Four Questions For Randall Collins

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

Dustin Stoltz (University of Notre Dame) interviews Randall Collins (University of Pennsylvania, Emeritus) on the past, present, and future of cultural analysis and sociology.

Dustin Stoltz: How did you become interested in sociology and the study of culture?

Randall Collins: In two ways: At Berkeley, I started working in the sociology of science, as a T.A. for Joseph Ben-David. As this area blossomed into the ethnographies of laboratories and other situated knowledge, I stretched my analysis of the means of cultural production into philosophy, mathematics, and eventually literature. The other route was via Weberian theory of the three dimensions of stratification– economic class, political power, and cultural lifestyle and identity. Since cultural status groups are often organized by religion and ethnicity, this led into some of the major forces for conflict and social change.

DS: What work does culture do in your thinking?

RC: As I suggested in the previous point, there are several sociological programs in this area. Cultural sociology can study the means of cultural production. I did this since early in my career. I currently have a blog, Creativity via Sociology, which pursues this into areas like the beatniks, adult/children crossover fantasy literature, and Shakespeare’s networks. But also culture can be lifestyle. I have worked on this by using photographs of people’s demeanor and manners over the 20th century, tracing the shift to informalization and testing what caused it. Between lifestyles and deliberately produced culture, there is a lot to study and these have been flourishing areas for our field.

On the critical side, there is a theoretical approach that holds “culture is everything”—i.e. all social institutions are shaped by an overarching set of schemas and tacit rules. This was the anthropologists’ view of culture, from the British school to Levi-Strauss, and it was adopted by Parsons with the Freudian link that culture gets internalized into children’s superego as they grow up. I don’t favor this approach because of its propensity for lumping everyone together under a label (American Culture, the Hopi Indians’ culture, etc., and because it makes it difficult or mysterious to study change.

Foucault adopted the concept of “ruptures” to indicate that one culture changes into another, but we can do better than this. Another way to put it: we know a lot about mechanisms by which behaviors and beliefs get reproduced over and over; we can call these mechanisms “culture”—or more complicatedly, habitus plus field. But all these theorists—Parsons, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Bourdieu—have a lot of trouble explaining social change, either on the individual or on the macro level. For Bourdieu, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”)

But although this is true to a degree, it also misses the big changes of history: rise of religions, ideologies and social movements, and all the things that they cause. And as political policy it is pessimistic: there is nothing anyone can do, we are all puppets of our habitus. It is ironic that Bourdieu is so influential in schools of education, since his message implies there is nothing anyone can do to overcome educational inequality. But shifting to the micro level gives a new slant on this.

DS: How does your approach to culture shape your choice of research topics , settings, and methods?

RC: The key for me is combining Durkheim and Goffman, so that Durkheim’s analysis of religious and political rituals can be seen as an interactional achievement. If the ingredients click (emotional entrainment and mutual awareness of a focus of attention), rhythmic intensification and collective effervescence happen to people jointly, and they generate cultural symbols that convey of feelings of membership and morality, as well as marking our opponents and dislikes. The crucial step beyond Durkheim’s functionalism is that rituals fail as well as succeed, become stronger in intensity to the level of fanaticism, or fade away into indifference.

This is a dynamic theory of culture in everyday life, in the chains of interaction that make up the totality of the social world. (An echo of Garfinkel here.) Dynamism is always possible on the micro level. Want a culture to die out? Stop assembling, stop paying attention to the old focal points; divert attention and shared emotion to some other assembly. Studying fields like sports or popular culture has a deeper meaning, since these are laboratories for how cultures change, often deliberately, but above all via how they click or fail as interaction rituals.

DS: What most excites you about the future of cultural theory and analysis?

RC: Once we see that the micro-mechanisms of group solidarity are carrying the symbols we think with, we have a tool of analysis, a microscope to analyze where the action is all over the place. Religions are really interesting, both because people love them or hate them, and because they change so frequently that we can see the mechanisms in action. Politics and social movements can be interesting in the same way. Although there is a caveat here—for sociologists, being a strong advocate of a movement or strong opponent of a political faction tends to create blinders. A theory made out of activists’ insults is not a very good theory; usually the bad guys have some kind of Durkheimian mechanism working for them. But if you are tuned in on theory, everything is interesting.

What fields in sociology have made a lot of discoveries in recent years? Social movements, religion, networks; visual sociology (including online videos) as a tool for analyzing micro-emotional mechanisms, conflict, and violence. The tools and topics of cultural sociology crosscut much of these. As a piece of career advice, it is useful to have at least two different research areas. It’s both career backup, and it generates creative cross-connections. Sociology of culture is a good one to combine with almost anything.

Randall Collins completed his doctoral work at Berkeley (‘64) under the direction ofHarold Wilensky—an expert in the sociology of professions. Collins’ dissertation, published as The Credential Society (1979, Academic Press), examined the nexus of education and occupations, arguing that the rise in “educational credential inflation” outstripped the need for skilled workers produced by technological change. Credentialism, Collins found, was fueled by high-status organizations. An important influence on Collins was his undergraduate teacher while at Harvard, Talcott Parsons—specifically his expositions of Durkheim and Weber, rather than his broader structural-functional program. At Berkeley, Collins again encountered Weber’s historical-comparative work through Reinhard Bendix, alongside the “militant micro-sociology” of Erving Goffman and Herbert Blumer, as well as the students of the Harold Garfinkel. But rather than denigrate or dismiss the insights of macro-sociology, Collins sought to bring together the micro and the macro. His recent work includes Interaction Ritual Chains (2004, Princeton) and Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (2008, Princeton). The University of Pennsylvania’s Sociology Department hosted the conference “Social Interaction and Theory” in early 2016 in honor of Collins’ retirement. Papers presented are forthcoming in a festschrift edited by Elliott B. Weininger, Annette Lareau, Omar Lizardo: Ritual, Emotion, Violence: Studies on the Micro-Sociology of Randall Collins (Routledge).