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Much of it concerns the origins and application of violence, but this blog post on Randall Collins and his theory of ritual, by Xavier Marquez, is interesting throughout. Here is one excerpt:
The (relative) insignificance of ideology. Taken in its strongest terms, Collins’ theory seems to suggest that ideology is generally unimportant. Whether a symbol acquires socially motivating value depends much less on its “generalized” meaning than on its place within chains of interaction rituals; we are not generally the dupes of rhetorical framings and persuasive strategies except in the context of successful ritual situations. (Collins notes, for example, that most advertisement seems to be unsuccessful at actually persuading people to buy products, and is mostly intended to preserve attention space against competitors). From this perspective, the decline of labor movements worldwide, for example, may owe less to any ideological changes (“persuasion” and “manipulation” taken in a very broad sense) than to (intentional or unintentional) changes in the conditions for the ritual production of solidarity. Chris Bertram recently mused on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death that UK society used to be socially more class-differentiated (there were strong institutions where class solidarities and roles were produced) but is now less so (since these institutions have vanished), despite very low levels of economic mobility and higher levels of economic inequality; many people now “feel” that there is more equality. From the interaction ritual perspective, these changes are not the result of the working class becoming simply convinced of lies due to clever persuasive strategies by elites, but of the less central place of rituals and symbols reinforcing class solidarity in their lives. This is in turn due to any number of causes: laws that made labor unions more difficult to organize, structural changes in employment patterns, the decay of rituals of deference, the emergence of rituals focused on celebrities that cut across social class, etc.
Collins is one of the most important social scientists in the world today, though in many circles he remains underdiscussed. You will find previous MR coverage of him here. The pointer is from @HenryFarrell.
Shane emails me:
What have you found to be the best books on small, innovative, productive groups?
These could be in-depth looks at specific groups – such as The Idea Factory, about Bell Labs – or they could be larger studies of institutions, guilds, etc.
I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question. Navy Seals are another possible option for a topic area. In sociology there is network theory, but…I don’t know. In any case, the key is to pick an area you care about, and read in clusters, rather than hoping to find “the very best book.” The very theory of small groups predicts this is how you should read about small groups!
But if you must start somewhere, Randall Collins’s The Sociology of Philosophies is probably the most intensive and detailed place to start, too much for some in fact and arguably the book strains too hard at its target.
I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:
1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age. Step #1 is often “what kind of regional thinker is he/she?” and step #2 is this.
2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.
3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.
4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups. In a sense, the logic behind an “in joke” resembles the logic behind social change through small groups. The “in joke” creates something new, and the small group can create something additionally new and in a broader and socially more significant context, but based on the same logic as what is standing behind the in joke.
5. How large is a small group anyway? (How many people can “get” an inside joke?) Has the internet made “small groups” larger? Or possibly smaller? (If there are more common memes shared by a few thousand people, perhaps the small group needs to be organized around something truly exclusive and thus somewhat narrower than in times past?)
6. Can a spousal or spouse-like couple be such a small group? A family (Bach, Euler)?
7. What are the negative social externalities of such small groups, compared to alternative ways of generating and evaluating ideas? And how often in life should you attempt to switch your small groups?
8. What else should we be asking about small groups and the small groups theory of social change?
9. What does your small group have to say about this?
I thank an anonymous correspondent — who adheres to the small group theory — for contributions to this post.
4. The first chapter from Randall Collins's Violence, an excellent book.
This entry is cross-posted at orgtheory.net, the social science and management blog. Also, please check out my on book politics and universities, From Black Power to Black Studies. Thanks for reading!
We’ve reached the end of Logic of Life, Tim Harford’s engaging tour of economics and its lessons for everyday life. Harford ends the book on a highly speculative note about technology, economics, and growth. Tim does a good job summarizing the emerging consensus. The “normal” state of human life is poverty and near zero economic development. Once a community establishes reasonable institutions for commerce and trade, people can quickly produce and exploit technological advances. The effects are cumulative: once a nation allows markets to work beyond a certain threshold, the population experiences exponentially increasing benefits. The economists’ summary of world history is: “no capitalism = no growth, some capitalism = growth, growth, growth!!”
This discussion is interesting because of the connections to ideas outside the normal realm of economics, especially in areas like psychology and, my own area, sociology. Here’s just one example. Harford discusses the idea that population size should correlate with innovation. Simply put, if you have a hundred million people, you’ll get a least a few geniuses. The inventions of these geniuses can be mass marketed, which fuels later growth episodes. Fair enough.
But where do “geniuses” come from? Turns out, there is a fascinating literature on creativity and achievement. A few names: R. Keith Sawyer, a sociologist/psychologist, writes eloquently on the emergence of genius from networks and groups. Sociologist Randall Collins wrote a highly regarded book on prominent philosophers showing that “genius level” philosophers tended to be clustered in space and time, suggesting that genius is made possible by very specific kinds of “hot house” situations. Other research, pioneered by Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson, shows that high level performance isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s also a matter of specific training techniques and immersion in a topic. Basically, it’s not just talent that leads to achievement, it’s also the right kind of social environment.*
What’s the point? It’s this: Economics, as understood for hundreds of years, has played out. The major problems of econ 101 have been solved. We know about supply and demand, marginal utility, choice under uncertainty, and budget constraints. We have a wide variety of tools, ranging from game theory to econometrics, that help us identify these processes in situations ranging from war, to car sales, to dating. We are also seeing how these processes plug into classic macroeconomic issues, such as growth and international trade.
However, the market system itself, as indicated by Tim’s concluding chapter, depends on population, innovation, and liberal economic institutions. These, in turn, depend on psychology, group culture, and networks, the domain of sociologists, psychologists, historians, and anthropologists. Economists have shown how the market system processes the inputs, but there’s still much, much more to be said about where the inputs come from. That’s what’s going to be exciting in the decades to come, and I can’t wait to see it.
* Author David Shenk nicely covers this research on his blog The Genius in All of Us.
One side effect of the rise of popular musicians to media stars, and the displacement of couples dancing by musical performance-watching, was to make music concerts into an alternative gathering place to the arenas dominated by the traditional school elites, the jocks and popular party-goers and stars of the dating market. As popular music consumption became the central identifying point of youth cultures, it also came to support greater pluralism in student status hierarchies, punk and other alternative culture groups acquired their own venues where they could generate their own collective effervescence, dominating in their own emotional attention spaces. Moshers became the leading edge of punk culture, the attention-getters within their chief cultural rituals and gathering places. Not surprisingly, there is strong antagonism between moshers and jocks, their chief counterparts in the use of controlled violence in the conventional youth culture.
That is from Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. Here is my previous post on the book. By the way, if you find questions like this interesting, it is yet another reason to watch the TV show Friday Night Lights.
That’s the new book from Randall Collins. The main argument is that people are not as predisposed to violence as we might think. Collins cites a wide array of evidence, from military behavior in the field to, most intriguingly, video studies of the micro-expressions of violent perpetrators. People are more naturally tense and fearful, sometimes full of bluster but usually looking to avoid confrontation unless they have vastly superior numbers on their side. The prospect of violence makes people feel weak and scared. The greatest dangers of violence arises from atrocities against the weak under overwhelming conditions, ritualized violence enacted in front of supportive audiences, or clandestine terrorism or murder.
"Violence is not primordial, and civilization does not tame it; the opposite is much nearer the truth." Similarly, most political violence does not follow from centuries-old grudge matches, but rather from recently fabricated, dynamically dangerous social ritual interactions. Violence can appear on the scene rapidly but it can vanish as well, so there is hope for Iraq.
In reality most violent encounters end almost immediately, contrary to TV and the movies. Someone runs away or a single punch ends the struggle. The actual gunfight at O.K. Corral took less than thirty seconds, whereas the famous movie scene extends for ten minutes.
In combat it is just as dangerous to be a medic as a soldier, but medics experience far less combat fatigue. Collins argues this is because killing is in so many ways contrary to human nature.
This book has soo many interesting parts, including the micro-dynamics of the Rape of Nanjing, how British soccer stadium designs were (but now less) conducive to violence, how demonstrations can turn into violent confrontations with the police (lines break down and micro-situations of overwhelming power arise), which children and schools are most conducive to bullying, why basketball has fewer fights than football or hockey (no padding), the dynamics of a mosh pit, and how hired assassins motivate themselves, among many other topics.
You economists all spend so much time studying voluntary interaction, surely you can devote one book’s worth of effort to the study of violence, and yes I mean violence at the micro level.
I don’t agree with everything in this book. I think Collins too quickly downplays the importance of evolutionary biology (most fights are between young males), and it is not always clear if he has a systematic theory or instead a catalog of causes of violence.
Quite simply, Collins is one of the most important writers and thinkers today.
I know many of you have a bit of book fatigue from MR, but that is because it has been such a splendid year for the written word. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory is one of the most important social science books of the last few years. I’ll go even further and say the same is true for any random one hundred pages you might select from the volume; it is also a wonderful for browsing.
It’s due out January 10, you can pre-order at the links.
1. Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography, by Georgi Derluguian. How did the Soviet Union come to be, come to collapse, and was the ethnic trouble in the Caucasus brought on by globalization? This book has a unique narrative style, while the content draws upon Wallerstein, Tilly, Randall Collins, and others. There is wisdom and analysis on virtually every page.
2. Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark. The sad story of how murder and population exchanges have made the nations of the modern Mediterranean more monocultural; someone needs to write on Egypt as well.
4. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. This short novel is about young British newlyweds trying to have/trying to not have sex in 1962. Critics are calling it a return to form, but it feels slightly overwrought to me. Can the British really be like that? If so, do I have to read about it? I did find the last ten pages strikingly beautiful. I got my copy early on Amazon.co.uk, the American edition is out in June.