Interview by Lukasz Remisiewicz, University of Gdansk, Poland
I: Creativity is one of your sociological interests. So I would like to ask about the 'backstage' of your work. How do you structure your time? Do you have any rituals in your work?
R: Most of my ideas come from writing comments in books. Whenever I read, I always have a pen in hand, and mark what I think is significant. When I was young, I used to write a summary of what was in the book, writing on the end pages or the table of contents. I still write comments on things I don't agree with or what I think are good ideas. Later I collect my comments on another piece of paper, and this can turn into a new project.
For this reason, it’s important to own your own books, not just borrow them from the library or read them on-line. Five hundred years ago, Erasmus said: when I get a little money, I buy books. If there is any left over, I buy food. –That’s the way I feel about it too.
Viewed as a network phenomenon, it's quite literally intertextual: creating a text upon a text. If you repeat what the author said, it's not new, but if you develop an idea, or dispute an idea and go in another direction, it is creativity.
Most creativity is recombination, pulling materials together from different sources. If you came up with something that was 100% new with no connection to anything previous, you would have no readers because nobody would understand what you were talking about. It has to be, let us say, 90% familiar and 10% new. I don't know what maximal percent new you could get away with. Perhaps James Joyce was 60% new, but nevertheless, at least some people understood what he was doing. Harrison White would be an example in sociology of a writer who is not well understood because his ideas and concepts are so unfamiliar.
I: Do you have any daily habits such as you have to write some amount of words?
R: Writing is like having children. It's very pleasurable at the beginning, but then comes struggles growing up; finally when a book is published it has a life of its own, when you can know longer control it. The most exciting part is at the beginning, but sometimes as you go along, writing and re-writing, it can be more difficult but also more pleasure as you understand better what you are doing. I write when I feel like it, and then it pulls you along.
In the late 1970s. I quit my job at the university for ideological reasons. I had just written The Credential Society, and I decided it wouldn't be right for me to continue to work in the educational system that I critiqued. I decided to make my living as a professional writer, and I needed to write faster. So I discovered some techniques for not getting writer’s block. You get blocked at the point where you don't know what you want to say next, because you don't know what the next step in your argument is. When this happens I go back and make an outline of what I've written so far and then try to continue the outline. Usually it is because there were several points to be made and I don't know which one comes first. If it isn’t obvious which one comes first, they are all equally important, so just pick one of them. But you have to explain that to your reader: we have a complicated argument, it has three points, and we will take them in the following order. You take the reader backstage as to what you are doing as a writer.
On a micro level, sometimes you don’t know which word to use. Rather than wasting time thinking about it, I just write them both down. When I come back later, it usually becomes clear which is the best word. This has the advantage of not breaking your rhythm when you write. I found that the faster I write, the better the writing flows—provided that I have the sequence of the argument organized. In writing fast you may use too many words, but it is easy to cut them out when you revize.
The hardest thing to do is re-writing, where the overall organization is wrong. Here you have to re-read the entire text while writing an outline of it; then reorganize the outline, re-arrange the pieces of text, add or subtract what is necessary. Re-reading and correcting what you have written is crucial. Many people don't do this, particularly on the Internet—it’s clear they don't re-read what they write.
Another problem is repeating yourself. In the first draft this is OK, because the main thing is to get the words flowing. But in re-reading, especially if it is a long text, I often find I have made the same point in several places. Sometimes you need to make the same point in a different context; but otherwise it is annoying when somebody keeps saying the same thing; so you have decide where is the best place for it and cut the others. Also I have a mental list of banal words, clichés that I don't like to read when other people use them, so I'm not going to use them myself. In re-writing, my goal is how many words can I throw out. I’ve come to enjoy correcting what I have written, because I can feel the rhythm improving.
I: Do you use any newest upgrades, such as reference managers, special programs that are enhancing writing, such as Scrivener?
I need to have my work on paper. The trouble with the screen is that it's essentially scrolling through a continuous text, like a long roll of toilet paper. When you are doing something complicated, you need to be able to look at different pages at the same time. I spend a lot of time with a colored pen, marking what belongs together and what goes where. You have to be able to move pieces of paper around, spread them out on the floor, bunch them in different ways. There are equivalent devices for doing that on the screen, but frankly, it's easier by hand.
I: This is the last question about your work. Since you are a specialist in micro-interactional research, you analyze a lot of visual materials. How do you work with it?
R: I started using visual images in the 1980s, teaching my university classes about violence. At that time, there was not much good data. You could get statistics about how many crimes were reported by the police, but nothing on what actually happened in violent situations. So I started clipping from the newspaper anytime there was a picture of any kind of violence. It might be a small fight or riots or police. In the 90s I found more photos of military violence, especially from Israel and Palestine because they were always fighting. At the same time, better telephoto lenses were developed, making possible close-up photos of violence taken from long-distance; we could now view situations a photographer wouldn't be able to get near to. I acquired another technique when I met Paul Ekman, the psychologist who developed a method of analyzing emotions from facial expressions and bodily postures. It was a valuable tool for seeing what emotions people have in violent situations; and this led to my theory of confrontational tension and fear as the central dynamic in whether violence happens or not. I expanded to other research projects such as emotional differences between social classes; and the emotional self-presentation of political leaders—the actual faces of power.
At first, this was easy; I clipped photos from newspapers, photo-copied them, and used them in my research. By the time of my 2004 book, Interaction Ritual Chains, I encountered a new problem. At first, nobody cared if you used these images, but in the 2000s the commercial world started copyrighting photos, including historical photos made by someone else. Getty Images attempted to create a capitalist monopoly on photo images. At first they would charge you 200 dollars or so for printing one image in a book. In my earlier books, I was able to get the permissions at moderate prices. As other writers also started using images, the prices have gone much higher. Some sociologists have looked for substitutes. Jack Katz, another very good micro-sociologist, uses photos for his research, but in his books he prints a drawing made from the photo. So he doesn't have a copyright problem. Maybe that's what we will have to do.
I: Sociology of education has been a topic in your career. You're known as a credential theorist. What changes could you highlight between the situation that you described in 'The Credential Society' in 1979 and the debate about credentialism now?
R: For a long time, I considered The Credential Society was one of my least successful books. My message was what people didn't want to hear. My publisher even refused to allow it to come out in a paperback edition. The financial crisis in 2008 happened when the number of people attending universities had become higher than ever before and the costs of attending universities are very high and constantly increasing. Policy makers started to be concerned that Americans owe a huge amount of money in student debts— a large fraction of GDP. Individual people started questioning whether an educational degree was useful for oneself. They weren’t following any theory, just recognizing that is was hard to get a job even if you had a university degree; that spreading more years at school isn't necessarily worth the money you put into it. The public has come closer to recognizing the credential inflation mechanism that I pointed out in 1979. But there are still many politicians, and of course professional educators, who repeat the old slogan that the solution to all problems is for everyone to get more education. It doesn’t occur to them that if everyone has a college degree, it confers no advantage in the job market—the same way that having a high school degreee stopped having a comparative advantage by around 1975.
Another new development is computerization and the disappearance of middle-class work. It is time to reconsider Marx's theory that factory machinery will eliminate so many workers that capitalism would be unable to find customers for all the goods it produces; and this would bring an economic crisis and the downfall of capitalism. But this did not happen, since new jobs were created in the white-collar, bureaucratic sector. Marx did not foresee the growth of the middle class, which provided new customers for capitalism. But that was only true until around the 1990s when computers started taking over the work that white-collar bureaucrats and service workers do. Displacement of middle-class work is increasing more and more now; checkout clerks at stores are replaced by automatic machines. We are on the pathway that Marx was talking about, as computers replace the middle class. Sometime in the future, probably within the next 20 years, we will reach the point where there are not enough people working to be able to buy the things capitalists produce. So I expect a Marxist revolutionary crisis in the future.
This prospect is connected to educational credentials. In the new edition of The Credential Society, published by Columbia University Press in 2019, I make the point that credential inflation may become the way that socialism will arrive under a different name. The government would pay people to stay in schools for a very long period of time, perhaps to age 40 or 50, however long it is necessary to support them as jobs are taken over by computers and robots. Educational inflation would be a mechanism to create a welfare system of transfer payments, which could save capitalism because there would still be people—the masses of students—with money to buy capitalist products. Very recently people have started talking about a society of a guaranteed income for everybody, which was unheard of 5 years ago. Even mainstream economists, usually conservative, realize capitalism will have a problem of not enough consumers with money to spend. The endless expansion of years of schooling would be another way to handle this; it would be a form of socialism while refusing to call it that.
I: In contemporary approaches to education, many leaders say that schools kill creativity, that schools rigidly structure their time, that children should have freedom. What could you say about it? Based on your theory, what is the best way to learn?
R: If we go back a hundred years or more, education was very authoritarian; teachers were totally powerful, they hit children with a stick if they did not learn their lessons. In the elite British schools, one reads about them constantly beating the boys. You would think they would not learn very much, but out of those schools came quite a lot of famous writers and scientists. They were all taught that way, so in a sense it didn't matter how they were taught. To be a famous scientist, the most important thing is to have teachers who are famous scientists. From them one learns the latest technique, the latest theory, the latest problem that constitutes the frontier for new research. This is the network pattern of creativity, found throughout world history of philosophy, mathematics, and other fields. The network pattern of apprenticeship from master to apprentice is also found among great painters and musical composers. The fact that most of their masters were authoritarian did not make a difference, as long as they passed along the craft to the next generation who could develop it further.
But here we're talking about the top few percent, the intellectual elite. At any particular time in history, it is less important how they were taught as long as they acquire the ambition and the techniques from creative people in the preceding generation. This network pattern between the generations has not changed in the last 70 years, as education has become less authoritarian. The intellectual elite is going to do OK because they always have, no matter what the form of education was like. And this applies not just to scientists and scholars in Western universities. The histories of the famous Zen masters in China shows the same authoritarian way of inculcating their message into the next generation, including by beating them. Beethoven would hit his pupil’s hands if they played the wrong note. As a modern person, I think it was terrible for teachers to beat their students, but as a sociologist I have to conclude that whether or not they beat them is not the crucial factor in whether they are going to be creative or not.
To ask what kind of education is best, depends on what kind of career you want. Here the important question is whether it is worthwhile to spend much time in school at all.
Let us consider two other kinds of students. Some are students who want to be in important professions but not necessarily intellectuals. It is not clear that they need a school in order to acquire their practical skills. For example, politicians. In countries like western Europe and the United States, everybody now tends to go to university. And so the politicians all attend the university. But 150 years ago, there were people like Abraham Lincoln, who never attended school, but learned at home and by apprenticeship. Were they not as good as politicians today? The techniques of politics are the same; they have not evolved over time.
Until quite recently, business executives did not go to business schools, since these didn’t exist at the time Henry Ford built his automobiles or Thomas Edison made his inventions. So now business schools exist. Does it help? Personally, I find that students at business schools are more serious than the average student in the liberal arts because they have a goal in front of them. They seem to ask themselves: am I learning something that will be useful to me? So they're very interested if you can show them social science that is useful. Could they do it without education? In the past, they all did. In recent years, people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or, more recently, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, drop out of school. Why? Because they've seen an opportunity to create a new business, and instead of waiting until they finish their education, they jump ahead of the competition by doing it now before someone else does. The same thing in China. The famous entrepreneur Jack Ma failed his exams, but he visited America where he learned that the Internet can be used for paying bills. He didn't need a school to teach him that. He just goes ahead and builds a huge internet business in China. So it's not clear to me that you need formal education for business success either, especially if you are starting something really new.
For the rest of the population, people who are not aiming to be intellectuals or politicians or business entrepreneurs, going to school is mostly a matter of getting educational credentials that will get them a job. Whether they learn anything along the way is less important that what is the number of years necessary to “buy” a job with the current “price” in credentials. Many students are quite cynical about this; they go along with what the teacher wants in order to get a grade, but the sociological evidence is that they don’t remember what they learned very long after they take an exam on it. [See Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton, 2013. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.] Credential inflation drives grade inflation. If the teachers are friendly and easy, the students are probably happier, but they still may not learn very much, unless they are aiming at one of the elite intellectual occupations.
So far this discussion has been focused on the question of what the students want to get out of education. But this may not be the most important reason to have schools. If you are a parent, schools are very important because you need to send your children there while you go to work. In this case, it doesn't matter what they do at schools, as long as they are taken care of by substitute parents.
Another influential group are teachers. People in the education profession are constantly analyzing what they do and looking for better methods. My question is: better for what? In the US, it appears they are trying to make children act more democratically, and maybe that's successful. That they are making them better intellectually, or better prepared for jobs (which may not exist when the grow up), I'm not at all certain of that. I can see the way my grandchildren are being treated in school, but I can’t see what they will be like 15 years from now.
I: Turning to your IR theory, there are some misconceptions about your sociology. Emotional energy is one of them: many sociologists consider this as some short-term emotion, such as flow. But you highlight in your books that emotional energy is a long-term emotion that influences our motivation. Could you summarize some crucial points of what emotional energy is and how it works? And why is it so important in society?
R: Take for example micro research on politics. Many people are interested in politics, but they spend most of their attention on the things that politicians say. They act as if they’re in a virtual argument with public figures where they cheer the guys they agree with and get outraged at what their opponents say. I'm not so concerned with what they say but the way they talk, both verbally and non-verbally. My method is to clip out photographs of politicians and watch videos of them.
For instance, it is clear to me as a micro-sociologist why Trump was able to beat his primary opponents in the Republican primary elections in 2016 and why he beat Hillary Clinton. He was much more dominant in face to face interaction; he almost never lets anybody take the initiative or control the topic. He does things that break the conventional rules of social interaction; he is a master of micro-aggressions. In one of the debates with Hillary Clinton, when she was talking he would leave his podium and walk around behind her. He makes the other person look passive. The strongest Republican candidate I thought was Jeb Bush, the president's brother, but Trump destroyed him by saying he is low energy, which is true if you look at him micro-sociologically, although it is not polite to say it. Another example was Trump's opponent Ted Cruz, who had a similar position of being very nativist, closing the borders to immigrants. The difference is that Trump had a television show for many years, and he knew how to work the camera. He's quite natural at it. But for Ted Cruz it was not natural; it is obvious that he had a speaking coach who told him, emphasize your points by waving your arms, and pause for the audience to react. This made Cruz look like a bad actor, because his rhythm was too slow. The same was true with Hillary Clinton. In backstage politics, she had the reputation of being tough and aggressive with other people. Bill Clinton was the nice guy, Hillary was the tough guy. Now she was trying to be a nice guy, trying to change her image. She had speaking coaches, telling her you've got to smile and do this and that. And it didn't look real.
In politics, the most important thing is you have to look real. People who look like they're pretending don't do well. This was also true with another president who was like Trump. That was Ronald Reagan, who at the time was far more conservative than any president before him, but Reagan was an actor who played comedy roles of 'I'm the nice guy', and that’s how he came across. Trump played a different role, the iconoclast who says what’s really on his mind. His campaign manager said “Let Trump be Trump.” And that’s essentially how he won in 2016.
In the 2020 election campaign, Biden had been in politics a long time and had a reputation as a nice guy, not very dynamic, less energetic than Trump. But by then many people were tired of Trump’s style of behavior, or outraged by it. In their first debate, Trump deliberately tried to make Biden look weak by constantly interrupting him. Biden, uncharacteristically, tried to talk more like a tough guy, and the debate was very unpleasant, consisting mostly of insults on both sides. This isn’t really Biden’s character, and perhaps it will go away when he is securely in office as president.
[Update July 2021: Biden since the inauguration has taken to talking much more like the tough guy. Also wearing dark glasses, like an old-fashioned fighter pilot. Apparently trying an image make-over. Was I mistaken in saying that a politician has a “real character”?]
More generally, I am continuing research on how politicians interact with each other and with public audiences. There are several formulas for successful politicians. Some of this is spelled out in my most recent book, Charisma: The Micro-sociology of Power and Influence (2020).
I: I have some questions about conflict. Contemporarily, we have such a polarized political climate in the US, in Poland, in Europe in general. Could you apply your theory about conflict escalation to current politics?
R: Escalation consists of two sides. One side accuses the other of an atrocity; then they accuse each other in reply. As they mobilize and retaliate against each other, they do things that are atrocious from the other’s point of view. They make each other’s atrocities come true. The Israelis and Palestinians are an example, but the same thing happens to a lesser degree in most political conflicts. Each side takes the stance: we are virtuous and you are evil, so we are justified in anything we do to you. This is a universal pattern of how conflicts escalate. An important question is: are there any limits to escalation? Can conflict continue escalating forever? Logically, it's not possible. In mathematical terms, if there are two quantities, each of which multiplies the other in a feedback loop, it would increase to infinity. That's not possible in the real world. All conflicts in the past have sooner or later come to an end. So I have tried to combine theory of escalation with theory of de-escalation, by researching the time-dynamics of protest movements.
One case is the Gilets Jaunes, the Yellow Vests movement in France during 2018-19. Their peak mobilization was in the first 2 months, and subsequently their numbers went into decline until it dribbled away around 6 months. The decline is not surprising; what is more surprising is that they were able to keep the movement going so long. It is difficult to sustain mobilization because the movement consisted of people from the provinces, who come into Paris for protest demonstrations, and sometimes commit violence such as destroying property along the parade route and fighting with the police. But it is very unusual for a militant demonstration or a riot to last more than four days. The Gilets Jaunes kept going much longer because the French are politically sophisticated. Instead of demonstrating continously, they scheduled demonstrations for every Saturday, so they had time to go home and do their work and keep their practical lives going. But even with this strategy, it appears that you cannot keep demonstrating intermittently for a very long time. If a movement is rapidly spreading, the enthusiasm that comes from a sense of growing keeps everybody emotionally involved. But when a movement stabilizes, emotional energy falls off, and it starts losing numbers. The protests in Hong Kong in 2019-20 against the Chinese government, and the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 had to same time pattern—peak intensity for a few months, then declining in numbers while the remaining activists became increasingly violent.
A mechanism that spreads movements very strongly is visible in the 'MeToo' movement. It had a very powerful effect because anybody who didn't denounce the person who was accused of a sexual violation, would also be attacked for covering it up. Thus people such as the employers and colleagues of the accused would quickly join the attack by firing them; the emotional dynamic is a combination of fear of becoming a target, and the righteous anger that is spread by the movement itself. [On how scandals are driven by “secondary scandals”, see Ari Adut, 2008. On Scandal.] We see this also in the attack on historical monuments and persons from American history, in the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement against anyone who had any connection with slavery or any other action that could be criticized.
Do such movements go on forever, and keep on escalating and finding new targets? There is some historical evidence of the time-dynamics by which extreme polarization eventually declines. An extreme case was the “Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution in 1793-94, when people who failed to denounce those sent to the guillotine were themselves sent to the guillotine. But after 12 months at the peak of fear and righteous anger, the surviving members of the political elite realized they themselves would become victims if they did not stop the process. The result was French politics settled down and people turned to their private, rather hedonistic lives for several years. Once the emotional pressure to join the accusers stops rising, then people start losing the emotional intensity that constitutes the momentum of the movement. The French Revolution was also big on destroying monuments and renaming things; during the guillotine period they even abolished Christianity and changed the calendar to Year One, to avoid using B.C. and A.D. (Before Christ and Anno Domini).
These are empirical examples—including our own very recent history—that we could measure. Of course, when you are in a movement, you are not thinking about measurement. But that is our particular skill as sociologists. We can be involved in political movements but also have enough intellectual independence to ask ourselves: what's the pattern here, how long does it last, what causes the intensity to shift?
I: What is the role of media in this polarization, including the Internet?
R: The media have always been important because they determine how far you can spread your message and your enthusiasm. Charles Tilly writes that before 1760, there were no social movements; there might be a riot about the price of bread, but it never lasted more than two days, and it always remained local. There was no way to spread a social movement, without the growth of communications, highways et cetera. Every new development in the media has mobilized more social movements. The main activity of the early Bolsheviks was printing underground newspapers, and their members would hand them out to recruit other people. The Nazis pioneered marching in the street with loudspeakers shouting slogans. As for television, however, it is unclear to me whether it mobilizes or demobilizes, because people are inclined to treat it as entertainment.
I: It seems quite passive.
R: Some protests may have been promoted by television. But on the whole, I think not very much. Television consists of broadcasting one-way from a center, and usually supports the status quo. But the Internet is more decentralized, and fosters horizontal, two-way communication. I think this explains the big expansion in the size of social movements in the last 10 years.
I: We can apply this to the 'MeToo' also.
R: The 'MeToo' movement is a good example. These movements don't really have an organization because they don't need one. On the other hand, they may not be able to institutionalize themselves for precisely that reason. We are just beginning to understand how Internet-based movements operate. In the early days of the Internet, there was much enthusiasm about “the Internet makes movements unstoppable.” That kind of statement was frequently heard at the beginning of the Arab Spring movements in 2011, but most of them failed. In China, such movements are clearly stoppable because the Chinese government reads the Internet just as much as everybody else, and sends out the police immediately when somebody says we're going to have a demo. We take media-based movements too much for granted. Movement mobilization is easiest in democracy because nobody tries to stop it. We are seeing more and more authoritarian governments intervening in the Internet, or even shutting it down when they feel it is dangerous. The Chinese are very focused on using computer technology for the purposes of control. And now, in the US, Internet companies are censoring political positions they don’t agree with; and it appears likely the US government will try to do the same. Sociologically, we are going to learn more about this, whether we like it or not.
I: We were talking about sociologists as activists. What do you think about the role that sociologists should play in public conflicts?
R: Most sociologists are interested in social problems or social justice. But over the years I’ve come to realize that if you're active in a very emotional movement, you lose your perspective. Sometimes it's worth sacrificing your objectivity, but we need at least a few people in the profession who try to explain things as realistically as possible and avoid being blinded by our polarized worldview as activists. If we want to give practical advice, we must have enough detachment to see what the mechanisms are.
I will give an example. Almost all my friends are on the left or strong liberals. My wife is very active in the feminist movement. I don't particularly like listening to our friends talking about politics because they tend to exaggerate everything. Typically they will say: the Republicans are stupid, Trumpists are stupid. Before that it was Bush and his supporters are stupid, Reaganites are stupid. This style of thinking underestimates your opponents. They can't be that stupid if they're getting elected. Some of them are better at playing politics than the Democrats. The greatest of all, Franklin Roosevelt was a master of the public image. I don't think John F. Kennedy was actually a very effective politician, but he had a wonderful public image and he inspired people. We didn't like Lyndon Johnson at the time, and we demonstrated against him in the peace movement, but he was a master of legislative politics, and he carried through more reforms than any liberal president since then. The Democrats have not had really effective politicians since that time.
The Democrat who was most successful in recent years in arousing devoted followers was Bernie Sanders, which is amazing that someone who openly declares he is a socialist can be popular in America. But most politicians look like they are trying to act a theatrical role designed by their political advisers. Bernie Sanders had a genuinely enthusiastic movement of followers because he wasn't pretending. In the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, the professional politicians frightened the voters into thinking a socialist would lose to Trump, so the other candidates withdrew to make sure the nomination went to Biden, an uncharismatic but conventional politician. Biden won, not because he was personally popular, but because he wasn’t Trump.
The best sociological advice, based on the degree of success both Sanders and Trump have had, is this: People are not fooled by manipulated performances of self-presentation. They prefer politicians who express themselves spontaneously.
I: Thank you very much for this interview.