On the morning of July 7th 2005, we were on the platform at Waterloo East tube station. We were our way to the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition to present our research on crowd behaviour in emergencies. But, before we got there, we were evacuated from the tube alongside thousands of other commuters, without being told why. The rest of our journey that day was by foot amongst the crowds of people doing the same. It was a slightly surreal sight to see so many people walking across London on their way to work that morning.
We only later discovered why we had been evacuated: three bombs on the London underground and one on a London bus. The Royal Society Exhibition was poorly attended that day, for obvious reasons. But, as well as our shock and sadness for those who had been killed, we had a deep interest in finding out more about the behavioural reactions of survivors. As we discovered in interviews and other data we gathered in the following months, despite the fear and the danger people were in, cooperation and help was common; people were courteous and kind; and personal selfishness was relatively rare – far less common, it seems, than a typical rush-hour on the London Underground.
One of the dominant narratives of the time was that the fortitude seen in the public reaction, including some moving stories of heroism, was something unique to Londoners or the British (the ‘Bulldog spirit’). Had the bombings happened elsewhere, it was suggested, then there wouldn’t have been such resilience. However, we thought the solidarity among survivors that day told us instead about the psychological capacities of crowds in general. Specifically, we argued that a crowd in which there is a shared identity – a sense of ‘us’ – is one in which its members will look out for each other, even if they didn’t know each other.
Another dominant narrative that often accompanies emergencies is that of ‘mass panic’ – the idea that irrationality and abandonment of social rules inevitably follow when a crowd faces a danger. ‘Mass panic’ is only one of a number of representations of crowd psychology that pathologize collectivity – as either ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. These pathologizing representations exist in everyday talk, in film images, in newspaper headlines – and sometimes in emergency planning guidance. 7/7 exposed the falseness of these ideas about crowds.
Like 9/11 before it, this national emergency reinforced the need, in the eyes of the government, of some form of ‘community resilience’. That is, because the number of emergencies is said to be increasing and because professional responders cannot be expected to arrive in time or in sufficient numbers, then the public should rely on their own collective resources to cope and recover. While such ‘communities’ are usually thought of as geographical groups or pre-existing networks of people, our analysis of the response of 7/7 survivors showed that crowds can sometimes operate as psychological communities. Hence we referred to survivors as ‘the fourth emergency service’ and ‘zero responders’. In fact, the same point is recognized in the government’s own guidance on community resilience, which refers to crowds as ‘communities of circumstance’ whereby people are unlikely to have the same interests or come from the same geographical area but may form a community in the aftermath of an event’ (p.12).
The term ‘resilience’ is often taken as a conservative concept, and the metaphor of ‘bouncing back’ can reinforce this view, as the focus is on accepting the status quo and adjusting to the adverse situations that individuals and communities can find themselves in. A better metaphor might be the ability to ‘bounce forward’, as it suggests that something new can arise from the event. It was notable that the ‘we’ that emerged among many survivors was a new collective identity, not the maintenance of an existing one. Some survivors used the shared identity that emerged from 7/7 as a basis for a mutual support group and to campaign for the government to recognise their needs.
However, such spontaneous formation of psychological crowds can also highlight a potential problem for those in authority. While emergency planners may need crowds and other informal groups, they also sometimes fear them because of their potential to organize autonomously – either making demands on the government or demonstrating the redundancy of the government. Indeed the same capacities – shared social identity leading to mutual social support – that are the basis of collective resilience are also the basis of collective empowerment. For example, Rachel Solnit describes the communities that developed in response to a variety of disasters in the US (such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina 2005), which were often treated as a potential threat, and at times were ruthlessly suppressed by the National Guard as they entered the disaster zones to ‘restore order’.
So, while crowds can be communities and are increasingly (and rightly) seen as potential partners in emergency planning, there is still a deep-seated unease towards them in the corridors of power. Therefore, (and as we have argued previously), we believe that society still needs to overcome its fear of the crowd.
By John Drury and Chris Cocking
A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation