Randall Collins

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Randall Collins
Born (1941-07-29) July 29, 1941 (age 82)
Alma mater
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Pennsylvania

Randall Collins (born July 29, 1941) is an American sociologist who has been influential in both his teaching and writing. He has taught in many notable universities around the world and his academic works have been translated into various languages.[1] Collins is currently the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology, Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. 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.[2] Collins's publications include The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (1998), which analyzes the network of philosophers and mathematicians for over two thousand years in both Asian and Western societies. His current research involves macro patterns of violence including contemporary war, as well as solutions to police violence. 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.[3][4]

Early life and education[edit]

Collins grew up in various cities and spent a good deal of his early years in Europe, where his father was part of military intelligence during World War II and also served in the United States Department of State. They both lived in Germany immediately following World War II, and later in Moscow. Collins attended a New England prep school. Afterward, he completed a B.A. in psychology at Harvard University, where he was taught by notable sociologist Talcott Parsons. He subsequently earned an M.A. in the discipline from Stanford University (1964)[5] before completing an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley (1969).[6] Although he did not agree with Parsons's socially conservative methodology, he respected the prestige of being a theorist and emulated this in his later years. Collins wanted to study personality and human cognition but was assigned to work in a rat lab as a research assistant; this made him realize he would rather study sociology.[7]

During his time at Berkeley, Collins was involved with campus protests, the Free Speech Movement and the anti-war movement. On December 3, 1964, Collins was arrested during a stand-in for the Free Speech Movement along with over 600 of his peers.[8]

While at Berkeley, Collins encountered many influential sociologists of his day, including Herbert Blumer, Philip Selznick and Leo Löwenthal. He worked with Joseph Ben-David, an Israeli sociologist visiting from Hebrew University, on the sociology of science, which ultimately led to Collins' publication The Sociology of Philosophies decades later. Collins was introduced to Weberian conflict theory through Reinhard Bendix, a leading Max Weber scholar. Of his early career, Collins would later say "I was part of the generation of young sociologists who broke with functionalist theory and moved toward conflict theory."[9] He later wrote a chapter for Bendix's work State and Society. This work enabled Collins to later combine this theory with Erving Goffman's microsociology, which resulted in Collins' publication Conflict Sociology in 1975 and later, Interaction Ritual Chains in 2004. Goffman was also one of Collins' professors during his time at Berkeley.

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: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. The monograph analyzed organizational data to show that rising educational requirements for employment were not due to technologically-driven demand for skills, but to changing standards of cultural respectability.


Collins first taught as an acting instructor at Berkeley (1967–1968). He subsequently served on the faculties of University of Wisconsin-Madison (instructor; 1968–1969), the University of California, San Diego (assistant and associate professor; 1969–1977), the University of Virginia (professor; 1978–1982) and the University of California, Riverside (professor; 1985–1997) before taking his current position at the University of Pennsylvania.[10] He took intermittent breaks from academia (1977–1978; 1982–1985) as an independent scholar and novelist. He has also held visiting appointments at the University of Chicago (1985), Harvard University (1994) and the University of Cambridge (2000–2001), as well as various schools in Europe, Japan and China.[11] Collins has published almost one hundred articles since finishing his undergraduate education. He has also written and contributed to several books with a range of topics such as the discovery of society to the sociology of marriage and family life.[10]

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.[12]

Collins on Credential Inflation[edit]

Collins has written extensively about credential inflation, proposing a set of mechanisms through which it operates.[13]

As Collins points out, even the existence of a small number of elite jobs acts in ways to shape the entire system of social mobility competition. In order to meet demand, education has expanded and increased degree production – and the business community has responded to the abundance of credentials by hiring applicants with the most prestigious degrees. This, in turn, has served to increase consumer demand.[14]

The resulting double-spiral is a credential spiral that is moving upward and ever expanding. As more degrees become available through increased production, they cannot all be absorbed by businesses, but demand for credentials promising access to salaried positions continues. Additional advanced degrees and professional certifications emerge to accelerate the expansion, undermining the value of American education, i.e., credential inflation.[15][16]


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.[17] He has devoted much of his career and research to study society, how is it created and destroyed through emotional behaviors of human beings. Collins believes that the simplest explanation for radical behavior and actions is emotion.[11] Emotional energy, Collins says, is the "amount of emotional power that flows through one's actions" and does not refer to one specific emotion. When Collins talks about emotion, he never talks about specific emotions like love, joy, hate, and so forth. The same is true with his interest in culture. In Collins hands, culture becomes symbolic goods that are used in exchange or sacred symbols that unite a group. Collins also emphasizes the significance of people coming together and the influence this has on behavior.[18]

Collins argues sex, smoking, and social stratification and much else in our social lives are driven by a common force: interaction rituals. His 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. This theory of interaction ritual chains is where the individual is the carrier of the micro-macro link.

There are two components to this linkage: emotional energy and cultural capital. Emotional energy is the emotional charge that people can take away with them from an interaction. Cultural is the shorthand way of talking about the different resources we have to culturally engage with other people. The idea of cultural capital covers a full range of cultural items: It references the way we talk; what we have to talk about, how we dress, walk, and act. In short, cultural capital is anything that references us to others. There are three types of cultural capital known as Generalized Cultural Capital, Particularized Cultural Capital, and Reputational Capital. Generalized cultural capital is the individual's stock of symbols that are associated with group specific and can be used with strangers, somewhat the way money can. Particularized cultural capital refers to cultural items we have in common with specific people. Lastly, Reputational Capital is when somebody knows something about you, she or he is more likely to engage you in conversation than if you are a complete stranger. 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, microsociology of Erving Goffman. It has itself inspired various domains across the social sciences, including Management Studies,[19] Creative Tourism,[20] International Relations,[21] and Jeffrey C. Alexander's Cultural Pragmatics.[22] Numerous empirical studies have likewise employed Interaction Ritual Theory, for instance to explore how specific institutions maintain themselves,[23] how websites use interaction ritual chains to form the identity of its users,[24] or how diplomats establish exchange programmes to invite foreign elites into their countries.[21]

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.

Collins's work has been critically assessed in the special issue of Thesis 11 - 'The Sociology of Randall Collins' edited by Steven Loyal and Sinisa Malesevic and in a book 'Ritual, Emotion, Violence: Studies on the Micro-Sociology of Randall Collins (2019) edited by Elliott B. Weininger, Annette Lareau, Omar Lizardo (26).

Selected bibliography[edit]

Journal articles[edit]

  • Collins, Randall (March 2013). "Entering and leaving the tunnel of violence: Micro-sociological dynamics of emotional entrainment in violent interactions". Current Sociology. 61 (2): 132–151. doi:10.1177/0011392112456500. S2CID 145781139.


  • 1975/2019 - Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Science
  • 1979 - The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification
  • 1984 - The Discovery of Society (with Michael Makowsky)
  • 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: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change
  • 1999 – Macro-History
  • 2004 – Interaction Ritual Chains
  • 2008 – Violence: A Microsociological Theory
  • 2015 – Napoleon Never Slept (with Maren McConnell)
  • 2020 - Micro-sociology of Power and Influence

Fiction writing[edit]

Early in his 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.[25]


  1. ^ "Randall Collins". American Sociological Association. 2012-11-09. Retrieved 2016-10-15.
  2. ^ Collins, Randall. "UPenn Almanac, Vol. 51". Retrieved April 12, 2005.
  3. ^ Hurn, Christopher J. The Limits and Possibilities of Schooling.
  4. ^ "Past Presidents, American Sociological Association". Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  5. ^ "About Professor Collins | Social Interaction and Theory".
  6. ^ "Randall Collins". 9 November 2012.
  7. ^ "Randall Alfred Collins (1964) | UC Berkeley Sociology Department". sociology.berkeley.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  8. ^ "THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT". texts.cdlib.org. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  9. ^ "In conversation with American Sociological Association President: Randall Collins". Canadian Review of Sociology. February 1, 2010.
  10. ^ a b "Randall Collins" (PDF). www.ssc.wisc.edu/sscc. University of Wisconsin- Madison. October 10, 2016. Retrieved October 17, 2016.
  11. ^ a b Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory. Pine Forest Press. pp. 95–116.
  12. ^ "Social Interaction and Theory | A Conference in Honor of Professor Randall Collins". web.sas.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-07.
  13. ^ Collins, Randall (1971). "Functional and Conflict Theories of Educational Stratification". American Sociological Review. 36 (6): 1002–1019. doi:10.2307/2093761. ISSN 0003-1224. JSTOR 2093761. Retrieved 7 December 2021. More recently, Randall Collins,"Educational Credential Inflation: An Interview with Randall Collins." Link: http://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2018/07/educational-credential-inflation.html Accessed 12/18/2021.
  14. ^ Randall Collins, "The Dirty Little Secret of Credential Inflation," Chronicle of Higher Education, 2002 49(5), B20.
  15. ^ See also, Zajda, Joseph. "Globalisation, Credentialism and Human Capital." Educational Practice and Theory 34.2 (2012): 45-60.; David B. Bills, Credentials, Signals, and Screens: Explaining the Relationship between Schooling and Job Assignment, Review of Educational Research, Winter, 2003, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 441–469 (453, 456).
  16. ^ Randall Collins, "Credential Inflation and the Future of Universities," Chapter One of The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, edited by Steven Brint (Stanford University Press, 2002), pages 23–46.
  17. ^ Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social & Sociological Theory. ISBN 978-1-4129-1362-1.
  18. ^ Allan, Kenneth (2006). Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Pine Forest Press. p. 99. amount of emotional power that flows through one's actions
  19. ^ Miller, Toyah L.; Grimes, Matthew G.; McMullen, Jeffrey S.; Vogus, Timothy J. (2012). "Venturing for Others with Heart and Head: How Compassion Encourages Social Entrepreneurship". Academy of Management Review. 37 (4): 616–640. doi:10.5465/amr.2010.0456. ISSN 1930-3807.
  20. ^ Richards, Greg (2011). "Creativity and tourism: The State of the Art". Annals of Tourism Research. 38 (4): 1225–1253. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2011.07.008. ISSN 0160-7383.
  21. ^ a b Pacher, Andreas (2018). "The ritual creation of political symbols: International exchanges in public diplomacy". The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 20 (4): 880–897. doi:10.1177/1369148118786043. ISSN 1467-856X. S2CID 149386786.
  22. ^ Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2004). "Cultural Pragmatics: Social Performance Between Ritual and Strategy". Sociological Theory. 42 (4): 527–573. doi:10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00233.x. ISSN 1467-9558. S2CID 145080054.
  23. ^ Dacin, M. Tina; Munir, Kamal; Tracey, Paul (2017). "Formal Dining at Cambridge Colleges: Linking Ritual Performance and Institutional Maintenance". Academy of Management Review. 53 (6): 1393–1418. doi:10.5465/amj.2010.57318388. ISSN 1930-3807.
  24. ^ Maloney, Patricia (2012). "Online Networks and Emotional Energy: How pro-anorexic websites use interaction ritual chains to (re)form identity". Information, Communication & Society. 16 (1): 105–124. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.659197. ISSN 1468-4462. S2CID 142576232.
  25. ^ "Randall Collins Papers, Social Science Computing Cooperative: Supporting Statistical Analysis for Research" (PDF). ssc.wisc.edu. Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

(26) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0725513619874435


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