The Randall Collins theory of ritual

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.


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