Smelser’s Theory of Collective Behaviour

  • James S. Ormrod
Part of the Studies in the Psychosocial Series book series (STIP)


This chapter represents an unfashionable engagement with the work of the collective behaviour theorist Neil Smelser (1962, 1969). Smelser studied under and worked with Parsons (see Parsons & Smelser, 1998), and his sociological work was heavily influenced by his functionalist framework, as he acknowledges. Although he did not hold that society was often in a completely harmonious and stable state, he retained the notion of such equilibrium as the baseline from which the emergence of collective behaviour needed to be explained. His theory therefore hinges on the idea that social movements are the results of strains in the social structure, defined as ‘the impairment of the relations among, and consequent inadequate function of, the components of social action’ (Smelser, 1962). According to Smelser, ‘people join radical movements because they experience social dislocation in the form of social strain, especially when such strain springs from rapid social change’ (Smelser cited in Weeber & Rodeheaver, 2003). The notion of strain is arguably the most critical component of his model of the determinants of collective behaviour (Weeber & Rodeheaver, 2003), although the existence of strains alone was not considered enough to explain why collective behaviour occurred at the times and in the forms that it did. Importantly for this book, Smelser assumes ‘that perceived structural strain at the social level excites feelings of anxiety, fantasy, hostility, etc’ (1962, p. 11).


Social Movement Collective Behaviour Structural Conduciveness Structural Strain Protest Movement 
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Copyright information

© James S. Ormrod 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • James S. Ormrod
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BrightonUK

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