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Crowd Behavior & Elaborated Social Identity Modeling

The issue of civil unrest has presented law enforcement across the United States with the significant challenge of restoring order while maintaining the constitutional rights of those who wish to exercise their freedom of speech. As a result, the way law enforcement has approached the issue of crowd control has undergone an evolution in the United States over the past several decades. From a philosophy of escalated force, where police incrementally increase their level of forceful coercion to disperse a crowd, to negotiated management, where law enforcement establishes a dialogue with group leaders, police have sought ways to better deal with crowds. Understanding what motivates crowd behavior has become an important aspect of how law enforcement responds to crowd events. To build this understanding, law enforcement has begun to embrace research on the psychology of crowd behavior.

There is a growing body of research concluding that it is essential for law enforcement decision-makers to understand the behavioral aspects of crowds. Theories abound on why individuals and crowds behave the way they do. From Gustave LeBon’s Group Mind Theory to Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian’s Emergent Norm Theory, library shelves and the internet offer abundant research explaining human behavior. One such theory – Elaborated Social Identity Modeling (ESIM), by Stephen Reicher, John Drury, and Clifford Stott – is presented as a valuable tool for law enforcement in gauging possible crowd behavior. Although not necessarily a precise predictor of behavior, Stott’s report to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) indicates ESIM provides potentially valuable insights into how a crowd may behave.

Foundation of Elaborated Social Identity Modeling

ESIM has its basis in Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (SIT), a theory focusing on how individuals view themselves and the world around them vis-à-vis their membership in a social group. By doing so, individuals establish a social identity that, according to Tajfel, is the part of a person’s self-concept stemming from their membership in the social group to which they attribute value and emotional significance. Dr. Saul McLeod of the University of Manchester stated that social identity is attained via a three-step process of categorization, identification, and perceiving others.

Categorization involves individuals’ self-perceptions and how they categorize themselves. For example, people may categorize themselves as members of a particular community, race, aggrieved group, anarchist, or parent. Indeed, people may categorize themselves as anything they perceive themselves to be. One may also place themselves in multiple categories, as posited by David Brannan, Kristin Darken, and Anders Strindberg in their book, A Practitioner’s Way Forward. Furthermore, Stott’s report to the HMIC stated that categorization would lead to individuals acting in ways deemed appropriate as defined by those who categorize themselves in the same way.

There is a growing body of research concluding that it is essential for law enforcement decision-makers to understand the behavioral aspects of crowds.

The second step in SIT is for the subject to identify with like-minded individuals who categorize themselves similarly. This leads to bonding among individuals who begin to view themselves as members of an in-group. According to Anders Strindberg’s report to the Swedish Defense Research Agency entitled, Social Identity Theory and the Study of Terrorism and Violent Extremism, this in-group will now engage in thinking and behavior seen as normative within the collective through a process known as normative conformity. For example, in an unruly crowd event, normative behavior might manifest itself in behavior deemed normal to the in-group but aberrant by others, thereby necessitating a police response.

The final step in SIT is for the in-group to compare themselves and others, especially those who display dissimilar ways of thinking and behavior. Those people are looked upon by the in-group as an out-group. In Tajfel’s book, Social Identity and Intergroup Relations, Miles Hewstone and J.M.F. Jaspars see this in-group/out-group dyadic as setting the stage for potential confrontation because each in-group may discriminate against out-groups.

By way of example, imagine a fictional character named Michael. Michael is from the lower socioeconomic scale and is aggrieved by government and industry policies that maintain a subsistence wage for workers. He feels the pinch of rising inflation and believes abolishing government and private industry through anarchy will lead to fairer treatment of workers, thereby rectifying his problem. He then categorizes himself as an anarchist and seeks to identify with others of similar thought. He finds others who self-identify as anarchists. They bond by way of philosophical and physical attributes: they think the same, dress the same, and are willing to commit acts of violence to advance their agenda. They are now the in-group, looking at others of dissimilar characteristics as out-groups. Should the out-group be indicative of government or private industry, they are looked upon by the in-group with derision and as a target for violence. A government entity, such as law enforcement, may be targeted by anarchists with rocks, bottles, or other means. High-end retailers may be seen as representing the excesses of capitalism so despised by anarchists, thus becoming the target of looting or arson.

The fictional anarchist, Michael, has engaged in the three-step process of categorization, identification, and comparison. By understanding Michael’s transformation, law enforcement can understand the motivations behind Michael’s actions and predict, with some modicum of certainty, how he and his group will behave.

Applying Elaborated Social Identity Modeling

Every group is as unique as the individuals who comprise it, just as every crowd is as unique as the groups it contains. According to Stott’s previously mentioned report, viewing a crowd as a monolithic entity, with no regard for the uniqueness of the groups it contains, would be a serious error for law enforcement officials charged with policing such a crowd. To treat the entirety of the crowd forcefully, based upon the violent reputations or actions of a few, may be looked upon by peaceful crowd members as an illegitimate law enforcement action.

Research conducted for the Swedish National Police Board determined that such illegitimate action could spur non-compliance with law enforcement directives. Elaborated Social Identity Modeling calls for officials to adjust their approach by identifying and treating disruptive and peaceful groups within crowds differently. Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Logan P. Kennedy stated that disruptive groups should be dealt with in a more focused manner, such as via strategic incapacitation, where more forceful measures are focused on transgressors.

Since social identities within groups and crowds can be changeable – as recognized in research conducted by Christopher Barney – illegitimate police behavior can lead to a convergence of categorizations by groups. Through this convergence, groups may collectively consider themselves the in-group and law enforcement an out-group. One example of this occurred in Britain during the St. Paul’s riot of 1980. Research by Reicher determined that particular event saw people of varying social identities coalesce into one due to perceived improper police actions.

According to Brannan et al.’s book, ESIM explains that the in-group/out-group dynamic is driven by how one group perceives the actions of another. When one group acts in a certain way – say, police indiscriminately fire rubber projectiles into a non-violent crowd engaged in civil disobedience – that may yield a response by the crowd. That response may be of similar kinetic character because police actions were perceived as unnecessary and therefore illegitimate. The crowd’s reaction would then drive the law enforcement response. This cycle of action/reaction would continue until one side retains dominance.

According to Barney, the action/reaction cycle can also occur between docile groups and police if police actions are deemed heavy-handed. One example of this occurred in London in 2021, where police confronted a crowd of women who were in violation of COVID mask mandates while mourning the death of a young woman. Aggressive police actions were perceived as unnecessarily forceful and were met with resistance. ESIM looks at the context in terms of the actions of one group in relation to the actions of another. Each time the cycle of action/reaction plays out, the context changes, forcing each group to reevaluate their actions in accordance with their identity – as happened in the 2021 London incident.

To prevent a violent cycle of action/reaction, law enforcement officers must temper their responses by realizing there may be peaceful groups in the crowd who see a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach as illegitimate. According to Stott, law enforcement should identify and isolate those bent on disruption from those with peaceable intent and temper any use of force accordingly. The aforementioned research conducted by the Swedish National Police Board concluded that treating peaceful groups fairly by facilitating their constitutional rights can lead to greater cooperation and less violence.

Key Lesson for Better Decision Making

ESIM draws upon the concept of self-identity found in SIT and uses it to help distinguish disruptive elements from peaceful ones in a crowd. Understanding how the process of categorization, identification, and comparison shapes a person’s identity and, therefore, their behavior is essential to understanding the idiosyncrasies of the in-group/out-group dynamic, which can cause intergroup conflict. Law enforcement officials who appreciate these nuances in a crowd are better suited to make informed decisions when planning for and responding to crowd events. Better decision-making leads to more effective planning and response, which reduces the potential for civil unrest.

Robert Leverone
Robert Leverone

Robert Leverone, M.A., retired as a lieutenant from the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) after thirty-one years of service. He was the commander of the MSP’s Special Emergency Response Team, an arm of the agency tasked with crowd control and homeland security-related missions. Robert holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University, a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Westfield State University, and a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies (Homeland Security and Defense) from the Naval Postgraduate School, where he authored his thesis, Crowds as Complex Adaptive Systems: Strategic Implications for Law Enforcement. Robert is the owner and president of Crowd Operations Dynamix, Inc., specializing in training and consulting for law enforcement and private industry organizations in crowd management and control issues.



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