The Sociology Of Panic

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Disaster Research Center
The term "panic" is widely used in everyday speech as well as in the literature of different professional areas and scientific disciplines. This article confines itself primarily to discussing how sociologists, historically and currently, view the phenomena. The justification for such a focus is that the concept has long been used in the discipline especially in the sociological subspeciality of collective behavior, and much of the relevant empirical work has been done by sociologists studying behavior in natural and technological disasters. Early approaches to panic were vague in defining the phenomena. However, most formulations view panic as either extreme and groundless fear, or flight behavior. Both phenomena are supposedly widespread in crisis situations. Present day discussions about panic also revolve around whether or not the behavior is irrational, and whether it is highly contagious or not. Three major empirical studies that have heavily influenced present day sociological views about panic are presented. Two of the studies particularly challenge widespread ideas in the literature about the phenomena, showing for example that panic flight is very rare, and has few of the characteristics typically attributed to the behavior, even in situations where it might be expected. There are two questions that will loom even larger in the future. One is why despite the research evidence, the idea of "panic" captures the popular imagination and continues to be evoked by scholars of human behavior. A second basic question is whether there is still any scientific justification for the continuing use of the concept in any technical sense in the collective behavior area.
Collective Behavior, Panic