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.

Saturday, October 15, 2016


The term charisma is thrown around a lot these days, applied to everyone from pop stars to the merely well-dressed. Sure, words can mean whatever you want them to mean, but they lose their power to explain what is going on. In sociology, charisma is a theory about a particular kind of power, contrasted with bureaucratic power and mere traditional authority. For Max Weber, who originated this analysis, charisma is a main source of historical change, but it is unstable and doesn’t last. It doesn’t mean just fashionable or popular; it means leadership that accomplishes big things.

We can improve Weber’s theory. When we closely examine charismatic people, we find four kinds of charisma-- i.e. there are four different ways that people get charisma. A few people have most or all of them; some get it from only one source.

1. Front-stage charisma
2. Back-stage charisma
3. Success-magic charisma
4. Reputational charisma

1. Front-stage charisma

Front-stage and back-stage are Goffman’s terms for regions of everyday life: whether you are putting on a public performance and doing official things, or when you are in private with your intimates. Back-stage is informal, and it includes both hanging out with your buddies and confidantes, and planning how to handle your front-stage performances. The glib term “transparency” so widely demanded today implies there should be no backstages; no one ever gets to plan anything or to say what they really believe; it all has to be goody-goody front-stage clichés.

Front-stage charisma means putting on overpoweringly impressive performances in front of an audience. The crowd is not just convinced; they are swept off their feet. It is more than just an entertaining moment; after such an experience, we will follow them anywhere. Charisma seizes people’s emotions and shapes their will. A charismatic leader is a great speech-maker. Their speeches recruit a movement.

Jesus is the archetype of front-stage charisma. His sermon on the mount spills over into miracles among the audience. Throughout his career he has mastery of crowds. Even with hostile crowds, he breaks their momentum, seizes the initiative, and ends up emotionally dominating.

Other speech-makers with charismatic power include Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, and on the dark side of the force, Adolf Hitler. The entire Nazi movement was built on mass-participation performances, including their sinister marches, swastikas, Heil Hitler! salutes, and loud-speakers. A charismatic leader is master of the mass media of the day, whatever they may be.

2. Back-stage charisma

Having front-stage charisma does not mean you are charismatic in the informal situations of everyday life. Winston Churchill was regarded as rather an ill-mannered drunk at dinner parties. Alexander the Great was inspirational at the head of his troops in battle, but he palled around with his buddies and sometimes got into fights with them.

An example of purely backstage charisma is T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). When recruiting an Arab army against the Turks in WWI, Lawrence did not try to dominate meetings or give orders. He let the warrior equality of the desert take its course as they discussed at leisure whether to follow the British or not; when the timing felt right, he would quietly announce that he was going to attack such-and-such, whoever felt like coming was welcome. Lawrence also had weapons, money, camels, and a string of military successes, so he soon was being greeted with enthusiastic shouts by warriors rushing to join him. Back on the British side of the lines, Lawrence was quiet but welcome because he brought good news. After the war, he hated publicity and disguised himself as much as possible.

Others with back-stage charisma included Napoleon and Steve Jobs. I will comment on their interactional techniques in a further post.

3. Success-magic charisma

Weber’s main criterion is that charismatic leaders are credited with supernatural powers. Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses are associated with miracles and direct contact with the divine. On the secular level, charisma comes from a string of successes, especially against the odds. Such a leader becomes regarded as unbeatable.

Napoleon acquired such reputation for a long string of battle victories that enemy generals said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 troops, and advised the strategy of going up against other French generals rather than Napoleon himself. Hitler’s reputation in Germany took off with a series of diplomatic and military victories from the mid-1930s through 1941, backing up his earlier boast to make Germany great again.

In the business world, Steve Jobs already had a reputation for backstage charisma when he first developed Apple Computer Co, but his public image changed from eccentric to unbeatable after his return to Apple in 1997 and a ten year string of soaring product roll-outs. He artfully combined success charisma with frontstage charisma, organizing dramatic product launches and making Apple stores scenes for enthusiastic crowd participation.

Unbroken success is hard to come by, and virtually all charismatic leaders have to deal with failure at some point. But charisma requires at least an aura of success. One way this happens is that belonging to a growing movement of enthusiastic followers gives confidence the leader’s promises will pay off. In the stock market, a cascade of followers is a financial success in itself.

4. Reputational charisma

If you have charisma, you get a reputation for it. The fourth type of charisma is a result of the other three. There is also some feedback effect; the more widespread your reputation for charisma, the more it pumps up your appeal as a frontstage performer and as a miracle-worker. But this brings us onto tricky grounds. People who want to be charismatic can try to manipulate it, by working the public relations machine. How successful is this?

One limitation is that the competition can get crowded. There is a limit on how many charismatic people can exist at the same time, especially when they go up against each other. * It would be like having too many prima donnas at a party.

*  In examining the networks of philosophers across history, I found a pattern of “the law of small numbers”-- the number of famously creative persons in one generation was almost always between 3 and 6. Whether a similar law of small numbers operates for politics or business has not yet  been found.

The struggle for fame will shoot down many contenders, especially in an era dominated by easy access to mass media. This implies that you need a foundation in one of the other three forms of charisma, to have a chance at reputational charisma.

Television and video images convey not just reports of what people did and said, but what they looked like saying it, as if they were face-to-face with the viewer. That turns the most basic test of charisma more into the second type. Back-stage charisma depends on the kinds of emotions conveyed by facial expressions and body rhythms; people are good at picking up genuine emotions and feel uneasy about emotions which are forced. **

** Soon after the 1980 campaign, I attended a meeting with Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research on the facial expression of emotions. Ekman commented that Jimmy Carter had a forced smile, whereas Ronald Reagan’s smile was genuine. Similarly fateful were the disastrous attempts at false impressions in the 1988 campaign, with Michael Dukakis shown in a political ad riding in a tank, and the 2004 campaign with John Kerry shown duck hunting.

Subtypes of merely  reputational charisma include:

-- ephemeral pseudo-charisma:
You get a big reputation; enthusiastic crowds flock to see you; everybody wants to get near you, touch you, get your autograph or a selfie with you. This is pretty much the definition of being an entertainment star. It tends to be ephemeral, all the more so as the competition for attention goes on.

It also happens in politics. An example is Gorbachev, who was treated like a rock star, especially in Europe during the mid-1980s. He held out a new future, ending the Cold War, negotiating nuclear weapons reductions, and democratizing the Soviet Union. By 1989-91, these reforms overtook Gorbachev himself; he was not only deposed, but lost his charisma.  It comes and goes; until the early 1980s, Gorbachev was just another Communist apparatchik, protégé of the KGB chief Andropov who came to power after Brezhnev’s death. Gorbachev had a period of genuine successes, but his reputation at its height was a bubble that burst when public attention turned elsewhere.

-- historically retrospective charisma:
Some individuals’ charisma is created after their death. An example is Queen Elizabeth the First, whose name is attached to the Elizabethan age. She was not a speech-maker, and she did not direct the policy of England to any great extent during her reign. Major decisions, like executing Mary Queen of Scots and thereby setting off the Spanish Armada, were made behind her back. She had no great skill in winning people over backstage. The impression of her supreme greatness comes from two things: first, her court made a big deal out of flattering her, surrounding her with elaborate courtesy and ostentatious display. She wore magnificent costumes and jewels and was the center of impressive entertainments and ceremonies. In this respect, she was quite a lot like a Chinese Emperor, surrounded by protocol in the Forbidden Palace, while the secretaries ran the country.

Second: the Elizabethan period (and its continuation into the reign of her successor, James I) was a time of great successes for England: the end of the Protestant/Catholic struggles; the growth of English sea power to world class; the historic outpouring of English literature, a good deal of which was dedicated to Elizabeth or performed in her presence. Truth be told, Elizabeth was a magnificent symbol, but a charismatic leader only by historical courtesy.

One of the loosest ways of getting called “charismatic” is merely to be a famous name at a time when important things happened. If we use all four criteria, we can check empirically whether this person was charismatic or not, and in what way. We can look at whether they were good at swaying crowds and recruiting followers; and if they could make disciples out of their intimate acquaintances. Every famous person can be assessed this way, if we have the records. For ancient people this is not always clear. We know too little about the life of Gautama, who became the Buddha. Confucius was not a public success although he did recruit the first generation of followers who later burgeoned into a dominant movement in the history of China.

At any rate, we have four ways people become charismatic, and these can be used to examine any particular case.

Does Donald Trump have charisma?

[1] Front-stage charisma is his strength.  He dominates public meetings, making the crowd enthusiastic and intensely loyal on his behalf. In that sense he is a great speech-maker, although not at all in the style of traditional oratory. His sentences are short and often repetitive, his vocabulary limited. This brings out an important point: effective speech-making does not depend on its formal qualities. Front-stage charisma is generated by connecting with the audience, building emotion, and riding with it. 

Trump stands out from other politicians by constantly doing something surprising. From the point of view of his opponents, this means saying things which are shocking; but it also leaves them spending most of their time responding to him, expressing outrage, and rebutting his claims. Trump thus always seizes the initiative, and refuses to give it up. Whereas most people lose emotional energy when they are attacked by a barrage of criticism, Trump does not back down, but renews the attack. Media scandals usually destroy people’s careers, but Trump is unfazed by them, and uses them to focus even more attention upon himself.

Trump uses the media to monopolize the focus of attention of the wider public; he uses his rallies as a stronghold to protect himself from fallout. The way he stands firm and plunges even further ahead in his pathway makes him a beacon for his followers. He becomes an emotional energy hero: no one can top him or push him off his trajectory. *

* In contrast, in the 2000 campaign, Pat Buchanan, a candidate with a similar anti-immigration message, was confronted at a rally in Arizona by a young man, who said, I am one of the Mexican border-crossers you are talking about. What about me? Buchanan was shaken, replying apologetically, I didn’t mean you in particular. Trump is not shaken by pressure to behave according to conventional good manners; in similar situations he attacks. Early in his campaign, he rejected persistent questioning by television journalist Megyn Kelly, shifting the focus to her effort to control the topic. This is where his notorious “blood oozing out of her...” remarks came from. Feminists found this scandalous; but it also alerted the audience that this was someone who would not be pushed around by reporters, even in the smallest details of questioning.

Always doing something surprising; never letting the other side set the agenda; seizing the initiative and never giving it up: these are key characteristics of highly charismatic persons. I have documented these same traits in the face-to-face encounters of Jesus. Obviously I am not saying that Trump resembles Jesus in other respects; yet both illustrate a high degree of front-stage charisma.

Emotional energy is confidence, enthusiasm, initiative, and persistence. In Interaction Ritual (IR) theory, emotional energy is the result of successful encounters. That requires getting everyone’s attention focused on the same thing; generating a shared emotion; and building up rhythmic entrainment so that the group feels themselves unified and strengthened. Successful IRs do not have to start with positive emotions; negative emotions like fear or anger also work because they attract so much attention. The key to a successful IR is to transform the initial emotion into a feeling of collective solidarity in the group. We may be angry but we are angry together, and that makes us strong; fearful or frustrated but fearful and frustrated together. Trump is a master of this dynamic in public events. Pushback from the outside does not faze him, since it is what keeps his rallies intense; and his followers, who might otherwise be emotionally intimidated by that pushback in the general population, find Trump a pillar of strength. He is the unusual person who not only rides out scandals, but flourishes on them.

[2] Back-stage charisma.   Trump is much less charismatic here. By all reports, when he interacts with people one-on-one, his attention wanders. He gets along with persons who are extremely deferential to him. He is more domineering than inspiring. Hence his preference for big rallies; small meetings with one-on-one interaction are not his forte, not where he gets his emotional energy.

[3] Success-magic charisma. This is part of the image that Trump claims for himself, that unlike others he is always the winner. Nevertheless, many of his business ventures have been failures, with numerous bankruptcies. Clearly Trump is not in a league with Caesar or Napoleon with their string of victories, or with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett in business success.

A number of mitigating points need to be made. Virtually no one has an unbroken string of successes (see Napoleon, Caesar..). A reputation for success-magic can be upheld by springing back from failures. This is what Trump does with his bankruptcies, especially since he dumps the loss on his investors. Michel Villette, in his study of great fortunes made in Europe and the US during mid-20th century, found that most of them went through bankruptcies and legal fights, which they emerged from successfully by hard-balling everyone else. Trump fits that pattern.

In his business career, Trump uses his claims to making great investments as a way of snowing financiers into investing. When the enterprise fails, they are in so deep that they have to bail him out. In his personal business, Trump has played explicitly on the theme, too big to be allowed to fail.

Is this success-magic charisma? At best, a manipulative form of it, characteristic of the world of skyrocketing finances from the 1990s through the present.

[4] Reputational charisma. This kind of charisma is derivative of the other three. There is a multiplier effect, once the reputation machine get rolling. Thus far (mid-October 2016 at time of writing) it remains to be seen whether Trump will turn out to be another instance of ephemeral pop-star reputation.

In sum, Trump has front-stage charisma, and not a lot of the other three kinds.

Does charisma win elections?

Politics is a competition. Being charismatic for one group of people does not make you charismatic for everyone; and that is true for any historic figure we can think of. So having opponents who deny your charisma does not mean you don’t have it.

Modern media-oriented political campaigns give a premium to charisma or what looks like it. Are elections determined by who has more charisma?

In the primary campaigns, the only other person who built up a charismatic profile was Bernie Sanders. Clearly this was all front-stage charisma. Sanders is not imposing as a personality. Throughout his career in Congress, he was an isolated figure whose vote was rarely sought out by anyone. He has no record or reputation for success. What he did find, in the 2015-16 campaign, was a constituency who wanted somebody radical, who could voice their criticism of the establishment. Bernie Sanders epitomizes Weber’s point that charisma comes from the audience more than from the individual himself. This helps explain Bernie’s reluctance to shut down his campaign, even after he had clearly lost and his continued criticism was damaging Hillary Clinton’s general election. He went from nobody to charismatic leader-- as long as he stayed in the magic spotlight of his enthusiastic rallies. In this last respect, the Sanders and Trump campaigns are similar.

Hillary Clinton is not charismatic. She has had to learn how to make political stump speeches. She has mastered the rhetoric, the gestures, the facial expressions. It still doesn’t look spontaneous.* Over the years, Hillary was known as a get-down-to-business, get-things-done person, the opposite of warm and fuzzy. Her campaign smile, in particular, is what Ekman would call a forced smile. I suggest that her front-stage demeanor, more than anything else, is what gives many people the feeling she is not trustworthy. The scandal-politics of issues about emails and Monday morning quarterbacking over terrorist attacks are less telling than the emotional resonance that many people feel is missing in her public face. By all accounts, she is a capable person backstage. She has a mixed record of success, no reputation for magic. Like most politicians at the height of a campaign, she does generate enthusiasm from her hard-core supporters; that comes less from her own charisma than from the audience projecting their emotions onto her.

* Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries displayed a speaking style that also looked artificial: rhetorical statements, followed by pause for effect, accompanied by sweeping arm gestures. It went on too long and looked like it was coached, without getting the rhythm right. Trump beat everyone to the punch with his spontaneity. The other politicians made him look good.

Strong charisma is rare. In most elections, in the US and elsewhere, there has been no charismatic figure. If we drop down to a looser criterion-- how did the candidates compare in whatever lesser degrees of charisma they had?-- it still would not be clear that the person who looked more charismatic won. Sometimes clearly charismatic persons lose: Churchill’s party lost the election of 1945 even though Churchill personally was at the height of his war-time reputation.

This is an open field for research: examine elections by rating the candidates on the four kinds of charisma. There are instances where the most charismatic figure rolled to victory (FDR’s string of four terms), others where the charismatic leader lost (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912), plenty of elections where nobody was charismatic or their charisma did not come until later (Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI). Charisma is just one ingredient in political success, and we haven’t yet measured how it stacks up against other conditions.

Charisma is not the only form of leadership

There are other kinds of successful organization leaders.

-- The harmonious team manager,  who gets everyone working together and focused on goals. Eisenhower was an example; never a battlefield leader, he kept the war effort going by managing difficult personalities like De Gaulle and Churchill, Patton and Montgomery. Another person, well known to myself, is a woman who wherever she goes is always elected to lead the organization or chair the committee. She gets along with all factions, keeps things moving, and is appreciated for winding up meetings without wasting time. (She is my wife.)

-- The smart decision-maker and strategist. There is a lot of hype about this, especially in business, so we need to keep a careful scorecard.  In politics, an example is 19th century German chancellor Bismarck, who engineered the unification of the German Reich, and out-maneuvered the left by introducing a welfare state. Today, the nearest example may be California Governor Jerry Brown (in his later career): he plans ahead for political crises and budget shortfalls, using the ballot initiative to change legislative rules so that his bills can get through. Brown avoids charisma and minimizes public campaigning. Backstage, he skips chit-chat and plunges immediately into goals and how to reach them. Unlike charismatic leaders, strategists of this sort tend to be undogmatic, and are willing to buck their own party and borrow policies from the opposition. Bill Gates’ career at Microsoft is a business example.

-- The coalition-builder.  Lyndon Johnson, never charismatic in public, was a power-house at lining up votes for legislation, with a mixture of schmoozing, horse-trading, and putting on pressure. Abraham Lincoln, who was a good orator, also had this skill. Coming into the presidency in a very divided political situation, he put as many of his opponents as possible into his cabinet, then played them against each other so as to get the most effective financial and logistical effort for the war. His non-charismatic side was just as important as his public charisma, which grew towards the end of the Civil War.

Bottom line: Charisma is one way to mobilize people into action. In elections, charisma does not always win. In  running an organization, charismatic leadership works best in combination with a details-oriented team, as seen in the second incarnation of Steve Jobs at Apple. In running a government, the non-charismatic styles are an indispensable ingredient.

Charisma shakes things up. Other leadership styles are needed to get things done.


Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies. 1998.
Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. 2009.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959.
Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot, From Predators to Ikons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero. 2009.

On Jesus’s interactional style:
“Jesus in Interaction: the Micro-sociology of Charisma”

On Steve Jobs, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great:
Randall Collins and Maren McConnell, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Emotional Energy.  2016. Maren Ink.

On T.E. Lawrence:
“How to Become Famous: the Networks of T.E. Lawrence”

On Queen Elizabeth the First:
Susan Doran, The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603.  2009. N.Y.: Metro Books.
Garrett Mattingly, The Armada.  1959.  Houghton Mifflin.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Virtually all controversial police shootings arise from misperception and over-reaction to the situation. These are results of bodily tension and high adrenaline levels, which in turn cause perceptual distortions and out-of-control shooting. The good news is that adrenaline levels can be recognized and monitored on the spot. And methods now exist for reducing one's adrenaline to a manageable level.

From studies of violent situations, we have learned the following.  Face-to-face conflict raises bodily tension. At high levels, opponents become clumsy and inaccurate. This happens through a sudden rise in levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. These are triggered by the primitive fight-or-flight center of the lower brain, an undifferentiated arousal for rapid action that can go either way.

Heart rate is an easily accessible measure of adrenaline arousal. Ordinary resting heart rate is about 60 BPM (beats per minute) in adults, about 100 BPM in moderate exercise. Optimal athletic and physical performance is around 115-145 BPM.  As heart rate goes up, the big muscle groups are energized, while fine muscle coordination is progressively lost. You can see this for yourself at the gym on a machine that monitors heart rate: trying writing with a pen when your heart rate is 145 or more. The effect of emotional tension and fear are stronger than vigorous exercise alone.

At levels around 150-175 BPM, perceptual distortions tend to happen. These experiences are typically reported by combat troops and police who have been in shoot-outs. Time becomes distorted-- both speeded up or seemly slowed down to dreamlike walking under water. Vision becomes blurred, surroundings are lost, tunnel vision narrows in. Hearing tends to shut down-- a cocoon-like experience in which one can't hear the sounds of one's own gun, or the voices of people around you.

Virtually all controversial police shootings show signs of these perceptual distortions. A traffic stop in which the officer misperceives the driver reaching for his wallet as reaching for a weapon. In the Tulsa, Oklahoma shooting of Terence Crutcher in September 2016, the officer said she temporarily lost her hearing just before she fired-- even though there were sounds of sirens and a police helicopter overhead. I am not addressing the point here of whether this makes her legally culpable or not, but noting that it fits the pattern: perceptual distortions are the immediate flashpoint for out-of-control shootings.

Having more police on the scene increases the chances of uncontrolled shooting. Tension is contagious. Cops who are tense tend to make officers around them tense.

On New Years night 2009 in Oakland, California, a white police officer put a gun to the back of the head of a young black man who was lying of the ground being arrested, and killed him with one shot. The incident began with reports that groups of young black men were fighting on the train; at the station, four police began making arrests. There was much loud shouting on both sides, about who was or was not involved in the fighting. The young men argued and struggled with police officers; one of the four cops, not the officer who did the shooting, was particularly aggressive, throwing black youths against the walls, pushing them down, and yelling the word ‘nigger’ at them. The officer who eventually shot his pistol was relatively restrained, trying to calm both the excited cop and the men being arrested; one photo of him, a minute before the shooting, shows a perplexed expression on his face. The officer said afterwards he thought he was reaching for his Taser but pulled his pistol by mistake. In a state of high adrenaline arousal, this is entirely plausible. If the most out-of-control cop in the group had been calmer, the killing most likely would not have happened.

Some officers get impatient about what they feel as indecisiveness or confusion, and act to resolve the situation by opening fire. This is apparently what happened in the Charlotte, N.C. September 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was apparently high on drugs, possibly displaying a gun, and ignoring police orders.  The shooting officer had initially been calm, waiting until other police business had been taken care of. Several officers first watched their suspect before finally attempting to get him out of his car. As the situation became more stalemated, it also became louder. More officers arrived, as well as the suspect's wife who kept telling the officers he was harmless and also on medication. One officer (a plain-clothes black cop) who had been there since the outset apparently grew exasperated to the point where he couldn't control himself.

To these kinds of distractions, add the effect of adrenaline arousal on hearing. In the cocoon of high tension, voices disappear. The more persons who are present-- cops, suspects, friends and family members, vocal bystanders-- the more likely sounds blur into a babble of raised voices. Clear communications break down.

With more people on the scene, the higher the tension of the police officers, and the higher the chance that one of them will begin firing. This can set others off as well: the sound of firing may be misperceived as coming from the suspect, or directly by emotional contagion. In the Charlotte incident, the standoff comes to a climax just after another officer (who has arrived to support) tries to break the windshield of the suspect's vehicle with his baton-- a loud crashing noise.  The officer who has been on the scene the longest now fires a burst from his pistol, even though the suspect has made no sudden move.

Such circumstances are also dangerous for the police themselves. When a suspect is surrounded by large numbers of police in different directions, police sometimes shoot each other, especially when they are in plain clothes. About 10% of police killed or wounded on duty are victims of friendly fire.

A sign that the shooting is caused by out-of-control adrenaline is overkill: when an officer fires many more shots that necessary to disable the apparently threatening suspect. In New York City, February 1999, four undercover police looking for a rapist saw a man duck back into a hallway, then reach for what turned out to be his identification. The four cops rushed from the car and fired 41 shots at a range of 3 meters; 19 of those shots missed. Both the poor aim and the overkill are results of adrenaline rush, amplified by contagion among the four officers. (case of Amadou Diallo)

Overkill usually brings public outrage, and tends to be interpreted as evidence of police racism and malice. Such controversies are hard to settle. Whatever else it is, overkill is a sign of adrenaline rush. 

What can be done?

First, recognize the danger of perceptual distortions in high-tension situations. Recognize the danger of getting confusing non-verbal messages and emotional contagion from fellow officers on the scene, and from other people present.

Second, check your adrenaline level and bring it down to the level of effective performance and clear perception.

A method for reducing heart rate is via breathing. (The following is from US Army psychologist Dave Grossman.) 

            breathe in four counts;
            hold your breath four counts;
            breathe out four counts;
            hold your breath four counts;
            repeat until heart rate comes down.

This does not mean simply "take a deep breath." The key is to repeat the entire sequence until a slower bodily rhythm is established, with feedback to bring down the adrenaline level. The periods of holding your breath between breathing-in and breathing-out are crucial.

Practical steps for more cool-headed cops

Wear a heart rate monitor. These are easily available now, on wrist devices used for exercise.

Practice observing one's own heart rate in various situations. You can train yourself to recognize high adrenaline levels by the feeling in your body--- especially the feeling of one's heart pounding and the quality of one's breathing.

Practice the four-part breathing exercise to reduce heart rate.

In a tense situation, check your heart rate, and bring it down if necessary.

But what if there is no time for this? What if it is an immediate, kill-or-be-killed situation? In police work, sometimes this may be the case.  But such situations do not arise very often. Many instances of police shootings-- and especially those which turn out to be based on misperceptions-- take time to develop.  The Charlotte N.C. confrontation built up over an hour, and could have been resolved peacefully with better management of emotions.

Some officers speed up the situation unnecessarily. In Cleveland November 2014, the officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.

Checking your heart rate and controlling it by a breathing exercise may not be possible in some fast-moving situations. And some victims collude in their own death, in suicide-by-cop, by pretending to aim a weapon at officers in order to be shot. Some such events may be inevitable. But even here, very situationally-aware officers may be able to sort some of them out.

The large majority of the police do not shoot anyone. Among those who do, some are unlucky in being in a bad place at the wrong time; some are the workaholics of the force; some are tough guys looking for action; some have poor control over their tension levels. Research by sociologist Geoffrey Alpert on escalated police encounters found that cops who handle situations better have a better sense of timing.  Many cool-headed cops exist, who have better situational awareness, better control over their tension levels and adrenaline arousal. Our aim should be to increase the proportion of cool-headed cops.

Police shootings of unarmed or unresisting persons have brought huge controversy. Most proposed solutions focus on more body cameras, more release of video data to the public, and more criminal prosecution of officers. These proposals have spiraled into more conflict, in the form of demonstrations, riots, and angry politics on both sides. In the balance of political forces today, none of these has been successful in reducing police shootings.

Another route can be tried. Rather than reacting after police shootings happen, and concentrating on ways to pin the blame in court, we can take steps so that out-of-control behavior in police encounters does not happen in the first place. We do not have to solve huge problems like racism or political gridlock to achieve this.

It is in the interest of all police officers to ensure that their tension-control skills are high. Individuals cops do not have to wait until a government agency, or their own police chief, orders them to wear a heart-beat monitor. Everyone can get it yourself easily enough; and do your own training in controlling heart rate and adrenaline level.

Thinking outside the box is often advocated. But most policy people automatically think in terms of top-down solutions. It is at the bottom level-- each moment people encounter each other on the street-- that the problem arises. Better emotional awareness can help to head it off, on the spot.


Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.
Jennifer C. Hunt. 2010. Seven Shots.
David Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone. A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force.

Note: Research by Min-seok Pang and Paul Pavlov ("Armed with Technology: The Impact on Fatal Shootings by Police", 2016) has shown, paradoxically, that police wearing body cameras act more aggressively than those without, because they believe the video will back up their perception of the situation. In other words, their emotions tend to overrule their perceptions here too.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


When Erving Goffman arrived at University of Chicago in the late 1940s, he was an ardent Freudian. A few years later he devised a new way to study mental illness: he got himself into the schizophrenic ward of a mental hospital, incognito, for two years. Instead of the retrospective method of psychoanalysis, probing for the meaning of symptoms deep in past childhood, Goffman directly observed what mental illness is in the present, as disturbed social interaction.

Goffman is an emblem of the take-off of micro-sociology. No one creates an intellectual movement by oneself. In the background were not only the Freudians, seeking unconscious meanings in everyday life; also what Blumer named Symbolic Interactionism, emphasizing the social construction of the self and everything else.  At Berkeley in 1964, after a student sit-in for civil rights shut down the university, Blumer commented to us in class: a social institution exists only as long as it is enacted; when we collectively stop enacting it, it stops existing.

Another movement was springing up, the ethnomethodologists, insisting that sociology does not even exist, but only the study of folk methods for making sense of what is taken for reality. This was the phenomenology of everyday life, in the sense of Husserl and Schutz, but Garfinkel and his followers changed it from philosophical introspection into micro-situational observation. Especially important was the invention of conversation analysis by tape-recording real-life conversation. This shifted the emphasis from the cognitive and rather individualistic focus of phenomenology onto the details of social interaction; and transcribing the tape-recordings made it possible for other researchers to examine the empirical findings and to point out new patterns in them. When Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson in 1974 laid out the turn-taking rule as the fundamental process of talk, it became possible to reinterpret it later as the socially ideal form: no gap, no overlap between speakers is talk in maximally attuned rhythm, and it exemplifies high solidarity in that little temporary group. Violating the no gap rule gives embarrassing pauses, micro-indications of what Goffman called alienation from interaction. Violating the no-overlap rule is people trying to talk over each other; this is the most characteristic form of incipient conflict and struggle for dominance, as became clearer in micro-studies of violence. By reinterpreting the data I assimilated the empirical findings of conversation analysis to a Durkheim-Goffman synthesis eventually called interaction ritual chains. I can’t say my ethnomethodological acquaintances were happy with this Gestalt shift; but theoretical reinterpretation of good evidence is how research fields build new knowledge.

Feedback between innovation in research methods and theoretical concepts has driven the advance of micro-sociology. New research techniques spin off from each other. By the 1990s came portable video recorders, followed by even more ubiquitous mobile phone cameras and CCTV. Knowing what to look for theoretically makes photos key evidence, because we can read photos in tandem with new understanding of the emotions in facial expressions, body postures and rhythms (research by Paul Ekman and others). We are seeing what causes what in the micro-dynamics of situations, both conflict and domination, alienation and solidarity. The deepening spiral between research technology and theory also improves traditional methods of observation and interviewing; it sharpens our ethnographic eye as to what to look for and what kinds of detail to probe for in our questions. Today’s ethnographer can say, I am a camera, echoing Christopher Isherwood describing Berlin in the 1930s.

Goffman exemplifies how traditional methods of participant observation yielded theoretical results that assimilate other strands. In the 1950s Goffman deserted Freud for Durkheim, reinvigorating the social anthropology that he learned from his British Commonwealth teachers. Like Lloyd Warner and Mary Douglas, he brought ritual home from the colonies and applied it to our own natives, ourselves. Durkheim’s theory of religious and political rituals takes us beyond the cognitive emphasis of both symbolic interaction and phenomenology; it gives us a mechanism that generates solidarity, morality and cognition simultaneously by pumping up symbols with shared emotion. Although the macro-sociological version of Durkheimian theory was functionalist equilibrium, Durkheim down-sized to the interacting group becomes dynamic. It makes a great addition to the study of historical and even revolutionary changes when religions, regimes, and manners are delegitimated and replaced by more engrossing ones. The ingredients that produce successful rituals are variable; when assembly, mutual focus, shared emotion and rhythmic synchronization are absent or disrupted, sacred objects are desacralized, cultural beliefs fade, and moralities become outdated. Far from being a idealization of perpetual solidarity, neo-Durkheimian micro-sociology is a tool for dissecting social change and conflict. When Lloyd Warner shifted from Australian clans to American cities, he found more than one tribe: social classes, stacked up like a totem pole. What Marx and Engels called the means of mental production and Gramsci called hegemony is determined by the micro-sociology of interaction rituals; but we don’t have to wait for macro crises in the system to bring changes, since the ingredients for stability and change are here at the micro level.

Followers of Goffman, Blumer and Garfinkel have proliferated in the last 40 years, producing many strands of micro-sociological research. I will single out a few areas of recent discovery. As a link between mid-20th century and today, consider some theoretical developments in the sociology of emotions.

There is the pioneering work by Theodore Kemper; by Tom Scheff on the shame-rage cycle; and by Norbert Wiley, whose 1994 book The Semiotic Self is probably the greatest contribution to symbolic interactionist theory since Mead. Here I will concentrate on a particular pathway.

Arlie Hochschild’s  ethnography of flight attendants uncovered emotion work, Goffmanian efforts to control the emotional frontstage of the situation, as part of the job. This led to a large body of research on workers’ emotional presentations. Perhaps Jack Katz’s title,  How Emotions Work, is a riff on “emotion work”,  while he shifts to radically situational methods, visual and auditory recordings, and a more embodied theorization. Katz dissects the major emotions by examining in micro-detail interactional situations where they happen. Laughter, the happy solidarity emotion par excellence, he finds in the fun house of mirrors. But seeing the distorting image of one’s body in the mirror is not enough to produce laughter; instead the child runs to bring father or mother; they all focus together on the image, and then they laugh. The emotion is spontaneous and bodily self-entraining in the physical rhythms of laughter, but it is body-to-body entrainment channeled by a sharpened mutual focus of attention. The physiological process is social physiology, and it works from the outside in. Katz starts from phenomenology but what he finds is deeply social and embodied.

And emotions are moments in a sequence through time. Road rage comes from disrupted rhythms and frustration over the lack of communication channels with the other driver, other than using the car itself to make embodied gestures like cutting the other car off. Time-dynamics are also crucial for the various kinds of crying that Katz records, such as resistance by a small child to her pre-school teacher, producing a rising-and-falling whine along with each exercise she is being forced to do, while retreating into the fortress of resonance inside her own whining body. Whining is truly a weapon of the weak, and in a child-centered age, sometimes a local source of power. This is a long way from Freud, but deepening what he was trying to do.

Another important theorization of emotions comes from Jonathan Turner, by reconceptualizing evidence of human evolution. Humans diverged from other primates, not at first by larger brains but by increased neural wiring between emotional and cognitive centers. Humans thus have a much more differentiated range of emotions they can express and recognize in others, in face, voice, and gesture. This enables more flexible kinds of solidarity and social coordination; it enables religious and other rituals, marking both group membership and moral obligation, and boundaries to outsiders; and it enables ways of manufacturing new memberships. The Durkheimian mechanism was there at the origins of human society. The entwining of emotion, cognition and their embodied communication are what made possible speech and memory codified into symbols, which is to say culture as well as personal habitus. What one thinks comes from the symbols and gestures that spring most spontaneously to one’s consciousness, because those have been marked by strong emotions, positive or negative, deriving from the most successful interaction rituals, or from the searing memories of dramatically broken rituals.

In recent years neuro-physiological research has caught up with the Durkheimian point, recognizing that strong memories are emotionally marked; the rational emotionless calculator assumed by many non-sociologists as the epitome of human behavior does not fit everyday cognition. It is nice to have some legitimacy conferred by the so-called hard sciences. But micro-sociology still leads the way, since mirror neurons do not work automatically across all situations; the human brain is programmed from the outside in, by the success or failure of social interactions to generate emotions focused on shared experiences in the chains of everyday life.

Interaction ritual theory has been applied in the sociology of religion, not surprisingly since this is where Durkheim originated it. But there are many different kinds of religions in today’s religious marketplace. Scott Draper, using survey methods but asking the right questions about religious practice, shows how churches generate different amounts and kinds of spiritual experience by different mixes of  ingredients. Sociology of prayer examines the micro-details of what is said, done, and experienced. Michal Pagis’s research on group meditation shows that even in a retreat where persons are not supposed to talk or even communicate by gestures, nevertheless they orient bodily to each other and follow the lead of more experienced meditators in falling into a harmonious rhythm. That this rhythm is shared comes out by the contrast to meditating at home alone; individuals find it much more difficult to maintain concentration, and feel a need to return to the silent meditation group to keep up their spiritual experience.

I will add a parallel that is perhaps surprising. Those who know Loic Wacquant would not expect to find silent harmony. Nevertheless, Wacquant’s study of a boxing gym finds a similar pattern: there is little that boxers do in the gym that they could not do at home alone, except sparring; but in the gym they perform exercises like skipping, hitting the bags, strengthening stomach muscles, all in 3-minute segments to the ring of the bell that governs rounds in the ring. When everyone in the gym is in the same rhythm, they are animated by a collective feeling; they become boxers dedicated to their craft, not so much through minds but as an embodied project. Although Wacquant does not conceptualize this in Durkheimian terms, nevertheless his research contributes via the theoretical reframing of good data.

Now some applications of micro-sociological methods and theory to mainstream sociological topics: especially our concern with stratification, inequality, power, conflict and resistance.

I began to study violence when I realized that conflict theory in the Weberian sense had very little action in it, but was comparative statics. Micro-methods brought new discoveries. Originally our data were police statistics, bureaucratic artifacts remote from the scene of action. Closer data came from interviewers armed with symbolic interactionism, talking to prisoners or doing gang ethnographies. A different slant emerges when we look directly at violent confrontations. The first inkling came in World War II, when S.L.A. Marshall interviewed combat soldiers immediately after battle, and found only a small proportion actually fired their weapons at the enemy. Later the Army psychologist Dave Grossman found evidence they are held back not by fear of being hurt (since persons in some situations ignore very high danger, including medics, and officers who are not using weapons); they are inhibited by a deep-seated fear of killing someone. This sounds paradoxical but I have connected it with several wide-spread patterns.

A large proportion of violent confrontations of all kinds-- street fights, riots, etc.-- quickly abort; and most persons in those situations  act like Marshall’s soldiers-- they let a small minority of the group do all the violence. Now that we have photos and videos of violent situations, we see that at the moment of action the expression on the faces of the most violent participants is fear.  Our folk belief is that anger is the emotion of violence, but anger appears mostly before any violence happens, and in controlled situations where individuals bluster at a distant enemy. I have called this confrontational tension/fear; it is the confrontation itself that generates the tension, more than fear of what will happen to oneself. Confrontational tension is debilitating; phenomenologically we know (mainly from police debriefings after shootings) that it produces perceptual distortions; physiologically it generates racing heart beat, an adrenaline rush which at high levels results in loss of bodily control.

This explains another, as yet little recognized pattern: when violence actually happens, it is usually incompetent. Most of the times people fire a gun at a  human target, they miss; their shots go wide, they hit the wrong person, sometimes a bystander, sometimes friendly fire on their own side. This is a product of the situation, the confrontation.  We know this because the accuracy of soldiers and police on firing ranges is much higher than when firing at a human target. We can pin this down further; inhibition in live firing declines with greater distance; artillery troops are more reliable than infantry with small arms, so are fighter and bomber crews and navy crews; it is not the statistical chances of being killed or injured by the enemy that makes close-range fighters incompetent. At the other end of the spectrum, very close face-to-face confrontation makes firing even more inaccurate; shootings at a distance of less than 2 meters are extremely inaccurate. Is this paradoxical?  It is facing the other person at a normal distance for social interaction that is so difficult. Seeing the other person’s face, and being seen by him or her seeing your seeing, is what creates the most tension. Snipers with telescopic lenses can be extremely accurate, even when they see their target’s face; what they do not see is the target looking back; there is no mutual attention, no intersubjectivity. Mafia hit men strike unexpectedly and preferably from behind, relying on deception and normal appearances so that there is no face confrontation. This is also why executioners used to wear hoods; and why persons wearing face masks commit more violence than those with bare faces. 

NOTE THE POLICY IMPLICATION:  The fashion in recent years among elite police units to wear balaclava-style face masks during their raids should be eliminated. It operates as a status marker for such units, and in some countries as a deliberate effort to intimidate people; but in democracies like the United States it ought to be recognized by police authorities that wearing masks increases the likelihood of out-of-control violence by these forces.

Confrontational tension/fear is a corollary to interaction ritual theory. Mutual focus of attention-- awareness of each other’s awareness-- is an ingredient of high mutual entrainment; normally, with a shared emotion building up, the result is collective effervescence and solidarity.  But conflict is action at cross purposes. Face-to-face confrontation simultaneously invokes our hard-wired propensities to get into a shared rhythm, and contradicts it because one is trying to impose dominance on the other. No wonder face confrontations are so tense. It is not being afraid of being hurt that generates the most tension; nor is it exactly right to say it is fear of hurting the other; it is above all tension specific to tightly focused mutual action at cross purposes. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called in confrontational tension/fear, except that the facial and bodily expressions look like fear.

Face-to-face confrontation is what pumps adrenaline and cortisol, and creates the tension we see on faces and bodies. As  heart beat rises over 140 beats per minute or BPM, fine motor coordination declines, such as aiming a gun; over 170 beats per minute experience becomes a blur; over 200 BPM paralysis can set in. Face confrontations, especially when combined with other sources of tension and arousal such as running, car chases, an angry argument or an emergency call, result in several patterns that we see in violent situations.

NOTE ON POLICY IMPLICATION:  Training of police officers should emphasize explicit awareness of the consequences of very high heartbeat and other bodily signs of extreme tension. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground  (Nov. 2014 in Cleveland) had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car, within the acute confrontational distance of less than 3 meters. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone for perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation. Geoffrey Alpert has shown that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more officers up to this high level of competence.

If both sides get into the zone of high tension and physiological arousal, the fight will abort; if they do fight (given further situational conditions I will come to shortly), the fight will be incompetent. The same pattern is true for other weapons besides guns, such as knives, swords and clubs, and for fist fights. Since these weapons need very close confrontation, their competence in doing damage is generally low, contrary to what one might think from sword-fighting movies, including those with samurai or magical super-heroes.

How does violence sometimes succeed in doing damage? The key is asymmetrical  confrontation tension. One side will win if they can get their victim in the zone of high arousal and high incompetence, while keeping their own arousal down to a zone of greater bodily control. Violence is not so much physical as emotional struggle; whoever achieves emotional domination, can then impose physical domination. That is why most real fights look very nasty; one sides beats up on an opponent at the time they are incapable of resisting. At the extreme, this happens in the big victories of military combat, where the troops on one side become paralyzed in the zone of 200 heartbeats per minute, massacred by victors in the 140 heartbeat range. This kind of asymmetry is especially dangerous, when the dominant side is also in the middle ranges of arousal; at 160 BPM or so, they are acting with only semi-conscious bodily control. Adrenaline is the flight-or-fight hormone; when the opponent signals weakness, shows fear, paralysis, or turns their back, this can turn into what I have called a forward panic, and the French officer Ardant du Picq called “flight to the front.” Here the attackers rush forward towards an unresisting enemy, firing uncontrollably. It has the pattern of hot rush, piling on, and overkill. Most outrageous incidents of police violence against unarmed or unresisting targets are forward panics, now publicized in our era of bullet counts and ubiquitous videos. 

Can we predict which pattern will happen? The barrier of confrontational tension can be circumvented if one or more conditions are present:

One is attacking the weak. Successful attackers seek out a weak enemy; sometimes this is someone physically weaker, but situational weakness is far more important.  Armed robbers seek isolated victims and avoid  even unarmed groups, and try for surprise, catching their victim off guard, in order to seize the interactional momentum. Attacking weakness also comes from  imbalance of numbers; in photos of riots, almost all the violence happens when clusters of 5 or 6 persons attack an isolated opponent, who is usually knocked to the ground and has their face turned from the attackers. This is more of a social than a physical advantage, because when two or three are attacked, they often succeed in fighting off a much bigger group of attackers; that is, the little group generates enough mutual support so that they are not emotionally dominated.

Another condition, then, is social support from a highly coordinated group of violent actors; an army squad, a SWAT team, a historical phalanx of warriors in close formation: these are drilled to act together, and as long as they focus on their own rhythm, confrontational tension with the enemy is a lesser part of their experience. 

Another pathway is where the fight is surrounded by an audience; people who gather to watch, especially in festive crowds looking for entertainment; historical photos of crowds watching duels; and of course the commercial/ sporting version of staged fights. This configuration produces the longest and most competent fights; confrontational tension is lowered because the fighters are concerned for their performance in the eyes of the crowd, while focusing on their opponent has an element of tacit coordination since they are a situational elite jointly performing for the audience. Even the loser in a heroic staged fight gets social support. We could test this by comparing emotional micro-behavior in a boxing match or a baseball game without any spectators.

Finally, there are a set of techniques for carrying out violence without face confrontation. Striking at a distance: the modern military pathway. Becoming immersed in technical details of one’s weapons rather than on the human confrontation. And a currently popular technique: the clandestine attack such as a suicide bombing, which eliminates confrontational tension because it avoids showing any confrontation until the very moment the bomb is exploded. Traditional assassinations, and the modern mafia version, also rely on the cool-headedness that comes from pretending there is no confrontation, hiding in Goffmanian normal appearances until the moment to strike.

All this sounds rather grisly, but nevertheless confrontational theory of violence has an optimistic side. First, there is good news: most threatening confrontations do not result in violence. (This is shown also in Robert Emerson’s new book on quarrels among roommates and neighbours.) We missed this because, until recently, most evidence about violence came from sampling on the dependent variable. There is a deep interactional reason why face-to-face violence is hard, not easy.  Most of the time both sides stay symmetrical. Both get angry and bluster in the same way. These confrontations abort, since they can’t get around the barrier of confrontational tension. Empirically, on our micro-evidence, this zero pathway is the most common. Either the quarrel ends in mutual gestures of contempt; or the fight quickly ends when opponents discover their mutual incompetence. Curtis Jackson-Jacobs’ video analysis shows fist-fighters moving away from each other after missing with a few out-of-rhythm punches. If no emotional domination happens, they soon sense it.

Micro-sociology of violence is much more optimistic than conventional macro-theories of class or racial inequality, or cultures such as masculine hegemony and honor. These long-term factors are hard to change. But immediate situational conditions are always the bottleneck through which macro-conditions must pass if conflict is to turn into violence. Micro-interactional theory points out situational conditions  to avoid. And it offers micro-practices for each of us to deal with threatening situations in your own life. Keep any confrontation emotionally symmetrical; make confrontational tension work for you by maintaining face contact; avoid micro-escalations; let the situation calm down out of boredom, which is what happens when an interaction becomes locked into repetition. In the violent sociology of emotions, boredom is your friend.

A long-standing criticism of ethnomethodology and other micro-sociology has been that it tells us nothing except tedious details that are really determined at the macro level. The sociology of violence shows this is not true; there is crucial causality at the micro level. And we are extending this to other areas.

Anne Nassauer, assembling videos and other evidence from many angles on demonstrations, finds the turning points at which a demo goes violent or stays peaceful. And she shows that these are situational turning points, irrespective of ideologies, avowed intent of demonstrators or policing methods. Stefan Klusemann, using video evidence, shows that ethnic massacres are triggered off in situations of emotional domination and emotional passivity; that is, local conditions, apart from whatever orders are given by remote authorities.  Another pioneering turning-point study is David Sorge’s analysis of the phone recording of a school shooter exchanging shots with the police, who nevertheless is calmed down by an office clerk; she starts out terrified but eventually shifts into an us-together mood that ends in a peaceful surrender. Meredith Rossner shows that restorative justice conferences succeed or fail according to the processes of interaction rituals; and that emotionally successful RJ conferences result in conversion experiences that last for several years, at least. Counter-intuitively, she finds that RJ conferences are especially likely be successful when they concerns not minor offenses but serious violence;  the intensity of the ritual depends on the intensity of emotions it evokes.

Erika Summers-Effler shows the diversity of emotional practices that sustain social movements whose goals are so difficult that they are permanently failing. Cathartic laughter tinged with mysticism emotionally reboots Catholic Workers among the self-destructively poor; harnessing righteous anger keeps an anti-death-penalty group going although its leader gets most of the energy. Interaction Ritual works very widely as a mechanism, but it can use different emotional ingredients; the landscape of emotion-marked group idiocultures (to borrow Gary Alan Fine’s term) remains to be mapped.

High authorities are hard to study with micro methods, since organizational high rank is shielded behind very strong Goffmanian frontstages. David Gibson, however, analyzing audio tapes of Kennedy’s crisis group in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, penetrated the micro-reality of power in a situation in which all the rationally expectable scenarios led toward nuclear war. Neither JFK nor anyone else emerges as a charismatic or even a decisive leader. The group eventually muddled their way through sending signals that postponed a decision to use force, by tacitly ignoring scenarios that were too troubling to deal with. This fits the pattern that conversation analysts call the preference for agreement over disagreement, at whatever cost to rationality and consistency. Stefan Fuchs, in his micro-sociologically informed theory book Against Essentialism, says that organizational authority looks most rational and decisive when communicating to outsiders; the closer one gets to the inside, the more activities look ad hoc. Authority is a performance for the distance; up close, it dissolves into particularistic idiosyncrasies; perhaps a better way to put this is that it becomes the micro-details of situational interaction.

We have a long way to go to generalize these leads into a picture of how high authority really operates. Does it operate the same way in business corporations? The management literature tells us how executives have implemented well thought-out programs; but our information comes chiefly from retrospective interviews that collapse time and omit the situational process itself. Lauren Rivera cracks the veneer of elite Wall Street firms and finds that hiring decisions are made by a sense of emotional resonance between interviewer and interviewee, the solidarity of successful interaction rituals. Our best evidence of the micro details of this process comes from another arena, where Dan McFarland and colleagues analyze recorded data on speed dating, and find that conversational micro-rhythms determine who felt they “clicked” with whom.

Finally, I will mention my most recent book, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy. Among others, it analyzes how a famous organization-builder like Steve Jobs used an  style that generated a tremendous amount of emotional energy focused on cutting edge innovation.  Jobs’ interactional style was to evoke extreme emotions, including very negative ones, but unlike authoritarian leaders who bark out critiques and orders and then slam the door behind them, Jobs stayed to argue at great length until the group emotion became transformed into a shared trajectory of action. His insults and obscenities were only the opening move that revved up group emotion; successful IRs transmute the initiating emotions-- whatever they are-- into solidarity, and Jobs kept the group focused throughout the argument until this happened. And it increased everyone's emotional energy; by the end, if it meant staying up 48 hours to fix it, let's get to it.

(Note: The 2015 film Steve Jobs inaccurately portrays how he dealt with his high-tech team, assimilating him to the management cliché of motivating workers by threatening to fire them.)

Such interactional techniques are rare, since they require constantly recycling emotional energy between leader and group; whereas most hierarchic authorities become cut off from those doing the work. Interaction ritual processes suggest a way to make network analysis more dynamic rather than comparative statics; for instance we observe Jobs’ techniques for recruiting the most desirable people and thereby building a productive network.  More generally, we see how entrepreneurs flourish by playing in ambiguous or dangerous networks, interacting with potential rivals and enemies who can steal key information and key opportunities, or band together temporarily to exploit them jointly. Dangerous networks expand by a timely application of emotional domination, in contrast to inner circles of allies (like Jobs' high-tech work group) which are built by cascades of EE.

I will end this scattered survey with some  research that falls into the rubric of Weberian status groups, i.e. social rankings by lifestyle.  David Grazian has produced a sequence of books, Blue Chicago and On the Make, that deal with night life. This could be considered a follow-up to Goffman’s analysis of what constitutes “fun in games” as well as “where the action is.” For Grazian, night-life is a performance of one’s “nocturnal self,” characterized by role-distance from one’s mundane day-time identity. By a combination of his own interviewing behind the scenes and collective ethnographies of students describing their evening on the town, from pre-party preparation to post-party story-telling, Grazian shows how the boys and the girls, acting as separate teams, play at sexual flirtation which for the most part is vastly over-hyped in its real results. It is the buzz of collective effervescence that some of these teams generate that is the real attraction of night life. And this may be an appropriate place to wind up. Freud, perhaps the original micro-sociologist, theorized that sexual drive is the underlying mover behind the scenes. Grazian, looking at how those scenes are enacted, finds libido as socially constructed performance. As is almost everything else.

In conclusion.  Will interaction ritual, or for that matter micro-sociology as we know it, become outdated in the high-tech future?  This isn’t futuristic any more, since we have been living in the era of widely dispersed information technology for at least 30 years, and we are used to its pace and direction of change. A key point for interaction ritual is that bodily co-presence is one of its  ingredients. Is face contact needed? Rich Ling analyzed the everyday use of mobile phones and found that the same persons who spoke by phone a lot also met personally a lot. Cell phones do not substitute for bodily co-presence, but facilitate it. Among the most frequent back-and-forth, reciprocated connections are people coordinating where they are.  Ling concluded that solidarity rituals were possible over the phone, but that they were weaker than face-to-face rituals; one was a teaser for the other.

There is a theoretical reason why full-body co-presence makes for more successful IRs. Full-body presence is multi-channel; it is much easier to catch the other’s emotions, gestures, body posture and rhythm than from voice alone, or even voice-plus-image of the sort that Skype provides.  Bodily co-presence is an important ingredient not in itself, but because it enhances mutual focus-- meta-awareness that the other is focused on what you are focused on; or for that matter, that you are not so fully focused; alienation from interaction is also easier to detect face to face. Full channel bodily co-presence also enhances the other main ingredients of an IR, building a shared emotional mood to a high intensity via a continuous feedback loop; for instance that is why people laugh more when there are more people present.  We could test this by measuring the intensity of laughter among remote users reading on-screen emoticons or expressions like LOL, compared to laughter during physical presence. And bodily co-presence helps build rhythmic coordination; not to say there are no rhythms in exchanging text messages etc, but those rhythms are almost certainly not as fine-tuned as those found in voice recordings of persons who are clicking with each other. 

Also there is touching another person, something that can only be done when bodily present. Such expressions of affectionate or sexual contact are generally reserved for a few relationships (although there are formal versions like handshakes, air-kisses and forearm bumps enacting more limited bits of solidarity). Conceivably future electronic devices might wire up each other’s genitals, but what happens would likely depend on the micro-sociological theory of sex (chapter 6 in Interaction Ritual Chains): the strongest sexual attraction is not pleasure in one’s genitals per se, but getting the other person’s body to respond in mutually entraining erotic rhythms: getting turned on by getting the other person turned on. If you don’t believe me, try theorizing the attractions of performing oral sex. This is an historically increasing practice, and one of the things that drives the solidarity of homosexual movements. Gay movements are built around effervescent scenes, not around social media.

Voice conversations require co-presence in time if not in space, whereas this limitation does not hold for other electronic media, allowing them to reach far larger networks. It still appears that the greatest amount of back-and-forth messages happen among a relatively small proportion of social media “friends” who also meet physically. Big media-only networks numbering in the hundreds or more-- other than for celebrities who use them essentially as broadcast media-- are built either by assembling old schoolmate networks, or among professionals in a specialty. Yet the one type of professional network I have studied, philosophers and other intellectuals, has the pattern that those who have the most network connections to eminent persons, themselves are more likely to become eminent; and these connections involve a crucial period of face contact. In other words, having a far-flung network does not do very much good for one’s intellectual career unless you meet these people personally.  Meeting to do what?  To carry out intense intellectual IRs, getting the emotional emphasis that comes from being at the forefront of research and argument. In the absence of systematic research it is dangerous to extrapolate from one type of arena to another; but my impression is that although top financiers and business executives have very large social networks-- they had these already in the era before the social media-- their crucial deal-making happens by face meetings. Emotional domination and persuasion happen most subtly and effectively in full-body presence. It seems likely that persons who rely exclusively on distant electronic networks are stratifying themselves into a lower tier beneath the elite.

Of course the media of communication change; but the stratified patterns of intellectual networks have remained across a very long history of media inventions, including writing, book publishing, printing, letters delivered by postal service, newspapers and journals, and the first electronic media, the telegraph and telephone. In recent years I get communications from distant scholars by email; but those in areas of strong mutual interest soon travel to discuss things personally; and these personal contacts are what accelerate the process of creative research.

It would be foolish to postulate that electronic or other media technologies will never be invented that mimic the key aspects of bodily IRs:  that is to say, that can enhance sense of mutual attention, strengthen shared emotions, and get people electronically entrained in interpersonal rhythms. Given the existence of micro-sociological understanding, it is more than likely that media technologists will try to mimic real-life IRs. Crude advances in social Artificial Intelligence are already pointing the way, as are efforts at virtual reality. It may become possible to electronically stimulate the emotional and rhythmic parts of the brain; the result might well be a high-tech version of heroin addiction. But I doubt that the real social interactional world will go away; people who become electronic junkies will be dominated by people who use a wide spectrum of successful IRs, and at the core of those networks will be real people who meet bodily.

I am not a fan of science fiction, which always struck me as mostly recycling mythologies of the pre-modern past. In this talk I have been tracing the history of micro-sociology over the past half-century or so, and we can see the direction things are going. Micro-sociology grew up with a sequence of inventions that might be called information technologies: tape recorders, videos, photos of facial expressions of emotions, long-distance photography, computer-stored messages, and now portable monitors of physiological body signs being used in sports training and the military. Better to call these micro-interactional technologies, or micro-interactional recording technologies, because they give us new kinds of data we can pore over in detail and thereby discover new patterns.

Thus, two projections for the immediate future of micro-sociology, let us say the next two decades, by which time I will probably be dead. First, micro-sociology is going to get even better data, and the key things we will learn will be about mechanisms of mutual awareness, the causes and consequences of a variety of shared emotions, and the patterns of rhythmic entrainment that together determine levels of solidarity and emotional energy. What Durkheim and Goffman formulated are among the most important discoveries of sociology; they will be modified but they will not go away.

Second, micro-sociological technologies are going to spin off new combinations and advances from themselves, in the usual cascade of technological innovation.  But technologies develop in tandem with theories, and the theory that knows the most about how humans do interaction is micro-sociology.  We are going to be part of that technological cascade, whether we like it or not.

As we said in the 1960s, it’s been quite a trip. And it's not over yet.


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