Whether you’re chanting at a protest, partying at a concert, or cheering at a football game, there’s a special kind of excitement that comes from being in a crowd. Émile Durkheim called this “collective effervescence,” and today sociologists use this term to talk about the bubbly emotion that comes from being in the middle of the action.

Photo Credit: Pabak Sarkar, Flickr CC

One of the tricky parts of studying collective effervescence is figuring out what exactly supercharges these social interactions. Does it come from the simple fact that you’re in a crowd, or is it in the way people engage with each other when they get there? If we think about the morning commute or the line at the grocery store, most crowds seem pretty unpleasant and not so effervescent. Recent research published in Sociological Science by Lasse Suonperä Liebst sheds light on the answer with a super fun approach to data collection.

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To track collective effervescence, a team of researchers showed up at The Roskilde Festival—one of Europe’s largest music festivals—to survey attendees about whether their camping experiences were “festive, noisy, hectic, boring, or calm.” 

The survey was sampled by a team of 11 university students during the five warm-up days of the festival, which precede the scheduled music program. During this period, tens of thousands of visitors build tent camps and engage in extensive drinking and partying activities. As such, the festival offered a “natural laboratory” (Park 1939) to examine the factors underpinning the collective effervescence that prior studies have identified in this (Pedersen 2014) and similar festival contexts (Niekrenz 2014).

Lasse Suonperä Liebst – “Exploring the Sources of Collective Effervescence: A Multilevel Study.Sociological Science.

The survey team also collected respondents’ gender, age, previous festival attendance, how much their camp sites were interacting with others, and how much they personally enjoyed the party atmosphere. Then, they used aerial photography to map out how dense the festival crowds were and how close each campsite was to the central stage. 

With all this information collected, statistical models showed that individual preferences for partying did have a positive relationship the with reported level of collective effervescence at their campsite. However, the aerial measure of crowd density was a much stronger predictor of these reports—stronger than attendees’ own accounts of how often their camps were hanging out with others.

These results help us understand how collective effervescence happens, because they show how even just being near a crowd can “sweep people up” into a festive state. We often assume that crowds are stressful unless people choose to be in them or have positive, one-on-one interactions once inside. It is true that context matters—the grocery store queue probably won’t spark a party anytime soon—but this research shows the power of space and place for shaping our social lives.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.