- Interaction Ritual Chains
No sociologist has been as generous as Erving Goffman. Tossing concepts like a tipsy Krewe chief at Mardi Gras, laden with baubles, Goffman gifted us a theoretical treasure trove. For most of our giant theorists, the number of important and lasting constructs can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but with Goffman even neophyte graduate students must use their toes.
Goffman was not, of course, a systematizer, but a wondrous voyeur. He specialized in analysis, not synthesis, spawning centrifugal ideas for others to grasp. And so we have frame analysis, impression management, tie-signs, stigma, the interaction order, backstage, and total institutions.
For nearly a quarter century—amidst a set a magisterial projects—Randall Collins has been attempting to develop and systematize Goffman's concept of interaction ritual, the title of a 1967 book of essays, although the genesis of the idea dates back a decade further. Collins, along with his nonidentical twin, Jonathan Turner, has striven to develop a microsociology that owes little to the social psychological tradition in the discipline. This project underlines a division that reminds us that forces impinging on selves (and their associated bodies) can be separated from a focus on forces generated from situations.
Interaction Ritual Chains is both a serious and essential attempt to connect the Goffmanian and Durkheimian projects so as to make clear their relevance to the understanding of the continuity and stability of social structure. If the manuscript doesn't quite succeed in its stated goal of creating a "full-scale social psychology," it does lay out a determined groundwork for an ambitious microsociology that strives to link cognitions and emotions to social structure through situated action. Simply put, Collins argues that interaction rituals produce emotional energy, the gathering of which is a central motivating force for individuals. Affect is the engine of social order. Those interaction rituals that are most effective in generating emotional energy are the ones that bolster institutional stability. We seek emotional energy the way that felines seek catnip—it gives us a buzz. Collins stands athwart the cognitive turn in social psychology, finding affect where others find thought, and indeed valuably devotes a chapter to demonstrating the various ways in which thinking must be linked to emotional entrainment.
This theory depends on a clear definition of interaction ritual, and it is here that the theory departs from Goffman's model—while using his terminology—muddling our mental waters. (Although Goffman's collection of essays is entitled [End Page 1287] Interaction Ritual, he doesn't define the term).Surely one might naively suppose that a theory of interaction ritual would depend upon routines by which individual actions are channeled by historical expectations, that ritual should be a distinctly recognizable, bounded subclass of the vast bramble of potential action. Collins begins by presenting a definition of (interaction) ritual grounded in Durkheim and Goffman: "a mechanism of mutually focused emotion and attention producing a momentarily shared reality, which thereby generates solidarity and symbols of group membership." One might have wished that Collins had suggested "emotion or attention," avoiding the trap of finding emotion everywhere, watering down affect into a rather thin gruel. However, what is most challenging in Collins' analysis is his neglect in practice of the final phrase of his definition: an interaction that generates solidarity and symbols of group membership. Taken seriously this would permit us to set aside much routine interaction. Only in the sense that interaction by creating an awareness of others must necessarily generate solidarity and microculture does the vast domain of interaction do this. Collins admits himself as "one of the worst of sinners," finding ritual everywhere. In doing this, he creates a highly general theory, but at the cost of specifying ritual as a meaningful concept. We could excise "ritual chains," leaving a theory of "interaction," and get it about right.
One of the elements that is lost here, and indeed in so much contemporary microsociology, is the reality of the group. It is not fair to suggest that Collins does not mention the group—he does—but he...