By Carina Hoerst & Sara Vestergren
Media extensively broadcasted Queen Elizabeth II’s passing and funeral, and the crowds gathered to mourn her. The reasons for people to join the crowds and wait for up to 25 hours were multiple. Some explained their motivation as being part of something “big”, “unique” and “historic”, or out of duty to the Queen and a need to see the coffin to get closure. Others explained their motivation in terms of familiarity, both about the Queen (e.g., as a mother) and about reminding them of lost loved ones.
As part of our research project, we were fortunate to observe crowds in Edinburgh, London, and Brighton. During the first few days, people we spoke to in London explained their reasons for being there in terms of the importance of the late monarch; Queen Elizabeth II had served them for 70 years, so queueing for up to 25 hours, taking a day off work, to show her respect and mourn her was seen as a small sacrifice. People in the queue also referred to queuing as a pilgrimage, a journey, and part of the process. The sense of commitment and going through hardship (often connected to pilgrimage) can affirm and validate one’s social and personal identity, and demonstrate that one is a good group member.
However, more prominent than the grieving and sense of reciprocal duty and obligation was the sense of gratitude and celebration of life and togetherness (“Britishness”). Toward the end of the week when the queue had been ongoing for three days, many people explained their motivations to join in terms of “fear of missing out”; missing out on being part of history as subjects rather than objects. Hence, the queue itself became a reason to join. Furthermore, people joined crowds gathered around places of significance to experience the “atmosphere”. Similar to sports events such as football, some people had travelled far, and waited for hours for the event to start, knowing that they would not be able to see the actual processions due to the large crowds, but were happy to watch it on their phones instead.
Importantly, descriptions of crowds need to aim to avoid using narratives that reduce the crowd and motivations to one type, for example, equating not queuing or being critical of the monarchy with being “un-British” or portraying a nation homogenously as “in grief”. The first few days of the event were weekdays and structural issues, such as work or caring responsibilities and geographical proximity, could have restricted who could and who could not attend the crowds. But even among those that joined there were various narratives, for example in Brighton and Edinburgh, of concern regarding the costs and extent of the ceremonial efforts, while others were afraid of mourning “the wrong way”, i.e., feeling celebratory and upbeat alongside feeling sad. Thus, reducing the crowd risks conveying a very narrow understanding and representation of the crowds and what it means to be British, and has already been populated by right-wing politicians.
The psychology of crowds closely associates people coming together as a collective to a sense of a shared identity. This marks the difference between a randomly clustered physical crowd (e.g., people being on a bus) and a crowd where members have connected– a psychological crowd. An event of significance, for example, a disaster, can heighten the shared identity by evoking the perception to share a “common fate” with others facilitating sharing and helping behaviour (e.g., lending emotional and material support). Furthermore, coming together as a collective can also be a way of collectively making sense of a traumatising event, developing positive emotions, empowering the group and enhancing the sense of a community, all of which we could observe in ‘the Queue’. For example, people talked about how being in the queue was a positive experience, understood to come from being there together with other people, people who often had been strangers before entering the crowd. Queuers bought each other tea, looked after each other, shared contact details and hugged. The crowd made strangers friends through shared experiences. Hence, the crowds and the collectiveness reached beyond their geographical space and became dynamic social spaces where transformations could take place making the event meaningful, and for some, the “collectiveness” and what it represented was more important than the actual event.
Finally, it needs to be noted that there are temporal differences between the various crowds. For example, in the Queue, you spend a long time in close proximity to others clearly sharing the event and experience (e.g., wristband as indicators or shared experience). For others joining the funeral crowds on the morning of the 19th of September, the sharedness might not be as clear. Without the shared identification, the shared experience, where a physical crowd turns into a psychological crowd (at least for some) the transformations are unlikely to occur.