Interaction Ritual Theory by Randall Collins


Interaction Ritual Chains
Randall Collins

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Chapter 1
A THEORY OF INTERACTION ritual is the key to microsociology, and microsociology is the key to much that is larger. The smallscale, the here-and-now of face-to-face interaction, is the scene of action and the site of social actors. If we are going to find the agency of social life, it will be here. Here reside the energy of movement and change, the glue of solidarity, and the conservatism of stasis. Here is where intentionality and consciousness find their places; here, too, is the site of the emotional and unconscious aspects of human interaction. In whatever idiom, here is the empirical / experiential location for our social psychology, our symbolic or strategic interaction, our existential phenomenology or ethnomethodology, our arena of bargaining, games, exchange, or rational choice. Such theoretical positions may already seem to be extremely micro, intimate, and small scale. Yet we shall see they are for the most part not micro enough; some are mere glosses over what happens on the micro-interactional level. If we develop a sufficiently powerful theory on the micro-level, it will unlock some secrets of large-scale macrosociological changes as well.
Let us begin with two orienting points. First, the center of micro-sociological explanation is not the individual but the situation. Second, the term "ritual" is used in a confusing variety of ways; I must show what I will mean by it and why this approach yields the desired explanatory results.
Situation rather than Individual as Starting Point
Selecting an analytical starting point is a matter of strategic choice on the part of the theorist. But it is not merely an unreasoning de gustibus non disputandum est. I will attempt to show why we get more by starting with the situation and developing the individual, than by starting with individuals; and we get emphatically more than by the usual route of skipping from the individual to the action or cognition that ostensibly belongs to him or her and bypassing the situation entirely.
A theory of interaction ritual (IR) and interaction ritual chains is above all a theory of situations. It is a theory of momentary encounters among human bodies charged up with emotions and consciousness because they have gone through chains of previous encounters. What we mean by the social actor, the human individual, is a quasi-enduring, quasi-transient flux in time and space. Although we valorize and heroize this individual, we ought to recognize that this way of looking at things, this keyhole through which we peer at the universe, is the product of particular religious, political, and cultural trends of recent centuries. It is an ideology of how we regard it proper to think about ourselves and others, part of the folk idiom, not the most useful analytical starting point for microsociology.
This is not to say that the individual does not exist. But an individual is not simply a body, even though a body is an ingredient that individuals get constructed out of. My analytical strategy (and that of the founder of interaction ritual analysis, Erving Goffman), is to start with the dynamics of situations; from this we can derive almost everything that we want to know about individuals, as a moving precipitate across situations.
Here we might pause for a counterargument. Do we not know that the individual is unique, precisely because we can follow him or her across situations, and precisely because he or she acts in a familiar, distinctively recognizable pattern even as circumstances change? Let us disentangle what is valid from what is misleading in this statement. The argument assumes a hypothetical fact, that individuals are constant even as situations change; to what extent this is true remains to be shown. We are prone to accept it, without further examination, as "something everybody knows," because it is drummed into us as a moral principle: everyone is unique, be yourself, don't give in to social pressure, to your own self be true--these are slogans trumpeted by every mouthpiece from preachers' homilies to advertising campaigns, echoing everywhere from popular culture to the avant-garde marching-orders of modernist and hypermodernist artists and intellectuals. As sociologists, our task is not to go with the flow of taken-for-granted belief--(although doing just this is what makes a successful popular writer)--but to view it in a sociological light, to see what social circumstances created this moral belief and this hegemony of social categories at this particular historical juncture. The problem, in Goffman's terms, is to discover the social sources of the cult of the individual.
Having said this, I am going to agree that under contemporary social conditions, very likely most individuals are unique. But this is not the result of enduring individual essences. The uniqueness of the individual is something that we can derive from the theory of IR chains. Individuals are unique to just the extent that their pathways through interactional chains, their mix of situations across time, differ from other persons' pathways. If we reify the individual, we have an ideology, a secular version of the Christian doctrine of the eternal soul, but we cut off the possibility of explaining how individual uniquenesses are molded in a chain of encounters across time.
In a strong sense, the individual is the interaction ritual chain. The individual is the precipitate of past interactional situations and an ingredient of each new situation. An ingredient, not the determinant, because a situation is an emergent property. A situation is not merely the result of the individual who comes into it, nor even of a combination of individuals (although it is that, too). Situations have laws or processes of their own; and that is what IR theory is about.
Goffman concluded: "not men and their moments, but moments and their men." In gender-neutral language: not individuals and their interactions, but interactions and their individuals; not persons and their passions, but passions and their persons. "Every dog will have its day" is more accurately "every day will have its dog." Incidents shape their incumbents, however momentary they may be; encounters make their encountees. It is games that make sports heroes, politics that makes politicians into charismatic leaders, although the entire weight of record-keeping, news-story-writing, award-giving, speech-making, and advertising hype goes against understanding how this comes about. To see the common realities of everyday life sociologically requires a gestalt shift, a reversal of perspectives. Breaking such deeply ingrained conventional frames is not easy to do; but the more we can discipline ourselves to think everything through the sociology of the situation, the more we will understand why we do what we do.
Let us advance to a more subtle source of confusion. Am I proclaiming, on the micro-level, the primacy of structure over agency? Is the structure of the interaction all-determining, bringing to naught the possibility of active agency? Not at all. The agency / structure rhetoric is a conceptual morass, entangling several distinctions and modes of rhetorical force. Agency / structure confuses the distinction of micro / macro, which is the local here-and-now vis-à-vis the interconnections among local situations into a larger swath of time and space, with the distinction between what is active and what is not. The latter distinction leads us to questions about energy and action; but energy and action are always local, always processes of real human beings doing something in a situation. It is also true that the action of one locality can spill over into another, that one situation can be carried over into other situations elsewhere. The extent of that spillover is part of what we mean by macro-patterns. It is acceptable, as a way of speaking, to refer to the action of a mass of investors in creating a run on the stock market, or of the breakdown of an army's logistics in setting off a revolutionary crisis, but this is a shorthand for the observable realities (i.e., what would be witnessed by a micro-sociologist on the spot). This way of speaking makes it seem as if there is agency on the macro-level, but that is inaccurate, because we are taken in by a figure of speech. Agency, if we are going to use that term, is always micro; structure concatenates it into macro.
But although the terms "micro" and "agency" can be lined up at one pole, they are not identical. There is structure at every level. Micro-situations are structures, that is to say, relationships among parts. Local encounters, micro-situations, have both agency and structure. The error to avoid is identifying agency with the individual, even on the micro-level. I have just argued that we will get much further if we avoid reifying the individual, that we should see individuals as transient fluxes charged up by situations. Agency, which I would prefer to describe as the energy appearing in human bodies and emotions and as the intensity and focus of human consciousness, arises in interactions in local, face-to-face situations, or as precipitates of chains of situations. Yes, human individuals also sometimes act when they are alone, although they generally do so because their minds and bodies are charged with results of past situational encounters, and their solitary action is social insofar as it aims at and comes from communicating with other persons and thus is situated by where it falls in an IR chain.
On the balance, I am not much in favor of the terminology of "agency" and "structure." "Micro" and "macro" are sufficient for us to chart the continuum from local to inter-local connections. The energizing and the relational aspects of interactions, however, are tightly connected. Perhaps the best we might say is that the local structure of interaction is what generates and shapes the energy of the situation. That energy can leave traces, carrying over to further situations because individuals bodily resonate with emotions, which trail off in time but may linger long enough to charge up a subsequent encounter, bringing yet further chains of consequences. Another drawback of the term "agency" is that it carries the rhetorical burden of connoting moral responsibility; it brings us back to the glorification (and condemnation) of the individual, just the moralizing gestalt that we need to break out from if we are to advance an explanatory microsociology. We need to see this from a different angle. Instead of agency, I will devote theoretical attention to emotions and emotional energy, as changing intensities heated up or cooled down by the pressure-cooker of interaction rituals. Instead of emphasizing structure, or taking the other tack of backgrounding it as merely a foil for agency, I will get on with the business of showing how IRs work.
Conflicting Terminologies
My second orienting point is the following. It might seem that encapsulating a comprehensive theory of micro-sociology is heavy duty to pin on the term "ritual." The term has been used in roughly the fashion that I will emphasize by some sociologists, notably Emile Durkheim and his most creative follower in micro-sociology, Erving Goffman: that is, ritual is a mechanism of mutually focused emotion and attention producing a momentarily shared reality, which thereby generates solidarity and symbols of group membership. But this theoretical heritage is not exact, and since Goffman, for example, wrote in a different intellectual era and had different theoretical alliances, I will have to defend my own particular usage by showing its fruitfulness for our problems. More troubling is the fact that "ritual" is a term in common parlance, where is it is used in a much more restricted sense (as equivalent to formality or ceremony)than in this neo-Durkheimian family of sociological theories. Further confusions arise because there is a specialized body of anthropological work on ritual, and yet another body of "ritual studies" within the field of religious studies; and these usages tend to overlap in confusing ways, sometimes with the Durkheimian tradition, sometimes with the restricted sense of everyday usage. One of my preliminaries must be to display the overlaps and differences in theoretical connotation.
For orientation, let us note the principal divergence between anthropological and microsociological usage, while bearing in mind that neither is uniform. Anthropologists have tended to see ritual as part of the structure of society, its formal apparatus for maintaining order, or for manifesting its culture and its values. This is the reverse of the microsociological approach: instead of ritual as the chief form of micro-situational action, ritual merely reflects macro-structure; ritual is a doorway to something larger, higher, and fundamentally static in contrast to the fluidity of IR chains. A long-standing anthropological theme is that ritual taking place in time reveals the timeless, the local manifests the total. In the varying terminologies of intellectual movements of the later twentieth century, this is the approach of structuralism, of symbolic anthropology, of semiotics and cultural codes. In general, the terminological usage of ritual in religious studies is closer to the doorway-to-the-transcendental approach of cultural anthropology than to the local source of action in radical microsociology. Where the microsociological approach takes the situation as the analytical starting point of explanation, the structuralist / culturological approach starts at the other end, with an overarching macro-structure of rules and meanings. The challenge for microsociology is to show how its starting point can explain that what often appears to be a fixed global culture is in fact a situationally generated flux of imputed rules and meanings.The problem is more than terminological. Durkheim provided sociologists with a mechanism for situational interaction that is still the most useful we have. He set this model up in the case of religious ritual in a way that enables us to see what social ingredients come together in a situation and make a ritual succeed or fail. Goffman broadened the application of ritual by showing how it is found in one degree or another throughout everyday life; in the secular realm as in the sacred and official worlds, ritual plays a key role in shaping both individual character and stratified group boundaries. The model holds potentially even more wide-ranging applications. The problem is that the intellectual history of the twentieth century weaves through and around Durkheimian themes but in a fashion that has often twisted them into quite different positions. Instead of a clearly formulated causal mechanism of situational ingredients producing variations in solidarity, emotion and belief, several intellectual movements have turned away the study of ritual toward an emphasis on reconstructing evolutionary history, on the functionality of social institutions, or the preeminence of culture.
I will begin, then, with a historical overview of the way in which ritual has been theorized, with an eye to bringing out the micro-causal shape of the Durkheimian model so that we can see it clearly amidst these other formulations. It is a matter of getting a theoretical program in focus and not confusing it with quite different programs that unfortunately use the same terminology.

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