What is Emergent Norm Theory?

Fans with their hands in the air
Crowds have an effect on collective behavior. Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Emergent norm theory is a theory used to explain collective behavior. Turner and Killian argue that the norms that ultimately govern a situation may not be initially apparent to the participants. Instead, norms emerge through a process of social interaction in which people look to others for cues and signs indicating various possibilities of what they might expect. Emergent norm theory explains that collective behavior has a long history of turning violent, such as in the cases of mobs and riots. However, collective behavior also applies to fads that can cause some good. The ice bucket challenge is an example of a collective behavior that raised money towards medical research. 

Four Forms 

Researchers think that emergent norm theory occurs in four forms. While sociologist classify the forms differently, the most common forms are crowd, public, mass, and social movements. 


While there is debate over most of the forms, crowds are the only form all sociologist agree on. It is believed that in affect people revert to more animalistic tendencies. It is speculated that crowds cause people to lose some rational thinking ability. Some psychologist thing crowds have three base emotions, fear, joy and anger. The latter is where violent outbursts most commonly come from. 


The difference between a crowd and the public is that the public has gathered on a single issue.  Once a decision is reached on the issue the public usually disperses. 


The mass refers to the media created by groups to reach others. All mass media would fall under this category

Social Movements. 

A social movement is a movement to change some aspect of society. Because so much goes into the study of social movements they are often considered their own category of study.