The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion

The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion

The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion

The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion

Excerpt

Collective behavior is a term used by sociologists and psychologists to refer to a rather large number of different kinds of phenomena. Crowd behavior, panics, fads, crazes are all forms of collective behavior. The common definitive characteristic of such phenomena is a spontaneous response of a number of people in a situation in which there is no common cultural definition of what is appropriate. What occurs, therefore, is an emergent social form whose qualities can often be specified only after they develop. In most cases, the response is an active one, the collectivity does something with reference to some element in the situation -- they lynch the prisoner, run from the fire, buy the presumed valuable commodity, and so on.

The form of collective behavior represented by the case analyzed in this volume is somewhat different from most other forms. It is generally called "hysterical contagion," and it consists of the dissemination within a collectivity of a symptom or set of symptoms for which no physical explanation can be found. In such cases, people get sick from "gas" but no gas can be found; they get "food poisoning" but no toxic element can be found in the food; or, as in our case, they suffer from "poisonous insect bites" but no poisonous insect can be found. The noteworthy phenomenon, therefore, is not an active response to some element in the situation; it is a passive experience. The actors do not do something so much as something happens to them. In fact, we are more likely to think of them as victims rather than actors.

Although it can safely be said in general that there have not been many empirical studies of collective behavior, it is even more true that studies of hysterical contagion are hard to find. This fact made the prospect of carrying out the study reported here both more exciting and more fearsome. There was little to go on, and there was even basis for doubting that anything of value could be done. Since . . .

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