binding communities

by Ben Slotznick

How do you create a binding sense of community within an organization? How do you keep people coming back? How do you keep them engaged? Research suggests that you have to focus on nurturing energizing interactions among the people within the group. Put more simply, to feel a sense of community you have to do stuff together.

The sociologist Randall Collins has studied how people interact, but more importantly how those interactions have bound people together – into couples, groups, religions, social classes, and other collectivities. Collins’ research tells us much about creating successful communities – and about keeping those communities together.

This research, set out in his book Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), has clear implications for sustaining voluntary associations – those organizations where money is not the glue that binds people together. But that does not mean that there are not implications for businesses with paid employees. People often stay at a job even though they could earn more elsewhere. Though economists focus on the dollar maximizing “economic man” to explain markets and organizations, that viewpoint does not explain everything. In contrast, Collins describes what I will call a “sociologic person” who maximizes the emotional energy obtained from social interactions. Collins’ insights help understand the dynamics of situations that are not governed by money, or where the economist’s analysis does not illuminate what happens in the real world.

Collins’ theory in brief (the elevator speech)

  • People get emotional highs from successful face-to-face social interactions.
  • They come back for more – like a fix for an addiction.
  • Reminders of those interactions can help maintain that high between face-to-face interactions. These reminders (or “symbols”) can be graphic, written, aural, verbal, or even more abstract. They can be focused memories of interaction participants or idealized portraits of group leaders.
  • The people at the center of the energizing interactions are especially energized by them and are imputed to have charisma.

A short discourse on Collins’ terminology

Collins is an academic writing for an academic audience. Jargon is de rigour. It is needed to place his work in the unfolding history of sociological thought in which his work is embedded. The jargon is sometimes useful, sometimes off-putting, sometimes thick as mud. Here is a quick overview so you can relate Collins’ work to other research in that field.

Collins does not use the word “high” or “addiction”. Instead he uses the term emotional energy (or “EE”). But what he describes is the addictive nature of successful social interactions and the emotions they generate. The specific emotion could be anger, joy, fear, sadness, or any other emotion. Collins’ key point is that when people experience the emotion of a strong group experience together, whether at a football game or a funeral, it can bind the participants together in a sense of “solidarity” or an “emotional effervescence”. (Both of these ideas were explored by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, 1858 –1917.)

Collins uses the phrase “interaction ritual” to describe these social interactions – and he uses the phrase “interaction ritual chain” to describe the repeated nature of these interactions, and also the collection of interactions which becomes a thing itself. A chain of interaction rituals (which Collins refers to as an IR chain) may in effect define a group of people, an organization, or a more amorphous social class. In any case the word “chain” is evocative of the bonds – the emotional bonds – that are forged by these interactions and rituals. (Listen to Aretha Franklin sing “Chain of Fools” and you get the idea.)

The word “ritual” has its own history in sociology. Collins uses it to denote social interactions where there is some mutual focus (as in “interaction ritual”). This is especially appropriate when analyzing religious practices and other larger scale organized activities (such as sporting events). However, the term is also useful to remind us that many aspects of daily life and ordinary social interactions have ritual-like components – a handshake, a form of greeting, the common topics of conversation, a social drink. Collins credits this focus on ritual and symbol to the work of sociologist Eving Goffman (1922 – 1982). But the word “ritual” also obfuscates – particularly when ordinary folks are just talking about getting together. So we will avoid it when possible.

Collins discusses “emotional entrainment” as a building up of this emotional energy during an interaction through mutual focus – and through the experience of an interaction ritual chain. This phrase gives some sense how experiencing a successful interaction ritual chain is like being on a freight train or a roller coaster: one cannot get off the ride as emotions cascade about.

Key ingredients of a successful interaction

Collins proposes four key elements as essential to a successful interaction that will produce the emotional energy which binds a group together.

  1. Group assembly – people are in each other’s presence, physically in the same place.
  2. Barrier to outsiders – people have a sense of who is taking part and who is excluded.
  3. Mutual focus of attention – people focus their attention on a common object or activity, communicate about it, and are mutually aware of this focus.
  4. Shared mood – people share a common emotional experience or mood.

When people get together for a common purpose – even one as simple as holding a conversation – they subconsciously adapt to each other’s rhythms of speech, physical movements and mood. Whether a cheering crowd or a couple in love, this “rhythmic entrainment” is a by-product of being social animals, and well documented by research. This subconscious coordination is a source of the bonding energy of the group. The mutual focus and common mood form a feedback loop in which they reinforce and amplify each other.

The simple act of people doing something together sets the stage for creating group emotional energy. Whether that energy arises, and whether it is positive or negative, will depend upon the dynamics of the interaction. Collins examines the energy of large crowds when cheering, dancing, singing, or participating in political protests. He looks at the energy generated in spectator sports, religious rituals, political rallies, and rock concerts. He investigates smaller and more intimate gatherings, like loving couples, the long history of smoking and tobacco rituals, and group dynamics in other social rituals such as social drinking. He analyzes power and status in social gatherings and organizational meetings. Regardless of the root cause of positive bonding emotions, continuing with an interaction or engaging in a series of interactions builds and amplifies these feelings.

Community organizers have long realized the importance of creating energizing interactions in the group being organized. One organizer advises: “Form a group with your friends! Be loud! Look exciting! Have fun!” This echoes Collins’ point that successful interactions among group members often come first, before commitment to a group’s belief or cause.

Of course, not all interactions are successful. Personal interactions can be draining and depressing; group dynamics can be distressful and demeaning. In this sense an interaction can produce negative energy. Repeated unsuccessful interactions can result in a group falling apart.

Even a casual observer can tell when an interaction is building energy and proceeding successfully. (However, certain subconscious and sub-vocal aspects of peoples’ synchronized physiological rhythms may require laboratory equipment to accurately measure.) Likewise, energy draining interactions are apparent even as they are in process. Examples include awkward pauses in conversation, standoffish postures, inattention to the interaction, dissonant movements, lack of responsiveness.

The task of a group leader, advisor, or facilitator is often not to “lead” by giving the right answer, or directing an outcome, but rather to encourage the flow of entrainment. In the short term this includes breaking silences and encouraging others to speak, bringing others standing on the periphery into the group, focusing the group’s attention on the task at hand. For some this may come naturally. For others, it is knowing what to look for. In the long term building an energized community may mean redirecting or redefining the group task to ensure success or managing group membership to promote positive energy by excluding energy drainers (often facetiously called “Debby Downers”).

Just as importantly, a successful group experience does not mean that the group activity objectively “succeeds” or that the group achieves its objectives. Community organizers often say that the most important victory is the group itself. For a group to realize a more abstract form of success it may be necessary for group leaders to express and positively reinforce the feeling that actions were taken, goals were accomplished, and gratitude was expressed for group members participation and accomplishments.

The key outcomes of a successful interaction

Collins discusses the various outcomes of social interactions, including issues of power and status. Here are the key outcomes he finds in successful interactions.

  1. Group solidarity – people feel a sense of group membership.
  2. Emotional energy in the individual – people feel confident, elated, enthusiastic, and empowered with an ability to get things done.
  3. Symbols of social relationship (sacred objects) – people create reminders to represent the group, including icons, gestures, slogans.
  4. Standards of morality – people feel a rightness about supporting the group, its memories and its symbols. They feel an impropriety in violating group solidarity and talismans.

Participants in a successful interaction experience a feeling of membership in the group, buoyed by the emotional energy that the interaction generated. The density of bodies and intensity of mutual focus can add to the entrainment effect. However, the emotional energy will begin to dissipate after the interaction is over, though it can be recharged by subsequent interactions in the chain. A successful interaction experience can also impart an energy “charge” to other objects, ideas, and even people – as reminders or symbols. These reminders can help maintain the group energy between interactions. They also help maintain barriers and standards.

Charisma and the chain of repeated interactions

Collins looks at the people who are at the center of interactions. They act as energy amplifiers and are recognized as group leaders (whether or not they have a title). People within the group regard them as having charisma, whether or not they would be viewed as having charisma outside that group setting.

These individuals not only enable and amplify the emotional energy for everyone in the group, but they gain more energy than others from the group interactions. Though everyone involved experiences some emotional energy, Collins explores how people on the periphery of a group may experience less, and how those excluded may experience negative energy.

Collins is adamant that physical co-presence is essential to generating large amounts of this bonding emotional energy. There are no substitutes: not email, not telephone conversations, not conference calls, not TV, not Skype, not Facebook. There are too many subconscious physiological processes in play when people are in each other’s presence. However, all of these non-physical ways of connecting can help maintain energy between actual in-person get-togethers.

How long does this energy last? Collins observes that most people who attend church do so once a week, and suggests that one week may be the half-life of this kind of emotional energy.

Collins’ research demonstrates the importance of doing things together to enhance group solidarity. It also shows the importance of regular and follow-up meetings for sustaining the group. It stresses how important it is that people leave group gatherings feeling positive about the experience and the organization and that they’ve accomplished something. It reminds us of the significance of group traditions, symbols and even informal rituals.

Collins’ work suggests ways that the emotional energy flow of group interactions can be enhanced – so that you can create a binding sense of community within an organization, and keep people coming back.

For more information read Randall Collins, Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology, For more recent thoughts see his blog The Sociological Eye: Interaction Rituals and the New Electronic Media (2011): For Collins’ paper focused on interaction ritual chains in religion, see The Micro-sociology of Religion: Religious Practices, Collective and Individual (2010), ARDA Guiding Papers Series: An example of Collins’ analysis of a group leader can be found on his blog The Sociological Eye: How to Become Famous: The Networks of Lawrence of Arabia (2015):

The “Form a group with your friends! Be loud! Look exciting! Have fun!” quote is from

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