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Collective Behavior and Public Opinion: Rapid Shifts in Opinion and Communication

Posted By: Plesiosaurus

Jaap Van Ginneken, “Collective Behavior and Public Opinion: Rapid Shifts in Opinion and Communication”
Lawrence Erlbaum | ISBN 0805843868 | 2003 Year | PDF | ~1 Mb | 344 Pages


Chaos, complexity, and uncertainty: fundamental facets of life. Jaap van Ginneken, in Collective Behavior and Public Opinion (2003), highlights these aspects of our existence and displays how “minor details may cause drastic shifts in many processes” (p. xi). This book takes a case study approach towards the chaos, complexity, and uncertainty that exists in the world, and vividly describes the internal and external actions of groups. Van Ginneken, a former freelance writer and reporter, presents a rather enjoyable read with regard to the formation of public opinion, and addresses many taken-for-granted parts of our environment.

In addition to addressing uncertainty, van Ginneken’s work also deals with our tendency to approach many aspects of our world with rigid, unquestioned attitudes: “All too often, we are mired in a somewhat reified approach to opinions and attitudes, as if they were a kind of brick, with an obvious permanence and fixed dimensions; and as if they aggregate like walls and buildings, through simple addition and accumulation” (p. 217). His case studies display the problems of such an idea, and he asserts that public opinion “should be approached as a dynamic configuration in constant transformation” (p. 3).

Van Ginneken macroscopically analyzes eleven events, each of which had drastic effects on individuals and the world as a whole. He separates the book into four parts: “Mind Quakes,” “Emerging Collective Behavior,” “Shifting Public Moods,” and “Conclusions.” Each part bleeds into the next, fluidly connecting various theories and phenomena.

Mind Quakes highlights the controversies that emerged with Benetton clothing in the early 1990’s, rumors of kidnappings at Disney facilities, and the brisk media coverage of the battle against hunger during the mid 1980’s. This section displays the dynamism of public opinion and opinion formation, addresses the power of rumors, gossip, and constant mutation of messages, and exhibits how the media can easily and effectively stir up support for an issue.

The next section, Emerging Collective Behavior, presents the debate that surrounded nuclear testing on Moruroa, the storm that assembled around baby seal hunters and real vs. fake fur, and the beginning stages of Greenpeace. These instances detail concepts of group synergy, chart the formation and characteristics of opinion currents, and examine the creation of social movements.

Shifting Public Moods concentrates on the start and development of trends such as the POG (a.k.a. milkcap) craze, the mad cow scare that originated in England, and the uproar about Shell Oil Company’s decision to dump an abandoned oil tanker into the sea. Such examples describe the evolution of fads, fashions, and collective activity, display the impact fear and panic can have on public opinion, and discuss the abrupt formation of protest and why some issues become more problematic than others.

In the concluding chapters, van Ginneken addresses the sudden economic trouble that transpired in many Asian countries during the mid to late 1990’s, and the Chernobyl fallout in 1986. The former broadly highlights financial instability, and the latter addresses problems of relying on predictions. These two cases epitomize the trouble that can occur when we try to fully manage uncertainties in the world.