Interaction Rituals

· May 3, 2019
Human beings are social creatures, there's no doubt about that. Sociologist Randall Collins says we engage in social behavior so that we can get emotional energy, which then fuels us for further interaction. But what do those interaction rituals look like? Keep reading to find out more.

Why do you do what you do? Why do you carry out some actions and not others? The answer to these difficult questions, at least in the context of social interactions, lies in the concept of emotional energy. The theory says that one of the reasons we relate to other people is to get more emotional energy. The more, the better.

This theory from sociologist Randall Collins, says that all interpersonal relationships are interaction rituals. These interaction rituals generate emotional energy, especially under certain conditions. At the same time, this emotional energy then leads you to repeat the ritual so you can get even more energy.

Interaction rituals

According to Collins, rituals are mechanisms that focus attention on an emotion which creates a shared reality. This new reality is temporary, but it helps generate meanings and symbols.

When you read the word “ritual,” you might think of an elaborate ceremony of some kind. However, in this context, rituals or interaction rituals can be something as simple as greeting someone on the street.

Saying “Hey, what’s up?” to someone on the street creates a new reality between you and the person you are greeting. It might only last for a few seconds, but that’s enough to generate symbols and, lastly, emotional energy.

The emotional energy that this ritual creates will lead you to greet this person every time you see them. On the other hand, if you don’t get any emotional energy from this interaction, you’ll stop doing it. So these interaction rituals are all connected. As long as your ritual keeps giving you the desired results, you’ll keep repeating it.

example of interaction rituals

The elements of a ritual

Interaction rituals have four primary elements or conditions. They are:

  • Two or more people are physically in the same place- Each person’s bodily presence affects the other person or people. This means that interaction rituals cannot happen in the virtual world.
  • There are barriers that made it clear who is part of the ritual and who is not- In other words, the difference between the ritual participants and non-participants is very clear.
  • The participants focus their attention on the same object- This common focus creates a collective awareness among the ritual participants. The object of their attention could be an action or an event.
  • The participants are all in the same emotional state- Or, they’re having the same emotional experience. Emotions and feelings are collective, not individual.

The last two elements are the most important, and they reinforce each other. Participants in a religious service all adopt a respectful and solemn attitude, for example. Funeralgoers might all feel that their grief is shared by everyone present.

On a smaller scale, the same happens in something like a conversation. If you are having a very interesting chat with someone and you become more and more engaged, the rhythm and emotional tone of the dialogue ensnares the speakers. Durkheim called this state of shared emotion and attention “collective conscious.”

Effects of the ritual

If the elements combine properly and there are high levels of overlap in the focus of attention and shared emotion, the participants could experience the following:

  • Group solidarity and feeling of belonging.
  • Individual emotional energy. This is a feeling of trust, happiness, strength, enthusiasm, and motivation to act.
  • Symbols that represent the group- These are emblems or other representations (icons, words, gestures) that the members associate with themselves as a collective. The people who feel group solidarity show reverence towards these symbols and defend them against attacks and disrespect.
  • Feelings of morality- If you join a group, respect its symbols, and defend both against its transgressors, you feel that you’re doing the right thing. Not only that, but you associate the transgressors with impropriety and inherent moral inferiority
team doing a group handshake

In conclusion, these interaction rituals with other people motivate your actions. From this perspective, relating to other people is beneficial, especially when the aforementioned conditions are present. This all is another example of our nature as social beings.

It also illustrates how social media, in spite of the fact that it keeps us in touch with each other, does not fulfill our need for social interaction. Above all, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact with other human beings.