Emergent norm theory explains how, in times of crisis, conventional norms are replaced by new norms that dictate collective behavior.
For example, after a major natural disaster (say a hurricane), the usual norms of social behavior are no longer valid. Now, people will find new ways to act in the situation, which can include actions that are unimaginable in normal life, such as looting or violence.
The emergent norm theory helps us understand how crowds function but has also been criticized by scholars, which we will discuss later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Emergent Norm Theory Definition
Mikaila Arthur defines the theory in the following way:
“Emergent norm theory hypothesizes that nontraditional behavior (such as that associated with collective action) develops in crowds as a result of the emergence of new behavioral norms in response to a precipitating crisis.” (2013)
In other words, during certain events, conventional norms of behavior are replaced by new norms. This happens because of a crisis, which forces people to abandon prior notions of appropriate behavior and find new ways of acting.
The emergency norm theory was developed by Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian. They point out that, in such situations, people can often do things that they would never do in normal circumstances:
“They riot…they engage in civil disobedience…they launch terrorist campaigns because they find social support for the view that what they are doing is the right thing to do in the situation.” (1972).
In a crowd, there is no particular leader. However, the crowd focuses on those who act in a distinctive manner, and this becomes the new norm for behavior. As this norm begins to be institutionalized within the crowd, there develops a pressure to conform, known as crowd deindividuation.
Turner and Killian, therefore, reject one of the fundamental assumptions of collective behavior that crowds are homogenous. The mental unity of crowds is an illusion; they only seem unanimous because all members have to adhere to the group’s norms.
Examples of Emergent Norm Theory
- Civilian-Led Evacuation during 9/11: Dynes used the emergent norm theory to explain the civilian-led evacuation of the World Trade Center during 9/11. The attacks created a chaotic situation, and traditional norms of evacuation (following exit signs or waiting for authorities) were no longer valid. As such, people had to rely on the emergent norms that grew out of the situation. These involved information sharing, helping others, and being flexible in decision-making and actions. In the absence of established rules, emergent norms played a crucial role in saving the lives of many.
- Los Angeles Riots: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots were a series of riots & civil disturbances that occurred after a jury acquitted the police officers responsible for the wrongful beating of Rodney King. There were large-scale lootings, and the emergent norm theory helps us understand them better. When people come together, emergent norms give people a shared conviction—mass looting may get redefined by the crowd as taking what rightfully belongs to them. Korean Americans were especially targeted during these riots, who were seen as “callous & greedy invaders” (Cho, 1993).
- Audience Behavior: Steven E. Clayman (2004) used the emergent norm theory to explain how audiences behave. Clayman argues that applause and booing are different forms of collective behavior. Applause usually begins promptly and is initiated by audience members acting independently in response to the performance. In contrast, booing is delayed and is coordinated by members assessing each other’s responses to act together. So, people never wish to boo alone and always coordinate it with others.
- Hurricane Katrina: Hurricane Katrina was a devastating Atlantic hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, causing thousands of deaths and over a hundred billion dollars in damages. The flood protection system in New Orleans was flawed and caused 80% of the city to be completely flooded, destroying transportation & communication facilities. There was widespread looting and other forms of social disorder, which people may have justified as a means of survival. However, there were also rescue efforts that helped the vulnerable, coordinated efforts to provide aid, etc.
- Earthquake in Haiti (2010): In 2010, an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 Mw struck Haiti, and several minor aftershocks occurred over the following weeks. It caused more than 100,000 deaths and affected around 3 million people. The poor housing conditions and general poverty of the country worsened the disaster’s impact. Immediately after the event, there was looting, violence, and widespread chaos. But, individuals and communities also engaged in rescue efforts (improvising methods, prioritizing the vulnerable, etc.). Later rebuilding efforts were also shaped by emergent norms.
- Protests: Protests are groups of people who come together to raise their voices against a social, economic, or political issue. The emergent norm theory can help us understand the behavior of individuals during protests. For example, during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, there were marches, rallies, and sit-ins. Emergent norms, such as the use of umbrellas as a symbol of protest and protection against police pepper sprays, arose spontaneously. New forms of communication such as encrypted messaging apps were developed to coordinate protest actions.
- Labor Strikes: Labour strikes are also characterized by emergent norms that form spontaneously and shape the behavior of striking workers. This can be seen in the Nabisco strike (2021) in the United States. Over 1000 workers of Nabisco’s Chicago Bakery were protesting against the company’s proposed changes to their working contracts. The workers used social media (such as using #NoContractNoSnacks) to spread their message and coordinate their actions. Some workers blocked the entrance to the plant to stop the replacement workers from entering.
- Civil Disobedience: During acts of civil disobedience, such as riots and mobs, people behave according to the emergent norms of the group. A mob is an intensely provoked crowd that is ready to commit violence. In the American South, lynchings were incredibly common during the Reconstruction era, which killed thousands of African Americans. In ordinary circumstances, killing or even hurting another person seems unimaginable to most people; but the emergent norms of mobs can justify it easily.
- Mass Panics: Mass panics are sudden reactions of crowds that cause self-destructive behavior. For example, when a fire breaks out in a closed space and people flee chaotically; in such cases, even stomping over other people seems reasonable as the emergency norms (say of survival) justify it. Such a stampede occurred during the 2010 Love Parade music festival in Germany. Thousands of people attempted to flee a crowded tunnel, leading to a mass crush that killed 21 people.
- Public Health Crises: Public health crises can create an unprecedented situation for the entire world, and although authorities can come up with planned actions, people often have to rely on emergent norms. For example, there are often instances of hoarding of toilet paper and other consumer goods during global health crises.
- Moral Panics: Moral panics occur when society, spurred on by the media, experiences changes in group norms designed to denigrate or stereotype a minority group. This happened, for example, in American in the 1950s when social panic emerged regarding rock music and youth dancing.
Emergent Norm Theory Strengths and Weaknesses
While the emergent norm theory helps us understand how crowds behave, it has also been criticized by scholars for being unclear about how norms get created.
Turner and Killian’s theory argues that crowds are not merely irrational entities. Instead, they rationally establish new norms that are most appropriate (even if socially unacceptable) in the given situation. However, there are several scholars who criticize the emergent norm theory.
Reicher argues that when crowds come together, they bring their own norms with them—no new norms are created (Arthur). For example, an angry crowd protesting against a member’s arrest will be quite different from a group of teenagers at a music festival.
Many scholars also point out that the theory fails to specify what exactly constitutes a norm and how new ones emerge. Moreover, it is quite difficult to explain how these norms are so quickly disseminated and accepted by various diverse individuals.
Emergent norm theory explains how, in response to a crisis, new norms get established spontaneously and shape collective behavior.
Instead of seeing crowds as an irrational entities, the theory argues that crowds rationally find new ways of acting in a given situation. Moreover, the unity of crowds is illusory; members have to adhere to the new norms of the group.
The emergent norm theory helps us to better understand crowd behavior, such as during riots or natural disasters. However, scholars have criticized it for being unclear about how such norms are established and disseminated.
Arthur, M. (2013). Emergent Norm Theory. In George Ritzer (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell.
Cho, S. (1993). Korean Americans vs African Americans; Conflict and Construction, in Gooding-Williams R. (ed.), Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising. Routledge.
Clayman, Steven E. (2004). Booing: The Anatomy of Disaffiliative Response. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Dynes, R.R. (2002). Finding Order in Disorder: Continuities in the 9/11 Response. Delaware: University of Delaware Press.
Turner, R.H., and Killian, L.M. (1972). Collective Behavior, 2nd ed. London: Prentice-Hall.