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In Conversation with the American Sociological Association

President: Randall Collins on Emotions, Violence, and
Interactionist Sociology
Carleton University

` lUniversity of Pennsylvania
Randall Collins est professeur de sociologie a
et President de lAmerican Sociological Association. Dans cette entrevue,
R. Collins parle de la sociologie des emotions, de la tradition interactionniste ainsi que de la violence. Lentrevue permet de situer les contributions
de Collins dans le developpement contemporain de la sociologie critique et
la microsociologie interactionniste.
Randall Collins is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania
and is the President of the American Sociological Association. In the
following interview, Collins discusses the sociology of emotions, the
interactionist tradition, and violence. The discussion situates Collins
contributions as part of an intellectual trajectory that incorporates elements of critical sociology and the micro-sociology of interaction.

RANDALL COLLINS IS ONE OF THE most renowned American sociologists alive today. His works span the gamut of sociological inquiry, from
macro- and systems-level considerations to detailed analysis of interactional
processes. Some of Professor Collins key texts include Conflict Theory
(1974), The Sociology of Philosophies (1998), and Macrohistory: Essays in
the Sociology of the Long Run (1999). He is author or editor of 17 books. He
has written 150 articles and chapters, many of which are translated into
several languages. Professor Collins two most recent booksInteraction
Ritual Chains (2004) and Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (2008),

Thanks to Nicolas Carrier and Justin Piche for help with the translation.
Kevin Walby, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, B750 Loeb Building, Carleton University,1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 5B6. E-mail: walbymswresearch@gmail.com

r 2010 Canadian Sociological Association/ La Societe canadienne de sociologie


CRS/RCS, 47.1 2010

both with Princeton University Pressfocus principally on issues related to

interaction, emotions, and corporeality.
The following interview was conducted as part of the Emotions Matter
workshop May 8 to 9, 2009 at Carleton University, which was generously
funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
In the first half of this interview, Professor Collins comments on issues concerning writing, the use of metaphor, and his own intellectual biography. He
also opens up the lives and contributions of Goffman and Blumer, offering
historical insight concerning the backstage of symbolic interactionism.
Toward the end of the interview, Professor Collins discusses emotions and
violence more specifically, expanding upon two of his key concepts: emotional entrainment and confrontational tension. Randall Collins is
President of the American Sociological Association.
When did you become interested in the topic of emotions?
RC: Back in my undergraduate days at Harvard in the early 1960s,
when I was immersed in Freud and Piaget. In fact, I went to graduate school
in psychology at Stanford. But Piaget had not caught on in the United States
at that time, so I decided to switch to sociology. I remember trying to check
out what kinds of psychology of emotion existed at that time. There was very
And how did the interest in violence enter your focus?
RC: I was part of the generation of young sociologists who broke with
functionalist theory and moved toward conflict theory. In my case I was
working with a mixture of Marx and Weber. Conflict theory at the time implied interpreting Max Weber in a left wing or conflict direction. I published
a book in 1974 called Conflict Theory, but a few years later I realized there
was not any conflict in the book. It was all about structures of domination.
So I started looking at the conflict literature and teaching a class on conflict.
Military violence was the first place where there was some good empirical
material. I gradually spread out from there.
Unlike most other sociologists, you had a career in creative writing beforehand. How has that experience with creative writing influenced your
sociological writing?
RC: Quite early I was interested in being a novelist. I wrote a couple of
aborted novels, then in about the middle of the 1970s I became very disillusioned with my department at the University of California San Diego and
decided to quit the academic world. I had just written a critique of educational credentialing as the major contemporary form of stratification. I
thought to be honest I should quit this racket. So instead I made a living as a
professional writer. One thing I learned from that time was not to screw
around while writing. I realized that if you were going to support yourself
from writing you could not afford the luxury of writers block or writing incoherently. It really sharpened my techniques of writing.
On this topic of writing and vocabulary, can you say more about the use
of metaphor in sociological writing?

In Conversation with the American Sociological Association President


RC: This has fairly deep theoretical significance. Metaphors are needed
because of the micro-macro relation. In our experience, everything comes to
us in the micro, in the here-and-now of some particular situation. This is
true even when we are seeking information about larger patterns. When we
ask somebody about their social class, their occupation or their education,
we get a brief cryptic answer, but it is a mistake to take that wordtypically
a noun, or a numberas if it were an entity. To depict ones occupation in a
word is to compress a huge number of experiences in situations, and to gloss
over the way in which that persons experiences are related to the chains of
experiences of the persons they have interacted with. Class, occupation, educationeven age or raceare actually metaphorical transformations of
social processes which play out over large numbers of microsituations. My
old teacher Herbert Blumer used to challenge us by saying: What are you
actually talking about when you say structures, or social class? Show me social class, where do you see it? Of course we need ways to summarize
patterns that operate in chains of situations. In the case of class, we have
metaphors like stratathings are said to be higher or lower, although in
fact that is not usually what class interactions look like if we actually see
them in a situation. Unlike the early ethnomethodologists, who dismissed
all macrostructure as rhetorical gloss and concentrated instead on the patterns of situated cognition, I am quite willing to admit that macropatterns
existas chains of microinteraction. But we need better ways of getting at
their real character and especially their dynamics. The question I am puzzling over is whether metaphors help or hurt. If you get rid of the metaphor
of higher or lower, what do you replace it with? Do you get something analytically useful out of changing vocabulary? In the case of violence, it was
helpful to get rid of the conventional metaphors, which badly got in the way
of seeing what the phenomenon actually is.
Both Goffman and Blumer interpret Mead. Mead does not show up a lot
in Goffman, here and there with references. Blumer wrote a whole book
about Mead, and many papers. Where do you think the key turning points
are in how Goffman and Blumer interpret Mead? How do Goffman and
Blumer differ in their use of Mead?
RC: Blumer and Goffman were two of the big stars of the Berkeley department of the 1960s, which had a lot of important people working in it,
including macrosociologists. But Goffman and Blumer were the ones who
inspired people to look deeply at the micro. Although Blumer was pretty respectful of Erving Goffman, it was not true the other way around. Often
Goffman was a wise guy, ironic, sardonic, puncturing people, whereas
Blumer was an old-fashioned mid-western gentleman. Also Goffman did
not consider himself a symbolic interactionist, even though he had come
from Chicago and had been there under the Blumer regime. Goffman had
studied with a British social anthropologist when he was at the University of
Toronto and although I do not think he had crystallized his micro position at
that time, later he liked to consider himself as doing a version of Durkheim-


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ian ritual analysis but on new materials. I think the turning point did happen at Chicago. Everett Hughes, who was a leader of ethnographic
research in the symbolic interactionist camp at Chicago, told me that Goffman arrived from Toronto as an arrogant young man and in his early phase
was very Freudian. This probably did not last long. You can see that references to Freud are absent from Goffmans writings even though he was
quite interested in mental illness. Goffmans move was to investigate mental illness as a form of social activity rather than something one dug up from
the past in psychoanalytic sessions. I think under the influence of the ethnographic emphasis at the Chicago School, Goffman started trying to see
what he could find in everyday life interactions, but what he was looking for,
unlike Blumer, was not a version of Meads theory. Instead Goffman was
looking for a version of Durkheimian ritualism. The other piece of the puzzle is W. Lloyd Warner, trained in British social anthropology, who worked
on Aboriginal society in Australia but had come to the United States and did
one of the first famous community studies of stratification, in Newburyport,
MA. Warner interpreted social classes as if they were tribes with distinctive
rituals. Goffman was his research assistant. Goffmans very first paper is
called Symbols of Class Status, and there you can see the combination of
Durkeimian ritualism and the empirical topics of American sociology.
In memoriam and tribute to Goffman, you once wrote that you would
have liked to see Goffman write a book about sex. In your own book Interaction Ritual Chains (2004) you have written about sex. How does what you
have written about sex and interaction rituals differ from a more conventional Goffmanian account?
RC: I once made this same comment to a friend, another sociologist,
who had been at Berkeley with Goffman that I wished Goffman had written
about sex because it obviously can be analyzed from his perspective. For instance, sex has front stages and back stages. My friend said that he did not
think Goffman had enough sexual experience to write such a book. You
never know. Goffman was a very private person. Goffman says very little
about sex but there is a footnote I think in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) where he raises the question of whether there is an
ultimate self behind the backstage, and he says some people think your sexual self is the ultimate backstage. Then he discourages this reading by
saying that sex is a performance and that in Italy there is a saying that sex is
the poor mans opera. My early thinking was, how do you translate Freud
into microinteractions? In a way, Freuds conscious and repressed map
onto the front stage and backstage. Later I developed a more explicit analysis of what makes rituals work, which led to seeing the various kinds of
sexual activities themselves as rituals that produce different degrees of bodily and emotional entrainment. There are a number of puzzles. Most
naturalistic or biological theories of sex have a great deal of trouble explaining almost anything except vaginal heterosexual intercourse. Simple
things like kissing, or more elaborate acts like oral sex, are very difficult to

In Conversation with the American Sociological Association President


explain in a biological way. So you have to start thinking about various

sexual practices as social techniques to get people mutually entrained. Sexual practices are very intense forms of interaction rituals.
On the issue of sex and emotions, can you explain the importance of
research that starts from analyzing interactional process and sequences?
RC: There is a lot of very good empirical work in the sociology of sexuality in recent years, but it is still not close enough to its own topic. It talks
around it. I am not very happy with generalized concepts of masculinity or
hegemony because that is like where I was in conflict theory when I was still
into Marx and Weber without closely looking at anybody in conflict with
anybody else. A lot of the sociology of sex is about what it is like to have a
particular kind of erotic career, without getting into the microprocesses of
what people actually do. This is a certain vestige of the Victorian veil of secrecy, perhaps, although we are pretty intrepid these days so I think it is just
that people are not thinking micro enough. Everything happens second by
second in little sequences and that must be where the basic reality is. If you
apply the interaction ritual model to erotic interactions, erotic interaction
rituals that are successful produce feelings of solidarity, a symbolic halo and
particular kinds of sacred objectsbodily objectsthat people carry around
in memory and which they orient themselves to subsequently. Successful
rituals produce emotional energy, which is an individuals confidence and
initiative toward particular kinds of activities. Sexual desire or sexual drive
is not primordial but is shaped by experience in erotic interaction rituals,
especially via which rituals succeed or fail, which are energy gainers or energy drainers. What in abstract terms is called sexual proclivity is to develop
a specific emotional energy about ones sexual interactions with others. Microerotic experiences must be the crucible of peoples sexual lives.
What many people find interesting about your approach toward emotions is that you begin with interactional sequences but then there is a link
up to macroprocesses. There is Jack Barbalet whose work is very similar.
But some have indicated that he comes from the opposite direction, starting
with something greater than interactional sequences. What do you think of
this approach?
RC: I am in favor of what Barbalet is doing. My own approach is to push
much more on the micro and the empirical side. There is a question here of
starting from top and bottom and seeing where they come together.
But if one does not start with the sequences of interaction and instead
starts from a different level of analysis, is there not a potential problem with
this conceptualization?
RC: I think we can cobble it together as long as we can make some
movement among the levels. My take on this terminology is somewhat
different. Entities that are middle-sized, like social movements, have an
emotional atmosphere that shifts over time. The key to social movements is
whether they can chain enough high-intensity group rituals together so
they have enough rallies or sometimes battles with opponents to keep the


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movement going. There are interesting ways this can be achieved with
different emotions. My former student Erika Summers-Effler has worked
on movements, like the antideath penalty movement, which do not have
much successso how do they keep themselves going? At one point she
quotes a movement leader who says something like our energy is getting
down, so I think it is time to get arrested. A lot of the techniques of these
middle-sized organizations are about establishing and trying to keep up an
emotional atmosphere.
In your new book Violence (2008) you argue violence is not easy. It must
be achieved through interactional processes. Can you explain a bit more
what the emotional dynamics of achieving violence are?
RC: This is an aspect that surprised me as I went along. The initial
thrust of my conflict theory was to try and make things more vivid and material and bodily, so I was looking for more violent conflict. I had become
very critical of the theory of the state as this institution that had legitimacy,
as if this were a matter of course. Instead I tried to push Weber in a more
dynamic direction, conceptualizing the state as the institution that attempts to monopolize violence, its legitimacy coming from the extent of
success in its monopolizing activities. But as I got more and more into it, I
realized that if you look at specific violent situations there is much more
posturing and bluster than actual violence. So that is a first consideration,
that people are not very competent at violence. Furthermore, there is stratification in violence, between those who are good at it and those who are not.
But when I pushed it further I realized that actual physical violence itself
largely hinges on the prior establishment of emotional dominance. Microtechniques of emotional interaction are crucial in whether violence is
successful or not, and indeed in whether it will happen or abort. Sometimes
successful violence has a very rapid onset and a strong temporal rhythm
for instance, a successful armed robber has a technique of finding when is
exactly the right moment to pull out the gun and threaten others. I am certain now that microtechniques are crucial in almost every form of violence.
If you observe or examine videos of people who argue and sometimes have
fist fights, you always see the process of attempting to establish emotional
dominance. The turn of phrase from sportshaving the momentumis
actually quite accurate. But it is a reciprocal and interactional process.
When one side has the momentum the other side does not. Sports commentators do not think this through. They say the defense is getting tired
because they have been on the field too long. But the offense has been on the
field exactly the same time as the defense so there must be a process where
one side is getting more energized and the other side is unenergized. It is
more a matter of who is establishing the initiative, who is setting the
rhythm in this situation.
Can you say a bit more about your concept of confrontational tension?
RC: This is the central concept of my theory of violence. It is an empirical discovery, but I do not want to claim originality because a U.S. Army

In Conversation with the American Sociological Association President


psychologist named Dave Grossman has a somewhat similar concept. He

argues that there is an innate fear of harming other people, which can be
documented both behaviorally and physiologically, such as what happens to
the heartbeat when people threaten each other. Instead of fear of harming
others, I put the emphasis on the tension that appears when people go into
action at cross-purposes. This tension permeates ones body; it does indeed
drive up the heartbeat while you are pumping adrenalin and cortisol. Psychologists have called these the fight or flight hormones. But in an
antagonistic social interaction, more can happen than fight or flight, and
the third alternative is crucially important. If both sides are at the same
level of tension the third alternative takes over and that is stalemate. Most
confrontations, in fact, become stuck at the stalemate level. From a practical
point of view, this is a good thing, because if we want to reduce violence the
best way to do so is to get people to stick at the stalemate level. A related
point is that someone who is good at fighting is someone who has developed
techniques for using the other persons confrontational tension against
them. That is the subtle technique of winning. It is not that good fighters
have no confrontational tension but that they make the other side suffer
from it more than they suffer from it themselves.
Perhaps I should add here that some philosophically oriented sociologists may object to the notion that there is such a thing as an empirical
discovery. Of course one always approaches ones observations from a background of ongoing theoretical discourse, but we are not locked into it and it
is possible to discover things that we did not see before. Also, I think it is not
worthwhile to rigidly operationalize everything beforehand. Good sociologists need to be pragmatists and let concepts emerge in interaction with all
kinds of considerations, empirical and theoretical. Confrontational tension
is a concept of that sort. It ties together many empirical findings and it does
a lot of work in generating explanations of how many different types of violence operate, as I have tried to show in the topics taken up in Violence: A
Micro-Sociological Theory. For instance, in the book I discuss why Bourdieus concept of symbolic violence is really obfuscating, the kind of
metaphor that leads us in the wrong direction by rhetorically muddling very
different processes.
Can you explain how confrontational tension across microsituations
leads up to an organizational level of analysis, using the military example?
RC: Every larger social entity is put together out of microencounters.
From a conceptual standpoint it is generally more convenient for us to lump
it all together and say this is the army, this is the battle, this is the business
corporation, but indeed everything referred to in this way is happening as
chains of face to face interaction or technologically mediated interaction.
Pragmatically it may be useful to lump it together, and theory regarding organizations has made a number of important discoveries on that level of
analysis. Is there anything more that we get as sociologists from considering
military organizations as chains of microinteractions? In the case of the


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army, the larger network exists primarily to get soldiers to some physical situation where they can attempt to threaten violence against some other group
of soldiers. The larger structure does most of its work preliminary to the time
when the fighting actually takes place. The moment of fighting is the time
when confrontational tension emerges, because fighting has to go through
the microlevel. In this respect, let me compare traditional or historical forms
of combat and newer forms. Older armies, as described for instance in the
accounts of Julius Caesar, operated by marching several thousand soldiers up
to a point where they can come into direct contact with the front line of a
similar force of opponents. The side which broke down least from confrontational tension would win the fight; the art of warfare was to try to keep from
losing group coherence until the other side broke apart, at which point they
could be killed because they were no longer resisting.
We still have fights like that. To some extent brawls and riots look like
Caesars legions when they entered the melee. But over time armies have
developed long-distance weapons. Up until the 1860s weapons were inaccurate enough so that soldiers still had to get within a small number of meters
or else the chance of hitting anyone was not very high. Fighting remained
within the zone of face-to-face confrontational tension, and managing that
emotional tension was the key to winning or losing.
But now our weapons have become fairly precise at a distance where
you can barely see the enemy, or only on an electronic screen, and battles
can be carried out from miles away. Does this mean the confrontational
tension disappears? The research question is open. But as far as I can tell, it
does not disappear. Even in a long-distance combat zone, soldiers using
weapons still experience some confrontational tension. The most advanced
militaries, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, are now attempting to control combat entirely by computers, using informational
inputs from long-distance sensors. The aim is to take humans out of the
loop because they are the fallible element. Since the time of Clausewitz military thinkers have had the idea of friction, or what in popular parlance is
called the fog of war. On the microlevel, this friction or fognotice the use
of metaphorstranslates into the emotional processes of confrontational
tension and the way it propagates through the links of an armys human
network. Todays military planners are optimistic that for the first time in
history, armies can get rid of the fog or friction. If that is so, it would completely change the process of winning a war, since in traditional battle the
more coherent organizationin traditional terms, the one with the higher
morale in the confrontational situation itselfwould beat the organization
which is less able to cope with confrontational tension. But if warfare can be
carried out entirely at a distance, or by long-distance controls, the confrontational tension disappears, and winning is entirely a matter of having
superior technology.
I am attempting to analyze various aspects of this now. One of the
things that complicate matters is that most wars right now are so-called

In Conversation with the American Sociological Association President


asymmetrical wars, between a high-tech army on one side and guerrilla

fighters on the other, who play mainly for political effects concerning civilians on both sides. But I am also looking at the situation where one hightech military fights another high-tech militarywould this just be a war of
technological behemoths, or would social processes of emotion come back
into play? I suspect the latter.
High-tech warfare may seem a somewhat marginal topic for sociologists, although if the United States fights China, for instance, in the worldsystem transition about 20 years from now, it couldfrighteninglycome
about. But my concern here is also in wider theory. The United States military is now attempting to create a truly Orwellian kind of organization, in
which everyone is linked by remote surveillance technology and coordinated
by computers. This type of organization might become the prototype for
civilian organizations in societies of the future. Sociologists need to be aware
of the issue and start thinking about what we can do about it.