Why are some interactions energising while others are not?

We subsume such a wide array of phenomena under the category of ‘interaction’ that we sometimes risk obscuring the diversity within this category. One important way in which interactions differ is in how energising, or otherwise, they are to the participating actors. Some interactions can be draining and tedious. Others can have a negligible impact upon us. Others still leave us energised and focused. We can leave some interaction situations and feel marginal and diminished while others leave us feeling fuller and more congruent. These experiences are probably peripheral in the scheme of our lives as a whole but they’re nonetheless sociologically important. For the kind of actor-centred sociology I advocate, in which individual lives are taken as basic unit of analysis and analytically distinguished from the relationships in which they are always embedded, it’s also a challenging one – it’s necessary to account for these seemingly intersubjective aspects of experience in terms of individual trajectories into, through and out of interaction situations in which “reside the energy of movement and change, the glue of solidarity, and the conservatism of stasis” as Randall Collins puts it. For the position I’m advocating to be tenable, it needs to account for the experience of these situations in a way that resists the (effective) dissolution of the individual that is advocated by Collins:

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.


It’s strange to only really discover Collins after I’ve finished my PhD. In a very real way, his project is the mirror image of my own: to develop situational micro-foundations for macro-sociology i.e. how can the analysis of everyday life be made most amenable to drawing out the connections between micro and macro? However Collins argues that the situation rather than the individual should be the starting point while I argue that we should understand situations as composed emergently of individuals in movement – the crucial factor conditioning a situation, as well as the situated and structured milieu* in which it unfolds, being what the individuals bring to that situation – the propensities and liabilities, the expectations and concerns, originating through the personal changes they have undergone as a consequence of past situations and analytically distinct from the present situation. While Collins says that “A situation is not merely the result of the individual who comes into it, nor even of a combination of individuals” because “Situations have laws or processes of their own” I’d agree but I see the causality differently: I see any number of people P(n) with distinct characteristics at a ‘moment of entry’ to a situated milieu with distinct characteristics M – one of the characteristics of P(n) are the existing relations obtaining between them R(n). So we have (Pn) + R(n) entering M. The situation S unfolds because of how P(n) interact with each other, conditioned by the characteristics of R(n) and M(n), while they contribute to the reproduction or transformation of P(n), R(n) and M as a result of their situated interaction – everything (potentially) changes in the interaction situation, include those party to it. There are a finite number of true statements that can be made about P(n) at the start of any interaction situation and the truth of those statements can be analysed in terms of the consequences of past interaction situations. It’s only through analytically distinguishing between these changes that we can gain traction on the links between situations i.e. how what P(n) bring to future situations was shaped by their experience of past situations.

One thing I find particular problematic about the account given by Collins is how he conceives of structure and agency:

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.


My account offers a micro-sociology of collective action. In fact Tom Brock and I have a paper coming out soon in the Journal for Theory of Social Behaviour in which we analyse political demonstrations in these terms. If agency is predominantly micro-sociological then how do we explain the capacity to organise together for common purposes? Tom and I argue that demonstrations are important situations in which collective participation in a situated milieu helps solidify relational bonds that are experienced as solidarity – I see so many others who have converged on this situation for the same purpose as myself and I recognise converging motivations, facilitating a translation from the relational characteristics of my existing bonds to the crowd at large – solidified in turn by the performative aspect of protest (“you say cut back, we say fight back!” etc). The language I’m prone to using (motivations, concerns, solidarity, collectives) would be anathema to Collins who sees  agency as “the energy appearing in human bodies and emotions and as the intensity and focus of human consciousness”. My reasons for rejecting this language could easily constitute a a second PhD thesis. But I’m engaging with his work because I recognise that, with the partial substantive exception of what Tom and I have written about demonstrations, I can’t account for something which his theoretical framework can: energy. I need to develop an alternative explanation, probably predicated on the social psychology of what Pierpaolo Donati calls relational goods, if I want to seriously advocate that the social world can be fruitfully understood through the micro-situational realism I’ve been trying to develop over the last six years. I like how Collins describes this, I just don’t like how he explains it:

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.

The central mechanism of interaction ritual theory is that occasions that combine a high degree of mutual focus of attention, that is, a high degree of intersubjectivity, together with a high degree of emotional entrainment–through bodily synchronization, mutual stimulation / arousal of participants’ nervous systems–result in feelings of membership that are attached to cognitive symbols; and result also in the emotional energy of individual participants, giving them feelings of confidence, enthusiasm, and desire for action in what they consider a morally proper path. These moments of high degree of ritual intensity are high points of experience. They are high points of collective experience, the key moments of history, the times when significant things happen. These are moments that tear up old social structures or leave them behind, and shape new social structures. As Durkheim notes, these are moments like the French Revolution in the summer of 1789. We could add, they are moments like the key events of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s; like the collapse of communist regimes in 1989 and 1991; and to a degree of significance that can be ascertained only in the future, as in the national mobilization in the United States following September 11, 2001. These examples are drawn from large-scale ritual mobilizations, and examples of a smaller scale could be drawn as we narrow our attention to smaller arenas of social action.

IR theory provides a theory of individual motivation from one situation to the next. Emotional energy is what individuals seek; situations are attractive or unattractive to them to the extent that the interaction ritual is successful in providing emotional energy. This gives us a dynamic microsociology, in which we trace situations and their pull or push for individuals who come into them. Note the emphasis: the analytical starting point is the situation, and how it shapes individuals; situations generate and regenerate the emotions and the symbolism that charge up individuals and send them from one situation to another.

*Because there is structural conditioning that transcends the situation even if this, in turn, can be understood in micro-sociological terms. For instance when students interact in a Student Union bar, the accumulated consequences of a panoply of past situations operate causally in relation to the character of the SU bar, the roles they play within it and the consequent expectations they bring to bear upon the interaction. All these factors have their own history of emergence which can be analysed micro-sociologically but they operate concurrently i.e. statements about their situational origins are ontologically past tense rather than present tense.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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