Issue 154, October 2019 – The Sociology of Randall Collins

The Sociology of Randall Collins

Issue 154, October 2019

Guest Editors: Siniša Malešević and Steven Loyal


Wassily Kandinsky Circles in a Circle, 1923

Introduction to special issue: The sociology of Randall Collins

Siniša Malešević, Steven Loyal

This introduction to a special issue outlines the significance of Randall Collins’s contribution to sociology. The first section briefly reviews Collins’s main books and assesses their impact on social science. The second section offers a summary overview of the papers that comprise the special issue.

Fear, loathing, and moral qualms on the battlefield

Michael Mann

Randall Collins is unparalleled as a sociologist of violence. Yet I here take issue with his view, often expressed by scholars, that moral qualms have prevented many modern soldiers or airmen from shooting or killing. Evidence from soldiers and airmen in modern wars shows that they may hesitate momentarily before their first killing, but then killing eases. The tragedy is that qualms only seem to strike soldiers after their war has ended, contributing substantially to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers can kill easily if ordered to by effective coercive authority, especially if the enemy is shooting at them. This grim conclusion is at least balanced by the rarity of ‘real killers’ – soldiers who enjoy and are excited by killing.

Randall Collins on status groups and statuses

Barry Barnes

This paper focuses on what could be learned about statuses and status groups from the work of Randall Collins in the 1980s, and in particular from Weberian Sociological Theory (1986). I mention how I myself found this book useful at that time to further my own work in the sociology of science and in sociological theory, and emphasise its value in appreciating the fundamental and irremediable deficiencies of individualistic rational choice theory in both contexts. I go on to note how Collins, a ‘macro’ sociologist in the 1980s, was nonetheless well aware of the indispensable role of micro-sociology in advancing the fundamental understanding of the field as a whole, and his singling out of Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel as primus inter pares for their special theoretical importance at this time. I say a little about why these two did indeed have much to contribute to an understanding of statuses and of status groups and still do even today, and end by noting how effectively Collins has used and built upon the work of Goffman in particular since the 1980s.

Emotion, interaction and the structure-agency problem: Building on the sociology of Randall Collins

Anthony King

Sociology today faces a number of serious challenges to its integrity as a discipline. As a synthesis of Weberian and Durkheimian traditions, the work of Randall Collins represents an innovative vindication of sociology in the early 21st century. This article explores Collins’s interaction ritual theory to demonstrate its contemporary utility. However, to highlight the importance of Collins’s work, it seeks to advance and refine it theoretically. Specifically, it seeks to develop Collins’s argument about the role of emotions and, specifically, effervescence, in rituals. This paper argues that, while important, effervescence alone cannot be sufficient to ensure the conformity which is a typical feature of interaction and essential to explaining social order. Drawing on Goffman, Asch and Scheff, the paper argues that effervescence is underpinned by more robust mechanisms of honour and shame, themselves immediately connected to access to collective goods. In this way, the paper affirms the importance of Randall Collins’s work for sociology today.

Reflections on Randall Collins’s sociology of credentialism

Su-ming Khoo

This article reflects on Collins’s classic work, The Credential Society (1979), situating his critique of educational credentialism within broader ‘conflict sociology’. The discussion reappraises Collins’s work in the context of the ‘new credentialism’, ‘new learning’ and the race, gender and class concerns raised in current debates on higher education. The article characterizes contemporary higher education as being trapped in a Procrustean dynamic: techno-utopianism with job displacement and expansionism with declining public support. Collins attempts to escape the legacy of structural-functionalism through conflict sociology or predictions of systemic crisis. This is contrasted with his contemporary, Herbert Gintis’s eclectic attempt to construct a transdisciplinary social science. The key problem of marketized inequality is linked to the sociology of absences in conflict sociology, and it is argued that inequalities of class, race, gender and coloniality in higher education and credentialism can no longer be ignored.

Human rights, micro-solidarity and moral action: ‘Face-to-face’ encounters in the Israeli/Palestinian context

Lea David

While there is extensive literature on both the expansion of human rights and solidarity movements, and on micro-solidarity and violent actions, here I ask what is the relationship between human rights, micro-solidarity and social action? Based on a case study of structured, face-to-face dialogue group encounters in the Israeli/Palestinian context, I draw on Randall Collins’s interaction ritual chain theory to demonstrate why emotional energy and the ritualization of historical narratives have very limited potential to translate into human rights-based moral actions. Instead, I suggest, these encounters produce micro-solidarity that ascribes additional weight to ethnic categories, serving to polarize and homogenize groups along ethnic lines.

Bourdieu and Collins on the reproduction of elites

Steven Loyal

In this paper I compare and contrast the reproduction of elite strata in Randall Collins’s path-breaking book, The Credential Society (1979), with Pierre Bourdieu’s important discussion found in The State Nobility (1996). Although both approaches draw on Weber and Durkheim, focus on the interaction between material and cultural processes, subscribe to a relational form of analysis, and share a similar political world-view – social democrat and radical republican respectively – they also differ. These differences relate to their respective philosophical anthropology, the nature of their long-term analysis, the different contexts within which their work emerged – Algeria and the post-war constellation and early Cold War period – and the divergent nature of the broader substantive sociological problems they are engaged with. In terms of their dissimilarities, not only is each approach useful for criticizing the other, but it will be argued that these divergences need to be synthesized into a broader, more powerful explanatory theory.

Contemporary populist politics through the macroscopic lens of Randall Collins’s conflict theory

Ralph Schroeder

This paper draws on Collins’s conflict theory to understand the contemporary surge of populism. It puts forward an account centred on citizenship rights and the state, and on ‘my nation first’ politics in four countries: the US, Sweden, India and China. Collins has identified a capitalist crisis, the dynamics of geopolitical legitimacy, and state-penetrating bureaucracy as three central processes in modern societies. Especially the last of these focuses attention on the conflict between cosmopolitan elites and ‘the people’, construed in exclusionary terms, which is on the rise in all of the four cases discussed here. The paper analyses the similarities and differences between them, and sketches the prospects for populist politics.

Grounding nationalism: Randall Collins and the sociology of nationhood

Siniša Malešević

This paper explores the ways nationalism has been theorised in classical and contemporary sociology. More specifically, the author analyses the relevance of Randall Collins’s contribution to theories of nationalism. Since Collins’s work is firmly rooted in the classical tradition, including the reinterpretation and synthesis of Weber, Durkheim and Goffman, the first part of this paper zooms in on the classics of sociology and their treatment of nations and nationalism. The second part of the paper outlines the key features of Collins’s approach and identifies the strengths and weaknesses of this position. The final part builds on the footsteps of Collins and others to articulate an alternative approach focused on the coercive organisational, ideological and micro-interactional grounding of nationalisms.

Reply to Thesis Eleven symposium

Randall Collins

Collins comments on status groups, micro-macro links, failures of peace dialogue, violence and confrontational tension/fear, educational credential inflation, creativity in intellectual networks, time-dynamics of nationalism and populism.

Book reviews:

Doing Violence, Making Race: Lynching and White Racial Group Formation in the US South, 1882–1930

Randall Collins 

Reimagining Class in Australia: Marxism, Populism and Social Science

Rjurik Davidson


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