Home » The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion by Alan C. Kerckhoff
The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion Alan C. Kerckhoff

The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion

Alan C. Kerckhoff

Published 1968
239 pages
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 About the Book 

Collective behavior is a term used by sociologists and psychologists to refer to a rather large number of different kinds of phenomena. Crowd behavior, panics, fads, crazes are all forms of collective be­havior. The common definitive characteristic of such phenomena is a spontaneous response of a number of people in a situation in which there is no common cultural definition of what is appropriate. What occurs, therefore, is an emergent social form whose qualities can often be specified only after they develop. In most cases, the response is an active one, the collectivity does something with refer­ence to some element in the situation -- they lynch the prisoner, run from the fire, buy the presumed valuable commodity, and so on.The form of collective behavior represented by the case analyzed in this volume is somewhat different from most other forms. It is generally called hysterical contagion, and it consists of the dissemi­nation within a collectivity of a symptom or set of symptoms for which no physical explanation can be found. In such cases, people get sick from gas but no gas can be found- they get food poisoning but no toxic element can be found in the food- or, as in our case, they suffer from poisonous insect bites but no poisonous insect can be found. The noteworthy phenomenon, therefore, is not an active response to some element in the situation- it is a passive experience. The actors do not do something so much as something happens to them. In fact, we are more likely to think of them as victims rather than actors.Although it can safely be said in general that there have not been many empirical studies of collective behavior, it is even more true that studies of hysterical contagion are hard to find. This fact made the prospect of carrying out the study reported here both more exciting and more fearsome. There was little to go on, and there was even basis for doubting that anything of value could be done. Since the study could be made only after the event occurred, and since there seemed to be little order to the series of events that constituted the contagion, the usual tools of behavioral science seemed less than adequate for the task. And yet the challenge of coming to grips with such an amorphous but significant social phenomenon is great, and we present the analysis of this single case in the hope that it will stimulate further research in this area of inquiry. It will be apparent that we have not solved all of the problems of such research, but if what follows indicates that these problems are worthy of continued systematic investigation, the effort will have been justified.The book has been organized to reflect the kind of problem faced in undertaking this study. Part I consists of two chapters which report what was given at the time the study got under way. Chap­ter 1 provides an outline of the external facts of the epidemic as reported by the various mass media and as reconstructed during our initial contacts with officials who had been involved. It thus relates what we knew about this particular case when we planned the field work. Chapter 2 is a summary of what we saw as the most relevant ideas current in the literature at the time and represents the con­ceptual framework with which we approached the investigation. Part II reports the outcome of our efforts within this context. It con­sists of seven chapters which present our solutions to the problems of research design and analysis (Chapter 3), the findings relevant to the major dimensions investigated (Chapters 4 through 7), and sum­mary and concluding statements (Chapters 8 and 9).This book owes its existence to the generous support of two organizations. Funds from the Office of Naval Research ( Group Psychology Branch) through Contract Nor 181 C11 (Project NR177-470) made it possible to act promptly when our suspicion of extensive hysterical contagion was aroused through local news­paper reports. A grant from the National Science Foundation ( NSFGS-89) enabled us to carry out the study. We want to express hereour special appreciation to the responsible administration, LuigiPetrullo of ONR and Robert L. Hall of NSF, for the flexibility and promptness with which they responded to our needs and without which it would not have been possible to take advantage of this unique situation for scientific purposes.Like other research projects of this magnitude, this study owes much to help of colleagues, staff, and participants in the field. We recognize especially the contribution of Norman Miller in the early stages of the research, in the initial contacts with plant management, the design of the study and construction of the questionnaire.We appreciate the excellent interviewing by the field staff of the National Opinion Research Center under the direction of Galen Gockel. The further processing of the data was aided materially by a group of research assistants at Duke: A. Clarke Davis, Carl Hirsch, Patricia B. Frazer, Robert H. Roth, and Frank D. Bean, assisted in coding by Frances Anderson and Mary Sargent. The computations were conducted by Duke University Computation Center which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.Mary L. Brehm undertook the demanding task of the final editing of the manuscript and preparation of the index, and we are grateful for this essential contribution. We also wish to acknowledge the skillful typing of the manuscript by Ann Boneau and Susan Wright.We have also profited from comments on earlier versions of the manuscript by Arlene Daniels, Kurt Lang, and Guy E. Swanson.Finally, we must acknowledge, by necessity anonymously, our gratitude to the workers and officials of Montana Mills (especially Hiram L. Lamont, the personnel manager who cooperated so splendidly with the research group), to Dr. Joseph R. John of the Communicable Diseases Center who gave us valuable first-hand medical information, and to those associated with the various media of mass communication who have permitted us the use of their re­ports in order that the immediate impact of the incident can be portrayed.A. C. K.K. W. B.