The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


The phrase “war on cops” is partly correct. There also has been a war of police against black people. Both have been going on for a long time, and each reacts to the other.

The recent argument is that violence is encouraged by black protests, mainstream supporters and officials who have caused police to withdraw from active policing, putting them in a defensive position with black criminals on the offensive. This is a part of the causal pattern, but it is embedded in a much larger process: counter-escalation of each side against the other. Both political mobilization and violence play a part in the escalation process, and this happens on both sides. A key mechanism is the emotions that pervade both camps: sometimes  righteous anger, sometimes jittery tension that blows up little incidents and feeds the fire with atrocities.

Only a small fraction of each side engage in violence; but for their opponents they become emblematic of the entire enemy camp. The emotions of the most volatile fringes drive the back-and-forth process.

The micro-sociology of emotions shows there is something practical we can all do to de-escalate the conflict. I will discuss this at the end.

Counter-Escalation Theory

Conflict escalates when whatever one side does gives rise to a counter-attack. This doesn’t always happen. Some conflicts come to an end.  The ones that go on longest are where conflict with an outside group increases solidarity; we feel a stronger identity, resolve to fight back harder. The other side does the same. The most dangerous feedback loop is when the two groups become morally polarized. The other side is seen as more and more evil; therefore whatever we do against them is morally right; it is righteous vengeance, it is street justice, it is doing whatever it takes to beat back the menace.

Individuals disappear from view; the cop you are ambushing may be one of the good guys who sincerely believes in community outreach; the black man whose car you are stopping may be a middle-class citizen. But at the moment of confrontation they all fade into the category of the stereotyped enemy.

Since whatever the other side does is seen in the worst possible light, we are quick to see atrocities in whatever they do to us. Whether their attacks come from racism, bureaucratic policy, emotions, or sheer accidents of mistaken identity and poor shooting aim, they are lumped together as atrocities. In our own eyes we are the good guys, so whatever we do is good; our own mistakes are minimized and our violence is viewed as proper, righteous and heroic. Since the psychology of both sides is the same, conflict at a high level of polarization becomes a war of competing atrocities.

Communities which are already isolated are particularly prone to escalation. Police tend to be a closed community, who socialize mainly with each other, and avoid contacts with ordinary citizens when they are off duty. They have strong solidarity, and put up a front to outsiders. The result is that police generally refuse to criticize each other in public, and regard the rest of the society as not understanding them. Somewhat similar processes occur in the black lower-class ghetto, except that there is much more internal conflict.

Escalation does not go on forever, although it may take a long time to run its course. The level of conflict goes up and down depending on other factors, including each side’s logistics and its degree of organization. I will weave in these factors as we survey the sequence of racial violence in the United States.

Gangs and Cops from 1940s to 2010s

The modern history of gangs began in the late 1940s when the first youth gangs were formed, initially by Puerto Rican teens in New York City. Criminal gangs existed before, but those were adults; often they were connected to political factions in the machine politics of big cities, and their members were usually white immigrants. The new youth gangs are best described as fighting gangs, since their main purpose was to project a tough image and to fight against nearby rival gangs. While 1950s news sensationalism publicized them as “juvenile delinquents”,  youth gangs were generally not involved in crime for making a living. They were drug consumers but not yet drug dealers, heroin then being monopolized by adult syndicates. Gangs were more like neighborhood social clubs for working-class teens, now pushed out of the labor force by high school attendance requirements. They evolved an alienated ideology and spearheaded the newly created teen culture of rock-’n-roll music, blue jeans, T-shirts and attitude. These styles were regarded as outrageous by white middle-class traditionalists, but the alienated youth culture soon spread into the mainstream as well. Despite its racial anchoring, a rebellious counter-culture acquired a large sympathy population among white youth and urban adults after they grew up, underpinning a on-going conflict between law-and-order and hipness.

In the 1950s, youth gangs spread in urban black and Hispanic ghettoes, and mushroomed in the 1960s and 70s. In cities like Chicago, large corporate-style gangs formed; in Los Angeles and elsewhere, horizontal loyalties to “color” gangs. Some cities, like Philadelphia and much of the East Coast, continued to have little street gangs-- which produce high rates of violence because their rivals are so close by, and they lack bigger organization to restrain them.

Although youth gangs are almost always ethnic and very racially conscious, on the whole their violence is aimed not at dominant white society, but at each other. This has always seemed paradoxical, but is explainable by how violence is organized. In the 1950s, gang ideology was anti- “squares”-- i.e. middle-class white people with their respectability and support of the police. In the 60s, gang ideology aligned themselves with the civil rights movement against white dominance, but scorned the tactics of non-violence and political reform. On the other side, Irish youth gangs made a point of representing whites and acted as a violent militia to resist school integration. Nevertheless, the vast proportion of gang violence was against other gangs of their same race. Andrew Papachristos shows that virtually all gang killings in Chicago have been black-on-black, Hispanic-on-Hispanic, or white-on-white.

Why so much black-on-black violence?

Similarly among the most militant groups on the violent fringe of the 1960s civil rights movement. The Black Muslims, or Nation of Islam, held an ideology that the devil is a white man and that the world is heading for a final war of black against white. Nevertheless, Black Muslims did virtually all their fighting between rival factions, invading each other’s mosques and assassinating leaders like Malcolm X. Their angry anti-white rhetoric upset the mainstream but there were virtually no attacks on whites. Why not? In the segregated society of the time, blacks rarely appeared in white spaces except in the role of service workers; it was a lot easier to carry out attacks on one’s on turf. Black Muslim temples were heavily guarded by a elite members called the Fruit of Islam, on the lookout for attacks; in this atmosphere of suspicion, confrontations escalated and mosques found themselves in local wars with each other. Similarly, the first “color” gang, the Crips, was formed in L.A. in the early 1970s during the height of the civil rights period as a movement to stop violence among black gangs, and channel it into war against whites; in practice, this meant Hispanic gangs.  Within two years, the Crips alliance split, with the Bloods breaking off into a rival color gang (red emblems vs. blue or black); henceforward, the main concern of gangs in these two alliances has been to fight against the other. (There have been more sub-splits and alliances, but the pattern remains the same.) The parallel between youth gangs and religious militants shows something deeper going on: ideological hatred of a strong distant enemy turns the weaker side to violence against more accessible local targets-- against rivals similar to themselves rather than enemies who operate on a different scale of organization.

This is in keeping with general theory of violence. Despite rhetoric of bravery, dedication to fighting the enemy, and self-sacrifice for the cause, most violence is successful when it attacks a target weaker than oneself. In street violence, bigger groups attack smaller ones they happen to encounter; in riots, it is mainly isolates who get beaten up by larger clusters. The preferred tactics of violence on all scales are to catch the enemy off guard, to establish surprise and momentum; to beat the enemy psychologically before beating them physically. Thus burglars prefer to break into houses in their own neighborhood, even if there is better loot to be taken in richer places; but burglars from the ghetto feel uneasy about being in the suburbs, and more psychologically empowered on their home turf. Armed robbers tend to stay close to home, too, but will venture out to no-man’s-lands like semi-deserted commercial districts, or look for isolated victims in interstitial areas with little street traffic. Having a gun is not sufficient to feel strong; feeling dominant in the setting is even more important.

This is one reason why black street gangs virtually never take part in mass shootings in schools; this is a phenomenon among alienated white youth in all-white schools. Black gang violence almost always takes place on their own turf-- on their street, or the streets adjacent to it, the turf of a familiar rival. On the whole, more distant parts of the city are a mystery to local gangs, since they rarely venture there. Although they may have an anti-white ideology, it rarely comes into play as a practical opportunity for violence.

So far, this has been about small group violence, usually armed with no more than handguns. In the world of better organized violence, military and police forces can range more widely; so do insurgent groups like terrorists. Fighting further away from your home base requires more organization. It needs more logistics, ammunition, transportation; better planning and intelligence; more organizational backup to call in for help or to extricate you. And it requires more organizational solidarity-- groups which continually motivate each other to adhere to an ideology and to commit themselves to the emotionally difficult task of confronting the enemy, especially when taking the attack to their turf. Big organizations like armies and police usually undertake such ventures when they have overwhelming numbers and weaponry. Small terrorist groups need the support of closed-off cells, living clandestinely, obsessively planning their moves. Casual street gangs have none of these resources and little of their tight, dedicated organization. Hence their rhetorical commitment to toughness and violence can only come out against easy targets, like themselves.

An escalated war against the police needs more social resources to go on the attack.

Race riots and politicization

Riots are an opportunity for mass participation. Although gangs may take part in them, a much larger proportion of the local population is involved: In the biggest race riots of the 1960s, 10-15% of black men took part, and another 30-40% were spectators and sympathizers .(Collins, Violence: 520)  As usual in most kinds of violence, a small percentage of the crowd does most of the violence, but the part of the crowd that merely acts as spectators adds to the emotional atmosphere of breakdown of ordinary law. This is what creates a “free space” or “liberated zone” where the police, for a time, do not intervene. In fact, violence between authorities and rioters takes up a relatively small amount of the time during a riot; looting and burning give the crowd something to do, prolonging the dramatic atmosphere that would otherwise disappear if there were nothing to do but go home.

A paradoxical result is that American race riots always take place in the minority ghetto, usually on its borders and main commercial streets where there are stores operated by non-black ethnics. The 1992  L.A. riot after the Rodney King verdict was largely property attacks on Korean and other Asian store-owners; photos show widespread participation by black and Hispanic crowds. The Crips and Bloods called a truce in their normal hostility so that they could take part in the riot.

Riots publicize ideologies of protest. But whatever the slogans and the statements of spokespersons who are quoted in the news, at the line of confrontation mainstream society is always represented by the police. The police are often the only  visible presence of white society in what Elijah Anderson calls “black spaces.” Much of the time they are regarded as an occupying force. A riot not only brings about a confrontation of masses of local people against masses of police, but it is one of those rare moments when locals have enough numbers and enough emotional dominance to be able to defy the police.

The precipitation point for riots has usually been a confrontation with the police. The Detroit riot of July 1967, which lasted 5 days and resulted in 43 killed, 2000 injured, and 7000 arrested, began when police raided an after-hours bar on a hot summer night; in the atmosphere of the civil rights struggle, bar patrons fought back and the small police party retreated. When they returned several hours later with reinforcements, locals pelted police cars with bricks, again causing them to withdraw. The June 1967 Newark riot (26 killed) began when a taxi driver was arrested and rumors of police atrocities spread among taxi drivers. Although the issues of a riot may be framed as white vs. black, or mainstream society vs. criminals and radicals, on the ground the main conflict is between police and locals; and this sets the pattern for polarization within those groups as they perceive each other. *

* Sometimes also the Army is called out to end a riot. But in the US the army is a national institution with a lot of legitimacy; occasional killings by the army (such as Kent State in 1970) do not give rise to anti-army ideologies. Things are different in this respect in Mexico, and in many Latin American, African, and South Asian states, where the army is widely regarded as a political instrument or a corrupt organization. In the US, however, most collective resentment is acted out against the police.

Rioters always lose in the end, but riots give memories of pride and defiance. Their residue over time is to escalate long ground-swells of rebellions, in whatever form they come out.

Riots are better able to make a political statement than gangs. Although they almost never invade white territory, riots attract universal public attention; and although their threat of “the fire next time” is just rhetoric whose reality consists in burning their own neighborhood, the city and usually the nation has to at least temporarily pay attention to the racial divide. This is also an opening for political movements and non-violent demonstrations; the radical-flank effect of riots is to give the moderates more claim to make reforms, lest the violent fringe grow stronger. Liberal politicians and even some conservatives reacted by making reforms in the 1960s, dismantling the legal institutions of segregation. The movement for racial integration also improved the situation of black and other minorities in the middle class.

It left a lower-class black population that continued to be segregated and in an increasingly dead end economic situation. Poverty itself does not mobilize well-organized rebellion, since mobilization needs resources. The inner-city ghetto devolved into the land of the gangs, creating an underground economy of the drug trade, and in some places like Chicago, big corporate gangs taxing the off-the-books economy of the poor. For several decades, riots and demonstrations declined, while the crime rate surged, above all in black neighborhoods.

In the relatively peaceful period without riots to mobilize political concern, the black-vs.-mainstream divide deepened and entrenched. Civil rights reforms on the legal level mainly benefitted a minority middle class. The worst part of the ghetto has remained black-- that is to say, African-Americans, descendents on the historic slave population; newer dark-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean on the whole have done better at acquiring middle-class jobs. This class-race-ethnic combination is the core identity for the contemporary race war. Although many black people are middle class and most are not gang members or criminals, * the  police widely perceive themselves as facing a hostile enclave in the midst of the larger society. The cops are not even necessarily white European ethnics; many are Hispanic, some are Asian and a few are black. But on the whole these ethnic groups identify with mainstream society and historically have conflicted with blacks. Cops (whether they are seen as heroes or racists, and whether or not they are white) and black men (whether as dangerous criminals or innocent victims) have become the two counterpart symbols of everyday conflict in America. The African-American lower-class gang culture is the image that outsiders have of where the trouble comes from, and the atmosphere of polarization generalizes this image to all ambiguous encounters with blacks.

* The proportion of the black male population of teens and young adult who belong to gangs is about 10-12%.  Calculated in Collins, Violence: p. 372.

Escalation of police tactics

Police tactics against crime in the ghetto have gone through a series of developments. Traditional policing in the era of official segregation in the South meant white police would arbitrarily enter any black dwelling looking for suspects. But on the whole, crime of blacks against each other was not regarded as very important. In the North and especially in the era of the civil rights movement, police tended to abandon the ghetto. Elijah Anderson reports that in the 1980s and 90s the ghetto was largely unpoliced; both in the sense that police did not patrol there often and that they were slow to answer complaints; moreover when police did arrive at a scene of robbery or violence, they were peremptory towards everyone. In scenes with a good deal of angry talk, the victim or complainant could easily find oneself being arrested. Accordingly, ghetto residents were wary of calling the police. In this atmosphere, residents attempted to provide their own protection, what Anderson calls “the code of the street.” The stance was for everyone to appear tough, especially men but also women, dramatizing by voice and gesture they were ready to use violence. Anderson emphasizes that for the majority of people, the street code is a front, an effort to head off violence; only a minority within the ghetto would actually “go for street,” carrying weapons and living as predatory criminals. As noted, only a fraction, about one-tenth of black male youth belong to gangs, but the “decent” citizens (Anderson describes this as a folk term in some northern cities) also give off a protective veneer, that could impress outsiders that they are dangerous. Thus the street code, meant to act as a show to fend off being a victim, in the eyes of the mainstream and the police, made most ghetto residents appear indistinguishable from violent criminals.

Another tactic, largely by white politicians, was to create severe penalties for drugs. These laws were increasingly enforced, both for sale and for possession, leading the huge growth of incarceration of blacks and Hispanics by the 1990s. Since the drug laws fell on both the criminal segment and many of the “decent” segment of the ghetto, they added to racial polarization. Prisons became the center for spreading the antinomian culture. Severe sentences did not much affect the drug business itself, since those most likely to be caught were low-level dealers, who could easily replaced since they were one of the few prestigious career paths in the ghetto.

The high volume of drug arrests also had an effect on the police. As Peter Moskos shows in his ethnography of the Baltimore police force, and Philippe Bourgois in his research on north Philadelphia drug markets, police know the justice system is overcrowded, and that prosecutors and judges let many suspects off. Police become cynical about the revolving-door process, as well as exasperated by the defiant attitude it fosters among those they arrest. Police respond with their own informal punishment. This includes the tactic known in the culture of Eastern police forces as “a rough ride”-- leaving a prisoner shackled but not secured to a seat in the police wagon while they are roughed up by wild driving. This is apparently the scenario in April 2015 by which Freddie Gray-- a black man who been in and out of court multiple times for minor offenses and parole violations-- ended up dying from a broken spine after being arrested by Baltimore police.

Around the year 2000 came a reversal in police tactics. Previously they tended to neglect ghetto crime except for easy busts for drugs. Now computerization added new weapons. One version was COMSTAT, a centralized system put in place by the New York Police Department, that compiles crime reports not in old fashioned monthly or yearly statistics, but in real time; now police commanders could see where crime was surging in the city and flood that area with cops. COMSTAT is credited with having reduced the crime rate in New York City from one of the higher to one of the lowest big cities; it resembles the “surge” that General Petraeus used in Iraq to secure areas from insurgent forces. The main limitation of COMSTAT is that it is expensive to implement. The NYPD is unique in the size of its police force (35,000), and its ability to move forces around; most smaller police departments lack the manpower for local surges.

Computerized record-keeping has been put to a different use in other cities. Patrol cars now have on-board computers, which officers can use-- not only at any arrest or encounter with a suspect, but at any contact with a civilian. Infractions as minor as driving with a broken tail-light or selling cigarettes on the sidewalk now routinely result in a records check. Many minorities living in the gray economy have past infractions; and these are often compounded by failing to appear for court appearances, or failing to pay fines. As Alice Goffman shows in her ethnography of a small Philadelphia street gang, the court system tends to nickel-and-dime poor people to death-- metaphorically, of course, since these are generally fines in the hundred-dollar range that poor people have a hard time paying. The fines mount up since failure to appear or failure to pay results in yet another fine. Everything compounds each other in this system of city administration, policing, and antinomian street culture. Any innocuous police stop can result in arrest on outstanding warrants; it is still a revolving door but the police now are a constant, annoying presence in people’s lives, spreading the feeling that everyone is a suspect. The court system supports itself with fines, encouraged by city administrations under the pressure of mainstream resistance to raising taxes.  And not only big city courts and police forces use this strategy of controlling the poor by collecting fines on them. Towns like Ferguson, Missouri use a version of old-fashioned speeding traps on passing motorists, now updated with computerized records to fine the poorer citizens of their own town for minor offenses and accumulated penalties.

The result is escalation on both sides. The police are now more actively harassing the poor, and the poor are exasperated and defiant like the man in Ferguson who walked away from an officer and was shot in the back.

Middle-class tax revolt, revenue-strapped city administrations, and the predatory use of police as a cash-collecting machine blend together into a Kafka-esque system of feedback loops. Legitimation was given to the process by the “broken windows” theory of crime control, which encourages police to crack down on small offenses like urinating in public in order to eliminate signs of being places where laws are not enforced. Modern day computerization and so-called “best practices” have their worst effect on the street where the two most exasperated components of the system come together: cops and poor black people. *

* Other kinds of escalation in police tactics have happened, such as the militarization of police equipment since the late 1990s. But helicopters, armored vehicles, and body armor are used mainly for crowd control and riots, and probably have little effect on the tensions of everyday policing. Demonstrations and riots, as noted, are occasions where the anti-police constituency gets better organized and more politically effective; so the threatening face of heavy military equipment probably is no more than false comfort for the police.

Escalation of gang weapons and insurgent resources

On the other side, escalation of weapons and tactics has also gone on. In the 1950s, gangs mostly fought with handmade “zip guns” firing single shots. Their most dramatic weapon was the switch-blade knife, which made a sinister motion as the blade whipped out-- but was not itself particularly deadly, since knife fights are mostly for show and usually inconclusive. Gangs became more deadly, and the murder rate picked up in the 1970s and 80s as more guns came on the scene.

Nevertheless, for the most part gang weapons do not produce  much firepower. The accuracy of pistols is poor beyond a few dozen yards; while at very close range, the adrenaline surge tends to produce wild firing. Urban gang members rarely practice on a shooting range; and most patrons of gun ranges are white. There is great admiration for guns in the gang culture, but most gang members are not gun experts. The guns available in the illegal market are often of low quality-- here too the poor tend to get shoddy products. In the gang milieu, these defects don’t matter so much, since most of the time what happens consists of blustering and showing off. Close ethnographic observers of the gang scene find they display their guns, even gesture with them, far more than they fire them. Shoot-outs with rival gangs usually are brief , and getting hit is mostly a matter of chance. Not surprisingly, when shots are fired they often hit bystanders, including children; this is particularly likely in drive-bys where members of one gang fire at a gathering in a park or street that includes members of a rival gang. Hitting innocent victims is sometimes welcomed by gang members since it enhances their reputation for being ruthless.

The low quality and low competence of gang firepower is one reason they use it mainly against each other. Rarely do they attempt to shoot it out with the police, since they are almost always outgunned, not to mention the capacity of police to call in reinforcements to almost any level necessary to prevail. *

* The most organized violence against the police was by the Black Panther Party during 1967-70, in ambushes, gunfights, traffic stops and police raids. A total of 1 officer was killed and 4 wounded, while the Panthers lost 10 killed. By 1969-71, the Black Panthers were mainly involved in internal violence against splits and rival groups, with another 10 killed.  The Panthers began as a group to monitor police violence by armed patrols, but turned into a combination of political movement and gang, financing themselves by a tax on robberies and extortions carried out by members. 

In recent years, there are occasional postings of cell-phone photos of gang members carrying heavier weapons such as AK-47s. Nevertheless, this looks like the usual blustering, since one rarely hears of such weapons being used in gang fighting, or against the police. Long guns are more accurate than pistols, and can deliver a higher volume of fire. On the whole, they have been used in overt race war only when the local situation gave temporary emotional dominance to insurgents.  In the 1967 Newark and Detroit riots, snipers with rifles fired at police and National Guard troops from their home base in the ghetto. The July 2016 Dallas sniper represents an exceptional level of escalation of firepower, producing a total of 12 casualties. He came from a suburban area and never participated in the gang lifestyle-- which as we have seen, it very poorly adapted for fighting with the police. In this respect, the Dallas sniper more resembles the isolated school rampage shooter, amassing weapons in secret; the difference being both his target-- police rather than school children-- and his military training and his practicing weapons tactics. The Dallas sniper, in effect, was more assimilated into white society, and he used white weapons and followed a white scenario of mass killing.

The strongest similarity is to the so-called “Beltway sniper” in October 2002, who fired on white people from a car, killing 10 over a period of weeks.  This turned out to be a black military veteran, who (unlike gang members) trained for sniper skills, including with his 17 year-old protégé, who did the firing from a peep-hole in the trunk of their car. The motives and tactics of gangs, armed robbers, and grudge-obsessed rampage killers are different. But such tactics propagate by imitation, especially when they are highly publicized in the media. In a situation of emotional escalation of black-vs.-police conflict, one can expect cross-overs as the most militant individuals pick up the most lethal tactics.

The most effective escalation: communications and multi-pronged mobilization

The biggest weapon in escalating black insurgency has been, not weaponry, but publicity and politics.  During the civil rights period of the 1960s, victories were won because different styles of organization fought on different fronts. Non-violent protests by Freedom Riders, church-led alliances, and direct-action organizations like CORE, created a certain amount of attention, especially when they became well-publized martyrs to segregationist violence. Riots engaged more of the black population, and created an unavoidable sense of national emergency. A fringe of individuals and organizations (SNCC, Black Panthers, Black Muslims) emerged that openly advocated violence. Most of the actual gains, however, were won by the most conventional part of the movement, the NAACP and the Urban League, whose lawyers challenged segregated arrangements in the courts. It was more of a tacit coalition than an explicit one, since most of these organizations disavowed at least some of the others. But their combination created the sense of national crisis that eventually moved the balance point of American politics and the judiciary towards integration.

The same pattern is reemerging in the current war of cops and blacks. The side against police violence includes legal organizations, some politicians, organizations of non-violent demonstrations, as well as a violent fringe of militants. We should also count the gang violence of the black community as part of the larger movement or atmosphere of resistance, along with the antinomian thrust of the youth culture. The big difference from the 1950s and 60s is now there is a national mobilization on the other side as well. The civil rights movement was opposed by a mainly Southern segregationist bloc. Today there is a widespread national constituency for cracking down on what is seen as out-of-control lawlessness.  Escalation and counter-escalation have been occuring on both sides. Both sides have gotten more sophisticated in recognizing each other’s tactics. The pro-police side sees that the black insurgency operates in tandem with political and media fronts, and has tried to counter them as abettors of violence.

The major new weapon on the side of the anti-police insurgency is in the realm of communication: the cell-phone camera. This had its analogy in the 1950s and 60s, when on-the-spot television news was just appearing, and police attacks on civil rights marches made sensational coverage, especially when reporters were also attacked in the mêlée. The new phase of mobilization against the police began in 1991 when Rodney King’s beating by a group of police was filmed by a resident with a new product, the video camcorder. The cell phone camera has made videos recording ubiquitous, and the decentralized social media of the Internet has made it hard for authorities to crack down on it.

Mobile videos of the police in action are not the whole story; they only work in tandem with the range of other tactics and organizations-- demonstrations, riots, political movements, law suits. The police recognize videos as an escalation against themselves. Confiscating cameras becomes a new side-issue and flashpoint for further conflict. There is some validity in arguments that videos capture only a part of the encounter and miss the verbal lead-up to the confrontation; the solution to this, however, could be more recordings, including voice, of police encounters with citizens. It is also true that police body cameras can be dysfunctional or deliberately turned off. All such recording devices become an expanding battleground. One can anticipate there will be more things to fight about in the future.

Counter-escalation on both sides spins off from the same technical innovations. Cell phone cameras and the social media come from the same IT revolution that brought squad-car computers and police tactics of running the record on everyone they stop. Both police and citizens use their electronic networks to call for backup; the police in a more organized way, with greater weaponry and authority; the street people in a more sensationalist way, seeking backup in the form of  collective emotions, demonstrations, and politics.

Are there any paths to de-escalation?

After every highly publicized incident, whether the casualties are among the people or the police, mainstream figures call for calm and reconciliation. These calls have little effect on de-escalating the overall situation. Most violence and conflict in all forms is carried out by small fractions of the population. There is always an array from the most militant fringe, through the seriously committed partisans, to those who are less involved. Between the two sides of a conflict, those nearer the center are the ones most willing to listen to a message of reconciliation.  But it is the extremes who carry on the fight, and drive the level of escalation.

The flashpoint is the police on the streets.  Cops are under tension every time they stop a suspect. Tension is higher if conflict has escalated recently by previous incidents; higher if it is a neighborhood with a high crime rate; higher if there has been a chase, or alarming reports over police radio links.

Tension rises sharply when the citizen isn’t cooperative or is defiant. Richard Rubenstein, a sociologist who worked in the Philadelphia police force, reported that the first thing an officer wants in any encounter are signs that the person will not make trouble. He insists on taking the initiative, and controlling the situation in little details, since these are the warning signs for bigger trouble. Donald Black, who pioneered ride-along observations in patrol cars, calculated that the chances someone would be arrested did not depend on race per se, but on whether the person was defiant-- and in the 1960s black persons were more defiant to the police (not surprisingly, since this was the era of the civil rights movement). Car chases and running away increase officers' tension even more, since these are also acts of defiance. Citizens who turn their backs and refuse to stop are acting defiantly, even if the initial order was something trivial like “move to the sidewalk” (the first step in the 2014 Ferguson shooting).

Adding together any or all of these factors increases tension. Bodily this is experienced as adrenaline rush, the flight-or-fight arousal. The biggest danger with an adrenaline spike is the loss of perception and fine motor control. When heart rate races to 150 beat per minute or more, fine motor control is lost. An officer may reach for a gun when he thinks he is reaching for handcuffs or a taser. Trigger fingers produce wild or uncontrollable firing. Officers in shootouts report time distortions like going into a bubble, vision turning into a blur or tunnel vision on only one part of the scene. Hearing often goes out so that they don’t hear their own gunshots; voices become incomprehensible. It is a situation ripe for miscommunication and misperception.

Adrenaline-produced distortions explain why shooting incidents happen where it turns out the suspect did not have a gun, or was reaching for an ID; situations where stops for trivial reasons blow up into killings. Since adrenaline takes time to subside, the cop may empty the magazine of his gun, even after the suspect is motionless on the ground. Catching these details on video certainly looks like an atrocity.

Teaching awareness of body signs and emotional control

What can be done? The key is training cops to keep their bodily tension under control.  Sociologist Geoffrey Alpert found that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more police officers up to a high level of competence.

Individual officers vary widely in their use of force. About 10% of police account for the bulk of all force reports; and less then 1% fire their guns in multiple incidents. (Collins, Violence: 371) The polarized viewpoint see cops in general as being out of control; but the real issue is to make better officers out of the fraction that cannot control their emotions and physiology.

Adrenaline can be lowered, for instance by breathing exercises described by Army psychologist David Grossman. Police training should incorporate more explicit awareness of the distortions caused by tense confrontations. Weapons training tends to go in the opposite direction, stressing quick reaction, and training for automatic “muscle memory” in the default scenario that saving lives depends on rapid action. Police tend to be trained for extreme situations rather than clear assessment and self-control.

In the field, police dispatching and radio calls tend to turn situations into scenarios where the suspect is regarded as extremely dangerous.  Citizen calls to the police may say, someone might have a gun; or that someone might be engaged in a burglary. The dispatcher tends to turn this into a simpler form, there is a gun or a burglar. When messages are transmitted from one patrol car to another, the process by which rumors are propagated takes over. As psychological experiments have shown, each link in a chain of oral reports tends to simplify the message, leaving out any special qualifications and turning it into the most obvious cliché.  In the case of police transmissions, the more cars called to a scene, the more likely the message is to turn into an extreme threat; weapons are definitely asserted to be present; hostages tend to mentioned whether they exist or not and the suspect becomes reported as saying he will won’t die alone.

The combination of these processes explains events like the incident in Cleveland  in November 2014. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.

Such events are preventable. The answer is not so much after-the-fact criminal charges and court trials-- these rarely result in conviction, and focus on punishing individuals rather than on the improvements that can be made in police procedures. Better training can be undertaken at local initiative by police forces willing to do so. This should include techniques for becoming aware of one’s own adrenaline level and heart rate-- body signs monitors like those used in physical exercise would help here. And techniques should be emphasized for getting adrenaline under control.  There also should be better training of police dispatchers, to make them aware of the distortions they introduce into messages; and making patrol officers aware of the rumor-like exaggeration in their own chains of messages to each other. A useful role of Federal and State governments would be to review police training programs, to assess whether they are sufficiently teaching bodily and perceptual awareness of the distortions of adrenaline rush. Emphasis needs to be upon best methods for calmly and accurately assessing the situation before escalating it.

What about the other side of the counter-escalation, the anger, hostility, and defiance in the black community? I have focused on what can be done by police to control their use of force, because this is where public policy might be implemented. But escalated conflict is driven by the extremes at both ends of the distribution, and the tough guys of black and Hispanic communities would  be harder to reach.  Nevertheless, the message is much the same.  Be aware of one’s own adrenaline, one’s rush of emotions, the situational blurring of attention to everything but the impulse to dominate. And be aware of the same processes going on inside the person on the other side-- awareness of how to calm police down rather than rile them up. A glimmer of optimism comes from group psychology programs in California prisons, where convicted murderers learn to re-experience the events that led to their imprisonment, and to focus on better control of their emotions. Prisoners who completed the program and were released on parole had a re-arrest rate much lower than usual. It is not impossible that in the future self-training in micro-situational awareness could spread even in the most violent part of the population.

Framing the issue as racism doesn’t solve it. Cops without racist attitudes, under these kinds of tense situations, and with their adrenaline out of control, can trigger off violent atrocities. The answer isn’t in the attitudes; it is in the micro-techniques of how to behave in confrontations. There is a workable solution. Whether we will implement it or not is another question.


Randall Collins. 2008.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2012: “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Conflict.” American Sociological Review

Eric C. Schneider. 1999. Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York.
Martín Sánchez-Jankowski.  1991. Islands in the Street.
Scott Decker and Barrik van Winkle. 1996. Life in the Gang.
Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. 1994.  Burglars on the Job.
Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. 1997.  Armed Robbers in Action.
Elijah Anderson.. 1999.  Code of the Street.
Elijah Anderson. 2012. The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.
Deanna L. Wilkinson.  2003.  Guns, Violence and Identity among African American and Latino Youth.
Sudhir Venkatesh. 2006.  Off the Books. The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.
Sudhir Venkatesh. 2008.  Gang Leader for a Day.
Randol Contreras. 2012. The Stickup Kids.
Andrew Papachristos. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and The Social Structure of Gang Homicide,” American Journal of Sociology.
Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship. 2015.   "Keeping Up the Front: How Black Youth Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City"  in Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (Eds.),  The Culture Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.
Alice Goffman. 2014. On the Run.
David Skarbeck. 2014.  The Social Order of the Underworld. How Prisons Gangs Govern the American Penal System.
C. Eric Lincoln. 1994.  The Black Muslims in America.

Jonathan Rubinstein, 1973. City Police.
Donald Black. 1980. The Manners and Customs of the Police.
Peter Moskos. 2009. Cop in the Hood.
Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.
David Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone. A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force.
Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


When Erving Goffman arrived at University of Chicago in the late 1940s, he was an ardent Freudian. A few years later he devised a new way to study mental illness: he got himself into the schizophrenic ward of a mental hospital, incognito, for two years. Instead of the retrospective method of psychoanalysis, probing for the meaning of symptoms deep in past childhood, Goffman directly observed what mental illness is in the present, as disturbed social interaction.

Goffman is an emblem of the take-off of micro-sociology. No one creates an intellectual movement by oneself. In the background were not only the Freudians, seeking unconscious meanings in everyday life; also what Blumer named Symbolic Interactionism, emphasizing the social construction of the self and everything else.  At Berkeley in 1964, after a student sit-in for civil rights shut down the university, Blumer commented to us in class: a social institution exists only as long as it is enacted; when we collectively stop enacting it, it stops existing.

Another movement was springing up, the ethnomethodologists, insisting that sociology does not even exist, but only the study of folk methods for making sense of what is taken for reality. This was the phenomenology of everyday life, in the sense of Husserl and Schutz, but Garfinkel and his followers changed it from philosophical introspection into micro-situational observation. Especially important was the invention of conversation analysis by tape-recording real-life conversation. This shifted the emphasis from the cognitive and rather individualistic focus of phenomenology onto the details of social interaction; and transcribing the tape-recordings made it possible for other researchers to examine the empirical findings and to point out new patterns in them. When Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson in 1974 laid out the turn-taking rule as the fundamental process of talk, it became possible to reinterpret it later as the socially ideal form: no gap, no overlap between speakers is talk in maximally attuned rhythm, and it exemplifies high solidarity in that little temporary group. Violating the no gap rule gives embarrassing pauses, micro-indications of what Goffman called alienation from interaction. Violating the no-overlap rule is people trying to talk over each other; this is the most characteristic form of incipient conflict and struggle for dominance, as became clearer in micro-studies of violence. By reinterpreting the data I assimilated the empirical findings of conversation analysis to a Durkheim-Goffman synthesis eventually called interaction ritual chains. I can’t say my ethnomethodological acquaintances were happy with this Gestalt shift; but theoretical reinterpretation of good evidence is how research fields build new knowledge.

Feedback between innovation in research methods and theoretical concepts has driven the advance of micro-sociology. New research techniques spin off from each other. By the 1990s came portable video recorders, followed by even more ubiquitous mobile phone cameras and CCTV. Knowing what to look for theoretically makes photos key evidence, because we can read photos in tandem with new understanding of the emotions in facial expressions, body postures and rhythms (research by Paul Ekman and others). We are seeing what causes what in the micro-dynamics of situations, both conflict and domination, alienation and solidarity. The deepening spiral between research technology and theory also improves traditional methods of observation and interviewing; it sharpens our ethnographic eye as to what to look for and what kinds of detail to probe for in our questions. Today’s ethnographer can say, I am a camera, echoing Christopher Isherwood describing Berlin in the 1930s.

Goffman exemplifies how traditional methods of participant observation yielded theoretical results that assimilate other strands. In the 1950s Goffman deserted Freud for Durkheim, reinvigorating the social anthropology that he learned from his British Commonwealth teachers. Like Lloyd Warner and Mary Douglas, he brought ritual home from the colonies and applied it to our own natives, ourselves. Durkheim’s theory of religious and political rituals takes us beyond the cognitive emphasis of both symbolic interaction and phenomenology; it gives us a mechanism that generates solidarity, morality and cognition simultaneously by pumping up symbols with shared emotion. Although the macro-sociological version of Durkheimian theory was functionalist equilibrium, Durkheim down-sized to the interacting group becomes dynamic. It makes a great addition to the study of historical and even revolutionary changes when religions, regimes, and manners are delegitimated and replaced by more engrossing ones. The ingredients that produce successful rituals are variable; when assembly, mutual focus, shared emotion and rhythmic synchronization are absent or disrupted, sacred objects are desacralized, cultural beliefs fade, and moralities become outdated. Far from being a idealization of perpetual solidarity, neo-Durkheimian micro-sociology is a tool for dissecting social change and conflict. When Lloyd Warner shifted from Australian clans to American cities, he found more than one tribe: social classes, stacked up like a totem pole. What Marx and Engels called the means of mental production and Gramsci called hegemony is determined by the micro-sociology of interaction rituals; but we don’t have to wait for macro crises in the system to bring changes, since the ingredients for stability and change are here at the micro level.

Followers of Goffman, Blumer and Garfinkel have proliferated in the last 40 years, producing many strands of micro-sociological research. I will single out a few areas of recent discovery. As a link between mid-20th century and today, consider some theoretical developments in the sociology of emotions.

There is the pioneering work by Theodore Kemper; by Tom Scheff on the shame-rage cycle; and by Norbert Wiley, whose 1994 book The Semiotic Self is probably the greatest contribution to symbolic interactionist theory since Mead. Here I will concentrate on a particular pathway.

Arlie Hochschild’s  ethnography of flight attendants uncovered emotion work, Goffmanian efforts to control the emotional frontstage of the situation, as part of the job. This led to a large body of research on workers’ emotional presentations. Perhaps Jack Katz’s title,  How Emotions Work, is a riff on “emotion work”,  while he shifts to radically situational methods, visual and auditory recordings, and a more embodied theorization. Katz dissects the major emotions by examining in micro-detail interactional situations where they happen. Laughter, the happy solidarity emotion par excellence, he finds in the fun house of mirrors. But seeing the distorting image of one’s body in the mirror is not enough to produce laughter; instead the child runs to bring father or mother; they all focus together on the image, and then they laugh. The emotion is spontaneous and bodily self-entraining in the physical rhythms of laughter, but it is body-to-body entrainment channeled by a sharpened mutual focus of attention. The physiological process is social physiology, and it works from the outside in. Katz starts from phenomenology but what he finds is deeply social and embodied.

And emotions are moments in a sequence through time. Road rage comes from disrupted rhythms and frustration over the lack of communication channels with the other driver, other than using the car itself to make embodied gestures like cutting the other car off. Time-dynamics are also crucial for the various kinds of crying that Katz records, such as resistance by a small child to her pre-school teacher, producing a rising-and-falling whine along with each exercise she is being forced to do, while retreating into the fortress of resonance inside her own whining body. Whining is truly a weapon of the weak, and in a child-centered age, sometimes a local source of power. This is a long way from Freud, but deepening what he was trying to do.

Another important theorization of emotions comes from Jonathan Turner, by reconceptualizing evidence of human evolution. Humans diverged from other primates, not at first by larger brains but by increased neural wiring between emotional and cognitive centers. Humans thus have a much more differentiated range of emotions they can express and recognize in others, in face, voice, and gesture. This enables more flexible kinds of solidarity and social coordination; it enables religious and other rituals, marking both group membership and moral obligation, and boundaries to outsiders; and it enables ways of manufacturing new memberships. The Durkheimian mechanism was there at the origins of human society. The entwining of emotion, cognition and their embodied communication are what made possible speech and memory codified into symbols, which is to say culture as well as personal habitus. What one thinks comes from the symbols and gestures that spring most spontaneously to one’s consciousness, because those have been marked by strong emotions, positive or negative, deriving from the most successful interaction rituals, or from the searing memories of dramatically broken rituals.

In recent years neuro-physiological research has caught up with the Durkheimian point, recognizing that strong memories are emotionally marked; the rational emotionless calculator assumed by many non-sociologists as the epitome of human behavior does not fit everyday cognition. It is nice to have some legitimacy conferred by the so-called hard sciences. But micro-sociology still leads the way, since mirror neurons do not work automatically across all situations; the human brain is programmed from the outside in, by the success or failure of social interactions to generate emotions focused on shared experiences in the chains of everyday life.

Interaction ritual theory has been applied in the sociology of religion, not surprisingly since this is where Durkheim originated it. But there are many different kinds of religions in today’s religious marketplace. Scott Draper, using survey methods but asking the right questions about religious practice, shows how churches generate different amounts and kinds of spiritual experience by different mixes of  ingredients. Sociology of prayer examines the micro-details of what is said, done, and experienced. Michal Pagis’s research on group meditation shows that even in a retreat where persons are not supposed to talk or even communicate by gestures, nevertheless they orient bodily to each other and follow the lead of more experienced meditators in falling into a harmonious rhythm. That this rhythm is shared comes out by the contrast to meditating at home alone; individuals find it much more difficult to maintain concentration, and feel a need to return to the silent meditation group to keep up their spiritual experience.

I will add a parallel that is perhaps surprising. Those who know Loic Wacquant would not expect to find silent harmony. Nevertheless, Wacquant’s study of a boxing gym finds a similar pattern: there is little that boxers do in the gym that they could not do at home alone, except sparring; but in the gym they perform exercises like skipping, hitting the bags, strengthening stomach muscles, all in 3-minute segments to the ring of the bell that governs rounds in the ring. When everyone in the gym is in the same rhythm, they are animated by a collective feeling; they become boxers dedicated to their craft, not so much through minds but as an embodied project. Although Wacquant does not conceptualize this in Durkheimian terms, nevertheless his research contributes via the theoretical reframing of good data.

Now some applications of micro-sociological methods and theory to mainstream sociological topics: especially our concern with stratification, inequality, power, conflict and resistance.

I began to study violence when I realized that conflict theory in the Weberian sense had very little action in it, but was comparative statics. Micro-methods brought new discoveries. Originally our data were police statistics, bureaucratic artifacts remote from the scene of action. Closer data came from interviewers armed with symbolic interactionism, talking to prisoners or doing gang ethnographies. A different slant emerges when we look directly at violent confrontations. The first inkling came in World War II, when S.L.A. Marshall interviewed combat soldiers immediately after battle, and found only a small proportion actually fired their weapons at the enemy. Later the Army psychologist Dave Grossman found evidence they are held back not by fear of being hurt (since persons in some situations ignore very high danger, including medics, and officers who are not using weapons); they are inhibited by a deep-seated fear of killing someone. This sounds paradoxical but I have connected it with several wide-spread patterns.

A large proportion of violent confrontations of all kinds-- street fights, riots, etc.-- quickly abort; and most persons in those situations  act like Marshall’s soldiers-- they let a small minority of the group do all the violence. Now that we have photos and videos of violent situations, we see that at the moment of action the expression on the faces of the most violent participants is fear.  Our folk belief is that anger is the emotion of violence, but anger appears mostly before any violence happens, and in controlled situations where individuals bluster at a distant enemy. I have called this confrontational tension/fear; it is the confrontation itself that generates the tension, more than fear of what will happen to oneself. Confrontational tension is debilitating; phenomenologically we know (mainly from police debriefings after shootings) that it produces perceptual distortions; physiologically it generates racing heart beat, an adrenaline rush which at high levels results in loss of bodily control.

This explains another, as yet little recognized pattern: when violence actually happens, it is usually incompetent. Most of the times people fire a gun at a  human target, they miss; their shots go wide, they hit the wrong person, sometimes a bystander, sometimes friendly fire on their own side. This is a product of the situation, the confrontation.  We know this because the accuracy of soldiers and police on firing ranges is much higher than when firing at a human target. We can pin this down further; inhibition in live firing declines with greater distance; artillery troops are more reliable than infantry with small arms, so are fighter and bomber crews and navy crews; it is not the statistical chances of being killed or injured by the enemy that makes close-range fighters incompetent. At the other end of the spectrum, very close face-to-face confrontation makes firing even more inaccurate; shootings at a distance of less than 2 meters are extremely inaccurate. Is this paradoxical?  It is facing the other person at a normal distance for social interaction that is so difficult. Seeing the other person’s face, and being seen by him or her seeing your seeing, is what creates the most tension. Snipers with telescopic lenses can be extremely accurate, even when they see their target’s face; what they do not see is the target looking back; there is no mutual attention, no intersubjectivity. Mafia hit men strike unexpectedly and preferably from behind, relying on deception and normal appearances so that there is no face confrontation. This is also why executioners used to wear hoods; and why persons wearing face masks commit more violence than those with bare faces. 

NOTE THE POLICY IMPLICATION:  The fashion in recent years among elite police units to wear balaclava-style face masks during their raids should be eliminated. It operates as a status marker for such units, and in some countries as a deliberate effort to intimidate people; but in democracies like the United States it ought to be recognized by police authorities that wearing masks increases the likelihood of out-of-control violence by these forces.

Confrontational tension/fear is a corollary to interaction ritual theory. Mutual focus of attention-- awareness of each other’s awareness-- is an ingredient of high mutual entrainment; normally, with a shared emotion building up, the result is collective effervescence and solidarity.  But conflict is action at cross purposes. Face-to-face confrontation simultaneously invokes our hard-wired propensities to get into a shared rhythm, and contradicts it because one is trying to impose dominance on the other. No wonder face confrontations are so tense. It is not being afraid of being hurt that generates the most tension; nor is it exactly right to say it is fear of hurting the other; it is above all tension specific to tightly focused mutual action at cross purposes. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called in confrontational tension/fear, except that the facial and bodily expressions look like fear.

Face-to-face confrontation is what pumps adrenaline and cortisol, and creates the tension we see on faces and bodies. As  heart beat rises over 140 beats per minute or BPM, fine motor coordination declines, such as aiming a gun; over 170 beats per minute experience becomes a blur; over 200 BPM paralysis can set in. Face confrontations, especially when combined with other sources of tension and arousal such as running, car chases, an angry argument or an emergency call, result in several patterns that we see in violent situations.

NOTE ON POLICY IMPLICATION:  Training of police officers should emphasize explicit awareness of the consequences of very high heartbeat and other bodily signs of extreme tension. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground  (Nov. 2014 in Cleveland) had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car, within the acute confrontational distance of less than 3 meters. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone for perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation. Geoffrey Alpert has shown that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more officers up to this high level of competence.

If both sides get into the zone of high tension and physiological arousal, the fight will abort; if they do fight (given further situational conditions I will come to shortly), the fight will be incompetent. The same pattern is true for other weapons besides guns, such as knives, swords and clubs, and for fist fights. Since these weapons need very close confrontation, their competence in doing damage is generally low, contrary to what one might think from sword-fighting movies, including those with samurai or magical super-heroes.

How does violence sometimes succeed in doing damage? The key is asymmetrical  confrontation tension. One side will win if they can get their victim in the zone of high arousal and high incompetence, while keeping their own arousal down to a zone of greater bodily control. Violence is not so much physical as emotional struggle; whoever achieves emotional domination, can then impose physical domination. That is why most real fights look very nasty; one sides beats up on an opponent at the time they are incapable of resisting. At the extreme, this happens in the big victories of military combat, where the troops on one side become paralyzed in the zone of 200 heartbeats per minute, massacred by victors in the 140 heartbeat range. This kind of asymmetry is especially dangerous, when the dominant side is also in the middle ranges of arousal; at 160 BPM or so, they are acting with only semi-conscious bodily control. Adrenaline is the flight-or-fight hormone; when the opponent signals weakness, shows fear, paralysis, or turns their back, this can turn into what I have called a forward panic, and the French officer Ardant du Picq called “flight to the front.” Here the attackers rush forward towards an unresisting enemy, firing uncontrollably. It has the pattern of hot rush, piling on, and overkill. Most outrageous incidents of police violence against unarmed or unresisting targets are forward panics, now publicized in our era of bullet counts and ubiquitous videos. 

Can we predict which pattern will happen? The barrier of confrontational tension can be circumvented if one or more conditions are present:

One is attacking the weak. Successful attackers seek out a weak enemy; sometimes this is someone physically weaker, but situational weakness is far more important.  Armed robbers seek isolated victims and avoid  even unarmed groups, and try for surprise, catching their victim off guard, in order to seize the interactional momentum. Attacking weakness also comes from  imbalance of numbers; in photos of riots, almost all the violence happens when clusters of 5 or 6 persons attack an isolated opponent, who is usually knocked to the ground and has their face turned from the attackers. This is more of a social than a physical advantage, because when two or three are attacked, they often succeed in fighting off a much bigger group of attackers; that is, the little group generates enough mutual support so that they are not emotionally dominated.

Another condition, then, is social support from a highly coordinated group of violent actors; an army squad, a SWAT team, a historical phalanx of warriors in close formation: these are drilled to act together, and as long as they focus on their own rhythm, confrontational tension with the enemy is a lesser part of their experience. 

Another pathway is where the fight is surrounded by an audience; people who gather to watch, especially in festive crowds looking for entertainment; historical photos of crowds watching duels; and of course the commercial/ sporting version of staged fights. This configuration produces the longest and most competent fights; confrontational tension is lowered because the fighters are concerned for their performance in the eyes of the crowd, while focusing on their opponent has an element of tacit coordination since they are a situational elite jointly performing for the audience. Even the loser in a heroic staged fight gets social support. We could test this by comparing emotional micro-behavior in a boxing match or a baseball game without any spectators.

Finally, there are a set of techniques for carrying out violence without face confrontation. Striking at a distance: the modern military pathway. Becoming immersed in technical details of one’s weapons rather than on the human confrontation. And a currently popular technique: the clandestine attack such as a suicide bombing, which eliminates confrontational tension because it avoids showing any confrontation until the very moment the bomb is exploded. Traditional assassinations, and the modern mafia version, also rely on the cool-headedness that comes from pretending there is no confrontation, hiding in Goffmanian normal appearances until the moment to strike.

All this sounds rather grisly, but nevertheless confrontational theory of violence has an optimistic side. First, there is good news: most threatening confrontations do not result in violence. (This is shown also in Robert Emerson’s new book on quarrels among roommates and neighbours.) We missed this because, until recently, most evidence about violence came from sampling on the dependent variable. There is a deep interactional reason why face-to-face violence is hard, not easy.  Most of the time both sides stay symmetrical. Both get angry and bluster in the same way. These confrontations abort, since they can’t get around the barrier of confrontational tension. Empirically, on our micro-evidence, this zero pathway is the most common. Either the quarrel ends in mutual gestures of contempt; or the fight quickly ends when opponents discover their mutual incompetence. Curtis Jackson-Jacobs’ video analysis shows fist-fighters moving away from each other after missing with a few out-of-rhythm punches. If no emotional domination happens, they soon sense it.

Micro-sociology of violence is much more optimistic than conventional macro-theories of class or racial inequality, or cultures such as masculine hegemony and honor. These long-term factors are hard to change. But immediate situational conditions are always the bottleneck through which macro-conditions must pass if conflict is to turn into violence. Micro-interactional theory points out situational conditions  to avoid. And it offers micro-practices for each of us to deal with threatening situations in your own life. Keep any confrontation emotionally symmetrical; make confrontational tension work for you by maintaining face contact; avoid micro-escalations; let the situation calm down out of boredom, which is what happens when an interaction becomes locked into repetition. In the violent sociology of emotions, boredom is your friend.

A long-standing criticism of ethnomethodology and other micro-sociology has been that it tells us nothing except tedious details that are really determined at the macro level. The sociology of violence shows this is not true; there is crucial causality at the micro level. And we are extending this to other areas.

Anne Nassauer, assembling videos and other evidence from many angles on demonstrations, finds the turning points at which a demo goes violent or stays peaceful. And she shows that these are situational turning points, irrespective of ideologies, avowed intent of demonstrators or policing methods. Stefan Klusemann, using video evidence, shows that ethnic massacres are triggered off in situations of emotional domination and emotional passivity; that is, local conditions, apart from whatever orders are given by remote authorities.  Another pioneering turning-point study is David Sorge’s analysis of the phone recording of a school shooter exchanging shots with the police, who nevertheless is calmed down by an office clerk; she starts out terrified but eventually shifts into an us-together mood that ends in a peaceful surrender. Meredith Rossner shows that restorative justice conferences succeed or fail according to the processes of interaction rituals; and that emotionally successful RJ conferences result in conversion experiences that last for several years, at least. Counter-intuitively, she finds that RJ conferences are especially likely be successful when they concerns not minor offenses but serious violence;  the intensity of the ritual depends on the intensity of emotions it evokes.

Erika Summers-Effler shows the diversity of emotional practices that sustain social movements whose goals are so difficult that they are permanently failing. Cathartic laughter tinged with mysticism emotionally reboots Catholic Workers among the self-destructively poor; harnessing righteous anger keeps an anti-death-penalty group going although its leader gets most of the energy. Interaction Ritual works very widely as a mechanism, but it can use different emotional ingredients; the landscape of emotion-marked group idiocultures (to borrow Gary Alan Fine’s term) remains to be mapped.

High authorities are hard to study with micro methods, since organizational high rank is shielded behind very strong Goffmanian frontstages. David Gibson, however, analyzing audio tapes of Kennedy’s crisis group in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, penetrated the micro-reality of power in a situation in which all the rationally expectable scenarios led toward nuclear war. Neither JFK nor anyone else emerges as a charismatic or even a decisive leader. The group eventually muddled their way through sending signals that postponed a decision to use force, by tacitly ignoring scenarios that were too troubling to deal with. This fits the pattern that conversation analysts call the preference for agreement over disagreement, at whatever cost to rationality and consistency. Stefan Fuchs, in his micro-sociologically informed theory book Against Essentialism, says that organizational authority looks most rational and decisive when communicating to outsiders; the closer one gets to the inside, the more activities look ad hoc. Authority is a performance for the distance; up close, it dissolves into particularistic idiosyncrasies; perhaps a better way to put this is that it becomes the micro-details of situational interaction.

We have a long way to go to generalize these leads into a picture of how high authority really operates. Does it operate the same way in business corporations? The management literature tells us how executives have implemented well thought-out programs; but our information comes chiefly from retrospective interviews that collapse time and omit the situational process itself. Lauren Rivera cracks the veneer of elite Wall Street firms and finds that hiring decisions are made by a sense of emotional resonance between interviewer and interviewee, the solidarity of successful interaction rituals. Our best evidence of the micro details of this process comes from another arena, where Dan McFarland and colleagues analyze recorded data on speed dating, and find that conversational micro-rhythms determine who felt they “clicked” with whom.

Finally, I will mention my most recent book, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy. Among others, it analyzes how a famous organization-builder like Steve Jobs used an  style that generated a tremendous amount of emotional energy focused on cutting edge innovation.  Jobs’ interactional style was to evoke extreme emotions, including very negative ones, but unlike authoritarian leaders who bark out critiques and orders and then slam the door behind them, Jobs stayed to argue at great length until the group emotion became transformed into a shared trajectory of action. His insults and obscenities were only the opening move that revved up group emotion; successful IRs transmute the initiating emotions-- whatever they are-- into solidarity, and Jobs kept the group focused throughout the argument until this happened. And it increased everyone's emotional energy; by the end, if it meant staying up 48 hours to fix it, let's get to it.

(Note: The 2015 film Steve Jobs inaccurately portrays how he dealt with his high-tech team, assimilating him to the management cliché of motivating workers by threatening to fire them.)

Such interactional techniques are rare, since they require constantly recycling emotional energy between leader and group; whereas most hierarchic authorities become cut off from those doing the work. Interaction ritual processes suggest a way to make network analysis more dynamic rather than comparative statics; for instance we observe Jobs’ techniques for recruiting the most desirable people and thereby building a productive network.  More generally, we see how entrepreneurs flourish by playing in ambiguous or dangerous networks, interacting with potential rivals and enemies who can steal key information and key opportunities, or band together temporarily to exploit them jointly. Dangerous networks expand by a timely application of emotional domination, in contrast to inner circles of allies (like Jobs' high-tech work group) which are built by cascades of EE.

I will end this scattered survey with some  research that falls into the rubric of Weberian status groups, i.e. social rankings by lifestyle.  David Grazian has produced a sequence of books, Blue Chicago and On the Make, that deal with night life. This could be considered a follow-up to Goffman’s analysis of what constitutes “fun in games” as well as “where the action is.” For Grazian, night-life is a performance of one’s “nocturnal self,” characterized by role-distance from one’s mundane day-time identity. By a combination of his own interviewing behind the scenes and collective ethnographies of students describing their evening on the town, from pre-party preparation to post-party story-telling, Grazian shows how the boys and the girls, acting as separate teams, play at sexual flirtation which for the most part is vastly over-hyped in its real results. It is the buzz of collective effervescence that some of these teams generate that is the real attraction of night life. And this may be an appropriate place to wind up. Freud, perhaps the original micro-sociologist, theorized that sexual drive is the underlying mover behind the scenes. Grazian, looking at how those scenes are enacted, finds libido as socially constructed performance. As is almost everything else.

In conclusion.  Will interaction ritual, or for that matter micro-sociology as we know it, become outdated in the high-tech future?  This isn’t futuristic any more, since we have been living in the era of widely dispersed information technology for at least 30 years, and we are used to its pace and direction of change. A key point for interaction ritual is that bodily co-presence is one of its  ingredients. Is face contact needed? Rich Ling analyzed the everyday use of mobile phones and found that the same persons who spoke by phone a lot also met personally a lot. Cell phones do not substitute for bodily co-presence, but facilitate it. Among the most frequent back-and-forth, reciprocated connections are people coordinating where they are.  Ling concluded that solidarity rituals were possible over the phone, but that they were weaker than face-to-face rituals; one was a teaser for the other.

There is a theoretical reason why full-body co-presence makes for more successful IRs. Full-body presence is multi-channel; it is much easier to catch the other’s emotions, gestures, body posture and rhythm than from voice alone, or even voice-plus-image of the sort that Skype provides.  Bodily co-presence is an important ingredient not in itself, but because it enhances mutual focus-- meta-awareness that the other is focused on what you are focused on; or for that matter, that you are not so fully focused; alienation from interaction is also easier to detect face to face. Full channel bodily co-presence also enhances the other main ingredients of an IR, building a shared emotional mood to a high intensity via a continuous feedback loop; for instance that is why people laugh more when there are more people present.  We could test this by measuring the intensity of laughter among remote users reading on-screen emoticons or expressions like LOL, compared to laughter during physical presence. And bodily co-presence helps build rhythmic coordination; not to say there are no rhythms in exchanging text messages etc, but those rhythms are almost certainly not as fine-tuned as those found in voice recordings of persons who are clicking with each other. 

Also there is touching another person, something that can only be done when bodily present. Such expressions of affectionate or sexual contact are generally reserved for a few relationships (although there are formal versions like handshakes, air-kisses and forearm bumps enacting more limited bits of solidarity). Conceivably future electronic devices might wire up each other’s genitals, but what happens would likely depend on the micro-sociological theory of sex (chapter 6 in Interaction Ritual Chains): the strongest sexual attraction is not pleasure in one’s genitals per se, but getting the other person’s body to respond in mutually entraining erotic rhythms: getting turned on by getting the other person turned on. If you don’t believe me, try theorizing the attractions of performing oral sex. This is an historically increasing practice, and one of the things that drives the solidarity of homosexual movements. Gay movements are built around effervescent scenes, not around social media.

Voice conversations require co-presence in time if not in space, whereas this limitation does not hold for other electronic media, allowing them to reach far larger networks. It still appears that the greatest amount of back-and-forth messages happen among a relatively small proportion of social media “friends” who also meet physically. Big media-only networks numbering in the hundreds or more-- other than for celebrities who use them essentially as broadcast media-- are built either by assembling old schoolmate networks, or among professionals in a specialty. Yet the one type of professional network I have studied, philosophers and other intellectuals, has the pattern that those who have the most network connections to eminent persons, themselves are more likely to become eminent; and these connections involve a crucial period of face contact. In other words, having a far-flung network does not do very much good for one’s intellectual career unless you meet these people personally.  Meeting to do what?  To carry out intense intellectual IRs, getting the emotional emphasis that comes from being at the forefront of research and argument. In the absence of systematic research it is dangerous to extrapolate from one type of arena to another; but my impression is that although top financiers and business executives have very large social networks-- they had these already in the era before the social media-- their crucial deal-making happens by face meetings. Emotional domination and persuasion happen most subtly and effectively in full-body presence. It seems likely that persons who rely exclusively on distant electronic networks are stratifying themselves into a lower tier beneath the elite.

Of course the media of communication change; but the stratified patterns of intellectual networks have remained across a very long history of media inventions, including writing, book publishing, printing, letters delivered by postal service, newspapers and journals, and the first electronic media, the telegraph and telephone. In recent years I get communications from distant scholars by email; but those in areas of strong mutual interest soon travel to discuss things personally; and these personal contacts are what accelerate the process of creative research.

It would be foolish to postulate that electronic or other media technologies will never be invented that mimic the key aspects of bodily IRs:  that is to say, that can enhance sense of mutual attention, strengthen shared emotions, and get people electronically entrained in interpersonal rhythms. Given the existence of micro-sociological understanding, it is more than likely that media technologists will try to mimic real-life IRs. Crude advances in social Artificial Intelligence are already pointing the way, as are efforts at virtual reality. It may become possible to electronically stimulate the emotional and rhythmic parts of the brain; the result might well be a high-tech version of heroin addiction. But I doubt that the real social interactional world will go away; people who become electronic junkies will be dominated by people who use a wide spectrum of successful IRs, and at the core of those networks will be real people who meet bodily.

I am not a fan of science fiction, which always struck me as mostly recycling mythologies of the pre-modern past. In this talk I have been tracing the history of micro-sociology over the past half-century or so, and we can see the direction things are going. Micro-sociology grew up with a sequence of inventions that might be called information technologies: tape recorders, videos, photos of facial expressions of emotions, long-distance photography, computer-stored messages, and now portable monitors of physiological body signs being used in sports training and the military. Better to call these micro-interactional technologies, or micro-interactional recording technologies, because they give us new kinds of data we can pore over in detail and thereby discover new patterns.

Thus, two projections for the immediate future of micro-sociology, let us say the next two decades, by which time I will probably be dead. First, micro-sociology is going to get even better data, and the key things we will learn will be about mechanisms of mutual awareness, the causes and consequences of a variety of shared emotions, and the patterns of rhythmic entrainment that together determine levels of solidarity and emotional energy. What Durkheim and Goffman formulated are among the most important discoveries of sociology; they will be modified but they will not go away.

Second, micro-sociological technologies are going to spin off new combinations and advances from themselves, in the usual cascade of technological innovation.  But technologies develop in tandem with theories, and the theory that knows the most about how humans do interaction is micro-sociology.  We are going to be part of that technological cascade, whether we like it or not.

As we said in the 1960s, it’s been quite a trip. And it's not over yet.


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