Randall Collins

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Randall Collins
Born Randall Collins
Knoxville, Tennessee
Residence Pennsylvania
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, Harvard College

Randall Collins (born 1941) is an American sociologist who is a Sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania as well as a member of the Advisory Editors Council of the Social Evolution & History journal. He is a leading contemporary social theorist whose areas of expertise include the macro-historical sociology of political and economic change; micro-sociology, including face-to-face interaction; and the sociology of intellectuals and social conflict.[1] He is considered to be one of the leading non-Marxist conflict theorists in the United States, and served as the president of the American Sociological Association from 2010 to 2011.[2][3]

Early life and career[edit]

Collins spent a good deal of his early years in Europe where his father was part of the military intelligence during WWII and also a member of the state department. Collins attended a New England prep school. Afterward he attended Harvard College completing an AB in 1963. One of his undergraduate teachers at Harvard was the notable sociologists Talcott Parsons. Although he did not agree with Parsons' theorizing, he respected the prestige of being a theorist, and emulated this in his later years. Collins then earned an MA in psychology at Stanford in 1964. Collins wanted to study personality and human cognition, but was assigned to work in a rat lab, which made him realize he'd rather study sociology.[4]

He continued his graduate education at the University of California Berkeley, completing an MA in sociology in 1965 and a PhD in 1969. While at Berkeley he was involved with campus protests, the free speech movement, and the anti-war movement. During the sit-in on December 3, 1964 in Sproul Hall, Collins was arrested.[5] Also during his time at Berkeley, Collins encountered many influential sociologists of his day. He worked with Joseph Ben-David, an Israeli sociologist visiting from Hebrew University, on the sociology of science, which ultimately lead to Collins' publication The Sociology of Philosophies decades later. For a reader on comparative political sociology edited by Reinhard Bendix, entitled State and Society, Collins wrote the theoretical chapter. As Bendix was a leading Weber scholar, this project introduced Collins to Weberian conflict theory, which he later combined with Erving Goffman's radical microsociology (also a professor at Berkeley at the time). This synthesis of Weber and Goffman resulted in Collins' publication Conflict Sociology in 1975 and later, Interaction Ritual Chains in 2004.

Collins' dissertation advisor was organizational and industrial sociologist Harold Wilensky. It was titled Education and Employment: Some Determinants of Requirements for Hiring in Various Types of Organizations, and it was later published in 1979 as The Credential society: an historical sociology of education and stratification. While at Berkeley Collins also worked with Herbert Blumer, Philip Selznick, and Leo Lowenthal.

His first position was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed by the University of California - San Diego, the University of Virginia, and then University of California-Riverside, finally arriving at the University of Pennsylvania. He took intermittent breaks from academia, writing a novel and as a freelance scholar. He has also been a visiting professor at Chicago, Harvard, and Cambridge, as well as various schools in Europe, Japan and China.

In honor of Collins' retirement from the field, the University of Pennsylvania hosted "Social Interaction and Theory: A Conference in Honor of Professor Randall Collins." Leading scholars in sociology contributed talks, including Elijah Anderson, Paul DiMaggio, David R. Gibson, Michèle Lamont, Jonathan Turner, and Viviana Zelizer.[6]


Collins is a social scientist who views theory as essential to understanding the world. He says "The essence of science is precisely theory...a generalized and coherent body of ideas, which explain the range of variations in the empirical world in terms of general principles". This is Collins' way of examining the social world, emphasizing the role and interaction of larger social structures.[7]

Collins argues sex, smoking, and social stratification and much else in our social lives are driven by a common force: interaction rituals. Interaction Ritual Chains is a major work of sociological theory that attempts to develop a "radical microsociology." It proposes that successful rituals create symbols of group membership and pump up individuals with emotional energy, while failed rituals drain emotional energy. Each person flows from situation to situation, drawn to those interactions where their cultural capital gives them the best emotional energy payoff. Thinking, too, can be explained by the internalization of conversations within the flow of situations; individual selves are thoroughly and continually social, constructed from the outside in. The theory of interaction ritual chains is inspired by Emile Durkheim's theory of ritual, laid forward in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, by the conflict theory of Max Weber, and by the microsociology of Erving Goffman.

Collins has also argued that violent confrontation goes against human physiological hardwiring. It is the exception, not the rule—regardless of the underlying conditions or motivations. This is in opposition to explanations by social scientists that violence is easy under certain conditions, like poverty, racial or ideological hatreds, or family pathologies.

Selected bibliography[edit]

Journal articles[edit]


  • 1975 - Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Science
  • 1979 - The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification
  • 1986 - Weberian Sociological Theory
  • 1988 - Theoretical Sociology
  • 1992 - Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology 2nd ed.
  • 1994 - Four Sociological Traditions
  • 1998 - The Sociology of Philosophies
  • 1999 - Macro-History
  • 2004 - Interaction Ritual Chains
  • 2008 - Violence: A Microsociological Theory
  • 2015 - Napoleon Never Slept (with Maren McConnell)

Fiction writing[edit]

Early in his academic career, Collins left academia on several occasions to write fiction. One of his novels is The Case of the Philosopher's Ring, featuring Sherlock Holmes.[8]


  1. ^ Collins, Randall. "UPenn Almanac, Vol. 51". Retrieved April 12, 2005. 
  2. ^ Hurn, Christopher J. The Limits and Possibilities of Schooling.
  3. ^ "Past Presidents, American Sociological Association". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Randall Alfred Collins (1964) | UC Berkeley Sociology Department". sociology.berkeley.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-07. 
  5. ^ "THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT". texts.cdlib.org. Retrieved 2016-04-07. 
  6. ^ "Social Interaction and Theory | A Conference in Honor of Professor Randall Collins". web.sas.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-07. 
  7. ^ Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social & Sociological Theory. ISBN 978-1412913621. 
  8. ^ "Randall Collins Papers, Social Science Computing Cooperative: Supporting Statistical Analysis for Research" (PDF). ssc.wisc.edu. Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

External links[edit]