Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Interaction Rituals

Sociology studies the social interactions of humans (which may be the same as saying sociology studies humans). Sociology is typically understood to be its own area of study, but I am increasingly convinced that sociology ought to be understood to be a metadiscipline that covers disciplines such as economics, the sociology of science, the sociology of artistic production, etc. Another way of looking at it, sociology should be understood to cover the market economy, the gift economies, the political economy, and the divine economy, as well as the interactions of those economies. As such, sociology is the study of spontaneous orders. Or should be.

I believe this is how Randall Collins understands sociology. In The Sociology of Philosophies, Collins points out that when two or more people interact, they engage in what are called "interaction rituals." He points out that

The following are the ingredients of any interaction ritual:

1. a group of at least two people is physically assembled;

2. they focus attention on the same object or action, and each becomes aware that the other is maintaining this focus;

3. they share a common mood or emotion.

4. The mutual focus of attention and the shared mood cumulatively intensify...[until]...participants are temporarily united in a shared reality, and experience a boundary or membrane between that situation and whoever is outside it.

5. As a result, the participants feel they are members of a group, with moral obligations to one another. Their relationship becomes symbolized by whatever they focused on during their ritual interaction.

6. Individuals who participate in IRs are filled with emotional energy, in proportion to the intensity of the interaction. Durkheim called this energy "moral force"

These encounters produce an ongoing flow of social motivations, as people come away from each situation with a store of charged symbols (which can be called cultural capital, or CC), and with emotional energies. Persons are attracted to those situations in which they can make the best use of their previously acquired cultural capital and symbolic resources to focus discursive action and thereby generate further solidarity. Individual lives are chains of interaction rituals; the meshing of these chains constitutes everything that is social structure in all its myriad shapes. (22-24)
If each spontaneous order has its own interaction rituals -- as one would expect to be the case if there are different kinds of human interactions -- then one would expect, from Collins' description of IR participants as creating solidarity with others in that group, meaning there is also a sense of exclusion of those not doing so, that our tribalistic instincts will kick in. In other words, those who think of themselves as being in the political economy will have an inclusive attitude toward others in the political economy and an exclusive attitude toward others in the other economies. More, they will seek to bring everyone else into their tribe, whose rituals make sense to them (whereas the rituals of the other "tribes" make no sense and, thus, must be wrong -- even morally wrong).

Consider the implications of this. Those familiar with the rituals of the market economy will want to try to impose them on, say, the political economy. Such people would talk about making the government more efficient or even profitable. Those familiar with the rituals of the gift economy will want to try to make the government act more like philanthropies, helping the poor, supporting the arts and sciences, etc. Those familiar with the rituals of the divine economy will want to try to make the government more theocratic and will use rhetoric like "sacrifice." Equally, those familiar with the interaction rituals of the political economy will want to replace the rituals of the other economies with its own, such as replacing true philanthropy with government subsidy programs.

I think we can now make sense of much of what takes place in society. We can both understand what is going on within a given spontaneous order, why people prefer one spontaneous order over another, and the problems that arise when we try to impose the interaction rituals appropriate to one order on another. We need to understand better the different kinds of interaction rituals and how they give rise to their different spontaneous orders as people engage in interaction chains. This should be the primary job of anyone working in the social sciences.
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