Crowds and Crisis: On Suggestible Sociality

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The November Revolution in 1918 made manifest and further unleashed a political crisis in Germany, the consequences of which have been thoroughly examined. What has attracted less attention is how the Revolution also triggered a semantic crisis within sociology, namely with regard to conceptions of crowds and their alleged revolutionary aspirations. Interestingly, the sociological interest in crowds took off in the late nineteenth century as a reflection on modern political (dis)order, with the French Revolution and in particular the Paris Commune serving as key points of reference. This early semantics of crowds associated collective behaviour with irrationality, contagion and hypnotic suggestibility. Precisely this semantic repertoire was called into question after the November revolution: Weimar sociologists, with Theodor Geiger in a lead role, argued for an alternative conception of crowds according to which previous inspirations from a more psychological register should be replaced with a stricter sociological focus on how social structures may trigger revolutionary crowd behaviour. This paper (1) examines the Weimar alternative to classical (i.e. late-nineteenth-century French) crowd semantics, and (2) argues that, however timely and consistent with widespread notions of social structures the new semantics appeared, it offered little in terms of actually making sense of crowds, as it in effect removed the focus on crowds as such. As a response to this, the paper argues for reviving selected aspects of classical crowd semantics – in particular notions of imitation and suggestibility – and for placing them centrally in the understanding of the social, in times of crisis and not.
Original languageEnglish
Publication dateDec 2014
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014
Event3rd ITEPE Conference: European Crises from Weimar until Today - Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Duration: 11 Dec 201412 Dec 2014
Conference number: 3


Conference3rd ITEPE Conference
LocationCopenhagen Business School
Internet address

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