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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