Contagion Theory



Gustave Le Bon
(b. 1841- d. 1931)



Contagion theory formulated by French sociologist Gustave Le Bon (1896) was originally drawn to explain individuals’ behavior in crowds. According to Le Bon, the individuals tend to follow the crowds’ attitudes, behaviors and knowledge toward irrational actions. However, there are few wrong interpretations in that each individual in a crowd has the sense of rational and responsible behavior; individuals also can affect on the crowds. Contagion theory, hypothesizing that individuals adopt the members with whom they communicate in their social network, is characterized by solid combination of direct communication and structural similarities arousing similar communications.

Contagion Theory is sometimes called epidemic theory, but Crane (1991) mentioned that epidemic was a stronger expression of level of spread of social problems. As the saying that delineates well the theory on peer effects, “Bad association spoils useful habits”, a certain rate of disadvantage behaviors or attitudes spurs and becomes worse at a larger rate.


Level of Analysis:

Neighborhood, social group



Network analysis, Survey, and Longitudinal data



Contagion theory is captured in social networks, particularly explaining neighborhood effects on the youth. Contagion theory explains how individuals are bonded with families and extensively with their neighborhoods by interchanging and imitating their mutual behaviors and attitudes.

This theory posits that children lived in the same space geographically will behave better in affluent neighborhoods where are formed with successful adult models and competitive qualities . Compared to others, deviant teens are more likely to be generated in neighborhoods with a concentration of poverty. In this sense, scholars in housing studies have paid attention to contagion theory and investigated how neighborhood affluence affects individuals.

Studies on neighborhood effects have a long history but spurred from the middle of 1990s. For example, Jencks and Mayer (1990) surveyed neighborhoods’ effects of advantaged of peers and proposed five influential models: neighborhoods services, competitions, role models, members’ attitudes, and relative deprivation. Since then, numerous studies have been conducted with more developed techniques and on various subjects.



Briggs, X. S. (1997). Moving up versus moving out: Neighborhood effects in housing mobility programs. Housing Policy Debate, 8(1), 195-234.
Crane, J. (1991). Epidemic theory of ghettos and neighborhood effects of dropping out and teenage child bearing. American Journal of Sociology, 96(1), 1226-1259.
Ellen, I. G. and Turner, M. A. (1997). Does neighborhood matter? Assessing recent evidence. Housing Policy Debate, 8(4), 833-866.
Jencks, C., and Mayer, S. (1990). The social consequences of growing up in a poor neighborhood. In L. E. Lynn and M. G. McGeary (Eds), Inner-city poverty in the United States (pp. 111-186). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Leventhal, T., and Brooks-Gunn, J. (2004). A randomized study of neighborhood effects on low-income children’s educational outcomes. Developmental Psychology, 40(4), 488-507.




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