did not progress at exactly the same rate as other things, was nevertheless influenced by them. It was adapting to change and surviving breaks with the past, which showed its extraordinary power of resistance. Language like that was of course unacceptable, offensive to the deepest-rooted ideas.


Into a society that was characterised by extreme attitudes and high political feelings, Tarde introduced those very qualities that were lacking, an analytical disposition and a love of clear ideas. He certainly shared Le Bon's fears about the state of French society and the same class anxieties about the rise of the masses. That, however, did not prevent him seeing that society was both in a crisis and expanding, following the bourgeois pattern of industrialisation, urbanisation and increasing wealth. It was as if the unrest and conflict, the revolutions and counter-revolutions were the price to be paid for continuous modernisation and visible scientific and technological change. Crowd psychology had to take this into account and adapt its ideas accordingly.


Tarde advanced along the road that Le Bon had opened up. Obviously, his starting point was crowds, those spontaneous, natural and anarchic groupings that are a general datum of social life. They seemed to him, however, to be in the last analysis less important than the artificial, organised and disciplined crowds encountered more or less everywhere (in political parties, firms or the apparatus of state, for example). The army or the Church could be seen as prototypes of them. A real qualitative leap, from an amorphous mass to created ones, was involved.


The change in perspective was considerable. So far, the masses had been seen as the result of a crumbling and settling of the normal structures of social life. They were the result of institutional collapse and represented a hiatus in the regular course of events. The inevitable conclusion seemed to be that the family, the Churches, social classes, the state and so on, which had all been seen as basic and natural collectivities, were really artificial and derived ones. They should, in fact, be seen as so many forms of mass, just as electricity, coal and plants are different forms of energy. It had been said that man first created society and then the masses appeared. The current view had to be that men were first part of a mass and then created society.


This was a radical change in the way of seeing things. The most refined and civilised social institutions, such as the family and the Church, the great historical movements, such as trades unions, nations and parties, were all metaphors for the simplest form of association, the crowd, and shared its psychic characteristics. This meant that the task of science was no longer to explain the properties of the mass from the starting point of society but rather the other way round, since any society was the product of the mass. This is, of course, a simplified picture, as I am restricting myself to essentials. What followed from it was this. From being a study of important but specific phenomena, crowd psychology became a study of society in general, since crowds were ubiquitous. Consequently, just as the laws of chemistry, electricity or biology were subject to the laws of energy, the laws of politics, sociology and even history were subject to the laws of psychology. The latter were therefore wider in their application. There were variations in them, but no exceptions to them.




But this raises a major difficulty. Crowd psychologists see crowds as incapable of being intellectually creative or taking any historical initiative and as never leading artistic, scientific or political revolutions. They could not do so, as when individuals congregate in crowds their intelligence is weakened and their sense of reality becomes blurred. And yet institutions such as armies, firms and so on do make progress. Arts, sciences and technologies are created. Means of production and communication that change the face of societies are conceived and discovered.


This is a crucial paradox of crowd psychology that cannot be resolved by abandoning its basic principle, namely that the individuals making up a crowd are less intelligent and creative than when they are alone. As things stood, there was only one way out for Tarde. The alternative solution, which he quickly adopted, went as follows: in any crowd, there is a separate class of individuals who draw the others together and command them. They are the political, religious, scientific and other leaders. They are the source of all change, all inventions and all the social forms that create history. Their power of suggestion makes the majority copy and follow them, as subject to them as children to their father, apprentices to their master and hack artists to the true creative genius. In so far as the intelligence of such people and the discoveries they make are mutually stimulating and induce progress and consequently entail an advance on the past, the crowds imitating them also make progress and rise above the level of crowds in the past. Examples would be the present-day schoolboy solving a problem that baffled the genius of a Newton three hundred years ago, the psychiatrist daily and routinely treating his patients with a method that Freud himself left incomplete, or perhaps leaders of the middling sort who incorporate into themselves, their attitudes and their gestures those of a prototype such as Stalin or Mao. It was by hoisting itself up to such peaks that, in Tarde's view, humanity advanced and transformed itself.


Tarde's way of resolving the paradox was a particularly unprepossessing one. The only way of escaping from the vicious circle of trying to find out who the exceptional people were and where their power came from was to refuse to acknowledge the paradox. The nature of the solution, however, was less important than the three consequences arising from it. These were:


1.    The centre of gravity of crowd psychology shifted from the mass to the leader. His own actions offered an explanation of his properties.


2.    Imitation (a form of suggestion, it should be remembered) became the basic mechanism of social life. It was supposed to explain the leader's hold on the groups of those imitating him, their uniform thought and behaviour and the spread of feelings and beliefs, and hence to explain why we conform to a common model.


3.    Tarde's view was that there was on the one hand an initial direct suggestion from one individual to another and on the other an imitative and indirect one operating over a distance (by means of newspapers, for example). This meant that communication was seen as a kind of suggestion and made the journalist's work comparable to that of the hypnotist. This was another kind of generalisation, introducing quite properly into crowd psychology the rapidly-growing area of communication phenomena. Since the invention of the book, telegraphy and the press, the field of communications had continually restricted that of conversation, persuasive speech and rumour. The whole shape of culture was changed. Tarde outlined with astonishing precision a theory of communications for which nothing at the time had prepared the way and which still has not been disproved.


He described the way in which they made their way into every home and changed isolated individuals peacefully reading their papers, for example, into that kind of invisible crowd, the public, the readership of a newspaper or the membership of a party. The messages provided by the press suggest the capricious and momentary beliefs which are opinions, like waves coming into being and dying on the surface of the sea. The growth of the means of communication does indeed affect every section of society, determining what is said and thought and the scale of action.


That now seems self-evident to us, even though we have still some way to go. But it was a hundred years before MacLuhan’s prophecies that Tarde expressed the principle later to be encapsulated in the Canadian scholar's famous dictum that the medium is the message. He also predicted its ultimate effect, mass culture. He did not, of course, use those words, but that does not mean that he did not study the phenomenon they referred to. As one English expert writes:


In so doing, Tarde made a vital initial contribution to the body of literature that today goes under the name of the ‘theory of mass culture’. . . . Yet this has been consistently ignored, which is somewhat surprising, to say the least, as Gabriel Tarde's contribution to sociology is far from unknown. (Giner, 1976: 60)


The essential fact is that the part he played was a pioneering one. Its basic argument was the primacy of the means of communication over all the instruments of social life. It therefore saw them as those elements which would produce a complete upheaval in politics and the framework within which a new culture would come into being. It is not his forecast that are important, but the analyses he used as a basis for them, and what he said about the press applies equally to the radio and television. Everything that theorists and critics of the media have written since is there in embryo.”