Viewpoint

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.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

SOCIOLOGY OF MASKS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING


Throughout human history, people have generated almost all of their solidarity face-to-face, by physical co-presence. This has been disrupted by a world-wide natural experiment: making people stay home, avoid public gatherings, avoid interacting with strangers except when wearing masks and staying six feet apart.

Since the publication of Interaction Ritual Chains (Collins 2004), the issue has been discussed whether mediated forms of interaction, especially electronic communication in real time,  substitute effectively for face-to-face (F2F) interaction. On the whole, this literature has found that electronic media do not substitute for it, but instead supplement it. Studying cell-phone use, Ling (2008) found that persons tend to call the same people that they normally interact with, and much of what they communicate is where they are and how they can meet. He also found there is some feeling of social solidarity-- personal belonging-- in talking over a mobile phone, but that it is a weaker feeling than F2F. This may explain why cell-phone users spend much more time telephoning than traditional land-line users did; in this respect similar to drug addicts who increase their dose as its effects decline.

Are humans are infinitely malleable, entirely determined by social construction, so that we become acclimated to whatever is “the new normal” (perhaps with a measurable time-lag)?  Or is it that technologies become increasingly better at ferreting out what kinds of things happen in F2F interaction, that can be mimicked electronically? My review of currently available evidence is carried out with these questions in mind, along with a third possibility: that some features of F2F interaction are deeply engrained in the human genome, and that eliminating them leads to resistance and new forms of social conflict.

The Ingredients of Interaction Ritual (IR)

[1] Co-presence:  people are physically near to each other where they can see, hear, and otherwise sense which each other is doing.

[2] Mutual focus of attention: they focus their attention on the same thing, and become aware that they are doing so.

[3] Shared mood or emotion: they feel the same emotion, whether excitement, joy, fear, sadness, anger, boredom or any other.

[4] Rhythmic entrainment: they get into the same rhythm, with voice or body.

Feedback processes take place among these ingredients. As people pay more attention to each other, they tend to converge on a shared emotion and intensify it; conversely shared emotion intensifies mutual focus. As these increase, rhythmic entrainment increases.

Successful interaction rituals (in contrast to failed rituals where these ingredients are missing or weak) have the following outcomes:

[5] Social solidarity. Individuals feel like members of a group, and recognize others as co-members.

[6] Emotional energy (EE). Individuals feel pumped up by a successful interaction ritual; persons with high EE are confident, proactive, and enthusiastic. Persons with low EE are the opposite: they are depressed, passive, alienated. These are the results of failed interaction rituals.

[7] Collective symbols. Durkheim called these “sacred objects”, referring to the emblems, places, books, etc. that are the focus of religious worship; and he extended this to political symbols like flags. Collective symbols include all our ideals and strong beliefs.

[8] Moralities of right and wrong. For any group with successful rituals, the fundamental standard of morality is whether people respect its rituals and sacred objects. The worst offense is disrespect for its emblems; attacking its symbols creates moral outrage. This results in the most heated forms of social conflict, and rituals of public punishment for the enemy group and their symbols. We can see this process in the conflicts that arose during the coronavirus emergency, and in the public demonstrations that spread across the US in June 2020.

In sum, successful interaction rituals are the micro-process that generates almost everything that we refer to as “social order.”  If we  get rid of interaction rituals, or weaken them considerably, what would happen?

How important is physical co-presence?

Co-presence [1], in the scheme as developed by Durkheim and Goffman, is the point of departure. It is when people come together that the other ritual ingredients [2-4] can be brought into action. Can we say, though, that as media become more ubiquitous and mimic more aspects of F2F interaction, social connections become increasingly transferred to media connections while the bodily interactional basis fades away?

Co-presence is important because it facilitates mutual focus, shared emotion, and rhythmic entrainment.  By seeing another person’s eyes and face, and the orientation of their body, you know what they are paying attention to. An exchange of glances communicates, I-see-you-seeing-me, and also I-recognize-what-we-are-both-looking-at. Looking at the other person’s facial expressions and bodily gestures, as well as hearing their tone of voice and its loudness or softness, communicates what emotions are being felt. The James-Lange principle applies here: moving the muscles of one’s face, eyes, and body intensify the felt emotion; also it is triggered and intensified by closely monitoring the other person’s emotional expressions. Not only does running away with the rest of a crowd make you feel more afraid, but shouting happily, or angrily, with others makes one more happy or angry. Rhythmic entrainment is most strongly felt when it is in all bodily channels: not only seeing and hearing, but the proprioceptive feelings in muscles, breathing, heart rate, and bodily chemicals that make an emotional mood a felt experience, not merely a detached cognition. These kinds of embodied experiences are the glue that creates moments of social solidarity.

What happens when people are prevented from bodily F2F encounters, or are restricted to a small number of sensory channels?


Masked social distancing in public

Here we have a partial restriction of the ingredients of IR: people are bodily co-present, but the F2F aspect is greatly reduced. Masks cover the mouth and lower face, making it harder to recognize emotions, as well as harder to hear what the other person is saying. Thus we would expect shared emotion and mutual focus of attention would be harder to attain, IRs would weaken, and solidarity decline.

Nevertheless, what we find in observing people on the streets was the opposite, at least for a period of time. Simmel’s theory of solidarity through conflict says that when a group is shocked by a enemy-- we can widen this to a natural disaster or other shared emergency-- solidarity goes up. I tested this immediately after the 9.11.2001 attacks [Collins 2004a], and found that it has a time-pattern: using the display of American flags as an indicator, the pattern looked like this. After the first few days of hushed uncertainty, people started putting up flags on windows and cars; this reached its maximum within two weeks. It stayed at a plateau for 3 months, a period during which there were also repeated displays of flags and ceremonies honoring police and firefighters killed in the attacks. After 3 months, articles starting appearing discussing “can we take our flags down now?” Political controversy, which was almost entirely stifled during this period, started up again. By 6 months, the level of flag-display had declined by more than half, with a long diminishing tail thereafter.

In the US, public alarm over the coronavirus surged about March 16, when schools and gyms were shut down. By March 20, many states had ordered people to stay indoors. Wearing masks away from home became a requirement in the next two weeks, delayed because of shortage of supplies and controversies over effectiveness. Effective or not, wearing masks now became a social marker of joining the effort against the epidemic, along with keeping 6 feet away from other people. I anticipated that this period of solidarity would last no more than 3 months. Since the period after 9.11.01 had many public assemblies, often highly emotional, honoring the heroes of the attacks, whereas in 2020 public assemblies were prohibited as dangerous incubators of the epidemic, I expected the period of public solidarity would be shorter, probably 1 or 2 months.

For several years I was in the habit of walking or running for a half hour or more almost daily in my neighbourhood or public parks, and thus have a baseline for normal street behavior. By early April (about 2 weeks after the lockdown began), I noted that the number of people out walking was up by a factor of two or three from the pre-epidemic period; people deprived of exercise had found something they could do. Soon almost all walkers were now wearing masks, and when meeting others on the sidewalk, one or the other would step out into the street to maintain distance. When doing so, almost everyone waved or called out a friendly greeting. The main motivation would be that deliberately avoiding someone would be a mark of fear or an insult; so we countered that by a friendly wave or greeting. This is also Simmelian solidarity. It is clearly related to the onset of the shared emergency; in my walks in previous months and years, I would estimate the proportion of F2F encounters on the street where there was a greeting was less than 20% (chiefly among older people; noticeably absent among the young). 

The time-pattern of decline in Simmelian solidarity was the following: By late April (one month after the lockdown), the number of people out walking had noticeably increased. The proportion of people greeting each other declined; this was particularly true in areas along the harbor or ocean-front (the beaches and parks being closed and patrolled by guards); perhaps there was the beginning of a tone of defiance. Younger adults in particular were ignoring social distancing; and friendly waves or greetings were absent (including towards each other).

I began to make systematic counts of how many people were wearing face masks, distancing, and greeting. My focus was on adults who were walking on sidewalks or streets (children at this point rarely wore masks). I did not count runners or bicyclists, since they almost never wore masks-- a constant pattern from this point onwards. This may be due partly to decreased lateral visibility, but especially to difficulty breathing when doing heavy exercise. I did not count gardeners or other outdoor workers or delivery persons: the latter usually wore masks (as they worked for bureaucratic organizations that demanded it); manual workers usually did not, nor did they practice social distancing among themselves. One can see here a social class divide in the observance of social distancing etiquette. For walkers, the height of symbolic solidarity (mask-wearing and greetings) was in April; during May the proportion wearing masks gradually declined, as did greetings when social distancing (very noticeable around May 22-23).  For this period, a Gallup poll reported 1/3 each said they always, sometimes, or never work masks outdoors (New York Times June 3, 2020); given the desirability bias in surveys, the mask-compliant numbers are probably exaggerated.

A sharp break occurred in the first week of June, as Black Lives Matter protests and marches broke out. This was 10 weeks after the lockdown began. During the most militant period (the first 4-5 days), when many protest demonstrations were accompanied by burning, property destruction, or violence, photos indicate that few protestors wore masks, and participants massed close together. This happened despite official warnings that big assemblies, especially when shouting and chanting together, broadcast the virus. A rival source of Simmelian solidarity had been created, and it overrode the already-declining solidarity rituals of the social distancing etiquette. Most of the participants in the protests were young (as one can see in news photos); young people already were largely ignoring social distancing, and signs of solidarity among the young in ordinary public street behavior had been low. They were further IR-starved by the banning of sports and concert participation as audiences, or even as performers. The predominant participation of white youth in the protests (in most photos far outnumbering minority participants) were at least in part the response to the sudden opportunity to regain experiences of mass solidarity. Police violence and other grievances have been long-standing [https://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2020/06/seven-reasons-why-police-are-disliked.html], but why have protests mushroomed now?  The timing of these unprecedentedly widespread protests throughout the youth cohort is also connected to their intensified alienation in the social distancing regime, as I will document in the next section.

In subsequent weeks, as protests became smaller, photos show participants more often spread out, maintaining social distancing (also no big crowds) and at least half wearing masks. This is probably the effect of being more deliberately organized rather than spontaneous, with organizers and (mostly white middle-class) participants making a conscious effort to present a good appearance by following official coronavirus etiquette.

In California, parks and beaches were opened up again around June 10, along with reiterated regulations on masking and social distancing. My observations for pedestrians June 10-27:

Totals for public parks: 54 of 267 wore masks (20%); 3 greetings (6% of mask-wearers, 0% of unmasked).
for neighbourhoods: 23 of 91 wore masks (25%); 15 greetings (43% of mask-wearers, 9% of unmasked).

Those who continued to wear masks showed some solidarity (although declining over time) by greetings; this was more likely in residential neighborhoods (at least middle class) than in public parks, where greetings had largely disappeared.

Occasional conflicts were observed, in the following pattern (mid-June):  middle-aged woman says to an unmasked woman approaching her closely: “Could you please stand back? Where is your mask?” Reply: “Don’t be rude!”  It appears that both sides felt collective morality is on their side: a formula for intense social conflict. News reports a month earlier  noted an upsurge of confrontations between maskless shoppers who grew angry when retail store employees who told them to wear masks; violent incidents however were rare. (Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2020) We have no trend data on conflicts over masking, so we don’t know whether this was just a transitional pattern.

When everyone is wearing masks, it becomes more difficult to hear what people are saying; also some of the cues that we use to fill in likely words are missing because we cannot see their mouth and facial gestures, nor can one use facial feedback from the listener to correct one’s articulation. Thus masked interactions even in ordinary utilitarian situations give rise to misunderstandings, raised voices usually associated with anger, and sometimes gestures of annoyance. I have observed this frequently in grocery stories. Anything that limits multi-modal interaction takes it toll, even in situations where solidarity mainly takes the form of routine civility.

Family Solidarity

Also on the positive side, it appears that at first solidarity increased, at least for some family members. Children of elementary school age and younger seemed happy, as they had more time with parents and attention from them. I observed a large increase in families bicycling together on neighbourhood streets (seldom seen before the epidemic); since bicyclists rarely wear masks, and children at this time never did, one could see that their expressions were on the whole happy. It is unlikely that teenagers were similarly affected; I almost never saw them bicycling or walking with adults in neighbourhoods or parks. Not surprisingly, as teen culture is mostly concerned with being independent of adults, and being seen with parents is a status loss except on formal occasions (Milner 2016). Given that teens were prevented from gathering (I only occasionally saw teens out together, and hardly any male-female young couples other than parents), I would predict that data on the level of alienation and anxiety among teenagers would increase for this period. Even though teens are the most media-connected and media-obsessed of all age groups, they are the ones least likely to find it a compensation for a further drop in F2F experience.

On the negative side, doctors report an increase in child-abuse cases, although official statistics show a decline (all attention being focused on COVID-19). [San Diego Union-Tribune June 5, 2020] A national child-abuse hotline reported a 20% increase in calls and 440% increase in text messages over the prior year [Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2020]  The stay-at-home situation is favourable to some, perhaps most families with adequate space and resources; where there is family tension, isolation increases abuse, as has long been established [Collins 2008: 137].  Psychiatrists interviewed generally regard remote video counseling as less effective than F2F, especially the difficulty in reading emotions and conveying empathy [San Diego Union-Tribune May 18, 2020]. A national survey carried out in May found that reports of clinical symptoms of depression had doubled (compared to a 2014 baseline) to 24% of the US population; depression was especially high among young adults and women, even though they were less vulnerable to COVID-19 [Washington Post, May 27, 2020]. But embodied social interaction in the smartphone generation was already in decline, especially among teenage girls [Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2019]. By 2018, American teens were spending 6-to-9 hours daily on-line. Since 2007, time spent on seeing friends or going out in public had fallen sharply, as did dating. In 2019,  36% of girls said they were extremely anxious every day.

We have no data on sexual behavior during this period. Likely the birth rate will spike 9 months after the onset of the epidemic. On the other hand, monthly marriage rates must surely drop, as will the frequency of sexual behavior among couples of all kinds; casual hookups as well as commercial sex likely will be found to drop drastically. (I have very occasionally seen an unmasked male/female couple necking in the park; formerly active gay pick-up areas look deserted.) Sexual activity had already declined in the Internet generation; in 2018, 23% of Americans age 18-29 had no sex in the previous year, doubling the percentage of sex-less lives in the pre-social-media 1990s [Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2019]. Looking for a bright side in the coronavirus shutdown, The Wall Street Journal (May 30, 2020) touted “Distancing Revives Courtship,” an interview-based story of how dating has gone on-line, returning to almost Victorian manners, at best watching each other on-line drinking a glass of wine (definitely no touching). If sex is a form of solidarity, it must surely decline among those who do not already have intimate live-in partners. The same would be true of ordinary fun involving any kind of physical activity together. Research may well find that social distancing makes little difference to upper-middle class professionals whose social gatherings consist entirely of conversation or playing cards, but more active persons would likely feel deprived. This is one reason why after bars re-opened in late June 2020, these suddenly crowded venues (photos showed an absence of social distancing and mask-wearing) became hotspots for coronavirus infections. In the tradeoff between lively sociability and risk of sickness, many choose the former.

Remote Schooling

By all accounts, this has not been very successful. Leaving aside issues such as the extent of the school population who lack internet access; and schools adopting a no-grading policy; we find that on-line schooling has a negative effect on student motivation.  On-line daily absences of students who don’t log in are 30% or more; surveys find there is little interaction with teachers; 50% of students said they don’t feel motivated to complete on-line assignments. [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020] Teachers complain they can’t read the body language of students and can’t pick out cues for whom to engage with at what opportune moment. I have watched my 8-year-old grandson during on-line classes; these usually last less than half an hour, while the teacher goes over the assignment in a pleasant voice, talking to no one in particular. He spent the time playing with a slinky held beneath the level of the screen.  Posts on Reddit by college students showed: students complained about noise from parents or siblings while they were trying to hear a lecture or take an exam. [San Diego Union-Tribune May 23, 2020] Some students said they liked not having to go to campus, since they did not need to find a place to hang around between classes; apparently these were students who did not live near campus, or who had jobs. One student said he liked being able to watch a lecture while doing his homework in bed; on-line viewing reduced the need to pay attention. But we have no baseline of how much students normally pay attention in class (usually they pretend to, but often their laptops are not being used for taking notes, as any teacher can observe by walking around the classroom). We cannot assume that F2F classrooms are automatically successful Interaction Rituals.

Some college students complained about the anti-cheating protocol during a virtual exam, where they were required to keep their face and hands visible on the webcam at all times. Other Reddit posts said they felt isolated at home, missed their school friends, and were generally apathetic and unmotivated. This suggests a divide between students who are entirely utilitarian in their orientation, and those for whom school is a social experience. Hypothesis: grinds like on-line learning, party animals don’t; those who value networks, whether intellectual or career, also miss personal contact even though it consists in more than fun.

Besides passive feelings of alienation and deprivation, some students actively took the opportunity to counter-attack. Some coordinated on-line pranks with fellow-students, such as simultaneously switching off their cameras so that the teacher finds oneself suddenly alone surrounded by blank rectangles. Others organized campaigns to destroy the ratings of apps such as Google Classroom. [Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2020] Others hacked into Zoom conference calls, playing loud pop music, shouting insults and obscenities, or inserting pornographic images on the screen. [Washington Post April 5, 2020; Associated Press April 8, 2020] Mass rebellions by students in classrooms against unpopular teachers are not unknown in the past; but they were rare. On-line hacking may be a mixture of pranks, fun, alienation, or hostility. The comparison shows that interactions in person result in more conformity, a  Goffmanian front-stage show of respect for the situation, and thus at least a mild form of solidarity. This social pressure or entrainment disappears at a distance; violence, too, is difficult to carry out F2F, and much easier at a distance, above all when there is no reciprocal view of each others’ eyes. (See Collins 2008, especially pp. 381-87 on snipers, whose mode of killing hinges on seeing their target through a telescopic lens but cannot be seen by them.) It is reciprocal eye contact that generates intersubjectivity and its constraints.

Working Remotely

There is disagreement whether working remotely is effective. Some people prefer working from home. What they like about it are: no commuting; reduced meetings which they feel are a waste of time; and fewer distractions in the workplace. Some dislike working at home; what they dislike are more distractions in the household; less team cohesion; and technical and communication difficulties. (Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2020: based on a survey of hiring managers) Similar points were made by the head of a state judicial unit, who emphasized that much additional time by management personnel was now spent on meetings, and attempts to keep up morale by remote contact; meetings were often frustrating because considerable time was wasted trying to get the communications technology working for all participants. (repeated interviews during March-June 2020)  She sometimes went  to her office in order to use secure communications, and found it refreshing whenever encountering a colleague in person. Efforts to re-open court business, with social distancing and masking precautions, were welcomed by part of the staff and opposed by others. The characteristics of one group or the other are unknown; a hypothesis is that the those more committed to their career and professional identity want to return to their customary work setting; those for whom work is more of a routine prefer to stay home.

Hollywood film professionals said they liked spending less time on planes flying around the country; and less high-level meetings which they considered more habitual than necessary. [Los Angeles Times May 3, 2020] One producer said: “I don’t think video conferencing is a substitute for being in a room with someone, but it is better than just talking on the phone. There are so many ways you communicate with your expression... when it’s delayed and small, you just lose all that. My feeling is it’s 50% as good as an in-person meeting.” [p.E6] In the actual work of making movies, most emphasized that it is a collective process, and some insisted that spontaneous adjustments on-set were the key site for creativity. They also reiterated the point that live audiences are the only way to reliably tell whether a film is coming across, and larger audiences amplify both comedy and drama (i.e. via emotional contagion).

Some businesses have tried to compensate by having “virtual water-cooler” sessions several times a week, where any employee can log in and chat. It is unclear what proportion took part,  how enthusiastically, or with what pattern over time. Some managers reported that company-wide “town-hall meetings” to reassure employees lost interest over time [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020]. DiMaggio et al. (2019) however, found that on-line “brainstorming events” for employees in a huge international company were consonant with some patterns of interaction rituals; this research was carried out in 2003-4, long before the epidemic. The degree of involvement and solidarity in town-hall meetings is a matter of scale; the court administrator reported that feedback about morale was positive after on-line sessions involving group of around 10; but in larger groups it was hard to get a Q&A discussion going. This is similar to what any speaker can observe in ordinary lecture presentations and panel discussions; even with physical presence, most people are reluctant to “break the ice” after the speakers have been the sole center of attention; but once someone (usually a high-status person in the audience) sizes up the situation and says something, it turns out that many others find they also have comments to make. This is a process of micro-interactional attention, which is especially difficult to handle on remote media.

Many managers said that innovativeness was lost without serendipitous, unscheduled encounters among individuals. [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020] In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, half of employers reported a dip in productivity with on-line work. Longer trends, going back before the coronavirus epidemic, indicate that the promise of on-line work was not highly successful. During 2005-15, the era of the high-speed Internet, the percentage of persons in the US regularly working from home increased slowly;  those working from home at least half-time reached a pre-epidemic peak of only 4%. [www.npr.org/sections/money/2020/04/28/846671375/why-remote-work-sucks] 
During this period several big corporations, initially enthusiastic, tried to shift to primarily on-line work but abandoned it after concluding it was less effective. In the market-dominating I-T companies, the trend instead was to provide more break rooms, food, play and gym services to keep their workers happy on site. This was abruptly reversed in the coronavirus period.

Zoom fatigue

Popular video-conferencing tools such as Zoom attempt to reproduce F2F interaction by showing an array of participants’ faces on the screen, along with one’s own face for feedback in positioning the camera. Reports on how well it works in generating IR-type rhythm and solidarity are mixed. CEOs of high-tech companies tend to claim that it works well. Among rank-and-file participants, however, complaints are widespread and it even acquired a slang term, ‘Zoom fatigue.’ [Wall Street Journal, May 28 and June 17, 2020]  Achieving synchrony with others is hard to do with a screen full of faces, delayed real-time feedback, and lack of full body language. Since there is a limit to how many individual faces can be shown, in larger meetings some persons are seen only occasionally, and leaders looking for responses often find they get none. Some of the ingredients of IR (not necessarily under that name) are now being recognized by communications specialists; these include fine-grained synchrony and eye movements. In ordinary F2F conversation, persons do not stare continuously at others’ eyes, but look and look away (Tom Scheff made this point to me in a personal communication during the 1980s; for detailed transcripts of multi-modal interaction see Scheff and Retzinger 1991). Thus seeing a row of faces staring directly at you is artificial or even disconcerting. Some readers responded with advice: cut off the video to reduce zoom fatigue, go audio-only. Some found hidden benefits in zoom conferencing: once the round of social greetings is over, turn off the video and your mic and do your own work while the boss goes through their agenda.

Continuously seeing one’s own face on the screen is another source of strain. Of course, as Goffman pointed out, everyone is concerned with the presentation of their self, in terms of status as well as appropriateness for the situation. But one does not have one’s image constantly in a mirror; and when interaction starts to flow, one loses self-consciousness and throws oneself into the activity, focusing more on others’ reactions than on oneself. Those who cannot do this find social interaction embarassing and painful.  But enforced viewing of one's own image feels unnatural.

Prolonged video conferencing as a whole seems to have about the same effects as telephone conference calls. In my experience on the national board of a professional association, our mid-year meeting was canceled by a snowstorm, and a 2-day conference call was substituted. The next time I saw the board in person, I polled everyone as to whether they liked the conference call: 18 of 20 did not. Lack of shared emotion was apparent during the event; for example, when it was announced that we had received a large grant, there was no response. No wonder: applause and cheers are coordinated by looking at others, and it is embarrassing to be the only person applauding. [Clayman 1993] Work gets done remotely, after a fashion; it just lacks moments of shared enthusiasm.

Assemblies and Audiences

Participating in large audiences or collective-action groups is intrinsically appealing, when it amplifies shared emotions around a mutual focus of attention. This is a main attraction of sports and other spectacles, concerts, and religious congregations; and it is what creates and sustains enthusiasm in political groups and social movements. Thus the ban on large participatory gatherings should be expected to reduce commitment.  Especially vulnerable is the practice of singing together, because it spreads aerial germs more than any other form of social contact. We lack current data on these effects; but the prediction of Durkheimian theory is that religious commitment and belief will fall off as the group is prevented from assembling. How long will this take? Judging from patterns of religious conversion, my hypothesis is that beliefs fall off drastically if there is no participation for 1-to-2 years. When the epidemic finally ends, the level of church attendance will give an answer; during the epidemic, surveys of religious belief on a monthly basis should show a trend-- although allowing for desirability bias (which makes religious surveys overstate religious practice) [Hardaway et al. 1998].

Can technology substitute for collective practices like singing together in a congregation? Some Christian organizations have created virtual choirs, where individuals sing their parts alone and their recordings are compiled by sound engineers; the resulting performance is presented on-line, either showing a series of faces of individual singers, or several faces simultaneously on screen. [interview with international religious organization staff]  Such videos have been widely viewed, and convey the singers’ enthusiasm. It remains to be seen, over a period of time beyond the onset of the world epidemic, whether participation and commitment levels change.

Similar techniques have been attempted for performances of operas and orchestras. [Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2020]  Achieving good sound quality is difficult, since this depends on minute timing and adjustments of volume. (Sound quality of amateur efforts by church congregations is admittedly poor.) Making music together works best when there is a strong beat and repeated musical motifs--- i.e. when there is a pronounced rhythmic coordination, as in successful conversational IRs. More complex music is more difficult to produce by remote coordination. No doubt it will be possible to compare such recordings with conventionally produced ones over the coming year.

When sports events are played without live audiences, can crowd enthusiasm be supplied by canned cheers? There is, in fact, considerable experience over the years with TV broadcasts, including the long-standing practice of laugh tracks in comedy shows. Most listeners find these artificial; research is needed, however, comparing the sounds and laughs audiences make when they are at a live show or when watching it with a sound track. We also know that important games attract enthusiastic fans even when ticket prices are high-- and here TV viewers can actually hear the sound of a live crowd reacting to the action.

What is the extra ingredient of group emotional contagion needed? A natural experiment occurred in March 2013 when a Tunisian soccer match banned fans because of political tensions. [Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2020]  Fans were able to download an app that connected to loudspeakers in the stadium, producing recorded cheering that got louder as more people tapped on their smart phones more frequently. Fans could thus could hear the effect of their own remote “cheering”, and presumably so could the players on the field (although there are no interviews about the players’ experiences). Audience enthusiasm was high, and much local publicity was given to the experiment. The key ingredient is feedback, from one individual fan to another; they were able to monitor how their own action fit into the dynamics of making collective sounds. This feeling of collective participation should be highest, not when sound is kept at a maximum, but when participants can perceive rising and falling levels in accordance with their own actions. This is what happens in real audiences, who can monitor each other in all perceptual channels (such as recognizing when doing the wave is going around the stadium and when it is fading out). If remote-communications technology is to generate the solidarity and energy of embodied gatherings, it is such details of the IR mechanism that must be reproduced.

Summing Up

We can now provisionally answer the questions posed at the outset. Theory of interaction rituals does not disappear; we do not need to invent a new sociology and psychology for the IT era (at least not until robots start replacing human beings entirely, and even then the issue remains to what degree such autonomous robots would incorporate current human qualities). As far as human beings are concerned, political authorities and technological developments may force people to forego much embodied interaction. People are culturally quite malleable, but if that means that after a period of acclimation, we can get used to anything, it does not follow that we can do so without paying a price. If people are deprived of embodied interactions, it is a likely hypothesis that they will be more depressed, less energetic, feel less solidarity with other people, become more anxious, distrustful, and perhaps hostile.


From the grandson of Randall Collins:
https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781543989083



References

Clayman, Stephen E. 1993. “Booing: the anatomy of a disaffiliative response.” American Sociological Review 58: 110-130.

Collins, Randall. 2004.  Interaction Ritual Chains.  Princeton Univ. Press.

Collins, Randall. 2004a.  “Rituals of solidarity and security in the wake of terrorist attack.”  Sociological Theory 22:  53-87.

Collins, Randall. 2004.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.  Princeton Univ. Press.

DiMaggio, Paul, Clark Bernier, Charles Heckscher, and David Mimno. 2019. “Interaction Ritual Threads: Does IRC Theory Apply Online?” in Elliot B. Weininger, Annette Lareau, and Omar Lizardo, Ritual, Emotion and Violence: Studies in the Micro-sociology of Randall Collins. New York: Routledge.

Durkheim, Emile. 1912/1964. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual. New York: Doubleday.

Hardaway, C. Kirk, Penny Marler, and Mark Chaves. 1998. “Overreporting Church Attendance in America.” American Sociological Review 63: 123-130.

Ling, Rich. 2008. New Tech, New Ties. How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion. Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press.

Milner, Murray, Jr. 2016. Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers in an Era of Consumerism, Standardized  Tests, and Social Media. New York: Routledge.

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