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.

Monday, August 28, 2017


Little processes add up to big things. Social class hierarchy, race, gender, inequality sound like big immutable structures but they exist only in strings of behavior. Emotions between persons are central in all of them.

I will make 4 points. First, people are stratified, among other reasons, by the amount of Emotional Energy they have accumulated over time.  Second: besides long-term EE, short-time situational stratification comes from emotional domination (EDOM), a coercive type of Interaction Ritual. Third: a charismatic leader exerts an unthreatening form of domination by pumping up followers with EE. Fourth: there are limits to all three kinds of emotional stratification; they have volatile dynamics.

First point: Emotional Energy or EE is a variable quantity.

At the high end of the continuum, high EE is having a great deal confidence, initiative and enthusiasm. At the low end of the continuum, individuals are depressed, withdrawn, and passive. This generates stratification because high-EE persons tend to succeed, low-EE persons tend to fail. In the “emotional middle-class” between the extremes, persons with more EE tend to succeed better than persons with less EE. 

Sociologists generally attribute success to accumulated advantages, such as the habitus of the higher classes, money, better network contacts, and self-reinforcing spirals of reputation. These processes exist, but the micro-mechanism that makes them happen largely operate through generating higher EE, or negatively by reducing one’s EE. 

Higher or lower EE is the result of successful or unsuccessful interaction rituals (IR) . Every situation of social interaction in everyday life can be analyzed into ingredients that produce IR success or failure.

Favorable ingredients are:  assembling persons face-to-face; focusing their attention on the same thing, so that they become aware of their mutual awareness; plus feeling the same emotion. If these micro-processes take off, they feed back and intensify, into rhythmic entrainment of voices and bodies that Durkheim called collective effervescence. Persons who go through this kind of experience feel solidarity and shared social identity.

Successful rituals produce big macro effects-- religious belief and political commitment, as Durkheim pointed out. Goffman showed the same mechanism operating in the minor encounters of everyday life.

But the most important dividing point is that rituals fail as well as succeed, so individuals vary as to whether they have a string of successful rituals, or mostly failed interaction rituals. For most of us, the results are somewhere in between, depending on how well we match up with the people we encounter in the kinds of things they focus upon-- what comes under the category of habitus and social capital--and whether we can muster the emotions that get us into the shared feelings that make a successful IR.

The most important outcome for stratification is what I have labeled Emotional Energy. A successful IR makes you energized. You feel stronger, more confident, more active mentally and physically. At the opposite end of the continuum, low EE is a feeling of not wanting to do anything at all, just to get away from situations that bring you down. Some situations are energy gainers, others are energy gainers.

One’s life can become a self-reinforcing spiral, either positively or negatively: a chain of successful IRs, that pump you up, make you feel like a member, that give you the social habitus and cultural capital circulating in your networks, and which you can confidently play back in your future encounters. Or you can fail to get into the shared rhythm of the interaction-- by lack of things to talk about, lack of emotional attunement, lack of micro-habits that play well in that network--- and accordingly you feel drained, alienated and depressed.

For most people in the middle ranges of emotional stratification, the solution to a failed encounter is  to leave, avoid that network where you don’t click and stick to the networks where you feel comfortable. This is how most of the little cliques and idiocultures of everyday life sustain themselves.

Macro-structures such as social classes or ethnic groups or sexual preference groups, are constructed on the micro-level: shaped by successful IRs among some people, moderate shades of attraction among other people, outright feelings of rejection and failure with others. The term “micro-aggressions” refers to interaction rituals from the point of view of persons who fail in them.

Persons with high EE make their way into the top levels of organizations, in business and finance, in politics and political and religious movements. Election campaigns tend to be about the EE levels of the candidates; boards of directors appoint executives who impress them with their EE. Stratification by EE also operates in intellectual and cultural worlds, where persons who are most energized by their work as cultural producers get themselves into the center of attention and reputation.

Further down are persons who have enough EE to stay in the action; others find a routine area where modest amounts of EE will make do. Still others have crises of confidence, mini-scandals of local alienation, incidents of failed network ties that leave them among the depressed dropouts of social life. Money, power and status flow through successful IRs at the top end, and their lack is correlated with the proportion of failed IRs in one’s life.

A side comment: persons who are alienated by failures in conventional IRs do not necessarily fall to the bottom; some of them become good at the IRs specific to criminal worlds, where they may make a career, depending on the amount of criminal EE one has relative to rivals and victims. Still another branch are political rebels, who may succeed to the extent that they find networks of other rebels who can generate rebellious EE together. 

Second point: emotional domination or EDOM 

Move now to the level of situational stratification. EE rises and falls in micro-situations, but the stratification of EE one sees in business, political and other hierarchies is long-term.  Zooming in the sociological microscope, we see two ways individuals can dominate situations. One is EDOM; the other is charisma.

EDOM is an empirically-based concept. Analyzing recorded conversations, we find patterns where one individual sets the rhythm of the talk, and others follow; where one person seizes the speaking turns and sets the topics and even the unconscious tones of voice.  This is a variant on the basic mechanism of successful IRs, where individuals get into rhythmic entrainment that they all share and which energizes all of them. EDOM is a further mechanism by which some persons dominate the situation, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.

Some of the best evidence comes from videos of violent situations: armed robbers rely more on dominating the rhythm of interaction than on actually using their weapons; threat works by the techniques of EDOM. Similarly fights often stalemate, or fail to get beyond blustering at each other; when someone wins a fight, it is chiefly when one seizes the initiative and pushes the other emotionally into a passive position. Evidence on rape-- particularly party rape or fraternity rape-- shows this pattern, where energized groups of rapists and their avid audience find an isolated and emotionally dominated victim. 

I cite evidence on violent EDOM because researchers have looked at it closely; but EDOM is crucial in other kinds of careers. Success in business and financial careers also shows the pattern: persons who build business empires cultivate networks, in which their targets often have more money and assets but lack emotional energy. French sociologist Michel Villette calls them predators of the business world. They lurk in networks of their business rivals, waiting for moments of crisis when someone with more assets can be manipulated-- conned by a  rescue offer, subjected to a hard-ball law suit, or a stone-wall tactic of walking away from failed projects and leaving someone else holding the debt. (The businessman who rode his career to the White House is an example, but not the only one who practiced such tactics on the way up.) 

Business success does not simply consist of the accumulated advantage of money to make money. EDOM in the networks where the money is, is the real key to large fortunes.

Third point: the micro-sociology of charisma

A charismatic leader pumps up followers with EE; they admire their leader and follow willingly in his or her trajectory. EDOM is a different mechanism because it operates by hogging the EE. Charisma includes people rather than excludes them. Durkheim would say that the charismatic leader becomes the sacred object for the group; I would say he or she is the focus of attention that sets the trajectory of the group, filling them with enthusiasm that they will accomplish something great together.

A few brief examples. Joan of Arc led French troops to assault English fortresses, not because she was a great fighter but because she carried the banner at the front, and her followers would swarm up after her because they believed she could not fail. In quieter moments, she would display her humility as an agent of God and her personal saints, by weeping in church, so expressively that everyone else would be weeping along with her. It is no exaggeration to say that she led a procession across France of crowds weeping, and rushing behind her into battle. The shared emotion of weeping--- a bodily process that sweeps one out of control-- was the emotional mechanism that generated the sense of religious-plus-political trajectory.

Jesus, like most charismatic leaders, was a good observer of persons; he knew who could be moved to join him, and who had something else on their mind. Jesus always seized control of the interaction by the second conversational turn: instead of replying to what someone else said, he intuited what they meant and challenged them on it. He could turn the tables even on hostile enemies by controlling the rhythm and letting embarrassing silences work against them, then seizing the moment to make his point.

Jumping to a recent example of a dominant business entrepreneur, Steve Jobs: Jobs was not an engineer or a designer, but he had excellent judgment as to who were the most creative people to hire. He recruited them, in part, by touting the revolutionary things they would invent, and offering generous shares of the profits. Above all, he challenged them to do things that they thought were impossible; his emotional domination in arguing with his technical staff was so strong that they jokingly said Steve had a reality-distortion field.

The way it worked was by an extremely intense interaction ritual in the workplace. Steve would visit the most advanced work group, look at what they had done, and start criticizing it. His comments were crude, obscene and insulting. We might think his high-tech experts wouldn’t stand for this, that they would quit or rebel. But Jobs was not the kind of boss who walks in, shouts at his workers, threatens them if they don’t do better, then slams the door and leaves. Steve would insult them until they were really angry; then he would stay and argue with them. His persistence was incredible-- he would argue with them for hours. He was famous for dropping in on people and staying up all night arguing and expounding his vision. Obviously Steve has a lot of emotional energy to be able to do this: he shows the familiar pattern of the charismatic leader who doesn’t need sleep, a single-minded workaholic who never takes a break. This high level of EE is the result of constantly being in the center of successful IRs. But the most energizing IRs are not mere EDOM, where everyone else’s EE is crushed. Jobs wants energized workers who share his vision, technical experts who push beyond the limits of what they had thought possible.

The crucial pattern is in the time-sequence. Steve enters, and forcefully seizes the emotional center of attention. He uses negative emotions to begin with; he gets everyone seething with the same emotion, even if it is anger at himself. He gets them into an intense argument about how the thing they are inventing can or cannot be changed in ways no one has thought of before. Let us say, roughly, twenty minutes of insulting, then hours of heated argument. Over those hours, the emotions settle down; they are no longer focused on Steve and his insults, but about a vision of the piece of computer equipment in front of them, and where they can go with it. Steve did not always win these arguments; if something turned out to be genuinely impossible, he would tacitly accept that, provided they had figured out a work-around that would get them into the territory they were aiming for.

One could say that Steve Jobs was extremely egotistical, but his ego was in his products; and these were very much the products of a team, as cutting-edge as he could assemble. His core team became so convinced that Steve could do anything that they stuck with him, even in the dark days when he was forced out of Apple by the marketing and financial managers he had brought in to handle the non-technical side. It would be superficial to say that Steve Jobs achieved success by abusing his employees. He used very confrontational tactics to stir up emotions, but his secret was that he never walked away from them: but always saw the argument through to a shared resolution.  He was an expert at provoking intense IRs.

This is what charisma is like in action: it energizes a group, along a trajectory that they believe will be a glorious success.

Fourth point: All forms of emotional stratification have limits

If you have less EE than others, you might avoid being outshone by avoiding them. If you are one of the high-energy elite, your trajectory will not  inevitably be upward. Opportunities narrow towards the top, and competition to knock each other off intensifies. There are plenty of former big cheeses around.

Persons who control every encounter by EDOM are obnoxious to deal with, although in highly enclosed societies they are unavoidable.  Such persons make many enemies, but how long it takes for them to fall remains an empirical question.

More effective leaders are charismatic, generating EE and spreading it within a group who shares an enthusiastic trajectory.  Nevertheless, historically the careers of very charismatic persons did not last many years, and often went through periods of defeat, overthrow, or assassination. One of the limits for charismatic power is that it usually energizes one group but leaves plenty of opponents.

Emotional stratification underlies most forms of social inequality.  The fact that it is volatile means much comparative research will be needed to show its dynamics across time. In short: the patterns through which emotions drive social change.


Randall Collins and Maren McConnell. 2016.  Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy.

“Jesus in Interaction: the Micro-sociology of Charisma”

"When are Women Charismatic Leaders?"

Michel Villlette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.

Walter Issacson. 2011. Steve Jobs.