Saturday, August 25, 2007

Interaction Rituals: An Introduction

Yesterday I found myself taking umbrage over Amy Jo Kim, primarily on the basis of her decision to title a book Community Building On The Web. I decided it was time to take on all of those rabid technology evangelists, whose only rhetorical technique seemed to involve using words so casually as to evade even an intuitive grasp of what they mean (let alone anything objective enough to support necessary and sufficient conditions). The word that set me off, of course, was “community;” and, after a bit of research, I discovered that most of my heroes in the scholarly literature (both present and past) do a pretty good job of steering clear of it. The Shorter OED definition, “A body of individuals,” is too general to provide a benchmark for whether or not “community building” (or, for that matter, another favorite bête noir of mine, "online community") is a viable concept in either theory or practice. However, if we turn to the first man to write a substantive treatise about community, Ferdinand Tönnies (certainly the most venerable of the sources cited in the Wikipedia entry for “community,” even if I do not think the author of that entry read him very well), we find that he invokes the term to signify that “body of individuals” structured along organic lines, as distinguished from a “society,” which Tönnies sees as an “imaginary and mechanical structure.”

In the twentieth century one of the social theorists who best appreciated the need for organic, rather than mechanical, thinking in dealing with the social world was Erving Goffman; and on this blog I seem to invoked Goffman twice in dealing with issues of enterprise software, primarily for his insights into the nature of conversation as a social practice. More importantly, however, Goffman recognized that there was a lot more to interpersonal engagements than conversation; so he introduced a piece of terminology to accommodate this broader category. That terminology is the phrase, "interaction ritual" (IR). Unfortunately, the only appearance of that terminology in the Wikipedia entry for Goffman is for the title of his book, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior; and, as the reader can see, the hyperlink on this title points to a placeholder. So I have decided to use this post to provide some introductory remarks about this concept in the hope of blowing away all that blue smoke that the technology evangelists keep puffing. However, by way of a disclaimer, my effort to discuss this concept will not draw upon Goffman's book but on some excellent summary material prepared by Randall Collins in his book, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change.

Here is how Collins introduces the concept:

"Interaction ritual" is Goffman’s term, by which he calls attention to the fact that the formal religious rituals which Durkheim analyzed are the same type of event which happens ubiquitously in everyday life. Religious rituals are archetypes of interactions which bind members into a moral community, and which create symbols that act as lenses through which members view their world, and as codes by which they communicate.

Put another way, ritual provides the basic framework within which we derive understanding from our communicative actions. Notice, also, how Collins deals with the terminology of "community." He does not talk about a community being built; rather, by drawing upon religion as an analogy, he talks about a "binding" of members, without going into detail over either the nature of the bonds or how they are formed, because these are secondary concerns. Collins then develops this analogy as follows:

Intellectual life hinges on face-to-face situations because interaction rituals can take place only on this level. Intellectual sacred objects can be created and sustained only if there are ceremonial gatherings to worship them. This is what lectures, conferences, discussions, and debates do: they gather the intellectual community, focus members’ attention on a common object uniquely their own, and build up distinctive emotions around those objects.

It is at this point that we must begin to assess Goffman's theories (and Collins' interpretations) in light of how technology has shifted our context. When Goffman was studying "face-to-face behavior," the idea of a "virtual world" had not even entered the realm of science fiction. Thus, we now need to reexamine Goffman's observations and conclusions it terms of whether or not they can take place in software-mediated encounters as they do in those face-to-face situations. If nothing else, the gamer world has sensitized us to the proposition that "sacred objects" can reside in virtual worlds; and, regardless of whether or not they have succeeded, we have to examine the extent to which Second Life has tried to implement what Collins calls "intellectual sacred objects."

The next stage in Collins' exposition is to recognize that an interaction ritual rarely exists in isolation but, rather, is "chained" to a context of related rituals; and it is that context that embodies the nature of the concept of "community:"

An intellectual IR is generally a situational embodiment of the texts which are the long-term life of the discipline. Lectures and texts are chained together: this is what makes the distinctiveness of the intellectual community, what sets it off from any other kind of social activity.

The last stage of Collins' exposition that I would like to examine concerns how these "interaction ritual chains" are constituted, because this returns us to the question of the nature of those social bonds and how they are formed. There are three elements that constitute such bonds:

  1. Cultural capital
  2. Emotional energy
  3. Stratified network structures

Here is what Collins says about cultural capital:

Each person acquires a personal repertoire of symbols loaded with membership significance. Depending on the degree of cosmopolitanism and social density of the group situations to which they have been exposed, they will have a symbolic repertoire of varying degrees of abstraction and reification, of different generalized and particularized contents. This constitutes their cultural capital (CC).

Here is his synopsis of emotional energy:

And they will have, at any point in time, a level of emotional energy (EE), by which I mean the kind of strength that comes from participating successfully in an interaction ritual. It is a continuum, ranging from a high end of confidence, enthusiasm, good self-feelings; through a middle range of lesser emotional intensity; on down to a low end of depression, lack of initiative, and negative self-feelings. Emotional energy is long-term, to be distinguished from the transient, dramatically disruptive outbursts (fear, joy, anger, etc.) which are more conventionally what we mean by "emotions."

Finally, the networks that derive from the formation of these social bonds are stratified, which simply means that not all members of the network are "created equal." Different individuals exhibit different levels of activity (intellectual, emotional, and/or cultural) in interactive behavior; and, more often than not, the strata reflect, rather than define, the activity that takes place. I recently discussed the role of Usenet and what may have been the earliest demonstration of a "community of communities" in a virtual world; but it is probably more accurate to say that Usenet demonstrated that the virtual world could sustain a stratified network structure just as readily as the physical world could. Furthermore, anyone who gave a serious number of cycles to participating in one or more Usenet groups knows that the activities in those groups were rich (sometimes too rich?!?) in both cultural capital and emotional energy.

So can we conclude anything by virtue of a "cleaner" sense of all that terminology that the evangelists tried to drag through the mud? Actually, I think those evangelists can derive some benefit from this exercise. We not only have a more robust foundation for the concept of "community;" but also we have discovered that this concept can accommodate social bonds in the virtual world as readily those of the physical world. On the other hand our understanding of the nature of those bonds probably supports the dismissal of the concept of "community building" as (to invoke language I appropriated in an earlier post) techno-centric tosh. Finally, I hope I have now affirmed my previously-stated assertion that the social theory literature can be just as exciting (if not more so) than any of those books put out by the technology evangelists!


Anonymous said...

Now I read your statement concerning my "flash in the pan". You're obviously quite intransigent if the term "community" comes into use because you miss a clear understanding. I agree that this term invites easily to misusing it. But I'm not sure whether the next option should be already to go one step further to the good old Goffman and his interactional ritual because he never was interested in that what the term "community" by Tönnies tries to catch: the loss of something that will be removed inevitable and for ever as fast as the modern market society will expand.
Goffman is a very important sociologist standing in the tradition of Durkheim, no question, and I'm glad to have the possibility to refer to him if the question comes up: What happens within those communities? But he is not able to answer the question: Why do we have such a confused debate and still keeping the term "community" in the communicative traffic although there is such a lack of clearness?
My own theoretical interest goes exactly in this direction where I see you so intransigent: Why is there such an enormous hype with the term "community" although mostly I miss a profunde understanding of the literature and phenomenon. So I try to bring a special kind of research on the way which observes the semantic use of this term and ask after the motives to do that, on the one side, and on the other side, I'm interested to find out whether there are any communities out there. It's a pity that I will continue this research mainly in Germany ( but may be we could continue this contact.
Good bye Kai-Uwe

Stephen Smoliar said...

There is too much substance in this comment to address in another comment, so I have tried to use it for a point of departure for a discussion continued in a new