Interaction Ritual Chains

Here are some highlights from this influential 2004 book by sociologist Randall Collins:

* Eminent thinkers are energy stars. They are highly productive, turning out large amounts of published (and often unpublished work), only some small portion of which becomes famous. They work extremely long hours, seemingly obsessed with their work; their thinking is itself energizing for them, as if they are magnetically drawn along by their chains of thought. At the peak of momentum in these spells of thinking (which often takes the form of writing), ideas come into their heads—in some cases, they report, as if they are taking dictation. This pattern, found among those most magnetized by their work, gives some credence to the notion of “inspiration,” as if the creative thinker is a genius, uniquely in touch with a creative flow from some higher region. The metaphor is misplaced, but it translates into a sociological truth: there are particular locations in intellectual networks where a few individuals become highly focused, highly energized, putting together streams of symbols in new ways; and those symbols do indeed come from outside, not from a mysterious realm of creative spirit, but from the dynamics of the intellectual community internalized in that person’s mind and now on their way to being externalized again.
Not all creative individuals have the same flamboyance—and the same publicity focused upon their private behavior—but they all have relatively high degrees of emotional energy concentrated in their work. The eminent teacher is impressive because he or she transmits this attitude, this intense focus upon intellectual symbols as important above all else, and as magnetically enthralling and energizing for those who come into their orbit.

* Intellectuals at the core of networks have an intuitive, immediate sense of who lines up with and against whom on what issues. Their thinking covers ground swiftly; unlike for marginal intellectuals, there is no need to spell things out; they know what arguments follow from what concepts; ranging ahead, they have a sense of what arguments can be further constructed, what directions can be opened up, what applications made. The symbols that make up the content of their thinking are loaded with EE; they represent not just their object of reference, but the activity of thinking and talking that goes on in intellectual groups. Thus for the core intellectual in the vortex of creative thinking, the symbols flow rapidly together into new combinations and oppositions, as if by magnetic attraction and repulsion. The role of the thinker is to concentrate them in one focus of attention in his or her consciousness, and to set their flow in motion.
The law of small numbers shows another reason why network position is crucial in launching a star intellectual career. What one picks up from an eminent teacher, besides his or her EE and stock of symbols, is a demonstration of how to operate in the intellectual field of oppositions.

* Each person’s career trajectory consists in coming to grips with the recognition of what one’s opportunities are in the intellectual field. Each experiences in their own way an impersonal sorting process going on around them. Some decide to become followers of an existing position: retailers of some other theorist’s ideas to a peripheral audience of students or textbook readers, or its representatives out in the intellectual provinces away from the hot center where the ideas were formulated, like followers of Parisian ideas in American literature departments. Another way to make a career as a follower is as a specialist, applying theories and techniques to particular problems, especially on the empirical side. These moves create smaller attention spaces, with their own jockeying for positions of leadership, governed by their own local law of small numbers.
Others stay the course of their youthful ambitions, modeled directly upon their star teachers and predecessors. Among these, careers pass through a tipping point. Cumulative advantage goes to those who find a vacant niche in the attention space, one of the slots available inside the law of small numbers. Their ideas receive attention from the field, giving them still more EE, more motivation and capacity for obsessive work, more speed in developing the possibilities for expanding their ideas at the forefront of current debate. On the other side of the tipping point are those intellectuals in the process of being squeezed out. Their work, although initially promising, meets little recognition, sinking their EE. They experience lessening confidence, less energy for performing sustained hard work; they become more alienated, less oriented toward the scene of current action. They become liable to extraneous problems, susceptable to being knocked off their career trajectory, “calamity Janes” to whom bad things just seem to happen, makers of excuses, embittered carpers. The micro-processes feeding back and forth between intellectual networks and an individual’s thinking are cumulative, both in positive and negative directions. What kind of thinking one does depends on one’s location in the network, both at the beginning of a career and as the career develops. There is a sociology of unsuccessful thinking, as well as of the kind that history extolls as creative.

* The fact that approximately 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God (Greeley 1989, 14) says little about how religious American society is. Comparisons of survey responses with actual attendance show that people strongly exaggerate how often they go to church (Hardaway et al. 1993, 1998); and in-depth probings of religious beliefs in informal conversation shows quite disparate and, from a theological viewpoint, largely heretical beliefs lumped under survey responses that seem to show conformity.

* Like their white counterparts, black working-class men appear to be creating an ideology that reflects not so much the actual patterns of their own behavior but a favorable view of themselves in the light of the perceived faults of the most salient outsiders.

Similarly, Lamont’s (1992) interviews with upper-middle-class American men yields a picture in which they state their boundaries in terms of their dislike of those who lack moral standards of honesty and truthfulness, and thereby present themselves as people who value moral standards above all else. Yet these are presumably the same people who are viewed from the outside by Lamont’s white working-class sample (both groups are situated in the New York metropolitan area) in just the opposite way, as lacking in integrity and straightforwardness. The same people are either honest or dishonest, straightforward or devious, depending on whether they are recounting their own ideology from the inside or are depicted by the adjacent class that sees them from below. What Lamont’s data show, then, is that generalized cultural vocabularies circulating in rather large national groups are pressed into service by individuals situated in different relationships to each other. The use of cultural repertoires also results in situationally constructed ideologies, each one a narrative drama in which individuals portray themselves as part of a group of good guys whose characteristics maximally contrast with another group of bad guys.

* Where there is a repeated round of formal, highly focused ritual occasions (weddings, dinners, festivals) involving the same people, status group boundaries are strong. Who is included and excluded from membership is clear to everyone, inside and outside the status group. All the more so to the degree that ritual gatherings are publicly visible: for example, when the “Four Hundred” met to dine and dance in the ballroom of the most luxurious hotel in New York City, and crowds of the non-elite classes lined the sidewalks to watch them enter and exit, the status group boundary and its ranking system was widely public. Here status has a thing-like quality, following the principle, the more ceremonial and public the ritual enactment, the more reified the social membership category . Conversely, the less scripted, advance-scheduled, and widely announced the sociable gathering, the more invisible the social boundaries.

* …formal rituals generate categorical identities; informal rituals generate merely personal reputations.

* a party can be a bore, a friendly amusement, or a memorable carouse. Here we have a second continuum: situations rank in terms of the attention they generate; situations have higher and lower prestige, depending on how they are enacted. At high levels on the formality or focus continuum, the intensity of the ritual does not matter as much; society is structured by formal inclusions and exclusions at such ritual occasions, and the resulting categorical identities are pervasive and inescapable, so that rituals may be rather boring and still convey strong membership. As we descend toward relatively informal and unfocused rituals, more effort needs to be put into making them emotionally intense, if they are to be experienced as having much effect upon feelings of social position. This may explain why contemporary Americans often are “hot dogs,” making noisy attention displays when they are at sports or entertainment events, large parties, and other public occasions.
Thus the second generalization: to convey an effect, the more informal or improvised rituals are, the more that participants need to be ostentatious, to make blatant appeals to emotion and to visible or highly audible action, if they are to make any impression or reputation. Those starved for institutionalized ritual status (e.g., black lower class; teenagers and young people generally) tend to seek out means of intense situational dramatization.

* Youth are thus the only contemporary group that is officially subjected to petty humiliations because of their categorical status, in this respect resembling black people who are unofficially subjected to similar tests; both groups are assumed dishonorable until proven otherwise. This is a reason why youth culture is sympathetic to black culture, and emulates especially its most rebellious elements.

* The pervasive everyday enactment of group barriers supports a youth counterculture. Youth styles of demeanor are shaped directly in opposition to adult styles: wearing hats backward because the normal style is forward; wearing baggy pants, torn clothes because these are counter-stylish (documented by Anderson 1999, 112). The counterculture starts at the border with adult culture and proceeds in the opposite direction; a status hierarchy develops inside the youth community building further and further away from adult respectability. Over the years there has been escalation in the amount, size, and location of body piercing, of tatoos and body branding. Many of these practices resemble those used in a hierarchy of religious status among Indian fakirs , holy outcasts demonstrating their religious charisma by the extremes to which they are willing to demonstrate their distance from ordinary life.

* The celebrity is one of the few focal points in the modern attention space through which collective emotional energy can be revved up to a high level.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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