Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January-February 2005

Review Forum
The Sociology of Almost Everything
Four Questions to Randall Collins about
Interaction Ritual Chains

Review Forum is an occasional feature in which an author responds directly to questions posed by the reviewer. Its key purpose is to help thinkers clarify, augment and amend their ideas or dispel misapprehensions about them. In our first feature, Randall Collins replies to questions raised by Peter Baehr, one of the international associate editors of the Canadian Journal of Sociology.

Randall Collins.
Interaction Ritual Chains.
Princeton University Press, 2004, 464 pp.
$US 45.00 hardcover (0-691-09027-0)

If you think that sociological theory is dull and plodding, think again. Randall Collins’s bracing new book will change your mind. Situational dynamics, forged in the crucible of interaction ritual, shape not only our market behaviours and scientific traditions but also our sexual satisfactions, bodily ingestions and desultory market transactions. Even the most private, and evanescent feelings are amenable to sociological analysis. These are the key contentions of Collins’s bare knuckle defence of Durkheim’s legacy. Fire-fighting, fellatio, order-giving and receiving, smoking, and street codes – all (and much more) fall within the purview of this book. Emotions of enthusiasm, anger, excitement, disgust, shame, love and disappointment bustle at its centre. Move over, Bruno Latour. Interaction Ritual Chains is the most ambitious, most unapologetic, argument yet made for the social constructionist programme.

Part I delineates Collins’s theory. “My analytical strategy,” he says, “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” (p. 4). Local, situational encounters have explanatory priority because they are the foundation of social life and human experience. Everything depends on them (p. 259). Macro-structures are concatenations of episodes in the here and now, circuits connecting people and networks joined by common symbols. It is no good invoking “culture” as the source of behaviour; culture in general does nothing. To explain how macro-structures actually work, the sociologist must specify in detail the localized mechanisms that constitute them (see next paragraph). Part II applies the theory to a range of situations: heterosexual and homosexual erotics; stratification encounters of deference, fear, status and respect; smoking rituals and anti-smoking movements. The examples are so rich that they defy précis. But their emphasis falls on the many-sided asymmetry of social intercourse. Power and deference rituals, for instance, are highly specific. Typically it is the waiters at a plush restaurant, not the customers, who are the kingpins. Your wealth means little if you happen to share a train with a group of rowdies or if, as a white pedestrian, you find yourself suddenly confronted with a black street code. Equally, modern norms of informality (of dress and address), erase earlier markers of categorical respect. In their place they establish more democratic – though still highly stylized – rituals of cool.

Building on Durkheim’s concept of the sacred, on Goffman’s sociology of face-to-face encounters, and on contemporary studies of emotion by Jack Katz and Thomas Scheff, Collins argues that the mechanisms that produce “society” are none other than interaction rituals (IRs). Four basic ingredients define them; all are necessary for their accomplishment. The first is two or more people in co-presence: bodily assembled and, through neurological feedback loops, able to charge up a situation with excitement and significance. Second, IR requires a boundary that demarcates insiders from outsiders, lending participants a privileged sense of inclusiveness. A third feature of IR is that all parties to the encounter “focus their attention upon a common object or activity, and by communicating this focus to each other become mutually aware of each other’s focus of attention” (48). Finally (though it is not quite clear why this is an ingredient rather than an outcome), IR requires that participants share “a common mood or emotional experience” (48). Where these elements combine successfully, four outcomes are discernible.

1) Individuals feel solidarity with one another; they imagine themselves to be members of a common undertaking.
2) They are infused with emotional energy (EE), a feeling of exhilaration, achievement and enthusiasm which induces initiative.
3) IR membership generates collective symbols. The “lenses through which we see,” the “very structure of consciousness” (p. 374), symbols are the moral repository of the group and, hence, are assigned sacred qualities that must be defended and reinforced.
4) It follows that violations of these symbols provoke righteous indignation towards, and sanctions against, those guilty of transgression.

IR, in short, is the stuff that holds society together in imbricated “pockets of solidarity” (pp. 15, 235). It is the stuff that gives the individual an identity and a purpose. And it is the stuff too that explains lassitude and social conflict. The enervated individual is someone at the fringe of a buzzing network. And without IR (e.g. a trade union meeting, a demonstration, a secret society’s oath of loyalty) people could not be readied for activity, resources could not be marshalled or strife coordinated. It is through IRs that human actions become conscious, attuned and synchronized in rhythms of voice, sight and gesture.

Consider competitive sport as a ritual “contrived to produce situations of dramatic tension and victory” (p. 58). Despite television coverage of hockey, soccer, baseball and other games, match attendance has not in general declined over the years. People still prefer to be at the “big game”. Players are in close bodily contact; teams and their emblems (clothes, flags, songs, mascots) delineate insider status; attention is focused on the play; the mood is one of determination to win. And participating in the ritual are the spectators who, tightly pressed together, take a partisan stand for “their” team, concentrate on the action, and cheer on their side. Out of this huddle arises solidarity, exhilaration (or deflation if the team loses), sacred objects (the star players), and indignation towards cheats, bad sportsmanship and so forth. Both players and spectators (second-order participants) amplify each other’s energy. Without an audience, play would be pointless; without players, it would be impossible. Pleasure derives from interaction among the players and spectators. The fact that many people prefer to watch televised matches in bars, hemmed-in with other animated fans, is an additional indication that enthusiasm is a socially generated phenomenon.

Or consider the behaviour of fire-fighters during the 9/11 emergency, captured in documentary film. Fire-fighting is not simply about technique. It is “above all [about] establishing identify with the group who carry out their skills collectively” (p. 91). It requires close bodily cooperation, a commitment to the team as a unit (which consists of “battalions” and “companies”), attunement to the task at hand and common determination, which mitigates fear and induces calm. Fire-fighters go through a period of induction in which they assume the status of a team member; solidarity is part of the job. But the actual dangers encountered in an incident like 9/11 generate even more solidarity: footage shows fire-fighters hugging each other after they return from duty. The stationhouse is treated as home: this is where resting fire-fighters hang out in preference to being by themselves or with their families. Emotional energy is drawn from involvement in a collective activity and from the hazards this entails. Moreover, in the case of 9/11, interaction ritual was by no means confined to the fire-fighters: it spiralled out into the wider society by conflating the identities of New Yorkers and “Americans” — the national target unit. Hence, “during the coming days and weeks people began to display symbols combining these two identities: hats, shirts, and other emblems of New York, and American flags. Above all, what tied together these symbols, was the main emergent symbol of the event, the fire-fighters, as emblems of solidarity and courage” (p. 93). Digging through the rubble of the Twin Towers was also a ritual activity. The likelihood of finding anyone alive or dead and recognizable was minimal. But the site had become a sacred place which fire-fighters needed to be close to. When police eventually sealed off the area, scuffles broke out as fire-fighters angrily demanded continued access to the hallowed “Ground Zero.”

Figure 6.1 Sexual intercourse as interaction ritual
click to open larger image in new window

Finally, consider love-making as an interaction ritual, modelled in Figure 6.1 on p. 231. Intercourse and associated action – fellatio, cunnilingus, penetration by tongue, phallus, fingers and fist - is the closest bodily co-presence and coordination we can imagine. The focus is on stimulation, the mood generated is sexual enjoyment which builds up to a peak over the course of interaction: excitement becomes “more intense when there is rhythmic entrainment: one participant intensifies their bodily rhythm as they are caught up in the other person’s rhythm” (p. 233). Typically, the unit of interaction is a couple (orgies are both rare and operate under different ritual principles). Love making usually takes place in private, thereby heightening the sense of its special, bounded quality. And because sexual interaction intensifies attachment, infidelity prompts strong feelings of outrage and betrayal: the ritual itself, rather than culture in general, occasions these feelings. Swingers’ groups are no different in principle; they create their own ritual, prohibiting sex with persons who have no partner, and placing a taboo on private sexual encounters (i.e. those outside the assembly). And even in cases of sex without commitment – prostitution is the ideal type, but prostituted acts are a spectrum – genital pleasure is bound up with ritual contact and role play. When prostitutes simulate orgiastic moans and cries, it is because they know that their customers are turned on by such utterances or gesticulations. If genital pleasure were the only thing at issue, such simulation would be irrelevant. That clients find it exciting, is evidence that sexual pleasure depends a great deal on the harmonization of emotion.

Question 1: These examples, and many others, suggest that you envisage social life as largely co-extensive with IR. You admit that you are “one of the worst of sinners, proposing to see ritual almost everywhere” (15) and you concede on the same page that a common criticism of social ritual theory is that “if everything is a ritual, what isn’t?” But after reading the book, I still don’t see how you answer the criticism. What have I missed? The problem for me is that if social life turns on ritual — which seems plausible — then how is one to describe situations in which three or less of your variables are present and which, accordingly, fail to issue in an IR? What do we call this? Is it still social behaviour and if it is what makes it so - bereft of ritual? (Reply)

While IRs may be of greater or lesser intensity, they all depend on bodily coordination and mimicry. A shared mood and focus of attention result in the syncrhonization of actions - lovers in sexual embrace, football crowds chanting their tribal anthem, party-goers smoking a joint, intellectual debaters jockeying for dominance of the attention-space. It follows that, to engage in IR, bodies must work: they must concentrate, curse, talk, wave, kneel, cheer, smoke, lick, kiss and so forth. Meanings are communicated by “showing, doing, pointing, not by self-contained verbal description” (p. 353). And it is this emphasis on performance (among other things) that sharply distinguishes Collins’s argument from 1970s structuralism. Structuralism depicted human agents as anaemic bearers of social structure or binary codes. Collins sees them as hot blooded, restless, brimming with energy. And though IR must be constantly reinforced if its energy is not to drain away, it is also available as an IR structure or chain: a vector of unfurling micro-situations in which symbols are communicated across time and space. Indeed it is precisely the chain, or rather a series of interconnected chains, which gives us a sense of living in a distinctive kind of society. Take these chains and their emergent properties away (an impossible feat) and all that would remain are stray bodily movements and the “state of nature” beloved by early modern contract theorists. But not even that, since war of all against all itself supposes alliances and hostilities that are themselves constituted by IRs.

Question 2: Given your wish to emphasize actors as performers, were you wise to adopt the “chains” metaphor? It sounds rather imprisoning to me and in tension with what you want to say about EE. I wonder whether Interaction Ritual Trains might have been better. You do, after all, use the notion of “entrainment”. And while I am not especially keen about my alternative, at least it suggest greater social complexity - as in clashing schedules, uncoupled cars, derailments, free riders, first and economy class passengers, and so forth. A train’s engine is a driving force, rather like your EE, but also faces constraints: the track, the gradient, etc. Entrainment suggests movement, locomotion. A chain, on the other hand, suggests passive ensnarement which is not what you mean at all. (Reply)

What kind of actor does IR presuppose? Collins is careful to say that it does not require a unitary type of individual. Because IRs are emphatically local, a person may exude confidence in one situation and behave awkwardly in another. Nor does IR exclude passive behaviour: on the contrary, IR theory explains it as a result of reduced or stymied access to status and power rituals. Equally, the cult of the individual – the pervasive Western sense that we are unique, profound and ultimately ineffable – is itself the consequence of IR symbols embedded in modern culture: legal statutes, maudlin treatises on human alienation, human rights discourses. But here we come to our next problem. Readers who browse Interaction Ritual Chains instead of reading it from cover to cover are likely to miss probably its most revealing statement. It comes on the penultimate page (373) and makes crystal clear the decisive importance of emotional energy (EE) to Collins’ theory. EE is Collins’s term for variations in human drive, desire, initiative, the quest for excitement, the wish to be famous and dominant. Human beings, he says, are above all “emotional energy seekers, thereby linked to those interactions and their derivative symbols that give the greatest EE in the opportunities presented by each person’s social networks. If not EE seekers, what else could human beings be?” Surely not the pusillanimous pain avoiders of utilitarianism for that image is “too inert, passive; human beings are active, excitement seeking, magnetically attracted to where things are happening”. Are we then principally reward-seekers? A naïve formulation, because the material goods most desired are those loaded with symbolic significance and EE opportunities. But what about power-seekers – is that essentially what we are? Wrong again, because power itself derives for IR chains and draws legitimation from them. Indeed, from the perspective of IR theory, Mead’s concept of the “I” is EE: “one’s ‘I’ is called forth in varying strengths by present interactions and past symbolic residues, magnetically attracted to some situations and repelled by others” (p. 205). EE is also the sex drive. Or again, EE is the “common denominator in terms of which individuals decide among alternative IRs. Whether one is most attracted to a church service, a political rally, or an intimate conversation is determined by each individual’s expectations of the magnitude of EE flowing from that situation. Since EE is highest during an intense IR in progress, but decays with time after the IR is ended, recency is an important feature of which IR has the strongest emotional attraction at a given time” (p. 158).

Question 3: But if EE is so central to human conduct, why did you model it as an outcome of ritual rather than as one of its essential ingredients? And I am still trying to work out EE’s location in your schema, that is, how it is both “specific to particular kinds of situations” yet is also a human drive, “a readiness for action that manifests itself in taking the initiative in particular sorts of relationships or with particular persons” (p. 118). You say, too, that EE “is a long term consequence of IRs that reach a high degree of focused emotional entrainment, which we can also call attunement, collective effervescence, or solidarity; but EE is not the attunement itself…EE is a consequence that carries over after the individual has left the situation” (p. 134). But your model of human action makes the acquisition of EE a key motivation: people go into situations, you say, to attain EE. This is a presupposition of action, not a long term consequence of IRs. If it’s both (a presupposition and a consequence), could you clarify their relationship? (Reply)

Collins is aware that his “theoretical strategy may seem to have a very high intellectual cost, since it involves using emotional energy as [the] central dynamic around which everything else, including material interests, revolve” (p. 182). The high cost involves jettisoning or re-describing the notion of “choice” and replacing it with a picture of an actor steering towards options with (perceived) maximal EE. What about introverts, for instance the proverbial computer nerd? How can one explain them as EE driven? It is not difficult, says Collins. Disabuse yourself of both the romantic idea of the total personality and a standard, caricatured notion of sociality. Focus instead on specific IR chains. Once you do, you see that nerds are themselves part of an IR chain of other nerds, techniques, innovations and machines. Bookish intellectuals are no different in essence. They may often prefer texts to people but those who are successful are “the most socially penetrated of introverts” (p. 358), picking fights and dominating forums that create reputation. Close to the “hot centre of action,” they know how to create a niche for themselves. What then about altruists, people who seem to give preference to others rather than to their own EE? Collins’ strategy is to debunk them by redefining the concept of altruism. Take situations when “members of one group give gifts to nonmembers. Such situations always have the structure in which the charity-giving group has higher resources and power than the charity recipients” (p. 169). Charity, on Collins’s account, is a self-congratulatory ritual, “generating symbolic capital in the process of giving away material capital” (ibid). People do not sacrifice real power. Altruism is thus no mystery. “It is predictable from the distribution of interactional situations from which individuals derive their EE” (p. 170). And in case we are still in doubt about EE’s centrality to all human action, Collins states: “Emotional energy is the common denominator of all social comparisons and choices. Every alternative is assessed in terms of the amount of EE it carries, whether as a gain or a loss. Power, altruism, love, and every other social goal is measured by the same yardstick, the increment or decrement that the interactional process involved in it produces for one’s emotional energy” (172).

Question 4: Your concept of EE is all encompassing. But perhaps another way of putting this is to say that it is reductive and one-sided. I’d say that you have not so much got rid of the concept of choice as conflated it with one powerful motivation or drive. It’s as if every human impulse must fit your model of EE or, which is the same thing, be unmasked as a sham. That’s what you do with altruism. I don’t deny EE’s importance; in fact I think you demonstrate it brilliantly. What concerns me is its imperialist character. Consider a couple of examples – presented as stories - which appear anomalous to your theory. Both entail altruism or what I’d call, in the rather old-fashioned idiom of the English, “decency”.

The first story is told by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s foremost cultural commentator, about himself. During the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 1943, Reich-Ranicki and his lover managed to flee the carnage and find shelter in the house of two non-Jewish Poles (we are never given their family name), Bolek and Genia, who lived with their children in a suburb of Warsaw. By day, Reich-Ranicki hid in the basement of his protectors’ house; by night, he worked for Bolek making cigarettes that fetched only a tiny profit. Bolek and his family were poor and undistinguished. They were surely not alone in their disdain for moralizing anti-vodka priests or for ethnic German Poles who had “betrayed their country.” Yet most Poles did nothing while they shielded two unknown Jews from the onslaught of the German Reich. And it was not only the Germans that Bolek feared. Before Reich-Ranicki left his protection he implored: “don’t tell anyone that you were with us. I know this nation. They would never forgive us for sheltering two Jews”. Why did Bolek and his wife act in the way they did? Why did they take such risks for two unknowns who wore the stigma of death upon them and whose most conspicuous offering was danger? Reich-Ranicki’s verdict: “I can describe it only with grand and hackneyed words: compassion, goodness, humanity” (Marcel Reich-Ranicki, The Author of Himself [London: Phoenix; 2001], p. 205).

The second story is recounted by the war correspondent Chris Hedges about a Serb Bosnian couple, Rosa and Drago Sorak. In 1992, during the Serb siege of Gorazde (a Muslim enclave), the Soraks decided to throw in their lot with the city’s Muslim residents. Impervious to the hate propaganda of Serb leaders, the couple sought to carry on their lives in a way as normal as possible. But Serb paramilitaries were not interested in normality. And increasingly neither were the Bosnian police of Gorazde. Branded traitors by the Bosnian Serbs, and harassed by the Bosnian Muslim authorities for being Serbs, the Soraks found themselves in the cross fire of the conflict. They were detested by both sides. Tragedy was quick to come. Their son Zoran disappeared, and is presumed dead, after being arrested by Bosnian police. Drago Sorak was forced to dig trenches and chop firewood for the Bosnian army. Threats of death were compounded by the appearance of mobs of men who came to their apartment. As a result, initial support for the Bosnian Muslim authorities by the Serb couple transmuted into disillusion and loathing.

Zoran’s wife, five months after her husband’s disappearance, gave birth to a child she was unable to nurse. Food shortages and continuous shelling drove the family to desperate measures – the baby was fed tea for five days, but was visibly withering. Then the unexpected happened. A poor Muslim farmer, Fadil Fejzic, whose cow was tethered in the eastern part of the city, began bringing milk to the Soraks’ apartment. He brought it for 442 days, saying nothing at each delivery and refusing payment. He endured the taunts and insults of fellow Muslims on his street, who told him to “let the Chetnik children die.” Eventually, the Soraks moved out of Gorazde, and lost touch with their unlikely saviour. (Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning [New York: Anchor; 2002, p. 50-52.]

Question 4 Continued: I understand that the actions I’ve described are rare. But how does your sociology explain them? Is it hopelessly sentimental to believe that Bolek and the Muslim farmer Fejzi? acted not to maximise EE but to be helpful, decent, even where there was an EE cost?. Where is the EE benefit for these people, the benefit that is so vital to your theory? To be sure, we have limited information. If we knew more about Bolek and Fejzi? perhaps we could (but would we really want to?) re-cast the actions of such individuals as part of an IR chain. But it is still hard for me to understand, in terms of your theory, how people are willing to risk acting against or outside the social rituals of their group. And here’s another related issue. Your strong constructionist programme appears to make social ritual the origin of morality, and to equate morality with moral beliefs and feelings. That is, you don’t distinguish between people’s socially constituted feelings of what is right, and what is right despite their feelings and that of their group. But do you really want to go that far? It would mean that the fascist paramilitaries and the Einsatzgruppen soldiers – both groups possessed formatively strong social rituals - who killed Jews, were behaving morally, whereas insiders who grew sick of the carnage and sought to stop its commission were not. If morality is at root about the social rituals that people accept as righteous, what has happened to the whole field of ethics which typically distinguishes between moral propositions and moral justifications? A salient message of Christianity – told in the Good Samaritan story – is that moral obligations include helping those outside the tribe? Is this a sociologically absurd precept? (Reply)

Here ends my exposition and my chief questions. I have focused on the puzzles of a book notable for its boldness of mind, multi-levelled analysis, high-powered theorizing, ingenious examples and commitment to scientific precision. Forget lit. crit. Read Interaction Ritual Chains and remember why you became a sociologist.

Peter Baehr
Lingnan University, Hong Kong

Reply to Peter Baehr

I would like to thank Peter Baehr for his insightful comments. Regarding the specific questions:

1. The issue here is the areas of human life where interaction rituals are weak or non-existent. Since IR theory is cast in terms of variables, it gives the conditions under which ritual processes and their outcomes occur at all levels along the continuum, from high to medium to low. Most spectacular are the high points where the ingredients are strong, hence the outcomes are strong. But they are strong by contrast to many other situations where the ritualism is low. In these situations persons feel low degrees of solidarity; they act more like detached, self-interested individuals; they are emotionally flatter, less enthusiastic, less energetic; they have less concern with social morality. A great deal of ordinary life is towards the low-ritual end of the continuum. People’s behavior is these situations is thus also predicted from IR theory. (Back to question)

2. “Interaction Ritual Trains” has a nice Weberian resonance, recalling the “switchmen”. Closer to the sense of my theory would be “Interaction Ritual entrainment”, since entrainment in each other’s emotions is a key micro-mechanism of successful rituals. The term “chains” is wider, including all sequences of interaction rituals; these include also long sequences during which the emotional entrainment occuring in each short-run interaction fades away, and the chain is kept together largely by symbolic memories. (Back to question)

3. EE is the emotional feeling of strength, confidence, and initiative, at the high end of the continuum; at the low end, it is a feeling of weakness, passivity, expectation of failure, depression. EE thus both has a general description (as in the previous sentence) and specific characteristics for each individual; i.e. what an individual feels enthusiastic and confident about (or passive and depressed about) varies with his/her experience of successful or unsuccessful interaction rituals in that area. (Being famous or dominant in a particular sphere is one way to get EE; but it is not a characteristic of EE per se.) Some persons have high EE on the athletic field (or specific to a particular sport); some have high EE in their erotic lives (chapter 6 gives an explanation of how this comes about); some have high EE in business dealings, or in intellectual arguments, etc. Having high EE in one area does not guarantee high EE in other area. EE carries over in a chain from one situation to the next, because the person stores this feeling of confidence in a stock of symbols and practices which have been at the focus of attention in a successful ritual. To a considerable extent, symbols are the carriers of EE for individuals during the times when the emotion is not aroused; although as Durkheim noted, the emotional force goes away if the ritual is not repeated at fairly frequent intervals. (Just how long these intervals are has not been much studied, other than for religious behavior; they are probably on the order of months or less for most activities.)

I distinguish the collective effervescence of the situation itself from the EE that individuals feel in the aftermath of the situation. The former is a collective emotion, the excitement and energetic coordination of participants in their interaction; the latter is an individual emotion, felt by the individual as they are physically away from the social situation. The two emotions are related; as Durkheim said, the individual acquires a portion of the energy of the group, which can be carried for a time away from the group. Can EE also be a precursor to an interaction ritual? Yes, in the sense that having a high level of EE will direct one towards future social encounters, and allow one to take the initiative to get the new encounter going and perhaps make it into a successful ritual. The success of the ritual depends upon the emotions and symbols brought by all the participants, however, so the EE of one individual will not be enough to determine the outcome. This is the model of interaction ritual chains as match-ups of individuals’ stocks of EE and of symbols, given in Figure 4.3. What might be emphasized here is that individuals’ EE are often distinctive to a particular kind of action; the person who has high confidence and enthusiasm for erotic interaction, for instance, needs to match up with someone else who is similarly oriented (not necessarily to the same intensity of EE, but enough so there is enough complimentarily for the ritual to get off the ground). This person’s EE would not be a good precursor to an interaction with someone whose EE is tagged to experience in business dealings, for example. (Back to question)

4. IR theory analyzes everything in terms of EE-seeking, for a basic theoretical reason: it is a theory of how persons will choose to interact, across whatever range of situations they may encounter. Hence there must be some means by which individuals choose among different goals. There must be a common denominator of choice. The denominator cannot be money, since there are so many situations that this does not fit, but it must encompass money, giving conditions under which individuals value money highly or not. Similarly with all other situational goals. I propose EE as the common denominator, because it is a central outcome on the individual level of successful IRs; and since all situations give some degree of EE, whether high or low, all situations can be compared in this way. “Comparing” and “choosing” may be merely metaphorical; most of the time persons do not consciously calculate what they are going to do; but since EE can be felt, as an emotional attraction or lack of attraction (or at the extreme, repulsion) individuals make emotionally-oriented “choices” even unconsciously.

Coming now to the examples of persons who make altruistically heroic choices of action. The examples given are striking, because they appear to involve action taken alone (or in very small groups) and in secrecy, and against the emotional pressure of larger groups. These features make the examples more complicated than many other instance of altruism: more conventional are cases where the soldier sacrifices himself for the other troops; the person gives money at a fund-raising ceremony where s/he is immediately recognized and praised by the surrounding group; the parent puts much time and effort into a ceremonial event for their children, at which they too will be present. These are easy cases for IR theory since the altruism is immediately supported by a successful IR at that moment.

In principle, if we are to explain individual’s altruistic behavior when there is no immediate social support, it must come from symbols and emotions arising earlier in their interaction ritual chain. From the examples given, it is impossible to tell what were the personal histories of these heroic, altruistic individuals. It is possible that they had a history of religious participation, in which they have sincerely experienced the feeling of emotional strength in being able to give to others; or they might have previously taken part in political or social movements, in which collective sentiment was generated for taking part in altruistic goals. Movements frequently cast their goals in terms of idealized symbols of the goodness they are doing; and this could have provided a symbolic capital for these altruists to draw upon in situations where they must make more individualized choices.

It is important to recognize that different kinds of group structures generate different kinds of morality. Groups with high network density and strong barriers to outsiders generate localistic standards of morality: defend the group and its symbols, exercize righteous anger (including ritualized punishments) against outsiders who threaten the group. This is the morality of isolated tribes, and also of modern groups which have mobilized with strong local ties and strong barriers. This is Durkheim’s “mechanical solidarity”. But there is another pole of the continuum of morality, which Durkheim called “organic solidarity.” This arises from networks which are loose, wide-ranging, and unbounded. Here morality is universalistic, cast in abstract terms of sympathy for others, perhaps for all human kind. Universalistic moralities have their social bases in organizations which attempt to recruit universalistically, or at least in very large and disparate communities; these moralities come from universally proselytizing churches, and in a secular age, from social movements which attempt to recruit for abstract causes beyond local group boundaries. Thus there is often a clash between the 2 kinds or poles of morality: between the morality of the local group (which may be any local identity, ethnic, nationalist, or even religious when treated particularistically), and the morality of the universalistic movement. Just one example of this clash of moralities is the current conflict in the U.S.A. between nationalists whose concept of altruistic sacrifice is the soldier dying in combat, and internationalists or peace-seekers whose concept of altruism is a wider human community.

It is true that as a sociologist I do not distinguish between what people believe is right, and what is really right, in a transcendent sense. I do not make this distinction because I am trying to be true to seeing the world as a sociologist. Whenever someone says that something is really right, they are still speaking from a specific social location, and from a particular time in history. Our universalistic moral judgments are just as socially grounded as someone else’s particularistic moral judgments. The kind of examples that Peter Baehr gives from 20th century do not seem to me very likely to have occured in a tribal society, nor indeed in most parts of the world prior to the advent of the universalistic world religions, with their concepts of universal altruism; secularized political and social movements with altruistic aims are even more recent, chiefly arising in the 18th century and thereafter. As sociologists, do we merely want to admire altruists, by treating them as a kind of miracle, an exception from sociological explanation? Better to explain the social conditions under which universalistic altruism arises, thus to be able to promote such conditions in the future. (Back to question)

Randall Collins
University of Pennsylvania
January 2005
© CJS Online

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