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One among Many

The Sociology of Moving in a Mob

Anyone moving in a large crowd, absorbed in their phone and yet avoiding collisions, follows certain self-imposed laws. The movement of individuals as a condition for the movement of masses is the subject of a recent study by Dr. Andrey Korbut.

Observing the Everyday

According to Korbut, ‘Moving in a mob is no less a skilled practice than activities long analyzed by sociologists such as living in a family or one’s professional activity.’

The study suggests that a mob is not a cohesive, monolithic entity to be examined from without, as sociologists have historically maintained. Rather, it is an entity that should be examined from within, from the perspective of ordinary experience and its participants (thereby analyzing it from the position of phenomenology and ethnomethodology). Such an approach shows that the way in which a mob moves is conditioned by people’s awareness of other people’s actions and the coordination of their actions in certain situations.

As his subject of observation, Korbut selected crowds in the metro—mobs that are most routine and dynamic, with significantly varying density throughout the day. From the outside, they seem to be a uniform distribution of participants at stations, escalators, or in connecting tunnels. From within the mob, however, one sees something different—‘a diverse organization of bodies, things, free space, and distances’ that indicate her own capabilities and the likely behavior of others. In other words, they suggest what is happening and how one should behave.

The rule people follow in these circumstances is one of free space minimization: individuals make use of the space that forms as a result of the actions of those around them.

The mob as an embodiment of social forces and a symbol of social transformation attracted the attention of sociologists in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. However, interest gradually faded. In the second half of the 20th century, mob research receded to the periphery because of the ambiguity of the concept itself and the emergence of new terms for describing the organization of society. Interest in the topic resurged, however, with the proliferation of digital technology which prompted sociologists to rethink the phenomenon. A most illustrative example of this is Howard Rheingold’s book, Smart Mobs. New ways of communication allow people in a crowd to establish relationships without coming into contact face-to-face. Therefore, mobs have begun to be examined not as crowds of people but as a phase of a process bringing people into physical contact with each other.

The Moral of Speed

The typical methods of organization of movement in a mob are connected with the movement of those joining the mob and people maintaining their speed and direction, stopping (slowing down), and following one another.

Thus, speed is considered by those travelling in the mob not an individual characteristic but a characteristic that must be controlled in accordance with the circumstances. It is assumed an individual will take into account the speed of the movement of others and not hinder it (for example, one who ‘decelerates’ creates a slow-moving line behind her, etc.).

Speed ​​allows you to change your position even in the densest of mobs: a person who moves more quickly uses free space to pass others and maneuver while monitoring the movement of their neighbors.

In some cases, it is not only desirable but necessary to make use of ‘corridors’ that open up. ‘The established mob order has a moral character. Every action is perceived as an action with consequences for others; therefore it is expected that it progress with those consequences in mind,’ explains Andrei Korbut.


One after Another

For a person in a mob, the other participants are oriented objects: ‘Everyone can “rely” on the other in terms of the direction and speed of the mob’s movement. That is, a person may “go along” with the person in front of them.’

‘Often there are clusters in the metro where people follow each other,’ says Korbut. ‘They can quite easily shift to the side, but in any case, the presence of other similarly oriented objects allows you to move without paying constant attention to what is happening around you (some read a book or newspaper while moving, others play computer games, and others might type a text on their mobile phone).”

Efforts to avoid collisions help crowds move in a staggered manner: a participant moves a little behind and in between two others ahead of them which allows them to take steps in the interval between them.


Tapping the Brakes

Caught in a crowd, one ‘has access only to phenomena that are within earshot and one’s field of vision.’ One registers only those who move at a pace and in a direction that is clear to them.

It is no accident that, when outpacing others, you can suddenly bump into someone's back. This forces you to slow down, and it provokes stopping and deceleration.

However, such a situation does not characterize the phenomenon of stopping and decelerating in itself. These actions can be observed even in very dense mobs and are rarely associated with force majeure (e.g., someone has stumbled, someone has leaned over to pick up something they dropped, etc.).

One of the reasons those in a mob may give ‘stop signals’ is the desire to let someone else in the mob pass. In this case:

 the person who is moving more quickly must indicate to the person they would like to pass that they would like to use the available free space in order to get by;

 the person who is letting the other get by must make way, and also gradually slow down so that they do not interrupt the movement of those behind them, thereby giving them time to either slow down as well or to go in a different direction.

Joining the Movement

Becoming part of a mob is the same as solving an organizational problem. In order to join a mob, one must use certain methods.

Opportunities for assimilation can be systematic. For example, ‘In a mob that has thinned out, those on the edges maintain a certain distance from walls or other barriers, thereby creating a ‘layer’ (of sparsely filled or empty space) between the crowd and the wall/barrier, which those wishing to pass by more quickly can use.’

Upon assessing the density of the mob’s edge, those who are joining the mob do so in a random manner, joining from the rear and entering positions with minimal free space between themselves and others. The required niches are immediately ‘calculated’ with a quick glance. Thus, joining the movement is possible from almost any point.


Study author:
Andrei Korbut, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Fundamental Sociology
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, March 11, 2019