Educational Credential Inflation: An Interview With Randall Collins

The following questions were posed by a Chinese on-line newspaper, The Paper []:


[The Paper:] 1. The Credential Society was published in 1979, but its Chinese edition has just come out. Therefore, I assume it is a good opportunity for you to review the days when you wrote it. So, after 39 years, do you still believe your observation and judgment of education and society? Has the educational system operated in the way this book presented in recent years?

Yes, inflation of educational requirements for jobs has increased quite a lot. In the US, the value of a 12-year (high school) diploma now is almost worthless for getting a job; it is only useful for entry into university to get a higher degree. Jobs that formerly had lower requirements, like police officer, now require a college degree, while a M.A. in Criminology or Criminal Justice is required to become a Police Chief. In the 1970s, when I wrote the book, a B.A. degree was becoming common for a job as a business manager; now most of these jobs require an MBA (as I  predicted). This has happened all across the spectrum of jobs.

[The Paper:] 2. Although the Credential Society focused on the U. S., it has been globally influential over the years. How do you evaluate its universal impact and value? In your opinion, is it applicable to other countries?

Credential inflation has become applicable world-wide in the last 30 or 40 years. The US began credential inflation earlier than most other countries; already by 1930 it had a higher percentage of university students and 12-year high school students; it started aiming for universal high school education in the 1950s, and now for universal university education. Russia (the old Soviet Union) and Japan were two other countries that developed mass high school and university systems early. Most European countries-- England, France, Germany-- had elite systems, with only a small proportion attending high schools (lycée, Gymnasium, etc.) and even smaller fractions attending university. They began to follow the US path of inflation in the 1960s and 70s, and then accelerated. Now many other countries-- for example, Chile, South Korea-- have pushed to a level where a large majority of the youth cohort attend universities; and it has become a major political demand-- how to provide free university education for everyone.

[The Paper:] 3. Since its publication, the Credential Society has caused persistent discussion. Has any relevant comment or discussion impressed you?

Originally my book was considered scandalous by many people. When I presented the original manuscript to my first publisher (University of California Press), they refused to accept it, even though it was under contract. A new publisher, Academic Press, published it, but then they refused to allow a mass paperback publisher (Anchor Books) to buy the rights to it, and Academic Press refused to issue it in paperback. So the book became hard to buy; and people would write to me to ask for a copy. Since it was written before the time of word-processing programs, the best I could do was send them a photo-copy.

Over the years, the argument was known to specialists in sociology of education-- especially those with a more critical viewpoint; and several articles I had written on the topic were well known to students. The issue of credential inflation started becoming public after the 2008-9 financial crisis; and in the following years newspapers started carrying articles questioning whether a university degree is a good investment, because its value as a job payoff has fallen, while its cost has risen sharply.

[The Paper:] 4. What does this book mean to your academic career and your life? Has it influenced your other works?

When the book was first published, I resigned my university position, because I felt it was wrong for me to work in the system that I had criticized. But the other books and articles that I published-- I worked in many other areas besides sociology of education-- resulted in receiving many job offers. I took a position that mainly consisted of doing research, and have published books that have had a good reception-- on sociological theory, creativity in intellectual networks, face-to-face social interaction, and sociology of violence. I stopped writing on credential inflation for many years, to work on other topics.

[The Paper:]  Are you satisfied with this book? If you were given a chance to rewrite it, would you like to make any modification or improvement?

To rewrite it now, I would need several research assistants to examine all the research that has been done of education and careers, education and its rising costs, education and social inequality. In general, the correlation between parents' social class and children's education has not changed from the 1930s through the present-- i.e. a huge increase in the percentage of children who go to high school, university, and advanced professional schools has gone up but stratification hasn't changed. The belief that more access to education would bring social equality has proven wrong.

On the theoretical side, the main thing that I would add to the book is to refine the concept of credential inflation as similar to monetary inflation. As economists have known for a long time, putting more money in circulation reduces the buying power of money. But the difference is, printing new money costs very little; and in the centralized banking systems we now have, it is possible to increase the money supply just by changing the procedures for making loans or to change the numbers in a computer. (This happens every day when the market value of a popular stock goes up.) But educational credentials are not just the paper that diplomas are printed on, but require much investment in school buildings, salaries for teachers and administrators, etc. Therefore: although monetary inflation theoretically has no limit, "printing" more educational degrees becomes very expensive when degrees are inflated and students spend more years of their lives in school. So the historical trend to inflate degrees goes through periodic crises-- either the students can't afford the degrees when their job payoff declines, or the government (or parents) can't afford to keep expanding the educational system. There was a mini-crisis like this in the 1980s, and again in the 2010s; and we can expect more such crises in the future. At some point, if 100% of the population is going to spend 20 or more years in school getting more and more advanced degrees, the cost of education becomes equal to almost the entire economy.

[The Paper:]  5. What research did you do for the book? What was the most challenging part when you wrote it?

Besides the theoretical analysis, I made two main research contributions. One was to assemble data to show how the job value of degrees has inflated during the 19th and 20th centuries in the US (the modern country that started credential inflation). I showed, for instance, that jobs as business managers required only high school degrees (or even less if one started as a family member or apprentice) until the 1950s. Surprisingly, even technical jobs-- engineers, the most essential technical job for modern industry-- was mostly learned by apprenticeship or on-the-job, rather than by formal education.  Traditionally in the West, lawyers and medical doctors, along with priests, were the main occupations that required university degrees; and even in these fields, people could learn these professions by apprenticeship. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was a lawyer who never went to school, but learned law as an apprentice. The movement to require university and advanced degrees came in the late 19th century (in the US) and explicitly tried to make these fields more socially elite.

I would add here that if I were to revise The Credential Society today, I would add a section on how the big fortunes in the Information Technology area were made: Not by going to university to get a degree, but by dropping out of the university, to follow one's own innovations. This was the way the founders of Apple came to create the personal computer, and later the career paths by which Facebook, Google, and other digital empires were created.  (Apparently this is true in China, too, where the founders of Alibaba and Tencent were not academic stars, but failures in the exam system, who found experience in telecommunications work that gave them the idea of spinning off new products.) There is an important theoretical reason for this: the fortunes were made by creating a new technology, and it was too new to be taught in the universities. The creators went directly to the most advanced practitioners of technology of that day, examined their equipment, sometimes stole their best ideas or put them to new use, hired away the best technicians and engineers. For them to wait until they got their degrees would have put them behind in the race to invention.

This is one reason why the creators of high-tech industries and especially the entrepreneurs who make huge fortunes, are usually men. In the US, women have made great advances in getting into universities and advanced professional schools, and are the majority of the students now at these levels. But the educational degree pathway is a bureaucratic career pathway, step-by-step. Women increasingly get to be named the head of a big corporation now, but few women do what Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg did-- drop out and concentrate on the innovation, not on getting the degree.

I mentioned that The Credential Society made two main research contributions. The second one was to test the dominant theory about educational expansion, at the time I wrote it. This was the technological theory of education. It said that modern jobs become more complex and more technical, so in order to get a job in the modern sector one needs more education. This was a theory; no one ever tested it. I got data on many kinds of organizations, their educational requirements in hiring, and how technologically advanced they were. I found that the high-tech organizations of the time (i.e. the 1960s) had lower educational requirements than low-tech organizations; and that higher credential requirements were in high status organizations (such as elite law firms).  Economists favored the technical-skills argument; but they never measured whether advanced education really did provide the skills for the job. They developed another theory that education may not provide skills, but it is a signal that a person has some thing unmeasured which makes them good at acquiring skills. They never tested this either. In more recent years, the examples of people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have made some economists (or at least newspaper writers) recognize that entrepreneurship and innovation are not really what education teaches, and that there is a more direct route to the technological frontier.

[The Paper:]  6. The Credential Society has been well-known for its fierce criticism to the educational system. How did you realize the inequality of the educational system and start to query its rationality?

My father was a diplomat, and we lived in foreign countries while I grew up. Most of what I learned came from reading my father's books or books in the Embassy library.  My last two years in high school were an a prep school in New England, where most of the other students came from rich families, and the school taught us how to take the exams that would get one admitted to an Ivy League college. I went to Harvard, where everybody was proud of how much more elite they were than anyone else. What I learned about education at that point in my life was that it was stratified, some schools were considered more elite, and it was mainly children of rich families who went there; but even if your family wasn't rich (my father never owned a house until he retired), if you could get into an elite school, its high status would rub off on you too. (This is only partially true. I was never really accepted into the clubs of the rich kids; but I did become part of the academic elite.) Going to Harvard meant that you could go to graduate school at Stanford or Berkeley, and those degrees got you hired at a top research university. But the elite status of being a faculty member at those universities depended on doing the most famous research inside the network of researchers, and my professors were the best network I could have started from. I learned what topics were on the advanced edge, how to do their kind of research; even criticizing them and moving on to new theories was the kind of skill they favored. From my perspective now, I would say that elite research universities provide a kind of apprenticeship, or on-the-job training, by starting as a research assistant to famous professors. Academic research is the one job where an academic credential pathway coincides with actually learning the skill you will apply later on.

[The Paper:] Which theories affect your thinking at that time? Was it related to your own experiences?

To sum up my early experiences: education clearly was related to stratification, since the elite schools were always bragging about how elite they were. But this was incongruous with what social scientists were teaching as a theory of education:  that education is a pathway to social equality.

When sociologists starting doing field research and survey research in the 1930s-1950s, they discovered that the most important division in people's lives was by social class. Research on social mobility (now called status attainment) found that the strongest predictor of a child's future job was the education of his or her parents. So the theory of meritocracy was developed: if a child could get more education than one's parents,  he/she would end up in a higher social class. Most research since that time-- from the 1960s until today-- concentrates on the first part of the chain: what factors lead from family to school attainment. (They paid little attention to the second part of the chain: once you have the educational degree, what determines what happens to you then?) In France, Pierre Bourdieu became famous in the 1970s, by showing that children acquire "cultural capital" from their parents, and this determines how well they do in school; Bourdieu also thought that this "cultural capital" would also affect would kind of jobs they would get, since the people doing the hiring want people who have the same cultural tastes as themselves.

My early work was done parallel to Bourdieu. Both of us were critical of the idea that expanding education would make a society more equal. The main differences in my work were: [1] to empirically criticize the theory that advanced technology was the reason why all societies were now demanding more education; [2] focusing on the mechanism of credential inflation, or the dynamics of the system over a long period of time.

[The Paper:]  7. The Credential Society presented an in-depth exploration in the educational system and employment of social sciences, but seldom mentioned natural sciences and engineering. Do you think that your analysis and inference also make sense to natural sciences?

Yes. First, to describe the history: as I mentioned, engineers were the last major profession to credentialize; the inventors and entrepreneurs who made the industrial revolution, the automobile revolution, etc. were not educated in professional schools of engineering, but from working with the machinery itself, trying out new combinations. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were the Steve Jobs and Jack Ma of their day.  Yes, it is possible to create educational credentials in engineering and science, but this happens after the key developments begin, and it standardizes them so that they can be taught.

In recent years, as universities have been squeezed for funds (because of the rising costs of mass-producing credentials), they have encouraged engineering and science departments to connect more directly with entrepreneurs, or to become entrepreneurs themselves. This means, instead of focusing on the credential, focusing on getting into the entrepreneurial and technological networks themselves. 

Natural scientists also do "basic research" and here the careers within universities and research institutes are like what I described for my own career in social science. The universities are the center of these networks, and scientists learn how to innovate by apprenticeship to scientists who are already doing it.

So one can make an argument that natural science-- at least some of it-- really does have a technological and economic payoff. I have already suggested that following the academic route to credentials is not what the most famous innovators have done. But assuming that some of the credentials pay off, is it reasonable to expect that a majority of the jobs in a society of the future will consist of scientists and technicians? Especially if credential inflation goes up towards 100% of the population: does China really need 1 billion engineers and scientists, or the US needs 300 million?

[The Paper:]  8. In this book, you show your approval of credential Keynesianism and credential abolitionism as the solutions to the problems of education, do you still believe these? How do you evaluate their feasibility?

Political efforts to abolish credential requirements for certain occupations have been tried in the US, but have done nothing to slow the general trend. Keynesian economics was out of fashion with economists for many years, but since the 2008 recession "stimulus" spending has often been favored. Few people seem to realize that government expenditures on education are Keynesian, in the sense that they provide jobs both for teachers, payment for builders and other suppliers of material resources; they also keep full-time students off the labor market, and if they receive room and board, it is a transfer payment which puts more spending money into the economy. In the book Does Capitalism Have a Future? (written with Immanuel Wallerstein et al., 2013, Oxford Univ. Press), I suggested that in a future where computers take over human jobs, expanding the school system to everybody for lifetime learning would be a way to carry out socialism without calling it by that name.

[The Paper:]  9. According to the preface, despite your criticism to education, you had to work as a university professor for many years. What do you feel about this situation?

It is rather pleasant to work in a high-level research university, so my only objection to working there was my moral objection to living off an institution that operates on false promises. But it is interesting to work around intellectually creative colleagues and thoughtful students-- especially if they are more interested in intellectual discoveries than in getting credentials.

[The Paper:]  Have you made any attempt to change the educational system?

Hardly anyone in American schools objects to credential inflation, if they recognize it at all, because where there is a large demand for degrees, there is a demand for teachers.  My colleagues, if they think about it at all, would probably say that to criticize credential inflation is to attack their jobs.

[The Paper:]  10. Have you ever paid attention to China’s education and society? And do you have any academic interest on it? If so, please share your observation and thoughts.

Yes, both historically and for the present.  In my book, The Sociology of Philosophies [1998, Princeton Univ. Press], I wrote several long chapters about networks of Chinese philosophers. Their organizational base included the Imperial university and the examination system for government positions. The Han Dynasty had one of the world's earliest educational bureaucracies; and the Song Dynasty created the first period of credential inflation, which grew stronger in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. But although candidates had to pass an increasing number of exams and degrees, and some studied until they were more than 40 years old, the exam system only provided credentials for employment in the Imperial bureaucracy; unlike modern credentialism in the US and elsewhere, it did not spread to other kinds of jobs. So dynastic China had credential inflation that was confined to a rather small elite.

Since the Deng Xiao-ping market reforms, Chinese high schools and universities have expanded, and the intense competition among students to enter elite schools is famous. There are some differences from the US system of credential inflation, however. The Chinese system is more "meritocratic" in the sense that university admission depends so heavily on academic examination. The US system, under political influences, uses multiple criteria, including scores on national exams, but also grade point averages in high school, participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities, desirable personality, and attempts to include ethnic minorities in (unofficial) quotas. As a result, I would say the US system tends to be somewhat anti-intellectual, whereas the Chinese system is more narrowly focused on intellectual performance. The US system also has a trend to "grade inflation" as most students now are awarded the top grades, with the effect of diluting the criteria of excellent performance; the Chinese system appears to uphold more strict standards. This is probably a reason why US students tend to score low in international comparisons, whereas Chinese students score high.

I would like to draw one theoretical conclusion from this comparison. The US economy has performed strongly, almost all the time for over 100 years. It performed well when we had a small elite school system; it performed well when we expanded to mass education; it continues to perform well even when we dilute the standards and undergo both credential inflation and grade inflation. My conclusion is: it does not matter how the school system performs. Not everyone educated in American has to be a scientist or engineer; if only 10 percent of them are good at this, nevertheless we have such a large system that it fulfills our technical needs. And other features of the US society foster entrepreneurs of the Steve Jobs/ Thomas Edison type; so the economic dynamism is there.

China, in proportional terms for its large population, does not have the extreme credential inflation found in the US.  Perhaps it will get there in the future. Or perhaps it will go a different path.


A new edition of The Credential Society will be published in 2019 by Columbia University Press.

Really Bad Family Values; With An Historical Explanation of The Oedipus Complex

[This is a repost of a blog entry from March 18, 2014.]


Family values have allegedly declined in recent times. It depends, of course, of what you compare it to. It would be a mistake to assume that the family has been steadily weakening, and therefore the further back in history we look, the stronger the family is.

To pick a period when family histories were well documented, let us turn to ancient Greece, Persia, and the Middle-East. Specifically, the court of Philip II, King of Macedon, and father of Alexander the Great. It is 338 BC; Alexander is 18 years old, and his father is about to marry another wife, relegating Alexander’s mother Olympias to the background. At the nuptial celebration, the uncle of the new bride, one of Philip’s generals, invites the guests to drink in honor of a new legitimate heir. Alexander shouts: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” and throws a drinking cup in his face. Philip drew a sword to cut down his son, but staggered from all the heavy drinking and fell. Alexander jeered: “This is the man who would pass from Europe to Asia, and he trips passing from couch to couch!”  Alexander and his mother went into hiding, she back to the kingdom of Epirus where she was sister of the King. Since Epirus was a politically important ally, advisors patched up the quarrel, and Alexander was allowed back into court.

That was not the end of it. On the eve of Philip’s departure with his army to conquer the Persian empire, while the royal procession paraded the streets with pomp and circumstance, an assassin broke in and killed Philip with a dagger. Olympias and Alexander were suspected, but Philip’s other generals supported Alexander-- who already had a reputation as a soldier.  Once her son was installed as King, Olympias had her rival’s baby killed, and forced the mother to hang herself; the uncle was sent off with the advance guard to Asia and murdered. Alexander took over the Persian expedition and conquered his way to fame far eclipsing his father.*

* More on this in "What Made Alexander Great?" The Sociological Eye, February 6, 2014.


Father tries to kill son; son and mother are implicated in a plot that kills the father; mother has her rival wife (step-wife? we need a term for these relationships) killed along with her son’s half-brother. No one expressed remorse about any of this, implying that what they did was not considered sinful or immoral. No one was prosecuted, since there was no judiciary other than the King, and under these circumstances possession of power was ten-tenths of the law.

These kinds of events were not unusual in that period. Philip’s predecessor as King of Macedon killed his own step-father, who was his guardian, in order to take sole rule in 365 BC. When he in turn was killed in battle in 359 BC, his son and rightful heir was a child; so Philip, an uncle, was appointed guardian. Soon after, he deposed his nephew and became King in his own right. The child was lucky to be left alive (as far as we know). There was not a lot of sentimental attachment in these families. Philip probably never had seen the boy, since he had been dispatched as a youth to be a hostage in another Greek state (Thebes), a typical procedure when alliances and treaties were made between states that didn’t trust each other. Philip’s take-over did not go uncontested; another pretender to the Macedonian throne-- i.e. another relative of these convoluted royal families-- had been living in exile, and the foreign power that hosted him (Athens) sent a fleet to try to put a friendly ruler on the throne, but failed. All quite normal; Philip took advantage of yet another pretender, his own half-brother who was sheltered by a nearby state, to declare war on it and enlarge his conquests.

Notice that no one disputes the importance of the family. Legitimate rule is passed along as family inheritance: family members fight over the inheritance (sounds familiar today?)  Matters are exacerbated because these states are unstable; borders are changing, conquests are made and lost; alliances and federations are created and torn apart. In this situation, in most states there are factions who are in and others who have been thrown out.  Prominent members of the outs go into exile, where they are happily received by some other state ready to use them as pawns in the struggle to make favorable alliances, or indeed conquests, of their neighbours.


Structural Conditions for Murderous Family Infighting

These are not just really bad people; the structural conditions in which they live are conducive, not to love and family solidarity, but to family jealousies and strife. To briefly list the conditions:

-- Marriages are typically arranged as political and diplomatic alliances. The women have no choice in who they marry; rulers regularly offer a daughter, or sister, to gain an ally or buy off a foe. This is an attractive deal on the receiving side, since the children of such a marriage have a claim to the succession of the family state they came from-- not that they will automatically succeed to the throne, since there are probably other candidates, but it is a good investment. And sons too sometimes are used by their fathers in the same fashion, or pawned as hostages. This means young persons of high rank normally expect they will go to live among people they do not really trust; on the other hand, people don’t trust each other that much where they grew up (among other reasons because most people are married to someone they didn’t choose), and there are good opportunities for personalities who develop the skills to plot and manipulate. Some women (for instance, Queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother, who plays a major political role when he is away and after his death) can become quite powerful by playing the game. If women are pawns, they also have close access to the networks of power, and network opportunity is more important than abstract cultural definition of status.

-- Love has nothing to do with marriage. But the term love does exist; we read in the ancient sources that Philip fell in love with the daughter of his general Attalus, and decided to throw off his political-alliance wife in her favor. Later Alexander will choose a wife, Roxane, who he finds captivating beautiful and falls in love with her during his conquests in central Asia; it doesn’t hurt that her father is an important chieftan and the marriage cements an alliance. On the other hand, it does not prevent Alexander, after returning to the Persian capital at the end of his conquests, from arranging a mass wedding of thousands of his soldiers to Persian wives, he himself taking a daughter of the conquered Persian King. (Roxane is still around, and she is still considered mother of the legitimate heir.) Falling in love had more or less the superficial meaning it has today, being smitten by someone’s beauty or sexual charm. We hear about Alexander’s soldiers who want leave to go back to Greece because they are in love with a courtesan; and one of Alexander’s most important generals, Ptolemy, sends for a famous courtesan from Athens to entertain them in Persia; she becomes his mistress and bears him several children, while he becomes King of Egypt.

This shows a way that ordinary women could rise in social rank. Although only women from royal families could play marriage politics, women who were beautiful and accomplished could make themselves so attractive that powerful men would fall in love with them, and even marry them. They were courtesans-- prostitutes; but exclusive enough so that they had to be courted.  It was not a pathway that would be open to middle-class women of respectable families, who were closely guarded, even locked up at home; but courtesans who learned the arts of allurement had an arena where they could meet men of the highest rank-- they were famous entertainers at their banquets and drinking parties, and thus they too got a network connection with the elite. Once again, network closeness trumps mere abstract status.

One gets the impression that courtesans, although obviously gold-diggers, were not as cynical as the upper-class women in arranged marriages. We do not hear of courtesans murdering anyone, although they would have had plenty of opportunities. Their lack of family connections made them too vulnerable to risk it.

-- Geopolitics takes the form of multi-sided unstable conflicts. There are more than two great powers; there are three, four, five of them. And there are a lot of smaller players who can maneuver on the margins or in the interstices of the major conflicts, building little local empires without much notice, then intruding into the major conflicts, just as Macedon blindsided the bigger Greek players Athens, Sparta, Thebes, the Boeotian League, and their Asian opponent Persia.  Weakening one of the major powers did not mean reducing the number of players, since others’ gains were only temporary. This was not the balance-of-power strategy employed by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, where they would intervene on the Continent on the side of whichever coalition was weaker; that was a strong third party intervening into a two-sided conflict, whereas the Greek situation was more highly multi-sided. Geopolitical theory of conflict needs to recognize that conflicts among 4 or more are inherently more unstable than conflicts among 3 or less.

-- Combine this multi-sided geopolitical instability with external support for internal rivalries, and the ingredients are present for murderous family conflict. Exiles sheltered by a foreign power; hostages who become acclimated to a foreign point-of-view; these create the danger of “pretenders” to the throne awaiting the opportunity to return. Notice the mixture of altruism and calculated strategy: sympathy for exiles in hard times was also a device for expanding one’s power. (Similar in this respect is the modern practice of humanitarian interventions.) The result is a network of states who are used to receiving and sending well-known persons among each other, and have an interest in each other’s internal affairs. Interfering in the internal affairs of another state became an habitual practice. Rich states, who had a lot of gold, would send funds to the faction they wanted to support in another state, whether a rival state, an ally or one that could swing either way. These could be called bribes (usually by the opposing faction), gifts, subsidies, or even tribute (if the recipient construed the money as a sign of the giver’s inferiority). Today's equivalent would be foreign aid (in the altruistic language of American foreign policy), or subsidies (like those sent by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rebel factions in Syria, thereby prolonging its interminably multi-sided civil war.)

To sum up: combine hereditary monarchy, arranged political marriages, unstable multi-sided geopolitics, networks of exiles and pretenders, and foreign intrusion in domestic affairs: the result is violence in the heart of the family, uninhibited by love or loyalty.


Succession Crises and Family Murder

The family of Alexander the Great is only the most famous in which this sort of thing happened. In the centuries just before and after his life, family murders were a recurring feature of top-level politics.

Consider the Persian Empire. The founder, Cyrus (reigned 559-530 BC, two hundred years before Alexander) unified the tribal chiefs in the highlands of Iran; conquered the major nearby states (Media, Babylon), then expanded west (into the Greek kingdoms and city-states of Asia Minor) and east (into the tribal zone of Central Asia). His methods sowed the seeds for the troubles that would come later. Where he conquered by force, he always legitimated himself as successor to the local kings or restorer of the local gods. Many of his accessions were peaceful, since his reputation preceded him and smaller chiefs welcomed him as a “friend”-- which is to say, a political friend, involving obligations of military support and material or monetary tribute. In cities which had strong internal politics-- such as the Greek city-states-- Cyrus operated more by subsidy/bribery, resulting in takeovers that the losing faction regarded as treachery. Superficial political friendships were the prevailing manner; underneath was an atmosphere of side-switching and distrust.

When Cyrus the Great King died, the regions of the empire took the opportunity to revolt. Violence broke out in the royal family; the first son inherited and killed his brother, who ruled the eastern provinces, to eliminate opposition. This pattern would repeat itself, with a succession crisis after each death of a King. Sometimes the new King that emerged was weak, sometimes the process filtered out the weak and created someone strong.

The third King, Darius, rose from being son of a provincial satrap. He got his chance when the previous King, Cambyses, was away putting down a revolt in Egypt, whereupon an impersonator of the King’s brother was placed on the Persian throne. Cambyses died of a wound during the struggle to regain the throne; Darius joined the conspiracy to assassinate the pretender and emerged on top. Darius reigned 522-486 BC, spending his first two years traveling around the Empire with a mobile army putting down revolts, and started the first Persian invasion of the Greek mainland, which was turned back at the battle of Marathon (490 BC). After Darius died came the usual round of revolts, temporarily derailing the Greek enterprise, while his son Xerxes had to deal with revolts in the major provinces of Egypt and Babylon. Xerxes put together a huge army for another invasion of Greece, which eventually petered out through problems of logistics and maintaining connection via a mercenary fleet. Xerxes was assassinated in a palace plot in 465. His son Artaxerxes I ascended the throne, but his brother revolted (with the support of Athens-- both sides could play the game of interfering in internal affairs of the enemy); eventually all the royal brothers were assassinated. Next came Darius II (reigned 424-405), an illegitimate son, who killed his illegitimate brother, who had killed his legitimate brother, Xerxes II, a murderous game of tag. Darius II married his half-sister, a cruel woman who controlled him and ruthlessly suppressed all enemies.

And so on. Artaxerxes III (reigned 358-338 BC) came in with the usual round of violence, in which several dozen brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins of both sexes were killed. Now we hear of killing royal women; apparently connections on the female side were becoming increasingly important. Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his favorite court eunuch in 338 BC, followed by several years of royal family plots and assassinations; so many were murdered that the succession had to turn to a distant cousin. In the same year Artaxerxes III was murdered, Philip of Macedon won a great battle over the Athenian alliance (with his 18-year-old son Alexander leading the cavalry), making Macedon hegemonic in Greece, and setting the stage for the invasion of Persia. It was precisely the bloody succession crises that made Persia look like an easy target.

The atmosphere of betrayal and revolt spread into the administrative structure, even beyond the royal family. In the struggles and revolts under Artaxerxes II around 390 BC, a rebel satrap was betrayed by his son, who switched sides to line up with the victorious ruler, and had his father crucified. This sort of thing goes beyond family rivalry; it was a cruel public display of family hatred. Artaxerxes II is remembered mainly because his brother, Cyrus, with the support of his mother the former Queen, recruited the famous Ten Thousand mercenaries from Greece for an expedition to capture the Persian throne. This Cyrus died trying to cut through the bodyguards to reach his hated brother.


Murderous Succession Crises in the Hellenistic Era

The Hellenistic period of Greek and Middle-Eastern history is not a popular one, because there are no heroes to simplify our memory, and above all because it is too complicated.  Alexander’s conquest did not change the pattern of succession crises. As soon as he died, at least 10 contenders came forward to take control of the Empire, including the older generals Alexander inherited from Philip, plus his own important commanders. This produced a volatile situation of multisided conflict that took over 20 years to settle down.

The first three years after Alexander’s death were a shifting kaleidoscope of alliances, side-switches, and deals. The senior commander of the infantry phalanx proposed as successor Alexander’s half-brother, a feeble-minded illegitimate son of Philip (under his guardianship, of course); rivals proposed Alexander’s infant son by Roxane.  Perdiccus, the senior cavalry commander, proposed as a compromise that both should rule jointly, then had the phalanx commander murdered, leaving himself as sole guardian. Perdiccus then alienated Antipater, the Macedonian viceroy, by jilting his daughter to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra.* Perdiccus in turn was betrayed by his own troops to Antigonus, a one-eyed general whose lineage would eventually get the Macedonian part of the empire. It wasn’t just family members who killed each other in this atmosphere of betrayal.

* Not the famous Cleopatra who ruled Egypt 51-30 BC, had affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and ordered the murder of her own brother Ptolemy, her adolescent co-ruler. Cleopatra and Ptolemy were both popular Macedonian names.


Eventually the 10 contenders winnowed down to 4 or 5. After the initial free-for-all, the strongest concentrated on hunting down and eliminating Philip and Alexander’s relatives, all the contenders and pretenders. Alexander’s son by Roxane, who should have been the legitimate heir, was killed at age 13. The Empire began to settle into a pattern of 3 states: Egypt; an Asian state in the heart of the old Persian Empire (Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria); and Macedon/Asia Minor. But they kept trying to take each other’s territory-- general Ptolemy in Egypt for instance used his fleet to control the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea-- and wars and betrayals kept on happening. In Macedon, a surviving son of the monarchy, now called Philip III, was manipulated by his wife into allying with the son of the viceroy Antipater; they were opposed by Alexander’s mother, Queen Olympias, who engineered the death of yet another of her stepsons, until she herself was executed.

Forty years after Alexander’s death all his relatives were dead, but the sons and daughters of his generals were still at it. The current ruler of Macedon, Lysimachus, was persuaded by his third wife, Arsinoe, to put his own son to death, in favor of her own children. Lysandra, the widow of the slain man, allied with her brother Ptolemy II and the Asian forces of Seleucus to invade Macedon and kill Lysimachus; at which point Ptolemy II had his ally killed so as not to share the spoils with him. And this was another sibling quarrel, since Arsinoe, Lysandra and Ptolemy II were all half-brothers and half-sisters, all children of the many wives of Ptolemy I. It was a chain of revenges and murderous ambitions such as the Greek dramatists described as divine powers of the Furies, or Nemesis.


When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real, Not Mythical

Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes/ Electra story were first made popular in Greece, in the century before Philip and Alexander?  These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490-466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*

* Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.


The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past--- not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece-- Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?

What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.

The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad  plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus-- a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*

* Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.


In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.

The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man-- a road-rage dispute-- and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker,  but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King-- the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*

 * Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents.  That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21).  Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander's attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.


The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son-- a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.

After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other.  The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics).  The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme-- bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.

Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.

Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king-- tyrannos-- eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults-- and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions-- would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.


The Breakdown of Democracy and the Return of Family Murders in Rome

And so it went. The Roman Republic had a strong antipathy to kingship; when it came back, in the hereditary succession of the Caesars, its was accompanied by a renewal of family murders. The great founder and administrator Augustus kept domestic peace. He was personally very upright, moralistic, even prudish; but the younger generations of his family turned out just the opposite. Succession crises grew steadily bloodier through the next four rulers. It got so complicated you can’t tell the murders without a scorecard.

Augustus lived to be 77, and the only one of his children or grandchildren who survived him was his daughter Julia, who was so profligate with her lovers that he banished her and adopted as his heir a favorite general, Tiberius. Tiberius grew paranoid of conspiracies as his reign went on, resulting in a veritable reign of terror encouraged by his chief ministers, in which over 100 suspects were killed, and Tiberius’ only son was poisoned. Tiberius’ brother Drusus was long since dead, but his son Germanicus was another popular general; Tiberius had this nephew killed out of jealousy, along with his wife and two sons. To keep the lineage alive, the youngest of Germanicus’ sons was spared (only 7 years old at the time of these murders), and when Tiberius died (37 AD, at the age of 79), he had grown up to become the Emperor Caligula. Caligula in turn banished or murdered almost of all of his relatives except his incestuous sister; reigning only 4 years, he was killed by the Praetorian guard. The soldiers then put on the throne the only remaining member of the imperial household, Caligula’s old uncle Claudius, a retiring scholar, son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Claudius was an ineffectual emperor, run by his third wife Messalina-- she married her own uncle. Notorious for her sexual appetite, Messalina also killed the daughters of Germanicus and Drusus, expanding the victim list from males to females to clear away potential rivals. Claudius finally had her killed when she married her lover in public. His next wife was even worse: Agrippina, one of the daughters of Germanicus that Messalina missed; she got Claudius to put aside his own son and adopt her son by a previous husband, Nero, as heir.  That accomplished, she apparently poisoned Claudius.

Nero, finally, murdered Claudius’s son-- just to make sure; then killed his own mother-- the evil interfering Agrippina; followed by killing his wife, another wife, another daughter of Claudius who he offered to marry but was turned down, and took yet another wife after killing her husband. Finally the legions rose against him and he committed suicide, replaced by one of the generals. From then on, things moved away from family murders, into a pattern where the army generally decided the succession; in some periods of orderly rule the emperor would adopt a competent follower as his heir.

It was almost an experiment in all the things that can go wrong with family succession: aging rulers who outlive their own children; spoiled brats with unlimited resources surrounded by plotters; paranoia about conspiracies leading to preemptive murdering of all possible candidates, in turn resulting in even more unsuitable candidates, either completely unworldly types like Claudius or irresponsible pleasure-seekers like Caligula and Nero, Messalina and Agrippina.  The amount of husband-murdering, wife-murdering, child-murdering, and even mother-murdering that went on match pretty much anything that the Greek dramatists could have plotted from their nightmares, without the dignity of projection into the world of myth.

I am aware that the structural conditions listed for the family murders in the Persian/Greek period do not all hold for the Roman period. The early Roman Empire was not a time of complicated multi-sided geopolitics; nor of exiles and pretenders at foreign courts eager to interfere. What was similar was hereditary rule based on personal loyalty, without checks and balances or administrative bureaucracy; and legitimate succession through marriages calculated purely for political advantage. The Romans seemed more reflective about it, in the sense that they looked for plots everywhere and engaged in paranoid purges to forestall possible rivals. Arranged marriages did exist in Rome, becoming quite prominent during the last two generations of the Republic, when the country went through repeated civil wars.

Despite the strong patriarchal structure, maternal connections became important; for instance Julius Caesar got his start by being related through his mother to Marius, the famous general and leader of the liberal faction during the Social Wars. Julius made his daughter Julia marry his various political allies, and divorce them when alliances changed. Since Rome did not have polygamy, divorce became common. Elite women got used to being important political actors—like Anthony’s wife, who carried on politics in Italy during his absences. The situation became more gender-symmetrical as the Empire was established; strong rulers like Augustus insisted that his favorite generals divorce their wives to marry into his family.  This helps explain why there were women like Messalina and Agrippina. Roman women of the elite, unlike in Greece, were much more active schemers in their own interest; the nearest Greek equivalents were Alexander’s mother, and the last Cleopatra.

The classical Greek/Persian situation did reappear in some later instances, as in England during the time of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, in the midst of volatile foreign alliances and religious side-switching. It culminated in the struggle between two of his daughters, Queen Mary (“bloody Mary”) and Queen Elizabeth, the latter winning out via a series of revolts, plots, stake-burnings, and executions. Once parliamentary rule was established, murders inside elite families became a thing of the past.


Contemporary Relevance: the Family Curse of Big Money

Are there any wider theoretical implications, any lesson for our own times? One might say that family problems as they exist today-- child and spousal abuse; the one-third portion of the murder rate that takes place in families-- are  mild compared to what the ancients did. But there are some structural parallels. The really bad families of ancient times were the  elite families, not the poor families which today are the site of most violence and abuse. Annette Lareau, in research at the University of Pennsylvania, finds that the troubles of rich families in raising their children revolve around their expectations and disputes over family money; the result, in our pacified era, is not physical violence but emotional struggles, hostile breaks between and within the generations, sometimes carried out by lengthy lawsuits. In our society, where not much of importance is hereditary, the exception is among the very rich, and there the situation is structurally similar to the unstable empires of ancient politics.


Freud and the Oedipus Complex

Freud overemphasized the paternal side, as has been recognized in many critiques. The central importance of the Oedipus complex in Freudian psychology is that the conflict is normally resolved by the child identifying with father, internalized into the unconscious self as conscience or Superego.  This is the key step in socialization, turning the barbaric drive-driven infant into the responsible adult. For Freud, too, the internalized father is crucial in explaining religion, since God is explained as a projection of the Father. For this reason Freudians have made convoluted explanations of the development of the female’s Superego, since it is depicted as an internalized male authority and religious ideal. The sociological approaches of Durkheim and of George Herbert Mead give an alternative way of explaining childhood development of a social conscience; it is not internalization of the father per se, but internalization of adult authority. In Mead’s nicer, more democratic version, it is internalization of the Generalized Other, of society in general, the capacity for taking the role of the other, any other; hence what the child develops is the capacity for universal sympathy and altruism, as a guide to one’s own conduct. This is an ideal, and not everyone is so altruistic; some individuals for reasons not yet well theorized are more altruistic than others.

We can now pin down why the classic version of the Oedipus complex-- and for that matter, the Electra complex, where the daughter wants to kill her mother and loves her father-- is so father-centered. It came from the specific political structure of family succession in ancient hereditary kingship. Its primacy in particular historical periods is not psychological, but political.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon



J. B. Bury. 1951.  A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great.

R. Ghirshman. 1954.  Iran: From the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest.

F. W. Wallbank. 1981.  The Hellenistic World.

Sarah B. Pomeroy. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1984.

Arrian. Campaigns of Alexander.

Plutarch. Life of Alexander.

Heradotus. Histories.

Appian. The Civil Wars.

Tacitus. Annals.

Old Testament Bible.  Book of Esther.

Aeschylus. Orestes Trilogy; Seven Against Thebes.

Sophocles. Antigone; Electra; Oedipus Rex; Oedipus at Colonus.

Euripides.  Electra; Orestes; Iphigenia among the Taurians.

KIM JONG UN’S SUBDUED FACE WITH TRUMP: What effect did meeting Trump have on Kim Jong Un?

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Faces and body postures give information about emotions and social relationships that don’t necessarily come out in what words are spoken. Kim Jong Un looked distinctly different with his followers in North Korea than he did with Donald Trump in Singapore. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un leads all the action, down to facial expressions that everyone else imitates. In Singapore, the shoe was on the other foot. Trump set the tone and KJU imitated him, but in a more subdued manner. Trump took almost all the initiative, on the non-verbal level as well as verbally, and KJU passively followed.

When Trump returned from Singapore and declared that the US was now safe from nuclear attack, he was probably expressing his feeling that he had prevailed over Kim Jong Un personally. Was this so? Let’s look at the visual evidence.


Kim Jong Un and his terrified sycophants in North Korea

In a previous post, “Faces Around a Dictator,” I examined all available photographs of Kim Jong Un with other North Koreans.

Throughout, KJU sets the facial expression and body posture. His followers mirror him, but with a difference-- their expressions are over-the-top, trying really hard to show they agree with him. We see this in the strain lines in their faces, and their exaggerated body postures.

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Their faces are also tinged with fear. Not surprisingly, given Kim’s record of ruthlessly eliminating potential opponents and any sign of opposition.

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When KJU smiles, everyone smiles.

KJU uneasily confers with his father, Kim Jong Il. The man in the middle is KJU’s uncle.

KJU uneasily confers with his father, Kim Jong Il. The man in the middle is KJU’s uncle.

Whatever the dictator’s mood, others imitate it.

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On the left is Kim Jong Un’s uncle, once considered the power behind the throne, now (2013) on his way to prison and execution.

Kim Jong Un doesn’t so much threaten people to their face as dominate them emotionally. People around him are emotionally beaten down.

What happens to KJU’s emotional domination when he meets Trump face to face?


Kim Jong Un with Trump in Singapore

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I examined all photos available on-line and in news media that show Kim Jong Un and Trump together.


12 photos show both men facing the camera, not looking at each other:

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12 show Kim and Trump looking at each other face to face, in reciprocal face contact:

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11 are asymmetrical: 10 in which Trump is looking at Kim Jong Un’s face, while Kim looks away:

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Looked at in more detail, these photos show Trump setting the emotional mood with his face, while KJU mirrors him but less intensely. This contrasts sharply with what we see in North Korea, where KJU always takes the emotional lead. With Trump, KJU doesn’t look like one of his own sycophants, straining to out-do the leader’s expression; but he has gone from being extremely dominant emotionally, to looking at least mildly emotionally dominated.


1 photo shows Kim Jong Un looking at Trump while Trump looks away:

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This is the scene where a North Korean general saluted Trump, and Trump returned the salute. No doubt it was Trump enjoying acting military. Kim Jong Un looks surprised, taken aback, a little intimidated. His feeling is probably something like, what the hell is he going to do next? KJU is doing the looking, but in this case his looking is reactive, while Trump is active, whipping up his arm.

Summing up, in one-third of the photos Trump has the initiative and the emotional dominance; in the other two-thirds, they are symmetrical, either looking at each other reciprocally, or both facing the camera. But if we examine all the photos for their facial expressions and body action, we find the following.

In 10 photos, Trump is more active-- either showing more body movement, or more forceful body posture.

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In only 1 photo is Kim more active than Trump:

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This is the photo where KJU puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as they are about to walk by themselves in the garden. Kim is momentarily being more active, but it is also the photo where  Kim most spontaneously expresses friendliness.

In 6 photos, Trump’s face is more expressive; there are zero photos where KJU shows the more expressive face.

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Altogether, there is a lot of ceremonial ritual in the Singapore meeting, especially where Trump and KJU greet each other on a flag-covered stage and when they perform for the camera. But even here they are largely playing Trump’s game. The asymmetrical moments and the more informal interactions show Trump’s emotional domination.

Is all this a show put on for the Singapore summit? Are they just acting out a conventional script? Some comparisons to other situations will help.


Trump in hostile confrontation-- and others

Less than a week before the Singapore meeting, Trump had a major confrontation at the G-7 meeting over threatening tariffs.  The archetypal photo shows most of the other G-7 heads of state on one side of a table, Trump on the other. Angela Merkel, the most prominent politician in Europe, takes the lead in a stare-down with Trump. At her side, French President Macron (seen only in profile) joins in the stare-down. They are all collectively trying to stare down Trump, with the exception of Japanese PM Abe, who watches Merkel with a slightly embarrassed look. (I would read this as indicating Abe is more willing to break with the European leaders and to negotiate with Trump.)

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How does Trump handle the pressure? He narrows his eyes, while continuing to meet the hostile stares.

This is a typical move in top-level international confrontations between leaders of mutually hostile states. We see it in 1959 when Fidel Castro, just having overthrown the government of Cuba, comes to the United Nations and has a handshake with Vice President Richard Nixon. Castro, the victorious revolutionary, aggressively stares, even slightly smiling, at Nixon, who responds with a grim face and narrowed eyes:

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We see this also in 1960; Nixon is the more aggressive, pointing a finger at the Soviet leader Khrushchev, who refuses to turn his face away while narrowing his eyes to a slit:

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In June 1961 in Vienna, it is Khrushchev who has the political advantage (the US-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs having failed ignominiously). President Kennedy does not meet his eyes, but the two have a wary handshake, looking down at each other’s hands:

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Trump at the G-7  shows the typical international tough-guy look in a hostile confrontation. In his meeting with Kim Jong Un four days later, his demeanor is completely different. Ostensibly, the meeting could be as threatening as those between Khrushchev and American leaders at the height of the nuclear arms race. In previous months Trump and KJU had both threatened to use nuclear weapons against each other. Possibly Trump chose to show his hard face at the G-7, in order to intimidate KJU in advance, then showing up with his Mr-nice-guy effusiveness, we-can-get-along performance.


Kim Jong Un’s face in Singapore, minus Trump


Is it just that Kim Jong Un is very new to international summit meetings? But we don’t see the same asymmetry and emotional domination in photos of KJU meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in; nor in his meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping; nor when greeting the Singapore PM a few hours before meeting Trump.

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These photos show the usual symmetry in polite meetings at the top rank. KJU looks confident, holding his own easily.

Another clue comes from photos taken the evening after the Trump meetings, when KJU and his entourage went out to view the sights of Singapore. Here KJU is among his followers (mainly his stone-faced security guards, but also his sister and other guests, including basketball star Dennis Rodman):

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Although he is back in safe company, KJU looks passive, a bit bewildered, not in control of the situation. Perhaps this is because he is impressed--- not to say dazzled-- by the bright lights and  postmodernist architecture of Singapore’s night scene. But he looks less like he is enjoying it, perhaps because he is thinking about Trump’s blandishments, offering to jump-start the modernization of North Korea in return for a nuclear disarmament deal. 


What next can we expect?

Kim Jong Un was at least temporarily dominated by Trump during and after their meeting. How long will that last?

The Singapore meeting so far has led to little specific agreement about practical steps to nuclear disarmament. But that may not be the most important thing. Even apart from the pace of negotiations and the extent that North Korea stops making nuclear weapons and rockets and disposes of the ones it has, nuclear war is prevented as long as the North Korean dictator feels no urge to use them.  Being emotionally dominated means being less self-confident, more passive, less likely to start something. We may get passive-aggressive foot-dragging, but that is better than hard-charging belligerence.

What will happen depends above all on the personal relationships between the two men. Having more face-to-face meetings would be well worth-while, if Trump can produce the same emotional result.

Inviting KJU to the White House might be politically unpopular, but in emotional relationships, it would be another step towards averting a nuclear war. It could further build up Kim’s confidence that he and his country would do better without nuclear weapons.

Major shifts in international diplomacy have hinged on the personal chemistry-- or lack thereof-- between world leaders. The out-of-control nuclear arms race in the mid-1980s turned to detente and arms reduction when Reagan and Gorbachev personally met at Reykjavik in 1988 and liked each other. The Munich meeting in 1938 between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler opened the door to Nazi aggression because Chamberlain was emotionally dominated by Hitler.

There a track record, as we know, of North Korea offering to negotiate a halt to their nuclear program, in return for economic aid. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, negotiated such an agreement with President Bill Clinton, resulting in only a temporary lull, and then renewed arming. Why won’t this happen again?

What this prognosis leaves out is the emotional element of social relationships. The photo below shows Kim Jong Il, with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright on a visit to North Korea in 2000. Kim Jong Il is jovial and at ease in the meeting (hardly his normal demeanor on his home turf, where he was usually dour and threatening). Albright looks strained. Between the two of them, it is Kim Jong Il that emotionally dominates the situation. This is more like the demeanors shown at the Munich agreement, where one side is getting suckered by the other.

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This is not what the Trump/KJU summit looks like. Here, the US has the upper hand. And not just in sheer amount of nuclear destruction it can cause. Emotional relationships on the personal level is the ground zero of all international politics, the code that turns the rockets on, or off. At least for now, the emotional balance of power favors the US, and the cause of peace. Our aim should be to prolong this as much as possible.

Shutting Down The Internet In Time of War

During the series of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, insurgents have used low-tech weapons against Western forces and their allies. Typical are suicide bombers who carry explosives right up to its target, and IEDs-- improvised explosive devices hidden in the roadway and set off by a mobile phone when a enemy vehicle passes. But these have acquired a high-tech component. Spotters who see a vehicle approach do not have to communicate directly with the trigger-man who sets off the bomb; both are connected to a coordinator in an Internet cafe in Brussels. We can trace the link but we can’t do anything about it. Ironically, this parallels the command structure of US high-tech military, where spotters can be Special Forces putting laser tags on enemy targets, or silent drones flying overhead, or satellites in space, all sending their information to a remote headquarters, like the Air Force base in Florida that controlled the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


The Long Trend: Dispersing the Battlefield

How did this situation come about, and what direction is it heading in the future? The pattern of military high-tech has been building up since the First World War. Weapons have gotten more lethal, and more accurate at increasingly longer distance. The digital revolution in the last 30 years has vastly increased targeting information, by aerial surveillance and satellites using an array of sensors that track vehicle movements and even individual humans by infra-red heat signature, radar,  and computer-enhanced photographic imagery (which can be compared over time to look for tell-tale changes). Enemy headquarters can be located by its buzz of electronic activity. Enemy rockets or artillery that use radar for their own targeting can be tracked by radar-seeking devices (similar to auto drivers locating a police radar trap) and fire back immediately to destroy the enemy weapon. Huge super-computers assemble the information into a composite picture of the battlefield, and remote computers increasingly control firing on enemy targets, whether from aircraft, ships or ground-based weapons.

What follows from this? Troops and their equipment cannot be bunched together, since this makes them too vulnerable a target. By 1916, machine guns made old-fashioned marching into battle suicidal. Soldiers split into small groups, taking cover where they could find it on the ground.  The trend has continued with every advance in weaponry. In World War II, the front was typically 5 km from one brigade to another; now it is 150 km. Forward Operating Bases, supplied by helicopter and communicating electronically, make a checker-board of mostly empty battlespace. If the enemy has similar weapons, even high-tech troops need to take advantage of natural cover, and hide their electronic and heat signatures as much as possible. World War II was the last such war between what the military calls “peer adversaries,” although US military are now planning for a mutually high-tech war with China.


Guerrillas and terrorists disperse even more

Most wars in the last 50 years have been asymmetrical, a high-tech military versus a low-tech insurgency.  The resource-poor side of an asymmetrical war has responded by dispersing its forces even more, and making hit-and-run attacks on isolated enemy bases and the supply lines between them. This was called guerrilla war, as long as it attacked military targets; it became “terrorism” when it concentrated on civilian targets, since these are softer, less-protected than military targets. Guerrilla war slides over into terrorism, because guerrillas between attacks hide in the civilian population.

Terrorists generally are civilians, and they live among other civilians, especially in cities, since these provide the most cover against high-tech weapons. Urban sight-lines are poor; it is difficult to distinguish the heat-signatures of civilians from combatants; and high-tech surveillance is evaded by hiding in the electronic clutter of normal life-- even in poor countries, cell phones and other consumer electronics are the features of modernity that diffuse the fastest.

The biggest problem in fighting urban guerrillas is political: they use other civilians as shields; and they welcome civilian casualties because these turn the local population against the outside enemy. Atrocities are the major recruiting tool for militant terrorists and revenge-seeking suicide attackers.

Terrorism has grown in symbiosis with high-tech weapons and communications, because the weaker side cannot win on conventional battlefields. Politically, an insurgency does not have to win battles or take territory, but only to resist pacification by an outside enemy. Islamic State made the mistake in Iraq and Syria of taking territory, setting up a state structure and using more conventional military tactics, which transformed ISIS into the weaker side of a somewhat more symmetrical war. Similarly, the Taliban in Afghanistan became an easy target when they were a government, but hard to eradicate as guerrillas.


Terrorism is media-dependent war

Small numbers of insurgents can keep a war going. Their main resource is advertising their presence by spectacular attacks, even if they are bloody atrocities of their own. As long as their actions are  well-publicized, they demonstrate a will to continue the fight. They expect to prevail over time, if only because occupying forces lose the political will to persist.

On the high-tech side, a modern military is surrounded by news networks as well as its own communications media, so it cannot avoid having its own atrocities publicized world-wide. It doesn't matter if civilian casualties are accidents, or emotional reactions by occupying troops embittered by fighting an enemy who hides and disguises themselves as civilians. The cell-phone photos of American soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib are typical of the ubiquitous Western media redounding to their own political disadvantage.

The growth of world-wide high-tech is shifting the crucial balance of military power to communications, above all because contemporary war is primarily political statements. The irony here is that global communications-- both for consumers, and as a major component of the post-industrial economy-- means that every innovation by the rich capitalist countries creates a military opportunity for insurgents. It is not so much that they imitate our weapons (although they can capture or buy them, especially from the West’s so-called local allies), but they can share in digital communications because they are marketed world-wide.

Many of the most advanced surveillance systems are umbrellas covering everything within their range, friend and enemy alike. In Iraq, insurgent fires were coordinated via Internet cafes in Belgium, just as US soldiers could link to Internet cafes or any other sites in the world for private communications with family and friends.  Cell phones are used to trigger IEDs, but shutting down the local cell phone network was not feasible, since US commanders themselves use them as a more-reliable alternative to centralized military communication channels. GPS coordinates, pin-pointed by a network of satellites around the earth, are used both by allied targeting and by insurgents targeting us. The terrorist attack on Mumbai luxury hotels in 2008 was run by the ISI from Karachi, Pakistan.

Terrorist fighters might be killed in action, but the main principle of modern military doctrine-- to decapitate the enemy by knocking out its headquarters command-and-control and thus destroying it as a functioning organization-- has become impossible. There is no command post “in theatre,” but on ostensibly neutral foreign soil; and there need not be any clandestine network on the spot to uproot (as the French attempted during the Algerian war). Commands and targeting information are sent out by one-way messages, on the open Internet-- its source lost in the morass of ordinary communications.  In the Russian semi-proxy war in the eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military used the same satellites as the Russians (since they were the same country not long ago), so neither side could disrupt the other’s targeting without disrupting their own.

Cyber-war has been growing as a cheap resource for insurgents, because they operate inside the same global communications umbrella as their resource-rich enemies. The US does not have an advantage in cyber-space. By concentrating on digital high-tech, the West is playing in an arena where its advantage in other kinds of military resources do not count.  Cyber-war can also be practiced by wealthy states, but it is above all a weapon of the weak. Its physical tools are easily available commercially; skill at hacking requires no great organizational coordination, and is easily acquired by alienated youth all over the world.  Fighting a cyber-war is exactly the wrong place for the wealthy states to fight.


Unthinkable counter-measures

So what can or will be done about the Great Powers’ loss of military advantage in a cyber-linked world? Here we come to an unthinkable solution that the military is actually thinking about: shutting down the Internet in time of war. This is a short-hand way of referring to all the communications devices under the modern world-umbrella that are shared with our adversaries: mobile phones, GPS  coordinates, networked computers.

But how could these be shut down, without enormous damage to our own economy, and our contemporary way of life?  Air travel (and increasingly ground travel) are coordinated by digital networks; so are power grids, hospitals, and police forces; so are most financial transactions, from international banking to personal salaries and bill-paying; so are the now-huge business of on-line shopping and delivery.  In fact, one of the most devastating forms of cyber-war now being worried about is a cyber-attack, not from isolated mischief-making hackers or from thieves, but from an enemy government (or an insurgency), aimed at shutting down the economy of one of the rich capitalist nations. More primitive economies would be safer from such attack, being less reliant on digital coordination.

But although this is an extremely dangerous prospect, it is not the most dangerous event that could happen. Since an ultra-modern military is so heavily organized around electronic command and control,  the worst threat to its existence would be if an enemy could hack into its links to disable its weapons, its mobility and its logistics-- in effect an electronic giant rendered blind, deaf, and paralyzed. (This is the scenario envisioned in P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, where Chinese-made components in American electronics are programmed to put the entire US military out of operation during a surprise attack.) There is even one nightmare step beyond this scenario: enemy hackers leave the operational system of our military intact, but take over controls of our weapons so that our rockets and aircraft are turned about to fire on ourselves. There have  been some steps in this direction, as Iranians and others have been able to capture some US-made drones by diverting their remote controls.

If the US military’s digital control system were seriously threatened by an enemy, the response now being considered is to shut down the entire digital umbrella. (This is based on discussions with high-ranking US and UK military commanders who were active in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) There are two ways this could happen: either the enemy themselves shuts down our digital network or attacks it to the extent that it becomes useless; or we shut it down pre-emptively to keep our enemies from using it.

Probably there would be several levels of shut-down: smallest would be to shut down all mobile phone and Internet activity in a given area (e.g. battlegrounds in Iraq or Syria), by shutting down cell phone towers and servers. Or the Internet and/or mobile phones could be put on one-way broadcast mode; messages going out from a central source (as in some emergency warning systems) but otherwise clearing the network of traffic.

Another choice would be to shut down crucial targeting infrastructure, such as GPS; since this is a satellite-based system, it would affect the entire world. Such plans are being seriously contemplated; the Chinese reportedly are building their own GPS system (based on their own satellites) that would be inaccessible to others.

This seems unthinkable, since GPS is included in all sorts of devices, including ordinary smart phones. But GPS was originally created as a secret project by the US military (as a way of preventing aerial collisions and other blue-on-blue attacks); and was opened up to commercial use in the 1990s. In the same way, the Internet originated as the DARPANET: Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration. There is precedent for returning GPS  to government control; and it may become a matter of military necessity-- or what is presented to the public as such. We should not expect that history has one continuous trajectory, and that technologies and social customs surrounding them become impervious to removal once they become widespread. The Chinese government’s use of super-computers, complete with facial recognition systems for tracking every move of every citizen, shows what kinds of things are technically possible, although they may be politically repugnant in some countries and not in others. (In fact, Chinese citizens in the future might well benefit from some kind of emergency that caused the shut-down of its central government computers.)


Backing up to non-digital backup

But how would the military operate under this unthinkable contingency, shutting down the electronic networks that have become the core of its organization? Planning on this point is proceeding. The essential pattern is to build back-up procedures-- how to run a war without the Internet, computer links, GPS, or mobile phones.  In fact, there is discussion about how over-reliance on digital networks even now is reducing military efficiency; and how weaning ourselves away from it can be done.

We tend to forget that the ultra-computerized military is a relatively recent thing. Big mainframe computers were developed in the military from World War II onwards; it is the dispersed, omnipresent commercial and private networks and its devices that have become widespread so rapidly since the 1990s and early 2000s. Military officers have commented on the huge increase in computerization since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. A company (about 200 soldiers) then had 5 computers, operated by the Executive Officer and First Sergeant. Now all officers have computers, so much so that they spend 75% of their time reporting to headquarters. A US general commented: “Network has become more problem than solution.” On Navy ships, the traditional system was a single wireless link under authority of the ship’s captain; now with all sailors in possession of personal computers or smart phones, official channels are surrounded by links used for personal reasons. All news gets out, even if confidential. Officers have become risk-averse, since even minor mishaps are scrutinized; junior officers lose initiative and feel they must clear every decision with higher command.

Similarly with the profusion of information from battle sites, gathered by electronic sensors and relayed to all levels of the command network. The term has developed, “Predator pawns”-- as if Predator drones are pawns in a chess game. Since high-ranking officers as well as drone operators can watch the video feed from the drone; the result is a strong temptation to micro-manage.  This is a general problem for all military organization. Wars have become increasingly political, in the sense that counter-insurgency is largely a fight “for hearts and minds.” A major recruiting device for guerrillas and terrorists are their dramatic or even gruesome attacks, such as videos of bass beheadings circulated on the social media. The same dialectic encompasses the Western forces, through periodic scandals of civilian atrocities that are more or less inevitable given that civilian presence is exactly where insurgents choose their battlefield.

There are many channels for war stories to leak out; politicians are under pressure to achieve results, but also highly vulnerable to criticism for mishaps. All this increases the tendency for politicians to intervene, even at the smallest tactical level. A US commander gave the example of how much time he had to spend going back-and-forth with a high official in Washington about whether a load of small arms could be dropped to a local ally in Syria. Multi-national forces are considered politically desirable, but US advisors describe the resulting organizational chart as “a wiring diagram”-- and US commanders spend much of their time clearing requests for resources with the National Security Council and Iraqi politicians. “I spent a year in Iraq and all I fought was the IJC” -- a sardonic remark about the tangled authorities of the International Joint Command.

The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as “we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.”  Thus military planners see some advantages to going back to older forms of command and control-- cutting off reliance on cyber, going back to local radio links to coordinate troops. Computers, especially when centralized and taking inputs from a vast area, make it hard to quickly change course. Old-fashioned communications allow for more flexibility and more rapid reaction to emergencies and sudden opportunities. Historians point out that just this kind of flexibility by aggressive front-line officers were the key to the blitzkreig successes of World War II.


The limits of computerized warfare

As I mentioned earlier, the cyber-war expert P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, envisions the US being devastated by a Chinese cyber attack that incapacitates the US military. In the novel, the US makes a come-back by resuscitating an old moth-balled World War II fleet, unhackable because its controls are pre-digital; plus creating some advanced weapons that can’t be diverted from their targets since they carry no on-board mini-computer to be taken over. I have written my own thought-experiment, a novel about a hypothetical civil war, in which the American military divides and fights itself with exactly the same weapons on both sides. (Just as happened in the Civil War of 1861-65). The novel is called Civil War Two. The war begins with cyber attacks attempting to turn bombers against their own bases. The solution to the cyber hacking is to shut down the computerized system and build another control system. High-tech aircraft have enormous capacities for locating enemy targets and firing back at their electronic location; but since both sides can do this, the result is to destroy a large proportion of the most advanced aircraft on both sides.

Moreover, the most advanced aircraft are the most expensive, and take the longest time to build, as well as requiring assiduous maintenance between missions-- e.g. a B-2 stealth bomber costs over $1 billion dollars each, plus operating costs. Attrition of such weapons would inevitably result in older weapons being pressed into service. Even a battle between robots would be, most likely, not Hollywood's humanoid giants on two legs, but armored tanks containing no humans, like driverless cars firing at each other. The outcome of such a battle would depend, not on the superiority of one side’s robots over the other, but on the skill and energy of humans going out onto the battlefield to repair the damaged robots. My chief conclusion is that a war fought between two very advanced militaries would lead over time to mutual degradation, and a return to earlier forms of warfare.  

I have already suggested that remote computerized communications and control would be shut down early in such a war. If both sides have drones, armored helicopters, anti-missile missiles, and robot vehicles, the mutual attrition would eventually result in humans making the difference.

High-tech stalemate will drive combat back to the human level. The idea that has prevailed for about a century-- that the state would win which created the next super-weapon before the other side did-- will probably not hold in the future. That is because the recent wave of digital technologies, whose initial thrust has come heavily from military inventions, has spread into the civilian economy and ordinary life; and warfare centered in the cyber sphere gives most advantage to the disrupters of the other side’s communications. This is true whether it be asymmetrical terrorist attacks against a military and economic behemoth; or symmetrical war between states with equally sophisticated equipment.

Our idea that history is moving in a straight line is wrong. What seems unthinkable now-- shutting down the Internet and all the other digital media-- in one degree or another is likely to happen. Where we come out on the other side of that crisis will probably become normal to people who live in it, just as the digital devices of the last 15 years have become so normal that we can’t imagine living without them.  If we continue to live, it will probably be because we have learned to get along without them.


Randall Collins. 2018.  Civil War Two: America Elects a President Determined to Restore Religion to Public Life, and the Nation Splits.  Maren Ink.  2018.

P.W. Singer and August Cole.  Ghost Fleet. A Novel of the Next World War. Mariner Books. 2016.

Gun Cults

Arguments about gun control have raged ever since the wave of school shootings and other rampage massacres started in the 1980s. The striking thing is that no one is convinced by the arguments of the opposing side.

Opponents of gun control rest their case on the Second Amendment:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The Constitution is not verbose, and this sentence can be read as saying, each state that makes up the United States needs a militia, and therefore... Or the clause can be taken alone: "...the rights of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."   These selective readings convince no one except those already on your side.

The same goes for other arguments.  Guns are justified because it is the constitutional right of Americans to possess guns;  because they are part of the American heritage of liberty, and a stand against the encroaching power of the government; because they are used for sport shooting and hunting; because they are weapons of defense against criminals, a bolster to the forces of good against the already well-armed forces of evil.

A sociologist does not take such arguments at face value. It is not a sociological explanation of behavior to quote the reasons people give, without asking: why do particular people hold their particular beliefs?  When and how did they get them?  Did they have these beliefs first and then decided they should acquire guns?  Or did they acquire the guns first-- as gifts, or by example of family and friends-- and then the verbal justifications?  Similarly, we know that persons join a religion, not because they start by agreeing with its beliefs and then decide to join, but typically because they know people who bring them to its religious services; if they like the group and the ritual, they take on the religious beliefs (but often disregard beliefs they don't care for). 

And if persons have vehement beliefs-- they fanatically defend them, and angrily dispute any statements and persons to the contrary-- we can expect a sociological pattern. Holders of the most vehement beliefs typically belong to a cult-- a religious group that shuts itself off from the outside world, spends a lot of time in its ceremonies, and generates a lot of emotion.  In the same way, political extremists belong to cult-like groups that meet constantly or even live together, are intensely suspicious of outsiders, and keep a high degree of emotional pressure on their members. It is the group activities that keeps the beliefs alive.

In this sense, militant gun advocates appear to be a gun cult. But as a sociologist, I am not going to jump to that conclusion, without looking for what kinds of social activities make a gun cult. As we will see in conclusion, not all people who have guns are gun cultists; but it is the ones who are more cult-like who carry on the public campaign for guns. And there are gun cultists who are downright dangerous: paramilitaries and gang members are cultish about their guns, and mass rampage shooters usually have a private gun cult of one's own.


Guns as symbols

In a gun cult, guns are symbols. They mean more than the practical things one can do with them. They are sacred objects, to be treated with respect, and to be defended against disrespect. Hence an attack on guns is not just a limitation on going hunting or shooting at a target range, but an attack on a way of life.  But symbols do not float on air. Symbols become pumped up with meaning when they are at the center of rituals.

How would we know a gun ritual if we saw one?  The theory is already well-developed for religious rituals and symbols. Symbols are the most visible marker of belonging to a religion: the Bible, a crucifix, the Quran, a yarmulka, a prayer shawl, the image of a Buddha or a saint.  An object becomes a symbol when a group assembles around it, and collectively focuses their attention on it. Rituals can be stronger or weaker; stronger when its adherents gather frequently, when they build up a shared emotion and act together in rhythm. Physical activities carried out together have the strongest effects-- all prostrating themselves bodily on the ground facing towards Mecca; all kneeling and standing up at the right time; all chanting or singing together, especially while watching each other's faces on CCTV screens as in contemporary mega-churches. When rituals build up high intensity, they produce effects on their participants: a feeling of belonging together in a community and identity; a feeling of emotional strength; a belief in the symbols of the group.  How one behaves towards sacred symbols instantly marks one's attitude towards the group: showing respect and protecting the symbol makes one a good person; showing disrespect or attacking the symbol is the worst possible offense, and it gives rise to righteous anger to punish the offender.  

-- As noted, religious rituals vary from highly intense to low-key; fanatical and cultish groups are produced by intense rituals. At the other end of the continuum, low-intensity rituals (like church services one attends infrequently) give little attachment to symbols,  and a relaxed tolerance or indifference towards other groups and their symbols.

Where do different kinds of practices around guns fit on this continuum? What are low, moderate, and high-intensity gun rituals?


Gun rituals: what do people do with their guns?

Toward the low-intensity end is hunting. But this often has a social-ritual aspect. Typically, groups of men go hunting together, treating it as a special occasion, a break from ordinary life (as all rituals are breaks). They do a lot of drinking together, tell past hunting stories, engaging in traditionalistic male bonding. The concluding ritual is bringing home their kill, such as a deer draped over one's car, or having head or antlers mounted on the wall, a proud display of the hunter's identity. The popularity of hunting has declined, as animal-rights advocates (a different kind of cult whose rituals take the form of a social movement) embarrass hunters from displaying their trophy carcasses.

In the early 20th century and before, hunting among the upper classes was a full-scale ritual of potlatch proportions. Hunters on country estates in England or Europe were elite land-owners and their guests; they wore distinct costumes, assembled in shooting lines to fire at birds or beasts being driven from the brush by large numbers of beaters-- servants or farmhands who concentrated the game animals and made a kind of chorus for the stars of the show, the gunners. Fox-hunts on horseback, with their red coats, horns, and packs of hounds, were a variant ritual. In either case, hunts were big ritual gatherings of the upper class. Sometimes they killed hundreds of birds at a time-- trophies heaped up in large piles. These were less a gun cult than a elite show of orchestrating everyone's attention towards the animals killed. But in recent years the minor parts in the hunting orchestra-- the beaters and hounds-- have declined, leaving mainly the hunter and his guns.


Hunting ritual, Italy 1470  Uccello

Hunting ritual, Italy 1470  Uccello

Present-day ritualism about guns is more apparent in gun shows, gun shops and shooting ranges. Gun shows have a fair-like atmosphere, attracting large crowds. What do they see and do?  There are displays of many kinds of weapons-- different makes of pistols, rifles, automatic weapons, but also large displays of knives and even swords. Some of this has the atmosphere of a museum of war nostalgia: you can handle and buy weapons ranging from the World Wars to the Old West. Military camouflage outfits, helmets, goggles and other gear are laid out in rows of booths. It seems to be largely an occasion for entering a fantasy world of bygone times, kept alive in the present. Nazi and other memorabilia are on sale, probably less because attendees are Nazi sympathizers than because old enemies are part of the show. Conversations with dealers at gun shows often include griping about the onerous regulations on gun purchases imposed by the government.

Shooting ranges are often attached to gun shops. From my observation, there is a good deal of fantasy inside the range. You can purchase different kinds of targets: concentric circles with bulls-eye are the most neutral, and are generally used for shooting competitions. But most shooting range customers choose targets with the outline of a human head and torso. We can infer something about the accompanying fantasies from the kind of people one sees at the range:  husband-and-wife couples who look like they own small retail shops and are practicing shooting an intruder; young male-female couples who look like they are on a date, or just entertaining themselves by shooting at fantasy people. Clusters of young men of military age shooting together. Most gun ranges are in white areas, but a small percentage of the shooters are young males of minority ethnicities; they might be gang members, or may be thinking about using guns for defense in their own neighborhoods. In any case, everyone is on their good behavior at the gun range; it is neutral territory.

The ideology of the gun cult comes out most clearly in the way gun salesmen talk to customers. They bring up topics such as what kind of weapon you would need in a dangerous situation, what weapon would be adequate to take out a threatening challenger or an intruder in your house.  The talk that typically takes place in the gun shop invokes imaginary uses of guns in dramatic situations, which are rather far from the routines of the gun cult itself (the actual shooting on the range).  This dramatic content is a form of sales talk, but it is taken seriously by customers and perhaps salesmen themselves; in effect, it is the content of the fantasy they are buying.  Like buying pornography, buying a gun is chiefly buying an opportunity to fantasize.

There are other kinds of gun rituals, different because participants recognize them explicitly as fantasies and fun. Children for generations have played cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians with cap pistols and other toys; kids have fun with squirt guns, especially on hot days at a pool or in the back yard sprinkler. In the era of electronic games, most shooting is at icons on a screen, and lacks anything that feels like a real gun in one's hand. There is a debate about how much violent video games contribute to real-life violence. Bear in mind that the tens of millions of such gamers are hugely disproportionate to the tens of thousands who shoot other people with real guns; the fraction of gamers who go on to  real shooting is on the order of 1 in 10,000.  These may be gun rituals, but they are not very intense ones, and they have a self-conscious barrier between fun and real life. The same goes for participants in paint-ball gun parks; here the experience is more like real war (without all the logistics, the boredom, the officers giving orders and the bureaucracy) and without real wounds. Paint-ball fights extract the fun part of violence and makes it friendly shared fun rather than deadly fighting with enemies-- similar to water-splashing fights in pools.

To underline the point of this comparison:  toy guns and make-believe guns aren't symbols of very much; whatever membership identity they have consists of little more than acting like kids. These pseudo-weapons are cheap and disposable, and not treated with ritual care. Serious gun cults, on the other hand, take themselves extremely seriously.

The same can be said of guns in the entertainment media. Guns in films and television often are the focus where the audience attention peaks.  When guns are used is typically a high point of the drama, where emotions are built up through a plot format of action-adventure or mystery/suspense.  There is considerable research on the extent of exposure of weapons on TV and its effect or non-effect on violence. But most of us (300 million Americans) have seen far too many gunshots in entertainment for it to have much statistical effect on the number of real shootings. Sociologically, watching a film or screen is a ritual of being an audience; it trains us to watch, to anticipate or be jaded, to gasp or laugh at an more-or-less expected experience that can't possibly touch you because you know you are not part of the show.

I will not repeat here what we have learned about people's performance in real-life situations where violence is threatened. But I will give the bottom line: using weapons against real people face-to-face is emotionally tense in a way that no experience of sitting on one's couch or in a theatre can possibly be. This tension I have called the barrier of confrontational tension/fear, because it makes most people unable to fire their weapons, or to do so accurately.  A small number of persons learn techniques for controlling their emotions and becoming competent at shooting humans; but these are only learned from real-life experience. Nothing you see on an entertainment screen gives you a hint of how to do it in reality.

For this reason, I would say that guns in entertainment media are a pseudo-cult of guns. More accurately, it is a cult of film-watching, similar to game-playing, in which the guns are just incidental devices for creating dramatic theatrical moments.


Serious gun cults take themselves extremely seriously.

Among the most intensely cultist of all are paramilitary groups and their war exercises.  Such groups have existed in the US since the 1970s and 80s, often holding paranoid ideologies about clandestine encroachment by the Federal government or international agencies. Paramilitaries are based in rural areas and small towns, places where farmers fell from being a considerable population to an embattled remnant, a decline reflected in their anti-modernist ideology.  But ideologies are intense only when a group assembles and carries out rituals enacting its shared identity. Paramilitaries in the US engage in military-style training, something like real military maneuvers although with small-scale weapons (despite the Second Amendment, people don't have tanks and anti-aircraft missiles). Thus it is small arms that are the symbol of this militant gun cult.

Another key feature is that they are "underground"-- they keep themselves in secrecy most of the time, except where they emerge for a march or protest demonstration (such as to protect monuments of Confederate generals).  The secrecy is crucial for keeping up an emotional atmosphere, the feeling that what one is doing is full of dramatic tension and excitement.  Beliefs about black helicopters spying on them overhead are an offshoot of clandestine paranoia-- at atmosphere deliberately cultivated by the group, its emotional life-line. A group that has nothing to do is going to disappear. Paramilitary cults (in the US, at any rate) rarely do much fighting with their supposed enemy, the government; to keep themselves going, they need the ritual of military exercises. In parts of the world with failed states, paramilitaries' rituals dramatize threatening their enemies, but mostly prey on vulnerable civilians.

Another gun cult is found in ethnic poverty ghettos. Guns are emblems of being seriously into the street code. True gang members (and free-lance tough guys) have guns, whether on their bodies or hidden in some convenient place (such as carried by their girlfriends). Since gangs are the local street elite, the on-the-spot upper class of a lower-class neighborhood, guns are central to one's personal identity. A study of a Chicano gang in Los Angeles found that the first thing gang members did in the morning was to check on their guns. They also play with their guns around each other, combined with the favorite ritual of making gang signs with their fingers.

checking your gun before dressing

checking your gun before dressing

LA gang sign and gun

LA gang sign and gun

A shadowy but popular figure is the gun dealer-- in this case, a white man who drove up in a nondescript car, displaying his goods on the car seat. Although rival gangs threatened each other and sometimes shot it out, the gun dealer was above the fray-- holding right of secure passage from both sides.

LA gun salesman

LA gun salesman

The larger number of ghetto residents who do not belong to gangs nevertheless may participate in the gun cult. This is most apparent among adolescents, who haven't decided yet which way they will go.   An interviewee in the Bronx recalls that his father had 3 handguns in the house, which his teenage sons borrowed and lent out to their friends  [Wilkinson 2003: 54]: 

INT:  And what was the reason they was borrowing these guns, they had beef?

JEROME:  No.  They just wanted to hold them.

INT:  And what happen?... they went out there doing stupid shit and they got caught up in the mix?

JEROME:  Yup.  And these is the people that we grew up with and stuff, the only friends we had, the only friends we knew.

INT:  And they all got killed.  How did that make you feel?

JEROME:  It had me fucked up 'cause even before we lent them the gun, it was cool.  And, um, it's like when, after we let them, when we let them hold it, it seemed like... They changed into they world. I was what, I was in the, um, we was in the seventh grade.  We used to mess with the eighth and ninth graders. It was like everybody was scared of us 'cause everybody knew we had guns."             

We should realize that even in a neighborhood where there are a lot of armed gang members, most of the time nobody gets shot. If we estimate half of all murders are done by gangs (an exaggeration), and compare total numbers of murders with numbers of gang members, only 1 out of 88 gang members commits a murder during the year.  If we add other kinds of non-lethal shootings, the proportion rises to about 3-4%. [Collins, Violence: 372-73]  And this is averaged over a year. Even the ones who do the shooting only shoot occasionally. If you are one of the violent elite who shoots someone once, what do you do the other 364 days of the year? You show off your guns, you talk tough, you hang out with your counterparts and keep an uneasy peace with your enemies. Here, at the heart of the violent gun-users, the gun cult consists more of dramatizing how tough you are, than actually firing guns.


Solitary ritual in gun cults

Gun cults are social. They are created and sustained by groups carrying out some kind of gun ritual, which can include talking about them and fantasizing about situations when they would use their guns. This social activity can spill over into behavior while an individual is alone. This is parallel to religious rituals, which are learned and emotionally charged in group ceremonies, but individualized in activities like praying alone.         

Solitary practice of a gun cult can consist in paying a lot of attention to one's guns. Some of the people one sees at gun shows are rather ordinary, harmless citizens who spend their time holding guns, taking them apart, cleaning and reassembling, looking at and admiring them.  Many individuals spend much of their leisure time reloading ammunition; much of the display at gun shows are equipment and supplies for reloading spent shells with live charges.  There is some utilitarian element in this, insofar as reloading one’s own ammunition is cheaper than buying it; but the long hours that gun cultists spend on reloading ammunition suggests that this is a ritualistic affirmation of their membership,  something like a member of a religious cult engaging in private prayer.

A solitary gun cult turns dangerously intense, when the individual becomes obsessed with guns and what he/she will do with it in some situation imagined in fantasy.  Which people's gun thoughts remain harmless flickers? and whose obsessive gun fantasies emerge into action? An extreme instance would be the brooding of the teenager who takes guns to school to avenge an insult, acting out the fantasies that he has repeated in the privacy of his own mind and bedroom.

The rampage shooter almost always has created a private gun cult and raised it to the  level of intensity where it takes over his life. Virtually all rampage shooters are over-armed; they carry more guns to the attack site than they actually use, they bring a range of military paraphernalia, and far more ammunition than they actually expend. They often dress themselves in quasi-military garb that provides a cocoon to shut out the world of ordinary people. They are acting out a costume drama that they have prepared by many imaginary rehearsals.  When their home lair is discovered after the shooting, it is usually full of weapons, scenarios, information about previous rampages, and plans for their own.

The most important feature is that this backstage world is kept in secrecy. This is the dividing line between the millions of people who own guns but do not obsess and brood over them, and the individual who goes off the deep end. A secret arsenal is an emotional home base, a comfort zone of living surrounded by weapons of great symbolic power, even if in action they almost always end up in a losing battle and oneself as either dead or the most hated member of society. Living a clandestine life gives a feeling of excitement, a sense of purpose in a life that may otherwise feel shameful or depressed.  "This was the only adventure I’ve ever had,” a 14-year-old boy said about the period leading up to shooting 8 students at his high school in Paducah, Kentucky. (Newman 2004: 26)  Just keeping one's parents, or other outsiders, from seeing how many weapons one has, stealing guns or keys to gun cabinets, gives a purposeful trajectory that makes one's life seem like high adventure. The weeks or months while an individual creates a symbol-filled clandestine secret life is the emotional launching platform that creates a mass shooting rampage.

And this gives us a practical take-away. The point where the rampage shooting can be headed off is also the place where the strongest clues are found that a rampage is coming.

Treating youths for bullying, low social esteem, or mental illness nets far too large a population; they may be in a weak statistical sense "at risk," but they comprise millions, whereas the number of rampage shooters is in the low double digits. Similarly, millions of people own guns harmlessly; but building a clandestine arsenal and obsessing about it is far more unusual. This is the big warning sign that merits active intervention.

The single most effective legal measure than can be taken now is to enable authorities to seize arms collections from individuals who are making threats and showing fantasies of violent action.


Gun cults, from weak to strong

At the weak end of the continuum are games with toy guns. Also in the atmosphere of explicit make-believe, not-for-real, are entertainment shows featuring guns for dramatic excitement.

Low-moderate gun cults include hunting, which is mostly about elite prestige (upper class hunting ritual) or male bonding (present-day hunting). But the hunting cult can ratchet up a few notches into a symbolic cult of guns, when hunters insist of their rights to carry automatic weapons and machine guns, which are too powerful to be suitable for hunting.

Moderate-to-strong gun cults are found at gun shows, gun shops and target ranges. Here the hardware feeds fantasies of historic violence as well as scenarios in which you, the gun owner, defend one's home and defeat the bad guys. Statistically more likely real-life scenarios seldom enter such conversations, such as accidentally shooting a family member, using the gun to commit suicide, having the gun stolen and enter the criminal gun market. Nor is the likelihood mentioned that in a real criminal threat (a robber, a rampage shooter) you will not actually perform like a movie star, but could quite likely miss your target or hit the wrong person. These realities have no place in the fantasy and ideology that fills the mind of gun cultists. --- Still, most of these people do no harm. Their guns stay in their cases or go to the range. Their effect on gun violence is largely indirect-- providing the ideological cover and the political vehemence of the gun lobby that protects gun-obsessed killers.

Extreme gun cultists include paramilitaries-- although as noted, they spend most of their time preparing for Armageddon rather than shooting real people. Sometimes it spills over into political violence.  The most violence is produced by gangs and street tough guys whose lives and identities as revolve around guns; even if they don't use them very effectively or very often, this is where the homicide numbers add up.  And at the apex of gun-cult obsession is the rampage shooter, collecting a clandestine arsenal and fantasizing scenarios for revenge over ethnic, religious, or social injuries that kill anonymous strangers in clumps. These last capture the public attention more than all the other gun cultists because this is where gun violence intrudes into our middle-class world.

If we can head off the worst gun cultists, we may also raise our consciousness about gun cults across the spectrum. One need not push for drastic measures, such as banning toy guns, violent films and games, or hunting and target shooting, in order to stop gun cults from overreaching.


Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.

Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement. posted Sept. 1, 2012

Sandy Hook School Shootings: Lessons for Gun-owning Parents. posted Dec. 12, 2013

David Cannadine. 1999. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. NY: Vintage.

Jennifer A. Carlson.  2015.  Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

James Coates. 1987. Armed and Dangerous. The Rise of the Survivalist Right. NY: Hill and Wang.

Waverly Duck. 2015. No Way Out. Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing.  Univ. of Chicago Press.

Abigail A. Kohn. 2004.  Shooters. Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures. NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship.  2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Young Black Men Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City." In Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (eds.), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.  Harvard Univ. Press.

Daniel Levitas. 2002. The Terrorist Next Door. The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. NY: St. Martin's Press.

Katherine S. Newman, Cybelle Fox, David Harding, Jal Mehta, Wendy Roth.  2004.  Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. NY: Basic Books.

Alessandro Orsini. 2011. Anatomy of the Red Brigades. The Religious Mind-set of Modern Terrorists. Cornell Univ. Press.

Joseph Rodriguez. 1998. Gang Life in East L.A. 

Deanna L.Wilkinson.  2003.  Guns, Violence and Identity among African American and Latino Youth.  NY: LFB Scholarly Publishing.


Violence is difficult to carry out. This is the main finding of  research on what happens when humans find themselves in situations threatening violence. It runs contrary to our cultural beliefs,  and the way violence is depicted in the news and entertainment media. But the news reports violence that happens, not fights that abort, angry quarrels that fritter out, or guns that are pointed but not fired, or fired but miss. Films and TV shows make violence look dramatic, but if they showed what it actually looks like no one would want to watch it.

Does this pattern fit sexual aggression? We may think sexual aggression is easy and automatic, a product of male hormones or domineering male culture. But our evidence is mostly sampling on the dependent variable, and lumping different kinds of sexual advances together. Attempted rapes often fail, and many kinds of sexual advances do not get very far.

This, I suggest, is good news. It means there are micro-interactional conditions by which sexual aggression can be deterred-- locally, on the spot, by participants themselves. The question is whether the micro-processes that make physical violence succeed, also apply to sexual aggression. This is a genuine question; there is little systematic research on it yet.  But sifting through ethnographic evidence plus news reports -- which since the last quarter of 2017 have been suddenly full of graphic detail--  gives an indication of whether the micro-sociology of violence also explains when and how sexual aggression fails. Just asking the question points the way to better research on the turning points of sexual violence.


Parallels between homicide and rape


Homicides divide into the following categories (which are also causal pathways):

-- murders among family members, friends and acquaintances (the most frequent kind of homicide);

-- murders by strangers,  including:

            -- serial killers -- the rarest kind of murder, although the most highly publicized;

            -- murder in the course of a property crime such as burglary or robbery; 

            -- political murders including assassination, terrorism, and war atrocities;

            -- vendettas, the traditional pre-modern form of violent politics, and its contemporary equivalent, gang wars.

            -- violence in carousing zones.

The same set of causal pathways apply to lesser forms of violence, ranging from minor battery to felonious assault (where someone is severely wounded).


Rape divides into the same categories and causal paths:

-- acquaintance rape, the most frequent type of sexual coercion, AKA date rape.

-- stranger rape and its sub-types:

            -- serial rapists-- comparatively rare, but highly publicized. These have a similar pattern as serial killers, an ostensibly ordinary individual with a clandestine life of carefully selecting victims and planning attacks. Serial killers are often serial rapists.

            -- rape in the course of robbery or burglary, especially when a home intruder finds an easy sexual victim. These rapes are impulsive rather than planned.

            -- political rapes, including revenge rapes in societies with traditional vendettas; ethnic cleansing rapes during genocides; mass rapes in highly ideological wars and civil wars. These are gang rapes rather than individual.

            -- party rapes and carousing zone rapes. These are the sexual equivalent of fights at parties.


Micro-dynamics of violent conflict


The triggers-- and inhibitors-- of violence are in the emotional details of human interaction. The following summarizes evidence from my 2008 book, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, and subsequent research using video and other data.


Confrontational tension and fear:  In situations threatening violence, participants may start out with angry bluster, loud voices, and menacing gesture. But when it comes to bodily attack on their opponent, even the most aggressive show tension and fear on their faces. This tension makes most violence incompetent. Soldiers and cops who are proficient on a firing range often miss when their target is a live human being;  gang-bangers are even more incompetent, firing wildly and quickly running or driving away.

Micro-sociology triggers physiology, and bodily reactions get in the way of conscious intentions. Face-to-face confrontations are socially tense, pumping adrenaline, the flight-or-fight hormone, an undifferentiated arousal that can go either way. Many soldiers in combat do not fire their guns. Like cops in shoot-outs, those who do fire often have perceptual distortions, time slowing to dream-like or speeding up to a blur, a sound-proof tunnel where shooters can’t hear their own guns. Some freeze; some hit their own side in friendly fire; some go into a frenzy where they can’t stop firing in an overkill of bullets until they have emptied their magazine. The same applies to fists, kicks, or knife-stabs. The common denominator is high adrenaline levels, which mobilize the large muscles of the body but desensitize fine motor control of hands and fingers.

What happens in a confrontation depends on the relative levels of adrenaline on both sides. If one side can stay in the zone of medium arousal while the other loses bodily control, the more competent performer at violence will beat the incompetent performer. Not that the better fighter at the moment has to be really competent, just less incompetent than the other. At the extreme, one side becomes paralyzed at very high adrenaline levels, making an easy target for the opponent still capable of attacking.

To be skilled in violence is to keep your own adrenaline level down to medium levels, while driving up your opponent’s to high levels that make them incompetent. On the other hand, if adrenaline levels are equal, neither side performs worse than the other, and the confrontation stalls out, the fight aborting or winding down by losing momentum. We see this also in sexual aggression.


Attacking the weak:  Confrontational tension and fear (ct/f ) is a barrier that aggressors have to overcome if they are to deliver any violence. There are several ways around this barrier. The most common pattern is attacking a weak victim: someone who is physically much weaker; someone who is unarmed when you are armed; someone who is running away. Outnumbering the opponent is a major confidence-booster. In photos of riots and brawls, the most common pattern is a group of between 3 and 6 attackers hitting and kicking an isolated individual. Without this advantage, evenly matched  fights usually are stalemates, coming to nothing or quickly aborting; Having even one supporter on the weaker side shifts the emotional balance.

The advantage is not so much physical but emotional domination. Robbers with guns are nevertheless wary of hold-ups where one is a lone individual outnumbered by victims and bystanders; most successful robberies consist of 2 or 3 robbers against an isolated shop-keeper. Back-up in robberies is confidence-building, and a way to establish emotional dominance over the victim. Even police act this way; the more police on the scene, the more likely they are to commit extensive violence in making arrests. Successful violence comes from establishing the mood and rhythm from the outset, driving the opponent into passivity.


Confrontation-minimizing tactics:  Another way around the barrier of ct/f  is to avoid the main source of tension: threatening the other person face-to-face. Eye contact makes the encounter tense. Robbers and muggers find it easiest to attack from behind, where the two sides cannot see each other’s eyes. Wearing masks and hoods emboldens the attacker and disconcerts victims by making the attacker appear un-human. And in the modern high-tech world, cyber attacks are psychologically easy, since they involve no human confrontation at all.


Audience support: Onlookers who encourage a fight help overcome ct/f  and enable fighters to carry on much longer than they would if there were no one watching. How long and severe the fight is depends on the size and attitude of the audience: most destructive where a large audience is unified in cheering on a fight; shorter and less harmful when the audience is divided or unsure; when bystanders ignore a fight it soon peters out.


Violence as fun and entertainment: Fights are particularly likely on occasions of leisure and fun: parties, drinking places, holidays, crowds at games and concerts. These are carousing zones where normal routines are suspended and special excitement is expected. Violence on these occasions still requires overcoming ct/f, finding emotional domination over weak victims, and/or support of an audience.


Do the conditions for successful violence apply also to sexual violence?


Sexual confrontation/fear.  Like all aggression, sexual arousal pumps adrenaline. Sexual advances which are risky and uncertain generate the excitement-equivalent of the flight-or-fight arousal that can go either way. We would expect to find some jittery rapists, and other sexual aggressors who lose their nerve.

We lack systematic evidence on most of these points, so the generalizations here are hypothetical. But I will cite research where available, and supply illustrations from news accounts and from my own interviews.

[interview:] A young man in his late teens followed an attractive middle-aged woman into her apartment building, by hurrying through the security door behind her. No one else is in the lobby. In the elevator he pulls a knife and threatens to rape her. Although a small woman (5 foot 2 inches), she is a top executive in a non-profit organization, used to exercising authority.  She says disapprovingly, what would your mother think if she knew what you are doing? When the elevator door opened, he runs off.

[interview:]  A tall (5 foot 9 inches), attractive woman in her mid-20s is running in an open area, when a man about her age runs up behind her and grabs her. She turns around and swings at him, knocking off his glasses and breaking them. (What did he look like?) About six feet tall, long hair and mustache, medium build. He immediately starts apologizing. She steps on his glasses, and glares at him as he retreats.

The tables turned when the rapist fails to establish emotional domination. In the previous case, the attacker has a knife, but as in hold-ups, a weapon is not enough to be successful unless the victim is intimidated.

Short of rape, milder forms of sexual aggression often fail, perhaps most of the time. David Grazian’s research on night clubs found that male patrons often engage in “the girl hunt,” seeking pickups. But these young men did more talking among themselves about the women they saw than actually making contact with them. Generally they lowered their sights to getting phone numbers, not too successfully at that; and groups of young women who went to clubs together often gave them fake numbers. In other words, even in venues explicitly themed for sexual encounters, most of the “girl hunters” stayed on the sidelines, did not approach aggressively, and were rarely successful.

Is this true across the spectrum of sexual aggression? Accounts in the news media focus on aggressions that succeed, but even here we find most aggressors do not get far.


A distant-to-close scale of  sexual violations:

[a] sex talk: including talk about sex in general; talking about one’s own sexual experiences and thoughts; talking about sex in regard to the listener on the spot.

[b] sexual exhibition: from the most distant to the most personal, this would include showing pornography; sending or showing nude photos of oneself; exhibiting oneself in front of someone else; at its most extreme, performing sex acts like masturbation in front of someone else.

[c] sexual touching: ranging from any body contact at all; to touching bare skin; touching that approaches genitals and breasts; actual groping. Also along this continuum are various kinds of kissing, from air kisses to mouth kisses to tongue kissing. Hugging is also a continuum depending on what kind of body contact and how forceful.

[d] coerced sex acts: including vaginal, oral, and anal.

Narratives of sexual aggression often claim this set of behaviors is a progression, aggressors trying out [a], [b] and [c] as precursors to [d]. Let us see what the evidence is.


Attacking the weak: Sheer size and muscular domination sometimes shows up in the accounts of sexual harassment.

A hip-hop record producer (Russell Simmons) offered a young screenwriter a ride home from a restaurant. The car doors were locked and he told the driver to go to his apartment. “I desperately wanted to keep the situation from escalating. I wanted you to feel I was not going to be difficult. I wanted to stay as contained as I could.... he did not punch me, drag me, or verbally threaten me. (But when they got to his building, he) ... used (his) size to maneuver me quickly into the elevator.” In the apartment, he moved her into a bedroom and did not stop when she said ‘wait.’ “At that point, I simply did what I was told.”

Here physical pressure without actual violence produces  emotional domination. But sometimes overt force fails: The leader of a labor coalition [Mickey Kasparian], talking to a county employee in his office, pinned her down on a sofa and lay on top of her. “I felt like I was being raped,” she said. But the attempt failed. On another occasion, he asked her to participate in group sex with himself and two other women; she successfully declined, although she did visit his hotel room where he had just finished sex with another woman. Four more advances happened over 3 or 4 years, including touching her breasts and genital areas through her clothes in a parked car. She had initially approached him online because she liked his pro-family labor policies and wanted to pursue a career in labor politics; she regarded him as her mentor, and saw him frequently at union-related meetings and social events. This woman eventually sued him. Another woman who worked for him had a long-term sexual relationship with him-- although he was married-- from the time she was hired in 2001 until she retired in 2016. She eventually joined the round of law suits in 2017.

The chief creative officer of a New York advertising agency, while on a business trip to France in the 1990s with a senior art director, pushed her onto a hotel room bed and tried to kiss her. She pushed him off. Several months later she complained to the agency President. Six months later she was fired, as “not the right fit for the agency.” 

At the NFL Network, a wardrobe stylist charged a former football star with pinning her against a wall, demanding oral sex and pulling his pants down. She accused an executive of sending nude photos of himself, rubbing against her, and trying to coerce her into having sex with him. Two other former football players at the NFL Network sent nude photos or videos of themselves and propositioned her on multiple occasions. All these approaches failed. When the sex scandals broke out in October 2017, she filed suit for wrongful termination.

Another successful rape was again by the hip-hop producer, when he took a 17-year-old model to his hotel room and tried to force her to have intercourse. “I fought wildly,” she said later. Eventually he relented, when she agreed to perform oral sex on him. “I guess I just acquiesced.” Feeling disgust, she took a shower, when he walked up behind her in the shower and briefly penetrated her. She jerked away, and he left.

All of the news reports are about acquaintance rape attempts; on the whole, they do not rely on attackers outnumbering the victim. Stranger rapes are more violent, especially when they are solo. Solo rapists frequently operate in teams; this is always the case in political rapes, where the teams are very large. Serial rapists are loners, hence they are generally armed (the Boston Strangler, however, was a large muscular man who approached housewives during the daytime posing as a repair man).

Not all violent rapes succeed. [interview:]  a medium size, attractive woman was attacked in her bedroom by a burglar; a trial lawyer, she was able to talk him out of raping her. Thereafter she always slept with a pistol at her bedside.

In high-profile sexual harassment cases, strength and weakness is mainly through rank and prestige. Aggressors are film producers and directors, famous actors, successful politicians, orchestra and opera conductors, advertising agency executives, newscasters and TV personalities. Victims/targets are generally their employees, lower staffers, young interns or career-seekers.

[interview:] In the 1970s, a woman holding high rank in a state government heard from her young female interns that when they carried reports to a high-ranking legislator, he would stick his hands up their mini-skirts. Furious at this treatment of her protégés, she barged into the legislator’s office-- past his protective secretary-- and angrily denounced him: “Next time, pick on someone your own rank!” He was cowed, and desisted-- no public charges being thinkable at that time, when women were just entering politics. Like an experiment, the case shows equality of rank makes a difference.

[interview:] An attractive woman hospital chain executive, very talkative and friendly, attended a conference of professional peers. After a convivial dinner, she went to her hotel room where she found one of the men from the dinner had gotten inside with a key he picked up from the desk. Although he was large and intoxicated, she locked herself in the bathroom and called security to get him out. (This was her main example when asked if she had ever been sexually harassed.)

But not just rank difference alone is operative; reported incidents show a pattern of times and places that favor the aggressor and weaken the victim.


Home turf advantage:  Sexual aggressions happen especially where an important person works at home, surrounded by female assistants; or where they put in very long hours at the office, into the small hours of the morning when no one else is around.

Independent news interviewer/producer Charlie Rose worked mainly out of his estate 60 miles from New York, with a personal assistant and young interns. A 21-year-old assistant recalled a dozen instances when he emerged from the shower and walked nude in front of her; he also telephoned her repeatedly to describe his fantasies of her swimming nude in the mansion pool. In the most serious charge, a young job applicant was invited to his estate, where he told her he needed to change clothes after getting his pants wet in the pool. He returned in a bathrobe open at the front, and tried to put his hand down her pants. Later she called it “the most humiliating experience of my life.” A total of 8 women accused him of unwanted advances and trying to kiss them without permission. Other staffers said he was “often flirtatious, but never inappropriate”-- possibly those who did not work at his home.

Hollywood producer Brett Ratner had a mansion where he and his friends would invite aspiring models and actresses for screen tests and film viewings. In this backstage atmosphere, she would be isolated from any companions, locked in a bedroom. One director [James Toback] asked a women he had approached for a tryout to show him how she masturbated. “I was afraid that if I didn’t do what he said, it would get worse,” one said later. “I felt frozen.” Finally he humped her leg and ejaculated. In another instance, Ratner groped a young actress in the bedroom. “I was saying, ‘No, stop, I don’t want to.’ And he took his pants off and he was trying to grab my hand, and put it on him-- ‘Just touch it, just touch it, come on.” When she refused, he masturbated and ejaculated.  In both instances, the attackers settled for sexual exhibition and masturbation when rape failed.

Federal Court of Appeals Judge Kozinski demanded a strenuous work pace from his young law clerks, often extending past midnight. By December 2017, 15 women accused him of misconduct, mostly making sexual comments, but including 4 who said he touched or kissed them inappropriately. One woman said that on at least 3 occasions he called her into his office to show her pornographic pictures on his computer, asking if she thought it was digitally altered and if it aroused her sexually. (Three other clerks told similar stories of being shown pornography in his office.) He also showed her a chart of the number of women he and his college classmates had sex with. Kozinski had been appointed as a very high-ranking judge in 1985 at the age of 33;  apparently he regarded himself as continuing the life of a fraternity boy.

As recently as a dinner in 2017, Kozinski sat next to a woman law professor, told her that he had just had sex, pinched her leg above the knee, and tried to feed her with his fork. This was apparently his idea of recreation, a jokey-silly good timer.

As a high-prestige person, he showed off before audiences. Another woman, who clerked for a different judge, described a luncheon break where court staff were discussing workouts; Kozinski suggested she should exercise naked, and when the group tried to change the topic, kept coming back to it: “It wasn’t just he was imagining me naked, but trying to invite other professional colleagues to do so as well. That was what was humiliating about it.”


Audience support:  The last is an instance where someone uses an audience to support verbal aggression. In these celebrity cases, audience support for violent sexual assault is rare; one reported instance is when hip-hop mogul Simmons attempted to rape a 17-year-old model in his hotel room while his then-young protégé, Ratner, stood by and watched, adding to her feeling of being outnumbered. When relying on sheer rank and prestige, celebrities generally preferred privacy to audience support.

The pattern differs in the case of fraternity party rapes and coerced sex, where audiences are of the essence. [Sanday, Armstrong/Hamilton, Moffatt] Anthropologist Peggy Sanday goes so far as to call these homosocial bonding rituals: the frat brothers not only talk at length about who managed to score at a party, but would barge into a room where they were having sex, or view through a window. Although fraternities may tout their reputation as places where there is a lot of action, only an elite minority of their members get sex at any given party. Most of the girls who came with companions leave before their number dwindles-- i.e. they use their audience support to protect themselves from going too far even when they are drinking. Conversely, towards the end, the audience becomes overwhelmingly the drunken bros, who may even dance in a circle around the few isolated women who are left. Adding to the pattern, women party-goers are ranked in prestige: high status goes to women who are engaged or girlfriends of fraternity members, and who only have sex privately. Low status are girls from off campus, and from a lower social class; these are the ones who stay until they are the only females left. This is the pattern for fraternity gang rapes, serial sex “trains,” and the sex-on-display-for-the-bros scenes described above.


Confrontation minimizing:  It might seem sexual assault is not possible without body contact. Stranger rapists, like armed robbers, prefer to attack suddenly and from behind. Back in the era when women wore long skirts, a typical move was to pull her skirt up over her head before raping her (Hemingway reports this for World War I and subsequent civil wars). This eliminated face-to-face contact, creating both greater helplessness on the victim side and greater confidence for the attacker.

The cyber era has made possible new form of long-distance sexual advances. Letters and phone calls, in the past, also served this purpose, but sending nude photos of oneself makes it more graphic. From the number of scandals of this sort, apparently it is more frequent, although perhaps just easier to document.

At NFL Network, a wardrobe stylist (i.e. she dressed on-screen speakers) reported at least three former players and executives sent her nude photos of themselves, one of them a video of himself masturbating in a shower. Sending nude selfies was a fad, probably regarded as cool and edgy, in the period when cellphone cameras and email photo attachments were becoming common. Rep. Anthony Weiner (married to Hillary Clinton’s aide) got into repeated scandals when he sent nude photos of himself to several young women. Rep. Joe Barton got in trouble when nude photos he had exchanged with a woman who approached him on-line were publicized after their affair broke up. This case had no allegation of sexual aggression, but in the atmosphere of spreading scandal in autumn 2017, all sex scandals were lumped together. Women staffers for Rep. Blake Farenthold routinely discussed male lobbyists who sent pictures of their genitals. In this office, men and women chatted about strip clubs and whether newscasters had breast implants. Here nude photos were not regarded as a threat (perhaps because they came from low-ranking persons); also because the office atmosphere included much sexual banter and “off-color jokes.” A press secretary said the “workplace culture was more like a frat house than a congressional office.”

It appears that sending nude photos of oneself was rarely taken as a serious offense by recipients, unless it went along with in-person physical advances. By itself, nude photos over the Internet were unsuccessful in getting sex.


Travels away from home base: Trips to exotic places give a sense of freedom from normal constraints. Above all, this is a network effect; sexual aggressors are less concerned about their reputation; sexual targets are away from their social support.

The chief creative officer of a major New York advertising agency began advances on a female copy-editor accompanying him on assignment in L.A. in 2011 to shoot a commercial. She rejected his advances, but days later he invited her to his hotel room to discuss business. After a short conversation, he got naked, got into bed, and said “You decide what you want to do.” She gave in, saying later she felt she had no choice.  On a 2012 trip to Cannes, an executive producer at his agency reported, he offered her a key to his hotel room, but she rejected his advances.

NBC host Matt Lauer began an affair with a co-worker covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, continuing after they returned to New York. She made a public complaint in Nov. 2017, leading to other complaints and his rapid dismissal from his high-profile TV show.

Many of the political scandals over sexual harassment take place because elected officials work in a national or state capital, away from their home, and where there is a constant round of quasi-official socializing. Rep. Farenthold drank heavily, and aides accompanying him to Capitol Hill social functions joked about having to keep him from getting in trouble with attractive women. This is the context for news revelations of female Members of Congress and staffers “groped from behind” by Congressmen, who “grinded up against her and stuck his tongue in her ear.”   Rep. Bob Filner, who was forced out as Mayor of San Diego in 2013 after his staff sued him for aggressive hugging and kissing, was known in Congress as someone female members of Congress would avoid getting into an elevator with. 

Special events among politicians are especially likely venues for sexual advances. Rep. John Conyers invited the head of his Michigan office (57 years old at the time) to a 3-day Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington D.C. in 1997. She said she “felt honored to attend.” He came to her hotel bedroom, called room service, and ordered sandwiches. “I had my nightclothes on. I was scared to death. He sat in the bedroom taking his clothes off. I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything.” Nothing happened. “He didn’t go naked. He was down to his skivvies. He sat there eating sandwiches and then he stormed out and slammed the door. I was so embarassed and ashamed of myself for being so stupid. I needed a job. He didn’t put his hand on me, but the message was loud and clear.”  She said incidents of unwanted touching happened the following year, when he was driving a car on a road trip.

Another former aide said Conyers invited her to his Chicago hotel room to discuss business. “He pointed to the...  genital area of his body and asked me, you know, touch it.” Apparently she refused.

The case of Senator Al Franken, one of the sensational news stories of November-December 2017, combines elements of these situations. In 2006, as a famous TV comedian, he was on a USO Christmas tour entertaining troops in Afghanistan. He wrote a skit in which he would kiss a young radio broadcaster (30 years younger than himself). Although she explicitly planned to turn her head and not be kissed on the mouth, during rehearsal “he mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” *

*Rehearsals in professional entertainment appear to be a favorable site for sexual touching by high-status persons. New York Metropolitan Opera director James Levine was accused of several homosexual advances over several decades in such venues; London orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit was accused of groping and kissing singers and musicians. The situation combines the ritual veneration given to musical maestros, with a backstage, out-of-sight atmosphere, and performers who spend most of their time practicing alone, thus are socially weak and isolated targets. And elite musicians are often on the road.

What happened next sounds like escalation against her resistance. On a military plane flying out, Franken had his picture taken with his hands on her breasts-- she is asleep, wearing a flak jacket and helmet, safety precautions in the combat zone-- while he turns to the camera with a comic leer. After the trip she was given a copy of the photo along with other mementos of the trip, apparently all to be taken in good humor. This good humor broke down 11 years later, in the midst of the spreading scandal about producer Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch. It also happened at a time of intense political maneuvering over tax reform, when Republicans held a slim majority in the Senate; and coincided with a scandal about Alabama Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore dating and kissing teen-age girls 40 years earlier. It was a perfect storm for Senator Franken, deserted and pressured to resign by most of his liberal friends without going through an official hearing. Franken was the poster child of the sex scandals, above all because the embarrassing photo was circulated so widely. It might well be called, “what we did on vacation.”


Sexual aggression as fun and entertainment:  It is striking how many scenes of sexual aggression are times of sociability and carousing. This is especially true for lesser aggressions, verbal and touching, rarely forceful rape. Self-regarding cut-ups and party animals (Judge Kozinski, Rep. Farenthold) mostly operate in this zone.

A top executive for Visa credit cards, regarded as a rainmaker and ace negotiator of crucial deals, was reprimanded and then fired in Dec. 2017 for having consensual relationships with mid-level employees. He ran a high-profile division, with a “work hard, play hard atmosphere.” “To be in the inner circle, you needed to party with the inner circle, going out for drinks. Most of the women who joined the circle were go-getters. They wanted face time with people who make decisions. To spend time with those men is to be looked upon as a rising star.”

Rosabeth Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation  (1977) describes the era when women were just becoming accepted into management, mainly by helping their husband’s career through sociable contacts, but sometimes by loyalty to a boss who pulled her along with him. Joining the coattails of a ‘water-walker’ was how men advanced, too, getting highly visible assignments and building their corporate resumé. Zooming back to the present, adding a sexual element, plus a work-hard-play-hard atmosphere, makes a volatile mix.

Jobs that involve a lot of hanging around in bars create opportunities for sexual fun, sometimes leading to serious public trouble.

New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was accused and fired at the height of the fall 2017 scandals for: while in a bar hangout of news employees, putting his hand on a woman’s thigh and kissing her; kissing a female colleague on the street after leaving a bar; surprising another colleague with an unexpected kiss.

More serious sexual advances have gone unpunished. A 23-year-old lobbyist in a state capital (in 2005, as she recounted it in 2017), was drinking with an important legislator, then he masturbated in front of her in the bar bathroom. She never revealed his identity, for fear of retaliation; she is still a lobbyist.

Social greeting ritual:  Finally, we should add a category that has no counterpart in the sociology of violence, unwanted hugging or touching. Ostentatious full-body greetings that came into style among the fashionable elite from the 1980s onwards, and have become more or less obligatory in such circles, gave opportunity as well as excuse for this kind of sexual touching.

John Lasseter, creative chief at Disney Animation, went on leave at the height of the controversy in November 2017. He was known for prolonged hugging, both in public and privately. Some former employees said “it made people feel awkward or uncomfortable.” Because hugging was a central part of his public persona, employees felt “it would be difficult to ask him not to do it.” One employee said he would hold her arm in public without asking permission, and hug her for extended periods of time that made her uncomfortable. She also said that several years ago during a meeting he put his hand on her thigh underneath the table.

A week later, comedian Garrison Keillor was banned by Minnesota Public Radio, for an incident in which: “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back. I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness. Her shirt was open and my hand went up it about 6 inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology and she replied she had forgiven me and not to think about it.” Keillor says he is not a person who follows the hugging style. Her accusation came out during the rush of #MeToo charges. MPR subsequently announced that one female colleague had accused him of multiple verbal incidents and touching.


Success rate of sexual aggressions

Taking together all the high-profile cases reported in the news during fall 2017, and listing the types of sexual aggressions charged: a total of 76 specific accusers charged 36 perpetrators with 44 instances of sexual talk; 77 instances of touching, 25 of sexual exhibition, and 12 coerced sex acts or rapes.

The proportion of sexual aggressions that led to coerced sex was 12/76, or 16%.  If we exclude the 4 homosexual rapes (all by one man), 8/72 sexually harassed women were raped (11%).

Since the cases I have tallied are an incomplete sample, coming from news and on-line reports biased towards celebrity, the exact numbers can only be taken as an indication. The surprising result is that only a small proportion of sexual harassments result in rape. If we expand the definition of coerced sex to include being forced to witness or perform masturbation, the figure rises to 18%. There is some good news in this figure:  the large majority of women experiencing sexual harassment have managed to escape.

If the celebrity figures are not representative of the population, in which direction is the statistical bias? Elites in entertainment and politics have usually good opportunities for sexual harassment. The rates of sexual aggression are likely to be lower, perhaps much lower, in other occupations. This is an empirical question; it needs research, asking about specific kinds of aggressions and particular occasions.

The summary just given does not include Harvey Weinstein, the subject of lengthy news reports starting Oct. 5, 2017, which set off the cascade of accusations against others. Is his pattern representative, or an outlier?

A total of 85 women accused Weinstein of sexual aggressions: 56 instances of sex talk, 62 of touching, 32 of sexual exhibition, and 19 of coerced sex acts.  If Weinstein was looking for sex with each of these beautiful actresses and assistants, his success rate was 22%.  In detailed scenarios, it appears he settled for making them watch him masturbate when he wasn’t successful, as a sort of consolation prize for himself. If we include witnessing masturbation, his success rate rises to 31/85 or 36%.  Weinstein was the most powerful sexual predator, able to offer elite career opportunities, and supported by his wealth and organization. Even so, most of the time he failed. *

* Is the sample biased, perhaps because women who gave in to him were ashamed to come forward when others did? To raise his 22% success rate above 50%, another 50 women would have to come forward with rape charges, and no further women charge anything less than rape. To get his success rate to 80%, 250 more raped women would have to make accusations. These numbers are implausible.

So is Weinstein typical of the elite? He made explicit sexual propositions in 52% of the cases, as compared to celebrities in 14%; he used physical restraint or violence in 32%, celebrities in 16%;  his rape rate was twice as high, 22% to 11%.  Harvey Weinstein is not the tip of the iceberg, but more like an iceberg himself.


Details: Celebrity perpetrators


number of perpetrators: 36

number of victims/accusers: 76 (plus multiple others mentioned in news reports with similar experience)

* each tally sums the number of distinct incidents, or series of events with a particular perpetrator as told by one victim; i.e. some stories covered a period of time, without distinguishing particular encounters.


1. Sex talk

-- in general  3

-- about self  6

-- about target  17

-- proposition  11

-- “sexual harassment/advances” (not explained)   7

total: 44


2. Touching

-- anywhere on body (not elsewhere classified)  2

-- hugging  2

-- kissing (or attempt) 12

-- legs, buttocks  12

-- grope breast or genitals  18

-- forced to touch man’s genitals  2

-- physically restrained, manhandled, grabbed  12

-- humped, grinded body against  5

-- unwanted or “inappropriate” touching (not explained)  13

-- “sexual assault” (not explained)  4

total: 77


3. Sexual exhibition

-- pornography  9

-- nude selfie  4

-- appear naked or partly  8

-- forced to witness masturbation  4  (includes 1 described over phone)

-- victim forced to masturbate  1


4. Coerced sex acts

-- intercourse; “rape” (not explained)  5

-- cunnilingus  1

-- fellatio  1

-- homosexual rape  4

total: 8 heterosexual, 4 homosexual


5. Other

-- consensual sex affair in inappropriate rank relationship  3

-- offering alcohol to minor  1


Harvey Weinstein’s record


number of victims/accusers: 86


1. Sex talk

-- about self  4

-- about target  2

-- proposition  44

-- “sexual harassment/advances” (not explained)  6

total: 56


2. Touching

-- anywhere on body (not elsewhere classified)  4

-- hugging  1

-- kissing (or attempt)  8

-- legs, buttocks  2

-- grope breast or genitals  10

-- forced to touch man’s genitals  3

-- physically restrained, manhandled, grabbed  27

-- unwanted “inappropriate” touching (not explained)  4

-- “sexual assault” (not explained)  3

total: 62


3. Sexual exhibition

-- appear naked or partly  20

-- forced to witness masturbation  12

total:  32


4. Coerced sex acts

-- intercourse; “rape” (not explained)  11

-- cunnilingus  6

-- fellatio  2

total: 19


5. Other

-- offering alcohol to minor  1


Emotional domination as turning point

In sexual aggression as in other violence, there is usually a micro-turning point: whether emotional domination is established or not.

Aspiring actress asked by a movie director to show him how she masturbated:  “I was afraid that if I didn’t do what he said, it would get worse. I felt frozen.”

A job applicant approached by a celebrity TV producer, naked beneath an open robe, who put a hand down her pants: “Why didn’t I hit him? Why didn’t I run inside? I was completely wracked with guilt and self-hatred.” Humiliation at the very moment made her passive. The underlying process is like soldiers who are massacred after they get tangled up trying to find cover on the battlefield; they become paralyzed with fear, which is what happens at very high surges of adrenaline, in a situation where one is unable to decide which way to move.

A law clerk shown pornography by Federal Judge: “I felt like a prey animal-- as if I had to make myself small. If I did, if I never admitted to having any emotion at all, I’d get through it.”

A staffer for a high-ranking member of Congress: “I was scared to death. I didn’t say anything and he didn’t say anything... He didn’t go naked... He sat there eating sandwiches and then he stormed out and slammed the door.”

-- This is similar to how threatened fights peter out: by keeping the action stalled (typically this happens by repeating the same insults over and over until it winds down from boredom) and slamming the door.


From Weinstein files:


Successful rapes via emotional domination:

A college student, approached by Weinstein at a New York club and asked to his office for a casting meeting. He both flattered her and recommended she lose weight to be on his reality show [an emotional put-down]. “After that is when he assaulted me. He forced me to perform oral sex on him. I said, over and over, ‘I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t.’  “He’s a big guy. He overpowered me. I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel it’s their fault.” “The kind of control he exerted, it was very real. Even just his presence was intimidating.”

After being cast as lead in a major movie, 22-year-old called to his hotel suite, where he placed his hands on her and suggested massages: “I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified.”  --- This is probably literally true, paralyzed by fear and the sense of no way out.

French actress, invited to Cannes hotel room. He went into bathroom, and she heard the shower being turned on. He came out with an erection and demanded she lie on the bed. ‘It was like a hunter with a wild animal. The fear turns him on.’ -- Like successful armed robbers and bullies, attacker battening on fear.


Rapes by sheer physical power:

Former Miramax employee, raped by Weinstein in basement of his London office: “He grabbed me and he was so big and powerful. He just ripped my clothes away and pushed me, threw me down.”

Italian actress left alone with him in French Riviera hotel room; reluctantly agreed to give him massage, then he raped her. “[He] terrified me, and he was so big. It wouldn’t stop. It was a nightmare.” “If I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.”


Even so, some were without fear, and overcame physical power with psychological preparedness:

French actress invited to his hotel room for drink: “We were talking on the sofa when he suddenly jumped on me and tried to kiss me. I had to defend myself. He’s big and fat, so I had to be forceful to resist him. I left his room, thoroughly disgusted. I wasn’t afraid of him, though. Because I knew what kind of man he was all along.”


Targets who eventually achieved a turning point:

Actress/producer, at Sundance Film Festival, invited to his hotel room to review script she had written: Half an hour later, he went to bathroom and emerged wearing only a bathrobe open at front. He insisted on listening to her pitch in his hot tub, then asked her to watch him masturbate. When she said was leaving, he grabbed her arm, pulled her into the bathroom and told her he could green-light her script -- if she watched him. “I was on the verge of tears but I pulled it together and quickly exited.”

Swedish actress: “I sat in that chair paralyzed by mounting fear when he suggested we shower together. What could I do? How not to offend this man, this gatekeeper, who could anoint or destroy me?” After realizing there was no way he would settle for anything but “an erotic exchange,” she managed to get out of the room. “Later I sat in my hotel room and wept.”

Model brought to his hotel room in the south of France, where he emerged naked and asked for massage: “I did not want to do that and he asked if he could give me a massage... I didn’t know what to do and I felt that letting him maybe touch me a little big might placate him enough to get me out of there somehow.” Before long, she bolted into bathroom. He banged on the door with his fists before eventually retreating, putting on a dressing gown and starting to cry.

-- in these last two incidents, someone ends up crying uncontrollably. The escaped victim has a belated adrenaline discharge, similar to what happens after one leaves an angry situation where you couldn’t express yourself. And the frustrated rapist melts down, too, in frustration, suggesting that for all the bluster he was a nervous rapist.


Successful resistance throughout the encounter:

TV actress invited to his room to show her a script, told him: “I’m not interested in anything other than work, please don’t think I got in here with you for any other reason.” He was “furious” and walked her back to the elevator, holding her “tightly” by the arm. The encounter “left her in tears and feeling completely powerless.” -- again, tears once safety is reached.

British singer and TV-host, propositioned by Weinstein during lunch at Cannes Film Festival, told him “(expletive) off” and left the meeting “disgusted and angry.”


Some blithely avoided emotional dominance, and being caught:

Actress, then 17 and unknown: “I was incredibly naive and young and it did not cross my mind that this older, unattractive man would expect me to have any sexual interest in him. After declining alcohol and announcing I had school in the morning I left, uneasy but unscathed.” 

Waitress and aspiring actress, lured to hotel, where he waited in a bathrobe in front of what he said were contracts for his next three films-- but only if she would have three-way sex with him. She laughed, assuming he was joking. Weinstein grew angry: “You’ll never make it in this business. This is how the business works.” She fled.

Temporary front desk assistant at his company, said she had to refuse his advances “at least a dozen times.” Nothing happened between her and Weinstein -- but only because she “escaped five times.” (These numbers are presumably rhetorical.) “All I remember was I ducked, dived and ultimately got out of there without getting slobbered over. Well, just a bit.”


Successfully de-escalating violence

Recent micro-sociological researchers have uncovered some of the conditions by which participants themselves, on the spot, control whether threatened violence will happen or not.

Research on when political demonstrations turn violent or stay peaceful, by Anne Nassauer (on U.S. and Germany) and Isabel Bramsen (on Arab Spring demos), have zoomed in on turning points. Using videos as well as interviews with protestors and police, Nassauer found that demos that announce they are going to use violence, nevertheless may remain peaceful, just because the militant protestors do not find an opportune moment for breaking into violence. That moment happens when there is a two-part sequence of heightened tension (which can be documented in the shift from loose to tense body postures), followed by a sudden shift to emotional domination-- among the protestors or police locally on the spot, which unleashes them against a temporarily off-balance opponent.

There is also an optimistic side: at such moments of tension, and even when a local cascade of violence is unleashed, participants can cool their opponents down, or at least provide immunity for oneself. Protestors (or cops) can achieve this by directly facing the opponent (not turning one’s back, which creates a weak target inviting attack), and calling out in a strong, clear voice, such a message as: “We are peaceful, what about you?” There is a crucial detail here. Screaming the same message hysterically, with an expression of terror or rage, has no effect in deterring violence. It has to be done with voice, face, and body postures strong and calm.

But although this may happen in the relatively civil protest traditions and policing tactics of contemporary Western democracies: what about in societies where demonstrators aim for maximal disruption, and regime forces brook no defiance and are authorized to use maximal force? Surprisingly, Bramsen shows that even here, local conditions of time and emotional mood determine when and how much violence will occur on either side. Although the spectrum is shifted towards more violence overall, nevertheless there are moments of emotional equilibrium when demonstrators and regime forces (e.g. in Syria or Bahrain) let each other go through ritualized displays without using violence; and times when tension rises uncontrollably into situations of local advantage and hence violence. Many of the demonstrators in Bramsen’s analysis are women cloaked in traditional Arab dress, who nevertheless sometimes stand off against Arab men; and conversely, women in German and American protests can confront the police successfully, or give the wrong micro-signals and get beaten up.

All this suggests there is a gender-transcending process of conflictual interaction, and it contains turning points that stymie violence, including sexual violence. Extending the argument, there are micro-turning points that deter rapes, as well as less intense forms of sexual aggression.

Further clues come from research on conflicts in public places, bars, and entertainment venues. Threatened fights and actual scuffles peter out when they remain in emotional equilibrium, each side mirroring the other and no one getting an advantage (Collins; Jackson-Jacobs). When bystanders intervene to break up such fights, they almost always succeed (Levine et al.). The importance of keeping the emotional equilibrium comes out even when the belligerents are armed. Joe Krupnick’s research on veteran gang members, passing by rivals on Chicago streets, shows the existence of an etiquette for getting through dangerous situations: notice the presence of your enemy with a slight gesture or casual word; do not stare or a take guarded stance, since this suggests wariness that can precipitate an attack; do not look back; keep studied indifference while listening to music or beat-boxing. Violation of these manners is called “slipping” and will get the offender beaten up, if not shot. Keeping the common rhythm is keeping the peace, even when it isn’t friendly.

Nassauer’s research on videos of robberies recorded on CCTV shows, conversely, that successful robbers establish the rhythm of interaction, getting the store clerk to immediately fall into passively doing what the robber demands. This is not merely a matter of verbal commands, but of a visible rhythm of body movements and reciprocal postures. But store clerks do not always fall into the robber’s rhythm; it can be disrupted, for instance, if a robber trips in vaulting the counter, or if the clerk ignores them or laughs at them, or grabs a broom and starts swinging at them. Once again, we find that holding superior weapons is not a guarantee of compliance, and armed robbers can also lose their nerve and retreat. This appears to be a gender-transcending pattern. Women are among the clerks who deter robbers by not falling into their rhythm. At the same time, as video research at the Sociology Department, University of Copenhagen shows, resisting a robbery increases the chance of being injured, while it reduces the robbers’ chances of success. There are probably yet more detailed micro-processes that are fateful in these kinds of encounters.

Bottom line: the micro-sociology of violence in general suggests there are pathways by which women can deter sexual aggression. Perhaps surprisingly, such micro-deterence may be more successful in preventing the extreme forms of sexual violence-- bodily rape, than lesser forms like verbal aggression. But we just don’t know, since we have so little evidence covering situations where women silence men verbally. The common denominators are, extrapolating from violence generally: keep facing your opponent; looking him in the face, head up, as directly as possible; keep calm and strong-voiced as possible; repeat-repeat-repeat to the point of boredom.* Even the arch casting-couch rapist, Weinstein, failed in the majority of his documented attempts; and this is consistent with other evidence.

* These tactics are less likely to work when rapists operate in groups against isolated victims; but that is the ratio in which other kinds of violence are most successful too.

Even without a survey of successes and failures of deterring sexual advances, it is striking that so many of the detailed instances I have assembled show extreme sexual aggression is unsuccessful. News reports and accusations are motivated to publicize the most atrocious instances, but even here, most of what they report fits the pattern that sexual aggression is not easy and is often deterred.


How often do women pay the price for resisting sexual advances?

But if women are often successful in resisting, aren’t they trapped by retaliation in the form of losing their job or career opportunities?

There are some data on this, in the charges reported by Weinstein’s 86 accusers.  He was successful in raping 19 women, and forced another 12 into witnessing him masturbate. Of this total of 31 victims, 10 had successful careers in the entertainment world.

Another 55 women successfully resisted or evaded his aggression. Of these, 37 had successful entertainment careers, including 8 who became big stars.

Surprisingly, women who resisted were more likely to have career success (67%) than those who were unable to resist (32%).  This is not enough data to generalize from with confidence, but it does come from the biggest sexual predator of contemporary times, a man who was famous for threatening his victims’ careers. We have seen this pattern before, in the realm of violence, where bluster and bluff is common before a fight but doesn’t carry over into winning the fight, unless the recipient believes the bluster.

None the less, a third of the resisters did have mediocre or failed careers. Without indepth research, it is difficult to judge how many of them were never on a career track or had few prospects, and how many were destroyed by Weinstein’s retaliation. In the business world, we have instances where women who complained lost their jobs.


Where anti-harassment laws and procedures come in

Research by Justine Tinker, Shannon Rawski, and others has shown that sexual harassment training in workplaces is ineffective. It tends to reinforce gender stereotypes-- men as strong and aggressive, women as weak victims; men who like their masculine identity feel motivated to be more aggressive; many regard the described offenses as trivial and the whole procedure as bureaucratic wheel-spinning. And many women are unwilling to punish co-workers with being fired for what they too regard as small offenses.

I argue that instead of relying on top-down training and reporting programs, women are able to take action on the spot, making the micro-moves that prevent emotional domination and deterring most serious sexual aggression. Where official procedures can be most useful is protecting women who successfully resist from retaliation against their jobs and careers.



Appendix: research needed on experiences of deterring sexual aggression

This is a make-shift analysis. We still need well-balanced surveys, systematically asking the right questions:

-- In your experience, how many instances can you recall where you were subjected to unwanted sexual advances?

-- What did the aggressor do? Check all the relevant categories of sexual talk, touching, exhibition, and coerced sex acts.

-- Were you successful in resisting these advances? What did you do?

Ask about surrounding circumstances:

-- was the attacker bigger and stronger? did he have a weapon? was he of higher rank?

-- how many other persons were present: your companions; attackers and their companions? if an audience was present, what did they do?

-- what were your emotions at the time, and those expressed by the attacker and others? did you have a pounding heart beat, shortness of breath, time distortions? did youi have a period of feeling paralyzed?

-- what kind of location? was it an entertainment venue, social event, ceremonial gathering, dinner or party, bar, street? what time of day was it?  how long did it go on? was there a home turf advantage? was it a location away from your usual home base?

-- above all: who got emotional domination and how did they get it? were there any turning points and what were the details of how dominance shifted?

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


Randall Collins, 2008.  Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory

Jack Katz,  1988. Seductions of Crime.

Eric Hickey. 2002. Serial Murderers and their Victims.

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs. 2013. "Constructing Physical Fights: An Interactionist Analysis of Violence Among Affluent  Suburban Youth." Qualitative Sociology 36: 23-52.

Edward O. Laumann et al. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality.  pp.333-339 “Forced/coerced sex in adulthood.”

Cheryl Brown Travis (ed.), 2003. Evolution, Gender and Rape.

Lee Ellis. 1989. Theories of Rape.

Rosabeth Kanter. 1977. Men and Women of the Corporation.

Michael Moffatt, 1989. Coming of Age in New Jersey.

Peggy Reeves Sanday, 2007. Fraternity Gang Rape..

Jody Miller, 2008. Getting Played.

David Grazian, 2008.  On the Make.

Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, 2013. Paying for the Party


political rapes:

Mary Kaldor, 1999. New and Old Wars.

NPR, Oct. 20, 2009. “Guinea shaken by wave of rapes duwing crackdown.”

Nicole Rafter. 2016. The Crime of All Crimes. Towards a Criminology of Genocide.


sources for Weinstein accusers:  USA Today  Oct. 27, 2017; Washington Post Oct. 5, 2017; BBC 20 Dec. 2017; Wikipedia.

news sources for celebrity scandals Oct.-Dec. 2017:  New York Times; Los Angeles Times; Washington Post; San Diego Union-Tribune; AP news service.

A full search of all charges in the news or online is beyond the scope of this article.


preventing violence:

Anne Nassauer, 2013.   Violence in demonstrations. PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.

Anne Nassauer, 2017. "Failed interaction rituals: armed store robberies gone wrong." Special Issue: “Crime Caught on Camera.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

Isabel Bramsen, 2017.  Route Causes of Conflict: Trajectories of violent and non-violent conflict intensification.  (PhD Dissertation)  University of Copenhagen.

Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship, 2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Black Youth Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City"  in Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (eds.),  The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.

Mark Levine at al. 2011.
"Third parties, violence, and conflict resolution." Psychological Science  22: 406-412.

Justine Tinkler. 2012. “Resisting the enforcement of sexual harassment law.” Law and Social Inquiry 37: 1.24.

Justine Tinkler. 2013. “How do sexual harassment policies shape gender beliefs?” Social

Science Research  42: 1269-1283.

Shannon Rawski. 2017. “The effects of identity threat reactions to sexual harassment on training outcomes.” Academy of Management Proceedings.


Donald Trump, as is well known, has had a long-standing connection with the entertainment industry. This also included promoting sports events like boxing. His Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City held the 1988 heavyweight championship fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks. These connections would lead to Trump appearing in the pages of the men’s sex magazine, Penthouse.

Donald Trump with Penthouse Pet Leslie Glass, in Penthouse February 1992

Donald Trump with Penthouse Pet Leslie Glass, in Penthouse February 1992

Leslie Glass was the “round-card girl,” who paraded around the ring with a placard announcing the number of the next round, as the text for her photo feature explains. She also posed for a photo with Mike Tyson.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 10.52.10 PM.png
Leslie Glass on the cover of Girls of Penthouse, January 1993

Leslie Glass on the cover of Girls of Penthouse, January 1993

Trump had also appeared on the cover of Playboy two years earlier. The issue contained an interview with Trump—following the magazine’s practice of interviewing celebrities and political figures.  Jimmy Carter had a famous Playboy interview published in November 1976 while running for President, although he did not appear on the cover.  Trump’s cover shot included Playboy’s Playmate of the Month, Brandi Brandt (who had appeared in the centerfold for October 1987).  The cover quotes Trump as saying “Nice magazine, want to sell it?”

Trump with Playmate Brandi Brandt, Playboy March 1990

Trump with Playmate Brandi Brandt, Playboy March 1990

Donald Trump’s appearance in Penthouse was followed three months later by an issue with his wife Ivana Trump on the cover, then in the process of getting a divorce. Ivana also gave an interview, about her life and loves and her new book.

Ivana Trump on Penthouse cover, May 1992

Ivana Trump on Penthouse cover, May 1992

Trump crossed paths with Penthouse owner Bob Guccione in another way.  In 1978, Guccione bought property in Atlantic City and began construction of the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino. In the 1970s, Penthouse Magazine had rocketed to a circulation of 4.5 million, making it one of the largest selling magazines of any kind in the U.S. Guccione became listed in Forbes Magazine as one of the 400 richest persons in America. But Guccione was denied a license to operate a casino. Construction stopped in 1980, and the building sat empty until 1993, when it was purchased by Donald Trump.  Guccione lost $145-160 million of his own money in the project.

Gambling had been legalized in Atlantic City in 1977, and in 1978 Trump also bought property and began construction of what would become the Trump Plaza Hotel. It was the first of three casinos he would own in Atlantic City.

Is any of this a surprise? Not really. Trump was in a similar business as Guccione, promoting glitzy entertainment and buying real estate. Given their New York base of operations, it was not unlikely their networks would intersect.  Hugh Hefner, with his string of Playboy Clubs and other properties, operated similarly. So did their British equivalent, Paul Raymond, who ran night clubs, published sex magazines, and was called “King of Soho” for his domination of the London entertainment district real estate, and ended with a fortune of over a billion dollars. Trump was just the most successful of them all.

For a more elaborate analysis of this field, see  “Hefner’s Playboy: Spin-off of Esquire’s Niche.” Creativity via Sociology



John Colapinto, “The Twilight of Bob Guccione.” Interview in  Rolling Stone, April 1, 2004.

Wikipedia articles on Robert Guccione, Paul Raymond, and Donald Trump


Mutual escalation between the US and North Korea has risen to a high level. There have been threats of destruction, personal insults between heads of state, and even claims that a state of war exists. Beyond the realm of words are provocative actions including firing missiles and testing nuclear explosions on the North Korean side, and naval and military aircraft movements by the US.

Assuming the worst, when will nuclear war begin? This is a more complicated question than it might appear. According to the conventional model of escalation and counter-escalation, if both sides do not pull back, nuclear war would seem to be inevitable.

Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. If we look at research on threatening situations of smaller-scale violence, we find that violence does not always break out. In most situations where antagonists insult and challenge each other, violence does not happen. This is true even when both sides have weapons, show them off, and make threatening gestures with them.

I will summarize what we know about when protest demonstrations do or do not turn into violent riots, and similarly about confrontations in bar fights, street fights, and gang wars.


When do demonstrations become riots?

According to Dr. Anne Nassauer, sociologist at the Free University Berlin, most demonstrations are peaceful. Her research focuses on demonstrations in the US and in Germany, with comparisons elsewhere in Europe, where 92-98% of protests are peaceful. The impression that demonstrations easily turn violent is created because the news media ignore most demonstrations unless they are violent.

Even when participants announce in advance they will use violence, that is not enough to predict that a demo will be violent. Nor does it matter whether authorities announce a zero-tolerance policy, declaring that any provocation by demonstrators will be met by force and arrest.

It makes no difference whether or not a demonstration includes participants who come prepared to fight. Since the 1990s, demos have generally included an avowedly violent group known as the Black Bloc-- who wear black clothes, facemasks, body armor and shields, and link arms in aggressive tactics against police and opponents. The names have changed over the years; in the 1960s the pro-violence faction were called “Maoists”, while very recently they have gone under the “Anti-Fa” banner. Such groups are usually a small proportion of a large demonstration. But as we can see in photos of riots, only 5-10% of the those present do all the violence; so a relatively small violent group can potentially make a demo into a riot. The surprising finding is that whether such a group is present or not does not make a difference in whether the demo will stay peaceful or not.

Avowed intentions do not matter much when it comes to violence. Declaring that you are going to be violent does not predict what you will actually do. On the flip side, declaring that a protest will be peaceful does not guarantee that it will turn out that way; violence can break out even when demonstrators plan to use non-violent tactics and the policing style is hands-off. As Nassauer shows, even when the police announce they will avoid using force, and both sides meet beforehand to plan the protest route and agree on how to avoid confrontations, things can go wrong. At the moment of outbreak, violence is inflamed by surprise and outrage on each side that their agreement was violated.

Why don’t groups of people do what they say they are going to do? In contentious protests, whether the event turns violent is the result of turning points that first increase tension on both sides, and then trigger off a collective reaction. It is less a matter of conscious planning than of emotions building up during the situation when the two sides confront each other face to face. It is an emergent process.  Dr. Isabel Bramsen of Copenhagen University, who studied demonstrations and violence in the Arab Spring uprisings, called her analysis “Route Causes of Violence”-- i.e. the causes of violent outbreaks emerge en route, rather than determining what will happen in advance.

Take the case where we would most expect violence: the demonstrators are ready to fight, and the authorities have said they will put it down by force. Yet, without the emotional turning points en route, this does not happen. Why not? Above all, it is a matter of timing.

Typically, if violence occurs during a protest demonstration, it will break out one to three hours in. A demo does not start out by being violent from the very first minute. Even if protestors intend to be violent, they don’t start off with using rocks, guns, or gasoline fire bombs; nor do authorities immediately fire tear gas and automatic weapons. *  It takes time to build up high tension, to build up the feeling of when the moment is ripe for violence. This is a mutual moment felt on both sides.

*  This is true, amazingly enough, even in Arab Spring locations like Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria. Bramsen found that even though authoritarian regimes order their forces to use force, they do not start firing at the first sign of a demonstration. Here, too, timing and collective emotions determine what will happen.

A simple formula for avoiding violence is:
-- no violence at minute number 1
-- no violence at minute number 2
-- no violence at minute number 10
-- no violence at minutes number 30, 40, 50...

Then approaching the danger zone--
-- getting through minutes number 60, 90, 100, up to 150... without violence.

If the emotional trigger does not happen by then, both sides start to relax. As if both unconsciously feel, too late now, maybe next time. 


Small-scale violence most frequently aborts

A similar dynamic, based on emotions and timing, exists in small-scale disputes in bars, parties, and entertainment zones.

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a UCLA researcher, followed a loosely-organized gang in Tucson, Arizona, as they went looking for fights. It consisted of a couple of dozen young white men, all of them bored with middle-class life style, who went to parties hoping to find someone to fight with. They were looking for opponents who would give them some action and boost their prestige, at least in their own eyes:  black guys, tough guys, Hispanic gangs, bikers, athletes.  But although there were plenty of over-crowded house parties in this desert city, with plenty of loud music and drinking going on, the surprise is how difficult it was for them to find a fight. They took a belligerent attitude, bumped into people, gave people the eye, but most of the time fights didn’t happen. Fights were rare enough that when one happened, the group would spend weeks thereafter talking about it, going over the details, bragging about what they did and even about taking a beating if they lost.

Why did this action-seeking group have so much trouble finding fights? Jackson-Jacobs spelled out the subtle details that had to happen if two sides were going to fight. These little details were only semi-conscious, but they boiled down to the fact that both sides had to decide that a fight was coming up, and this had to be a mutual feeling of emotion and timing. Like a demo only turning into a riot a couple of hours in, no one walks into a party and starts a fight from the very first minute. And if the minutes go by long enough, there is a feeling that this isn’t the time and place, so the action-seekers go somewhere else. *

*Another hypothesis is that fights were also inhibited because typically rival groups fight within the same identity or demographic: as we know from gang murders in Chicago (Andrew Papachristos’ research) and gang fights generally, most such violence is segregated: black gangs fight with black gangs, Hispanic gangs with Hispanic, Irish gangs with Irish, Italian Mafias with each other. Jackson-Jacobs’ white middle-class guys were an anomaly on the tough-guy scene; they didn’t identify as skinheads, so they had no counterpart group to fight with them. J-J’s crew were looking for the prestige of fighting somebody tough; maybe they didn’t perceive that the same goes for the other side, and real fighting gangs didn’t think they were a worthy opponent.

The pattern holds generally across different kinds of small-scale fights: most encounters where people threaten each other with violence do not actually end in violence. Most stay at the level of angry insults—the human bark is worse than our bite. Even if it gets physical, most fights do not go beyond pushing and shoving. Videos of fights (posted from cell phones) generally show that after a few wild swings, fighters tend to spin away from each other, leaving themselves at a distance just out of reach while the fight winds down. Showing your willingness to fight is on the whole more important than what damage you do. Researchers in England, using CCTV from pubs and the streets outside, found that angry disputes were broken up, in the great majority of cases, by friends separating the fighters.

The fact that fights mostly abort is well known to club bouncers and other habitués of so-called dangerous places. But researchers did not start documenting the pattern until quite recently, helped by the abundance of videos. For a long time, we relied on official statistics. The trouble is that police records report only the most violent cases: almost all murders are reported, but assaults only if someone is badly injured or if a cop happens to be there. This is sampling on the dependent variable, counting only the cases where violence happens. What gets missed are all the cases where a quarrel did not turn into a fight, or at least not one serious enough to do much damage.

This isn’t just a quibble about statistics, because the upshot is entirely different when we start at the other end and ask about quarrels, to see if they end up in a fight. Most crime statistics have a pessimistic tone; we don’t have an accurate idea of what causes violence, but the causes usually cited-- poverty, discrimination, disrespect, gangs, popular entertainment-- are things that we can do very little about.  But the findings of today’s micro-sociologists are a rare piece of social science that shows optimistic results: most threatened fights do not come off. We are beginning to understand the subtle turning points that lead, sometimes to escalation, but most of the time, to the fight petering out.

A key feature that keeps quarrels from escalating is when they are balanced. Two guys quarrel with each other. They push out their chests, get their hands into fighting position. They yell insults at each other, each getting louder, trying to shout the other down. A lot here depends on what the audience will do-- whether other people take sides or encourage them to fight; or do the opposite, ignoring the quarrel, which tends to take the energy out of it. Left to themselves, the belligerents usually find themselves repeating the same insults, over and over; they are both talking at the same time, which means they aren’t listening to each other, and it just becomes a contest of keeping up the noise. (How long do dogs go on barking at each other? Check it out.) After a short period of time-- usually less than 60 seconds-- this gets boring. They get tired of a quarrel that is going nowhere. Typically they will break it off, with a gesture of disgust, or slamming the door on the way out.

This suggests some practical advice. If you get into a threatening face-contest with someone, keep it in equilibrium. Just mimic what the other person does; don’t escalate it. After a while it becomes boring-- and boredom is your friend. (Sir Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, wrote that if you are in an angry dispute, keep it to common terms of abuse; don’t try to score a cutting remark with a personal insult that your opponent will never forgive.)

Different groups of people have their specific ways of carrying out quarrels, their own cultures of quarreling. But cutting across most of them is an unconscious common denominator: most of the time they have ways of keeping their disputes this side of violence. Research on quarrels among roommates or neighbours shows that such disputes often fester, but they almost never go all the way to violence. Gangs have an explicit culture of violence; they brag about it and measure their prestige by it. Nevertheless, close ethnographic observations by trained observers on the spot show that gang fights are much more about showing off their weapons than using them.

Street gangs have a turf and challenge anyone who enters it who fits the demographic of a rival gang; and often in a show of bravado they will invade someone else’s turf. But what happens then? If the groups are more or less evenly matched, they confine themselves to flashing their gang signs, showing their colors, exchanging trash talk. On a schoolyard in southern California, rival gangs pull up their shirts to show the guns tucked in their waist-bands; but nothing happens, until the school janitor comes out and shoos them away. On the streets of west and north Philadelphia, the local culture of gun gesturing has evolved in the last 20 years-- opening your coat to show the butt of a gun; pulling the gun but keeping it pointed at the ground while continuing the duet of insults; pointing the gun in the air. This requires a good understanding of what’s going on, and accomplished tough guys need to be able to read the signs of where this ballet of danger displays is leading. Shootings do occur in these neighbourhoods, but most of the time these incidents are survivable.

In Chicago, ethnographer Joe Krupnick accompanied seasoned gang members-- men in their 20s who had gone through years of living dangerously, and who always went armed. But although they often met members of rival gangs on the street (this was after the big hierarchic gangs had broken up and no one controlled the old turf in the city projects), they had an etiquette of how to pass one another, with just enough recognition, and without showing too much suspicion that the other would turn on them. When things got escalated, these armed men might even fire a bullet in the air-- a way to alert the police, and giving everyone an excuse to leave the scene.

These gangs displayed what Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street”:  show you are capable of violence, don’t back down from a threat, but recognize that if we both play by the street code, we can save face and at the same time avoid violence. You gain prestige by playing the street code, and the highest prestige comes not from killing other people but by showing you are in the fraternity of those who know how to handle such situations.


What relevance do small scale fights have for nuclear war?

There is a huge difference between two states armed with nuclear weapons and the military apparatus to deliver them to targets across the globe, and a few guys outside a bar, or a protest march in the streets. The military is much better organized and this gives them much more staying power in a battle, once it gets going. But at the core, there are two sides confronting each other; two leaders of nuclear-armed states who are getting in each other’s face, surrounded by coteries and audiences who amplify or dampen their emotions. The process of escalation, on an abstract level, is similar on each scale; and so is the process of de-escalation. What we have learned about small-scale fights applies also to the risk of nuclear war.

Threats, insults, and displays of weapons-- even firing them off in the wrong direction-- happen at the small-scale level, without them necessarily leading to all-out violence. They can fall into an equilibrium that keeps violence from happening-- in fact this is the most frequent outcome of such incidents.

The most important lesson from the micro level, that we can apply to the geopolitical level of nuclear war, is this: conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement, without negotiating, apologizing, or offering concessions.

In the world of international politics, the issue is generally posed as either taking a tough stance, or else turning to negotiations. But what do you do when the other side refuses to negotiate? Or when they make it clear that one thing that is not negotiable is building nuclear weapons that can wipe you out? This is a terrible dilemma. It makes advocates of negotiation look like they are shying away from a frightening reality through acts of blind faith.  But micro-level conflicts show that there is another way out: threats of violence, even with the strongest expressions of hostility between the sides, nevertheless can arrive at an equilibrium that stops short of the brink. And this happens without negotiating, without making an explicit agreement.

When and how does this happen? Micro conflict shows it is a matter of shared emotional moods shifting over time. It is a minute-by-minute process, or day-by-day, even month-by-month. De facto de-escalation occurs with the sheer passage of time, avoiding irretrievable steps along the way, and keeping the sides in emotional equilibrium.


When is the point of no return?

Look at the timing of how shooting wars break out-- the timing of daily events that preceded the actual fighting.

A war clearly begins with a incursion into enemy territory. World War I went through a period ofintense public emotions for five weeks before this happened. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated on June 28. At first, the European heads of state all sent condolences and showed no inclination to go to war. But crowds assembled in the streets of every major city in Europe-- from Vienna to Berlin, St. Petersburg to Paris to London-- enthusiastically pressing their leaders to go to war. Diplomatic messages became more and more testy. On July 29-- after a month of emotional build-up-- Austria invaded Serbia (source of the assassination). The next day, the Russian army mobilized, and two more days later Germany mobilized and declared war on Russia, while France and England also mobilized. August 2 Germany attacked through Luxenburg; August 3 Germany declared war on France; August 4 Germany attacked through Belgium, and Britain declared war on Germany. Threats (i.e. mobilizing your army or putting your fleet on war stations) led to declarations of war; but the real shooting war started with territorial invasions.

Threats and even official declarations do not necessarily mean war. In 1939 Germany and Russia invaded Poland, triggering declarations of war by France and England, but it remained a so-called “phony war” until May 1940, when Germany attacked France and began aerial bombing of Britain. And so on. The Korean War was never officially called a war (it was a “police action”), and the Vietnam War was never officially declared by an act of Congress. The 4-day Gulf War in February 1991 happened in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, after six months of waiting time while the US gathered allies and prepared its attack. Again in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the build-up took 18 months, instigated by the 9/11/2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington D.C.

In all these wars, the escalation of force-- and the difficulty of de-escalating or extricating oneself-- became locked in through a territorial incursion, when boots hit the ground.

In the case of a North Korea vs. United States nuclear war, there is no obvious territorial incursion, short of all-out nuclear attack at long distance. Hypothetically, North Korea could invade South Korea, or the U.S. could invade North Korea; but both seem unlikely. N. Korea would not be hitting its main enemy and would leave itself open to a nuclear strike before it launched its own; in the second scenario, the U.S. would have to move many troops and ships into place, thus giving away its intention and prompting N. Korea to begin a nuclear attack.

Is this a conundrum, or an opportunity for violence to abort?

If neither side attempts a territorial incursion, we are in the same situation as a demonstration that doesn’t turn into a riot while the emotional danger-zone ticks by; in the same situation as gang members showing off their guns while trash-talking but only pointing them in the air. It looks dangerous, but it is survivable.

The scenario that worries everybody is that N. Korea will continue developing its long-distance nuclear weapons. If it does this publicly-- firing rockets near U.S. allies, or testing an H-bomb in the atmosphere--  that still remains at the level of bluster and threat. And as we know from smaller-scale examples, this could go on for a long time without breaking the emotional equilibrium, without reaching the moment when one side or both feels they must start nuclear war.


Who wants to be responsible for nuclear war?

Leaders in such circumstances have a heavy burden of decision-making. This is a moral concern, over and above the pressures and emotions driven by insults, anger, public posturing, and realistic assessments of the danger of not pre-empting the other’s nuclear attack.

Both leaders have to consider:

Do they want to be responsible for enormous damage to one’s own country? This could run to millions of casualties at home, and possibly far worse.

Do they want to be responsible to their own conscience? Some might question whether the 45th President of the United States or the dictator of North Korea have a conscience. Sociologically, everyone is affected by the opinion that other people have of them, because they have internalized an image of how they want other people to see them. Starting a nuclear war would bring an enormous reaction from one’s fellow citizens, as well as from the rest of the world. If you start a nuclear war, your name will go down in history for this alone, whatever else you do in your life. Call it “conscience,”  or call it concern for one’s historical reputation, it comes to the same thing.

And the conscience/reputation problem remains, even if you are the “victor” in a nuclear war. This applies mainly to a U.S. pre-emptive strike, which conceivably might be successful in the sense of destroying North Korea militarily, with little damage to the mainland U.S.  It is hard to conceive of this kind of “success” without killing millions of people in Japan and South Korea as North Korea strikes back, as well as near-total annihilation of North Koreans.  In whatever fashion it plays out, the leader who gives the order for nuclear attack would be saddled with the moral onus of killing millions.

I am not saying that these leaders (or conceivably others) will decide not to strike, out of consideration for casualties of this scale. But they are feeling the emotional pressure. This adds one more force for delaying the moment, in the usual fashion of violence that does not come about because the “emotional moment that is ripe for violence” has not yet arrived.

Leaders will tend to prolong the decision. And waiting is itself a possible path to emotional de-escalation, perhaps the only path we have.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon



Nassauer, Anne. 2013.  Violence in demonstrations. A comparative analysis of situational interaction dynamics at social movement protests. PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.

Bramsen, Isobel. 2017. Route Causes of Conflict: Trajectories of violent and non-violent conflict intensification.  PhD Dissertation,  University of Copenhagen.

Jackson-Jacobs, Curtis. 2013. "Constructing Physical Fights: An Interactionist Analysis of Violence Among AffluentSuburban Youth." Qualitative Sociology 36: 23-52.

Levine, M., P. Taylor, and R. Best. 2011. "Third parties, violence, and conflict resolution." Psychological Science  22: 406-412.

Copes, Heith, Andy Hochstetler, and Craig J. Forsyth. 2013. "Peaceful Warriors: Codes for Violence among Adult Male Bar Fighters." Criminology 51: 761-794.

Papachristos, Andrew. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and The Social Structure of Gang Homicide,” American Journal of Sociology 115: 74-128.

Emerson, Robert M. 2015. Everyday Troubles: The Micro-politics of Interpersonal Conflict. University of Chicago Press.

Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship.  2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Young Black Men Avoid Street Violence in the InnerCity." In Orlando Patterson (Ed.), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.  Harvard University Press.

Anderson, Elijah. 1999. The Code of the Street.  Norton.

Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: a Micro-sociological Theory. Princeton Univ. Press.


Little processes add up to big things. Social class hierarchy, race, gender, inequality sound like big immutable structures but they exist only in strings of behavior. Emotions between persons are central in all of them.

I will make 4 points. First, people are stratified, among other reasons, by the amount of Emotional Energy they have accumulated over time.  Second: besides long-term EE, short-time situational stratification comes from emotional domination (EDOM), a coercive type of Interaction Ritual. Third: a charismatic leader exerts an unthreatening form of domination by pumping up followers with EE. Fourth: there are limits to all three kinds of emotional stratification; they have volatile dynamics.

First point: Emotional Energy or EE is a variable quantity.

At the high end of the continuum, high EE is having a great deal confidence, initiative and enthusiasm. At the low end of the continuum, individuals are depressed, withdrawn, and passive. This generates stratification because high-EE persons tend to succeed, low-EE persons tend to fail. In the “emotional middle-class” between the extremes, persons with more EE tend to succeed better than persons with less EE. 

Sociologists generally attribute success to accumulated advantages, such as the habitus of the higher classes, money, better network contacts, and self-reinforcing spirals of reputation. These processes exist, but the micro-mechanism that makes them happen largely operate through generating higher EE, or negatively by reducing one’s EE. 

Higher or lower EE is the result of successful or unsuccessful interaction rituals (IR) . Every situation of social interaction in everyday life can be analyzed into ingredients that produce IR success or failure.

Favorable ingredients are:  assembling persons face-to-face; focusing their attention on the same thing, so that they become aware of their mutual awareness; plus feeling the same emotion. If these micro-processes take off, they feed back and intensify, into rhythmic entrainment of voices and bodies that Durkheim called collective effervescence. Persons who go through this kind of experience feel solidarity and shared social identity.

Successful rituals produce big macro effects-- religious belief and political commitment, as Durkheim pointed out. Goffman showed the same mechanism operating in the minor encounters of everyday life.

But the most important dividing point is that rituals fail as well as succeed, so individuals vary as to whether they have a string of successful rituals, or mostly failed interaction rituals. For most of us, the results are somewhere in between, depending on how well we match up with the people we encounter in the kinds of things they focus upon-- what comes under the category of habitus and social capital--and whether we can muster the emotions that get us into the shared feelings that make a successful IR.

The most important outcome for stratification is what I have labeled Emotional Energy. A successful IR makes you energized. You feel stronger, more confident, more active mentally and physically. At the opposite end of the continuum, low EE is a feeling of not wanting to do anything at all, just to get away from situations that bring you down. Some situations are energy gainers, others are energy gainers.

One’s life can become a self-reinforcing spiral, either positively or negatively: a chain of successful IRs, that pump you up, make you feel like a member, that give you the social habitus and cultural capital circulating in your networks, and which you can confidently play back in your future encounters. Or you can fail to get into the shared rhythm of the interaction-- by lack of things to talk about, lack of emotional attunement, lack of micro-habits that play well in that network--- and accordingly you feel drained, alienated and depressed.

For most people in the middle ranges of emotional stratification, the solution to a failed encounter isto leave, avoid that network where you don’t click and stick to the networks where you feel comfortable. This is how most of the little cliques and idiocultures of everyday life sustain themselves.

Macro-structures such as social classes or ethnic groups or sexual preference groups, are constructed on the micro-level: shaped by successful IRs among some people, moderate shades of attraction among other people, outright feelings of rejection and failure with others. The term “micro-aggressions” refers to interaction rituals from the point of view of persons who fail in them.

Persons with high EE make their way into the top levels of organizations, in business and finance, in politics and political and religious movements. Election campaigns tend to be about the EE levels of the candidates; boards of directors appoint executives who impress them with their EE. Stratification by EE also operates in intellectual and cultural worlds, where persons who are most energized by their work as cultural producers get themselves into the center of attention and reputation.

Further down are persons who have enough EE to stay in the action; others find a routine area where modest amounts of EE will make do. Still others have crises of confidence, mini-scandals of local alienation, incidents of failed network ties that leave them among the depressed dropouts of social life. Money, power and status flow through successful IRs at the top end, and their lack is correlated with the proportion of failed IRs in one’s life.

A side comment: persons who are alienated by failures in conventional IRs do not necessarily fall to the bottom; some of them become good at the IRs specific to criminal worlds, where they may make a career, depending on the amount of criminal EE one has relative to rivals and victims. Still another branch are political rebels, who may succeed to the extent that they find networks of other rebels who can generate rebellious EE together. 

Second point: emotional domination or EDOM 

Move now to the level of situational stratification. EE rises and falls in micro-situations, but the stratification of EE one sees in business, political and other hierarchies is long-term.  Zooming in the sociological microscope, we see two ways individuals can dominate situations. One is EDOM; the other is charisma.

EDOM is an empirically-based concept. Analyzing recorded conversations, we find patterns where one individual sets the rhythm of the talk, and others follow; where one person seizes the speaking turns and sets the topics and even the unconscious tones of voice.  This is a variant on the basic mechanism of successful IRs, where individuals get into rhythmic entrainment that they all share and which energizes all of them. EDOM is a further mechanism by which some persons dominate the situation, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.

Some of the best evidence comes from videos of violent situations: armed robbers rely more on dominating the rhythm of interaction than on actually using their weapons; threat works by the techniques of EDOM. Similarly fights often stalemate, or fail to get beyond blustering at each other; when someone wins a fight, it is chiefly when one seizes the initiative and pushes the other emotionally into a passive position. Evidence on rape-- particularly party rape or fraternity rape-- shows this pattern, where energized groups of rapists and their avid audience find an isolated and emotionally dominated victim. 

I cite evidence on violent EDOM because researchers have looked at it closely; but EDOM is crucial in other kinds of careers. Success in business and financial careers also shows the pattern: persons who build business empires cultivate networks, in which their targets often have more money and assets but lack emotional energy. French sociologist Michel Villette calls them predators of the business world. They lurk in networks of their business rivals, waiting for moments of crisis when someone with more assets can be manipulated-- conned by arescue offer, subjected to a hard-ball law suit, or a stone-wall tactic of walking away from failed projects and leaving someone else holding the debt. (The businessman who rode his career to the White House is an example, but not the only one who practiced such tactics on the way up.) 

Business success does not simply consist of the accumulated advantage of money to make money. EDOM in the networks where the money is, is the real key to large fortunes.

Third point: the micro-sociology of charisma

A charismatic leader pumps up followers with EE; they admire their leader and follow willingly in his or her trajectory. EDOM is a different mechanism because it operates by hogging the EE. Charisma includes people rather than excludes them. Durkheim would say that the charismatic leader becomes the sacred object for the group; I would say he or she is the focus of attention that sets the trajectory of the group, filling them with enthusiasm that they will accomplish something great together.

A few brief examples. Joan of Arc led French troops to assault English fortresses, not because she was a great fighter but because she carried the banner at the front, and her followers would swarm up after her because they believed she could not fail. In quieter moments, she would display her humility as an agent of God and her personal saints, by weeping in church, so expressively that everyone else would be weeping along with her. It is no exaggeration to say that she led a procession across France of crowds weeping, and rushing behind her into battle. The shared emotion of weeping--- a bodily process that sweeps one out of control-- was the emotional mechanism that generated the sense of religious-plus-political trajectory.

Jesus, like most charismatic leaders, was a good observer of persons; he knew who could be moved to join him, and who had something else on their mind. Jesus always seized control of the interaction by the second conversational turn: instead of replying to what someone else said, he intuited what they meant and challenged them on it. He could turn the tables even on hostile enemies by controlling the rhythm and letting embarrassing silences work against them, then seizing the moment to make his point.

Jumping to a recent example of a dominant business entrepreneur, Steve Jobs: Jobs was not an engineer or a designer, but he had excellent judgment as to who were the most creative people to hire. He recruited them, in part, by touting the revolutionary things they would invent, and offering generous shares of the profits. Above all, he challenged them to do things that they thought were impossible; his emotional domination in arguing with his technical staff was so strong that they jokingly said Steve had a reality-distortion field.

The way it worked was by an extremely intense interaction ritual in the workplace. Steve would visit the most advanced work group, look at what they had done, and start criticizing it. His comments were crude, obscene and insulting. We might think his high-tech experts wouldn’t stand for this, that they would quit or rebel. But Jobs was not the kind of boss who walks in, shouts at his workers, threatens them if they don’t do better, then slams the door and leaves. Steve would insult them until they were really angry; then he would stay and argue with them. His persistence was incredible-- he would argue with them for hours. He was famous for dropping in on people and staying up all night arguing and expounding his vision. Obviously Steve has a lot of emotional energy to be able to do this: he shows the familiar pattern of the charismatic leader who doesn’t need sleep, a single-minded workaholic who never takes a break. This high level of EE is the result of constantly being in the center of successful IRs. But the most energizing IRs are not mere EDOM, where everyone else’s EE is crushed. Jobs wants energized workers who share his vision, technical experts who push beyond the limits of what they had thought possible.

The crucial pattern is in the time-sequence. Steve enters, and forcefully seizes the emotional center of attention. He uses negative emotions to begin with; he gets everyone seething with the same emotion, even if it is anger at himself. He gets them into an intense argument about how the thing they are inventing can or cannot be changed in ways no one has thought of before. Let us say, roughly, twenty minutes of insulting, then hours of heated argument. Over those hours, the emotions settle down; they are no longer focused on Steve and his insults, but about a vision of the piece of computer equipment in front of them, and where they can go with it. Steve did not always win these arguments; if something turned out to be genuinely impossible, he would tacitly accept that, provided they had figured out a work-around that would get them into the territory they were aiming for.

One could say that Steve Jobs was extremely egotistical, but his ego was in his products; and these were very much the products of a team, as cutting-edge as he could assemble. His core team became so convinced that Steve could do anything that they stuck with him, even in the dark days when he was forced out of Apple by the marketing and financial managers he had brought in to handle the non-technical side. It would be superficial to say that Steve Jobs achieved success by abusing his employees. He used very confrontational tactics to stir up emotions, but his secret was that he never walked away from them: but always saw the argument through to a shared resolution.  He was an expert at provoking intense IRs.

This is what charisma is like in action: it energizes a group, along a trajectory that they believe will be a glorious success.

Fourth point: All forms of emotional stratification have limits

If you have less EE than others, you might avoid being outshone by avoiding them. If you are one of the high-energy elite, your trajectory will notinevitably be upward. Opportunities narrow towards the top, and competition to knock each other off intensifies. There are plenty of former big cheeses around.

Persons who control every encounter by EDOM are obnoxious to deal with, although in highly enclosed societies they are unavoidable.  Such persons make many enemies, but how long it takes for them to fall remains an empirical question.

More effective leaders are charismatic, generating EE and spreading it within a group who shares an enthusiastic trajectory.  Nevertheless, historically the careers of very charismatic persons did not last many years, and often went through periods of defeat, overthrow, or assassination. One of the limits for charismatic power is that it usually energizes one group but leaves plenty of opponents.

Emotional stratification underlies most forms of social inequality.  The fact that it is volatile means much comparative research will be needed to show its dynamics across time. In short: the patterns through which emotions drive social change.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


Randall Collins and Maren McConnell. 2016.  Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy.

“Jesus in Interaction: the Micro-sociology of Charisma”

"When are Women Charismatic Leaders?"

Michel Villlette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.

Walter Issacson. 2011. Steve Jobs.


North Korea continues its march towards a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting anywhere in the U.S. Military experts agree they will eventually have this ultimate weapon, although maybe not until the end of Trump’s 4-year term.

What can be done to stop it? All the proposals have terrible drawbacks. A pre-emptive strike to knock out North Korea’s missile launchers, storehouses and military facilities would certainly fall short of 100%, leaving North Korea able to retaliate by killing tens of millions of people in South Korea and Japan and conceivably a few American targets. And if we didn’t also obliterate their ground forces, artillery, and submarines, their conventional weapons could devastate Seoul and elsewhere. A covert plan to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un would be extremely difficult to arrange, given his paranoia and lack of insider information about his precise whereabouts; and there is no guarantee his successor would be any different.

The remaining alternative-- tightening economic sanctions-- does not look promising. It has been attempted against North Korea unsuccessfully for decades. And in general, economic sanctions have a very poor track record in dissuading rogue regimes anywhere.

Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism. We are back in a Cold War situation with North Korea. But our 45-year Cold War with the Soviet Union and China has some favorable lessons. Nuclear war did not happen, above all because of mutual deterrence by nuclear weapons. And both the Soviet bloc and Communist China succumbed, unexpectedly, to what might be called the blue jeans offensive: the lure of Western consumerism.

There are also good sociological grounds for reversing North Korea’s hostility. Here we need to remind ourselves of the social psychology of collective hostility, as well as of de-escalation. Isolating an enemy is just the wrong way to change their behavior. Our historical experience with Russia and China shows how to do it right.

The Cold War Nuclear Standoff

The U.S. exploded its first atom bomb in 1945; the Soviets four years later in 1949. The pace picked up: the first U.S. hydrogen bomb was 1952; the first Soviet H-bomb 1953. By 1957 the Soviets jumped ahead with their Sputnik rocket. This was not just the prestige of the space race, but an ICBM-- an intercontinental ballistics missile capable of hitting targets across the globe. The US soon had their own ICBMs (not to mention long-distance bomber fleets with aerial refueling, and submarine-launched missiles). By the late 50s magazine articles wereexplaining how to build backyard bomb shelters. When I was a kid, being woken up by a lightning storm made me think nuclear war had started. In 1964 Dr. Strangelove showed us on screen how the end of the world could happen.

By the 1970s, Soviet and US nuclear arsenals were so large that they could annihilate all animal life on the planet, through poisonous radiation drifting around the globe and the likelihood of a nuclear winter when the sun didn’t shine for years.

But it didn’t happen. Nuclear weapons were never used in war (except against Japan, when only one nation had them), even with proliferation to the UK, France, China, Pakistan, India, and probably Israel. Why not? In retrospect, we can see that mutually assured destruction (MAD) made everyone realize that escalation on that scale was too risky. Even conventional war between the great powers (i.e. nuclear-armed powers) ceased as well. Despite threats, the last direct great power war was the Korean War during 1950-3, when Chinese and US troops fought. Since then, wars have been proxy wars with conventional weapons supplied from outside. At the time, we thought MAD was madness-- an unconscious joke in the acronym. But in fact it worked. Governments were not crazy enough to start a war that is certain to annihilate their country.

This is the first piece of good news from the Cold War: a nuclear arms race is survivable. And it leads to a second piece of good news: devastating threats on both sides eventually foster negotiation.

The Slow Process of De-escalation

As awareness grows about the consequences of nuclear war for both sides, another process sets in. The steps at first are small, putting in place safeguards against accidental escalation. Some steps came from the scare of looking over the brink. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis started with intelligence that the Soviets were shipping medium-range missiles to Cuba. Their motive was adding another arm to Russia-based ICBMs, and bolstering a new ally, while the Soviets basked in a wave of global decolonization and left-wing revolutions. But after John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, and their secret emergency committee found a way to combine their own nuclear threat with some small concessions, Khrushchev backed down and withdrew the missiles. Next year, they established a telephone “hot line” between Washington and Moscow to be used in case of nuclear threats.

Further steps happened in following decades. In 1979, Carter and Brezhnev agreed on a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) which set modest ceilings on particular kinds of nuclear stockpiles. Things went back and forth. Reagan ran for president in 1980 on the issue of the “window of vulnerability”-- that the Soviets had so many extra missiles they could destroy our missile launchers in a sudden first strike, then have enough left to threaten a second strike against our cities unless we surrendered. This was probably not in the cards, since our nuclear tripod (missiles, bombers, submarines) could not be knocked out in that way-- paralleling our problem today with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. At any rate, Reagan got elected (probably more because of the humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran), and proceeded ona renewed arms buildup.  Nevertheless, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Reagan established a personal relationship with him, and opened further SALT negotiations. Part of the widespread enthusiasm for Gorbachev during those years-- not only in the USSR and its satellites, but Western Europe as well-- was the feeling that the threat of nuclear war was finally over. In this atmosphere came the popular movements that broke up the Soviet bloc, and eventually massive reduction of armaments in the 1990s on both sides.

The Blue Jeans Offensive

The slow process of pulling back from the nuclear arms race was accelerated by an unexpected development. Up through the 1980s, citizens of the communist regimes were restricted from traveling to the West, but gradually European and American tourists began to trickle inside the Iron Curtain. There they found it was worthwhile to carry an extra pair of blue jeans, because they could barter it for the cost of their trip. Consumer goods were scarcely available, and communist citizens were eager for anything that looked fashionable and hip. The cult of American jazz had existed in Russia-- usually the records were years out of date, but the Soviets at least approved of Negro musicians as an oppressed group. More up-to-date styles from the 60s and 70s gradually filtered into awareness of communist youth.* The state-run economies had made great strides in recovering from WWII, but concentrated almost entirely in heavy industry and military buildup. As long as the communist regimes controlled culture and propaganda, they promoted an image of the evil capitalists of the West keeping their workers in poverty. Once contacts started to open up, another reality seeped in.

* I remember traveling to Budapest with my daughter in 1986, where a man at the train station, eager for western currency, offered us a bargain rate on a hotel, which turned out to be his apartment in a collective living complex. In the dining hall were a tour group of Russians, dancing to a rock'n’roll band from the 50s. They were allowed to go as far as Hungary, on the border of the West, but no further.

Gorbachev’s turn towards reforming the communist system started in the 1970s, when as a reward for political loyalty he was allowed to travel with his wife on a visit to Italy. They had their own car, saw how many other people had cars, TVs, and nice clothes, and returned with a vision of what the real Soviet future should be like.

China, too, after the first steps towards opening to the world were made in the 1970s, discovered Western consumer goods in the 1980s and 90s, and became their mainstay of production for the world market.

America’s greatest asset internationally is its consumer way of life. Not just that we have more stuff; we have more cool stuff. The communists’ most vulnerable point is that they are not cool. We beat them when we’re not fighting them because they want to be us.

Isolation Breeds Group Solidarity

The policy of isolating an enemy until they change their behavior does not work. It has not worked in the past. Basic social psychology of solidarity and conformity shows why.

The ingredients that produce high levels of group solidarity are a combination of:

-- isolation of the group from outsiders

-- mutual focus of attention, all paying attention to the same thing

-- a shared emotion

When the three ingredients get stronger, they feed back on each other. Paying attention to other persons and seeing them express the same emotion makes one’s own emotion stronger; stronger emotion makes one pay more attention to what’s causing it; both processes increase isolation from people not in the loop.

When people experience a rush of these ingredients, they feel a sense of solidarity and group identity; heightened identification with the symbols of the group; stronger attachment to our beliefs, and decreased tolerance of non-conformity. We’re in this; you should be in it too.  At high levels of solidarity, people are ready to fight over perceived insults from outsiders, even when there is no material damage.

Conflict with an outside group has an especially strong effect.  Conflict makes both sides set up barriers; it makes us concentrate on the enemy and on our own leaders. The more violent the conflict, the more we feel fear and anger towards the enemy, while we pump up pride and support for our team. This has been called the “rally-round-the-flag effect.”

The ingredients of solidarity and conformity operate on the level of small groups of individuals; but also on medium size groups like organizations and social movements. They also operate on very large groups like states,  provided they have mass communications so that everyone can focus on the same thing. That is why the era of nationalism began in the era of newspapers in the 1800s, and strengthened when other broadcast media developed like radio in the 1920s and TV in the 1950s.

The strength of the ingredients determines the strength of the outcomes. But most ingredients cannot remain intense for a long time. I measured these processes in the days and months after the attack of 9/11/2001, and found that the maximal amount of displaying national symbols (flags, images of firefighters) was in the first three months, then began to decline. Political discussion and dissent was more or less forbidden during those months; but around Christmas time, articles started appearing about “Is it okay to take our flags down now?”  For those few months, President George W. Bush, whose approval rating before and afterwards was rather low, shot up to 90%, the highest on record.

In a complex society like the modern U.S., it takes a tremendous amount of shared emotion to keep people coming to public gatherings like those commemorating firefighters and police in the fall of 2001. After a while, their focus of attention goes back to their local and private concerns, their emotion falls, and their commitment to the cause of defeating the enemy declines. We saw the growing division of pro-war and anti-war factions from 2002 onwards.

All this is understandable through sociological theory of solidarity. The tremendous shock of the 9/11 attacks, stories about the victims’ families, the heroism of the firefighters and cops, were broadcast everywhere and monopolized everyone’s attention for the first few months. But a complex society has many things to pay attention to, and a media-rich democracy cannot force people to keep replaying the high-intensity solidarity ritual when they no longer feel like it. This is different in a dictatorship, which monopolizes the media and enforces attention on a single message from the regime.

Flip this over to the point of view of our enemies. Their media tells them that we are a terrible threat; they  are the heroes resisting the bad guys.  Their media are inescapable: in North Korea, loud-speakers are on every street corner. No doubt there is an artificial strain of keeping up the required emotions-- fear of outsiders; love of our Dear Leader. [See Faces Around A Dictator] But the other ingredients are too strong: no alternatives to the single focus of attention; isolation from any contacts to the outside.

Our policy of trying to change enemy states by isolating them is worse than ironic.  Isolation is exactly the condition that makes them more confirmed in their beliefs.

Why do we keep on doing it?

If isolating the enemy is such a counter-productive strategy, why does it appeal to us so strongly?

For one thing, conflict processes are symmetrical across both sides. Once a conflict gets intense, we both feel angry at the other, paint the other as a fearful demon, adulate our brave fighters and our leaders. We try to isolate ourselves from having any human contact with them, just as they do towards us.

People who like to think of themselves as civilized may consider isolation a humane way to deal with the problem, rather than resorting to violence. The old-fashioned way of disciplining children was “go stand in the corner until you behave.” This was updated by modern child psychology into the “time-out.” But it only works if-- like a parent with small children-- you have total superiority of power (which is not the case between militarized states).

And it only works when isolating an individual.  If the bad-actor is a group, punishing them by isolating them together doesn’t work. This is putting gang members together in prison with members of the same demographic; it recruits new members and strengthens the gang organization and its culture. Isolating a group not only won’t change their behavior; it makes it worse.

How to reduce enemy hostility

The theoretical model of group solidarity shows a solution. To reduce their hostile emotions and the beliefs that support them, break up the single focus of attention. The best way to do this is to reduce isolation, so there are more things outside themselves to pay attention to.

The Cold War gives evidence of how a policy of reducing isolation works to transform international enemies. In summer 1971, Nixon sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a secret mission to China. Kissinger, a political scientist, was trying to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. He worked out a deal that the U.S. would not oppose the PRC taking Nationalist China’s seat (practically speaking, Taiwan) on the United Nations Security Council. Six months later, Nixon himself traveled to China and met Mao Zedong, where they agreed to establish some form of diplomatic relations. This is remarkable enough, considering it was at the time when China was just emerging from the Red Guards movement that nearly tore the country apart in 1966-68; and the U.S. was still bogged down in the Vietnam War.  But there is an underlying logic: both sides were trying to get out of their own quagmires; de-escalating at least one piece of international hostilities was a victory for both.

Within a few years, Mao was dead, the Gang of Four eliminated, and in 1977 the reformer Deng Xiaoping was reinstated. Soon came full diplomatic relations and Deng’s visit to the U.S. In the 1980s market-oriented reforms were launched, burgeoning in the 1990s. China soon became the chief supplier of the U.S. consumer economy. In recent years, 30 years in, America has become the place where Chinese want to send their kids to college and where they themselves want to live.

China and Russia are the positive cases of how ending isolation led to a whole-sale shift away from communism and hostility to the West. China is the strongest case, because it has become so highly integrated into the market for western consumer goods, both as producer and consumer. Russia somewhat less so, since its export economy remained heavy industries, oil and military equipment.  A glaring negative case is Cuba, where a strict policy of isolation has kept the communist regime stagnant for over 50 years. The presence of a large group of anti-communist refugees in Florida has kept the old polarization alive: the older generation of refugees has been a veto group in U.S. politics, preventing any moves that would actually change Cuba into becoming more like the U.S.  We may soon see the effects of more commercial connections between ordinary Americans and Cuba.

The solution to the North Korean nuclear threat

The solution is right before our faces. Pursue the policies of Nixon and Reagan in opening up and de-escalating conflict with China and Russia. This is not a quick process. With China, it took 20 years to pay off.  With Russia, results were quicker, but the blue-jeans offensive was already doing its work.

The last is what we should be pushing above all.  We do not want North Korea exporting or importing military goods. We have little to gain from letting them open up to the world market in heavy industry. But U.S. policy should be trying to facilitate ways thatAmerican consumer products-- for that matter, Western and Japanese consumer products in general-- can get into North Korea.  Hello Kitty, Japanese toy fads, American smart phones and action-adventure movies: whatever is hip and stylish. This is the soft offensive that can break the psychological isolation of North Koreans and put them on the Russian and Chinese path.

That means we need to get over the self-righteous emotional jolt of demanding that they go stand in the corner. It is far from clear we will get over it soon. Right now its easy political appeal is shared on both sides of the political spectrum. But sometimes professional diplomats, international entrepreneurs and maverick presidents make a difference.

So there are two hopeful messages, one quite confident: Cold Wars threatening nuclear destruction can and do de-escalate. The second is more chancy, but possible through processes from below: the blue jeans offensive translated into today’s consumer fads. Either way, the world can survive North Korea.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


David R. Gibson. 2012.  Talk at the Brink. Deliberation and Decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

David Skarbeck. 2014.  The Social Order of the Underworld. How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System.

Randall Collins. 2011. “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Violence.” American Sociological Review.

Randall Collins. 2004.  “Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist attack.” Sociological Theory.


What does a dictator look like in action?

There is a distinctive pattern, but it is visible not so much on the dictator’s own face as in the expressions of the persons surrounding him or her. (Since all the dictators that I know about and have photos of are men, I will use the male pronoun.)

The dictator is the center of rapt attention. It is compulsory to look at him, and dangerous to show any emotional expression other than what the dictator is displaying. Faces surrounding a dictator mirror his expressions, but in a strained and artificial way.

Let us examine a series of photos of Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator.

Kim Jong Un smiles a lot for the crowd, but that isn’t the striking thing. His smile is pallid and not very warm, but the people around him are fervently smiling and applauding. They are putting a lot of energy into it, trying to smile as hard as they can.

These are forced smiles. As psychologist Paul Ekman has shown in detailed studies of the facial muscles used in different kinds of emotions, smiles vary a great deal in intensity and spontaneity. (For examples, see my blog Mona Lisa is No Mystery for Micro-Sociology.)

Fake smiles can be easily detected, as can the other emotions they are blended with. As we shall see, faces around a dictator blend the required expression with give-away signs of tension, anxiety, and fear.

It happens with all ranks. In the following photos, Kim Jong Un’s rather perfunctory smiles are amplified by his intently attentive generals, foot soldiers, and military women alike:

Conversely, when Kim Jong Un isn’t smiling, nobody smiles. When he is serious, everyone looks serious. Surrounding faces mirror his expression as best they can.

And mirror his body postures too:

Occasionally we see nervous eyes, like the man directly behind

Kim Jong Un, glancing sideways to monitor what he is supposed to display:

Or the man who bites his lip, peering forward to catch the dictator’s expression as he telephones an order:

The pattern is the same with the previous dictator,

Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il:

The most exaggerated expression is the safest: Kim Jong Il’s funeral

Photos of Kim Jong Il’s funeral, after his death in December 2011, show extraordinarily demonstrative expressions of grief, among all social groups:

Well, almost all social groups. In the following photo, the well-dressed women of the North Korean elite show the most intense grief, as they reach the top of the red carpet. Further back in the queue, postures are more restrained, and the guards and attendants along the side are stolid and unexpressive.

A notable exception is Kim Jong Un himself, who shows no grief but looks a little worried.

The over-the-top expressions of grief are confined to the North Koreans. Photos of foreign dignitaries at the funeral show them somber and respectful, bowing politely but showing no strong emotions, let alone such ostensibly heart-rending displays. These are not normal behavior at East Asian funerals.

Compulsory Front-stage performance of loyalty

We have seen the pattern. People around the dictator, and particular those of high rank, mirror his expressions and re-broadcast them at even higher intensity. They put a lot of effort into it, so that their expressions look forced and unnatural. They look over-the-top. The dictator himself doesn’t look strained, but the people around him do.

Their expressions are not merely for the eyes of the dictator. He doesn’t, on the whole, appear to be giving them too much attention. Their expressions are for each other, broadcasting the message that they are buying into the show as strongly as possible. They are always on-stage for each other, sending the message of loyalty to the dictator. It is a competitive situation, to show who is most loyal of all.

The competition is strongest among the elite—those closest to the dictator—because these are the persons who pose the greatest potential threat. Quite likely there is an atmosphere of suspicion and denunciation, as jockeying for power and favor takes place by detecting signs of disloyalty among his followers—or even just lack of enthusiasm. *

* A former student of mine, who had been a teenage girl at the time of the Red Guards movement in China, told me that the hardest thing about the omnipresent public demonstrations was keeping up the tone of fervent enthusiasm. It was dangerous not to; it could get you pilloried as one of the counter-revolutionaries. When I introduced this sociology student to Goffman’s concepts of frontstage and backstage, she immediately characterized the most onerous part of the Red Guards movement as the compulsion to express extreme emotions that one didn’t really feel--you were always on stage.

This is why we see such extreme expressions of grief at the dictator’s funeral—a time of most intense jockeying for power in the succession.

The succession crisis of dictators

Even when there is a family succession, a de facto hereditary dictatorship, there is tension. The oldest son does not necessarily succeed (Kim Jong Un was the third son of Kim Jong Il), since the father may weigh who is most competent at wielding power. Photos of father and heir show a distinctive pattern:

Here we see Kim Il-sung, founder of the North Korean regime, and his son Kim Jong Il. The son is mirroring the smile and body posture of his father, although older man looks confident and at ease, the son more tense. We see the same again in a photo of Kim Jong Il as dictator, with Kim Jong Un as heir apparent:

The following photo, taken in the last year of Kim Jong Il’s life, is revealing because of the elite audience watching the interaction between father and son.

Kim Jong Un is leaning deferentially towards his father, showing the uncertainty and touch of anxiety he often showed in his father’s presence.

Faces of the onlookers who can see both of them most clearly have a wary look. One man is pursing his lips to one side, giving a distorted look to his face (Ekman notes that an asymmetrical face, showing different expressions on different sides, is a sign of mixed or conflicting emotions.)

The onlookers don’t quite know who they should be mirroring here:

Why close is dangerous

In a dictatorship where loyalty is always suspect and must be constantly demonstrated, those nearest to power are the most dangerous. This was illustrated within two years of Kim Jong Un’s formal succession. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, 40 years older than the young heir, acted as informal regent. The following picture, taken during that early period, suggests guarded suspicion between the two:

By September 2013, however, Kim Jong Un was leading the public smiles, and his uncle was following along:

By December 2013, the uncle was arrested, tried, and executed. Reportedly, he had plotted a coup. Or perhaps he just aroused suspicion, by not giving off the right emotional displays. Soon after, the rest of the uncle’s family apparently were executed too.

Since then, an older brother was killed.

And the dictator is back to smiling, surrounded by the wary, mirroring faces that characterize the dictatorship:

American tourists, too

The photo of American tourist Otto Warmbier being brought into court for sentencing in March 2016, after two months in captivity, closely resembles the photo above of Kim Jong Un's uncle

Jang Song-thaek

being led into the same court in 2013, just before he was executed.

In both cases, the arrestee shows the same posture: hopeless downcast eyes, body slumping in extreme depression. Undoubtedly they had been put under relentless psychological pressure to confess, and probably physical torture.

Their offenses, at least initially, were different: Jang Song-thaek was charged with staging a coup d'etat; Otto Warmbier with defacing or attempting to steal a government propaganda poster from his hotel just before he got on the plane. After Warmbier was released in a coma from which he never recovered, a North Korean official said his punishment was for trying to overthrow the regime.

Most likely, Otto Warmbier, acting like an American college student on vacation, was trying to collect a souvenir poster (the way we used to take bullfight posters or beer coasters).

But youthful pranks are not recognized in the official culture of the North Korean dictatorship. Every expression is deadly serious in its consequence, and every individual is under suspicion.

In such regimes, there is no private life and no backstage fun and games.

Disrespecting a symbol is taken as an attack on the regime it symbolizes.

What can be done? That is a complicated political and military problem. It would be an enormous step for the regime to loosen up, just to allow a space for trivial matters.


It is well known that Donald Trump is an unusual-- not to say strange-- person. A striking instance comes from images of Trump just after he was elected President, the night of November 8, 2016.

One might expect his face would show happiness, elation, or perhaps surprise. In fact, what we see in something entirely different.

Analyzing these photo images in detail, Dr. Anne Nassauer, sociologist at the Free University Berlin, found that they consistently showed sadness on Trump's face. 

Nassauer uses the method of analyzing the facial expression of emotions developed by psychologist Paul Ekman. Based on decades of research in many cultures around the world, Ekman concluded there are six basic emotions that are visually recognized everywhere, and thus are universal among humans. The facial muscles that go into these emotions are the same, although persons can try to inhibit or mask their emotions by deliberately controlling facial muscles and body postures and gestures.

Thus we can analyze both spontaneous emotions and the attempts at emotional self-presentation or deceit. On the whole, people tend to think of emotions as expressed in the mouth-- smiley mouth, sad mouth, etc. But the mouth has the muscles which are easiest to control, and this is where we do most of our emotional pretences and performances.

Emotions are expressed on three zones of the face: the brows and forehead; the muscles around the eyes; and the lower face. The eye muscles are hardest to control consciously, and these are the strongest cues to the genuine emotion. Thus put-on or faked smiles are made with the mouth, but the eyes and brows give them away.

Sadness is shown in the face by the following clues:

-- The inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn up.

-- The skin below the eyebrow makes a triangle, with the inner corner up.

-- The upper eyelid inner corner is raised.

-- The corners of the lips are down, or the lip is trembling.

(from Ekman and Friesen, 126)

The following photo shows the brows and eyelids in the sad face, while the lower part of the face is neutral:

The next photo isolates the lower face, while the brows and eyes are neutral. There are two ways that sadness appears on the mouth: the left photo shows the corners of the mouth turned down. (This never happens as drastically as the cartoon-caricature of the sad mouth; a small downturn is sufficient to convey the expression.)

The right photo shows lips which are trembling and tight, an unconscious effort to control the sounds of grief.

 The next set of photos shows sadness in the full face, with the two different sad mouths on left and right.

Close-ups of Trump's face as he acknowledges his election match the sadness clues for brows and eyes. The photo on the left shows slight sadness in the mouth as well. The photo on the right suggests an ostensible effort at a smile (mainly from the diagonal naso-labial folds that make a triangle shape from the nose to the corners of the mouth). But on the whole this is the tight-lipped, tense mouth, an effort to control one's emotion.

For further comparison, female and male full-face sadness:

Sadness is expressed in different degrees: from left to right, subtle, mild, and strong:

And in female faces: slight sadness on the left, stronger sadness on the right:

Sadness can also blend with other emotions. The following photo blends sadness and fear:

But this, for the most part, is not Trump's expression. The following pair shows a blend of sadness and happiness on the left; the right is a close-up of Trump's face as he appeared on the stage with his family:

Here one can see clearly the contrast between Trump's face and the happiness show by his family members: (Melania Trump maintains her professional model's expression.)

The following photo of full-face sadness shows sad eyes and brows extremely well, and also the characteristic lines in the center of the forehead made by the upward pull of the inner eyebrows. This is known as the Omega face, after the Greek letter.

Why is Trump sad, just when he makes his first public appearance after being elected President? Later he admitted privately that he had not expected to win, given the final polls. He was surprised by the result; but surprise is not what we see on his face. Surprise is a rapid emotion, and there was plenty of time to get over it during the course of the evening as the results came in.

The sadness is peculiar to Trump. It is not shown on the faces of his running-mate Mike Pence or of his family. Almost certainly it is an unconscious emotion.

My conjecture (which agrees with that suggested by Anne Nassauer) is that Trump was realizing his life is going to change, drastically. He has been a free-wheeling entrepreneur all his life, the head of a closely-held business. He has run it with quick decisions, exerting personal control, relying on family members and trusted followers. It must have dawned on him that he was entering an entirely new kind of organization: much more constraining, more bureaucratic and political pressures, less freedom to buy and sell, hire and fire at will.

I am not suggesting that these thoughts were going through his mind. Trump's pattern is to put his thoughts almost immediately into words, spoken or tweeted. But our feelings are a trajectory going forward, against the background of our past. Donald Trump's first reaction to facing the public in his new role as President-elect was sadness. Sadness for what he was leaving.


The defeat of Hillary Clinton raises the question whether women are leaders in the same way as men. This is not a rhetorical question.

As a sociological theorist, I am inclined to think that men and women operate according to the same social processes. To put it another way: the dynamics of power in politics, social movements, and organizations operate the same way no matter who is in them. The process shapes the person.

Men and women have been different, historically, when and because they lived in different social spheres. Changing forms of state, family, and economy had drastically different ways of using men and women and shaping their possibilities.

But this is just a framework, not a proof. The question of when women are leaders-- and more specifically, charismatic leaders-- is an empirical one.


Four kinds of charisma

Start with a list of ostensibly charismatic leaders who were women. Ostensibly, because historical reputations are not always what they seem.

There are four main ways of becoming a charismatic leader.

[1] Frontstage charisma: moving large numbers of people into action as enthusiastic followers. Sometimes this is done by impressive speech-making (especially in modern times); sometimes by leading from the front (especially in pre-modern times). Dramatic public appearances may also generate the impression of charisma, although we need to sort out whether it is just a spectacle without real power to move people into action.

[2] Backstage charisma: gaining enthusiastic compliance in private, face-to-face encounters. This is the power of emotional domination on the personal level.

[3] Success-magic charisma: being perceived as unbeatable, running off a string of successes even against improbable odds. This kind of charisma is volatile and can vanish when it apparently no longer works. But even the greatest of success-magic leaders (Jesus, Julius Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon) came to bad ends, without losing their charisma. Unbroken success doesn’t exist, but how charismatic leaders manage the gaps is distinctive.

[4] Reputational charisma: being known as charismatic (in any of the above senses) amplifies one’s emotional appeal via a feedback loop. But keep in mind the main criterion: leading enthusiastic followers into action. Merely attracting attention or audience appeal is not the same as power; celebrities and figureheads are trapped by their onlookers more than they lead them. And there is a tendency for any famous names from the distant past to be regarded as charismatic; it requires investigating whether they actually had any of the first three types of charisma. Charisma is not the only mode of leadership.

Charismatic leaders were skilled at one or more social processes 1-2-3. By examining micro-details of how they interacted with people in different kinds of situations, we can assess how strong or weak they were in different areas. Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar were superlatively good at all three-- frontstage, backstage, and success-magic charisma. Steve Jobs was emotionally dominant in backstage encounters, learned to make enthusiasm-generating public appearances, and had a run of success-magic interrupted by a lengthy down period. Alexander was good at 1 and 3 but not 2.

Among the women we will examine, Joan of Arc displayed all three charismas in her brief career. She too came to a bad end, but struggles for power are contentious, and a charismatic leader for one side is not charismatic for the opposition.

We will also look at Cleopatra, probably the most famous woman leader in history. (The Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, may be even more widely known; but her fame is derivative, and she was not in any way a charismatic leader.) Just what Cleopatra’s charismatic skills were must be shown, leaving open the possibility that she may be only a case of reputational pseudo-charisma.

Finally, I will consider Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, and the principal instigator and leader of the Cultural Revolution. Nominating women as charismatic leaders from the present or very recent past has the disadvantage that partisan opinion varies greatly about them. I am hesitant to suggest any women political leaders now living just because they have fervent admirers. Considering Jiang Qing, condemned and vilified as leader of the Gang of Four, has the advantage that we can examine a genuinely mass movement that she set in motion. And as we shall see, she combines some aspects of Cleopatra and Joan of Arc. Is it because of the peculiar circumstances of power in Mao’s China that a charismatic woman leader appears there, more characteristic of pre-modern societies than of modern ones?

As far as pathways to charismatic power, modern democracy may be a game-changer, especially for women, and not in the direction you might expect. Hence the value of looking at charismatic pre-modern women, and such throw-backs that still exist outside of modern democracies.

Joan of Arc

Jeanne d’Arc (ca.1411 to 1431) had all the forms of charisma to an intense degree.

Frontstage charisma: She was not a great public speaker. In an age of dynastic politics, without democratic assemblies, there were few speeches except sermons of itinerant monks. But she moved people, emotionally and physically.

In battle, she led from the front. Although she wore armor and carried a sword, personal violence was not how she led the battle line. She carried a banner with the royal fleur-de-lys of France and the soldiers would charge behind her. This was an era when commanders could line up their troops for battle, but once it started, there was virtually no way they could send orders. What kept troops in formation-- if at all-- was to rally behind their banners. Joan’s military style was to attack; with herself in the front, she was exposed to the utmost danger. Her soldiers had to swarm closely behind her to protect her; otherwise she would be killed or captured. And swarm they did. As the great military historian John Keegan has shown (first when analyzing the battle of Agincourt, which happened when Joan was about 4 years old), troops did not win or lose a battle because of the physical shock when two battle lines clashed; it was a psychological shock, that made defenders waver and pull back. Running away was dangerous: that was how most soldiers were killed, in a posture unable to defend themselves and without the solidarity of their own line to fend off the enemy. Joan provided the emotional domination that broke the enemy line. It was quite literally charismatically led victory.

Her crowd charisma was building up for several months before she commanded the King’s forces. As she traveled from her home to the royal court, and then to the siege of Orleans for her first battle, she was greeted by crowds all the way. Her word of mouth among the common people was terrific; and this eventually was transmitted to the soldiers. Once launched, she traveled everywhere in a mass spectacle.

How did this get started? She acquired the reputation of a woman who heard voices from the highest saints, conveying the will of God, with a political message: defeat the English and crown the Dauphin as King of France. At key points-- talking with aristocrats and officials-- she told them what the voices said. But this was not so much a solo as an aria against the background of a rising chorus, the adulation of her admirers. Joan went to church as often as possible. When traveling, even on an urgent mission, she would stop at churches en route to hear mass. One gets the impression these were not regularly scheduled masses such as exist in Catholic churches today; but that the local priest would say a mass for Joan and her followers.* Joan was always extremely moved, and wept copiously. The audience was not only impressed by her sincerity, but joined in weeping. At the beginning of her charismatic career, it is no exaggeration to say that she led people in contagious weeping.

*This was not unusual at the time. At Agincourt, the English King Henry V heard mass three times in a row while waiting for battle to begin.

We moderns find it hard to get our heads around this; for us weeping is sadness, or at best a private breakdown of being overwhelmed by personal feelings. But the history of emotions has drastically shifted. Throughout the Christian Middle Ages, the climax of public encounters was often weeping: monks would weep as they pled for someone’s salvation or recovery; feuding families would reconcile by throwing themselves at each other’s knees and weeping; defeated burghers would meet their conquerors by kissing their hands and asking for mercy, which was accepted when the conquerors too joined in the weeping. Collective weeping was the main form of high-emotional solidarity, above all newly created solidarity as divisions and conflicts were (temporarily) overcome. Joan’s procession across France was a series of weeping-fests. It happened not only in church. Wherever she stayed, people of all ranks would come to see her; they might arrive as skeptics or political adversaries, but would come away convinced by her genuineness. It was not so much that she told them about her visions, but that they were impressed by her humility and simplicity. She was everything that a saint should be. She brought tears to their eyes.

We have another problem of anachronism. Joan was doing all this when she was 17 or 18 years old, in an era when women were subordinate to men. In our bureaucratic society when no one is allowed to do anything important until they are officially adults and generally quite a lot longer working up through the ranks, this seems impossibly young. But Charles VII, the Dauphin, succeeded his father when he was 19; English Kings like Henry V and Henry VIII were leading troops and actively reigning as early as age 14-to-18. Joan had no hereditary right to anything, but the fact that she was young and female just added to her marvelousness. She called herself Jeanne la Pucelle, Joan the Maid or Virgin. It helped there was cultural resonance with the cult of the Virgin Mary, at its height during those centuries.

Backstage charisma: Joan’s personal impressiveness had been building up since at least her early teens. She was the youngest of five children, daughter of a prosperous farmer who was headman of little village amid the battlefields of northeastern France. Her father was a man of some importance, who contracted business with local nobles and lawyers. He took over an abandoned castle to serve as a refuge against the raids of mercenary soldiers-- and where Joan might imagine herself a Queen. Joan sometimes joined her siblings in farm work but her mother indulged her indoors; they lived next to the village church, where Joan attended assiduously. She was extremely sensitive to what was going on around her, and had an early desire to be a soldier-- so much so that her father threatened to drown her in the river if she went off with soldiers (marauders in bad repute). George Bernard Shaw was at pains to argue that she was no beautiful romantic heroine but plain and asexual; she was tall and strong, with all the seriousness of the managerial women that Shaw was extolling in the early 20th century women’s movement. (I imagine her as a star soccer goalie.) Having miraculous visions was not unusual among the medieval folk; there were shephard boys exhibiting bleeding stigmata, beggars who started crusades and children who went on them. Joan stood out from her competitors in the miracle field by adding the image of a woman warrior, and bringing a message combining religion and politics at just the moment when France was in its deepest crisis.

It is revealing who her three inspirational saints were: St. Michael, actually archangel, the one with the fiery sword who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the chief of God’s forces in combating the Devil. St. Catherine, an ancient martyr of royal Egyptian descent (the lineage of Cleopatra!) who endured tortures to proclaim Christianity against the Roman Emperor. St. Margaret, a refugee from the Norman conquest of England, who fled to Scotland and married the Scottish King. It is a collection of supernatural military power, exemplary fortitude in martyrdom, and religious Queens-- and anti-English to boot. Joan called them her “Council” as if they were her official advisors. As Shaw pointed out, Joan was the type of person who thinks in visual images; the voices she heard in her head, her internal dialogue, was always politically up-to-date.

Joan’s practical task was to convince supporters who would convey her to the royal court, then in exile from Paris, which was held by the English. She had heard voices for about 5 years before she launched her program; i.e. by the time she was full-grown, but also the moment when it appeared the French dynasty would be extirpated by crowning the English King Henry VI -- then a child of 8-- as King of France.

Her father would not support her initially (Jesus had the same problem of not being a prophet in his own home town), but she convinced her uncle to introduce her to the local military commander. She convinced him by what seemed to him a miracle: she told him of the defeat of French troops trying to raise the siege of Orleans (Feb. 12, 1429) before the commander himself had heard of it. When the news arrived, this seemed like a miraculous prediction. It is characteristic of charismatic persons to be perspicacious. Joan’s village was on the main east-west route from Paris into Germany, and on the north-south road along the Meuse River connecting Flanders with Lorraine and Burgundy, a cross-roads flowing with refugees and soldiers; it was not unusual for a peasant to be more aware of approaching dangers than a ranking nobleman.

And Domrémy, her village, belonged to the personal domain of the Kings of France-- as distinguished from lands held by feudal lords in the unsteady chain beneath the King. Her location made her a French royalist, at a time when the Duke of Burgundy was far richer and the expanding power, although potentially stymied by the dangerous game he was playing with the English and other feudal contenders. The local commander was convinced enough to give her armour, a horse, and a small military escort, plus an introduction to the Duke of Lorraine-- a relative of the Dauphin’s Queen. So she was launched, picking up reputation along the way, manifesting religious charisma with her combination of national crusade and contagious weeping.*

* It is convenient to think of Paris as the center of a clock, with an hour-hand about 125-150 miles long; Domrémy is at 3 o’clock; the Dauphin’s court at Chinon, 4.30;

Poitiers, where she was examined by a parlement, 7.30; Orleans, where she raised the siege, 6.30; Rheims, the ancient cathedral city where she took the Dauphin to be crowned, back up at 1.30; the remainder of her career spent fighting outside of Paris and where she was captured, 1.00; burned at the stake at Rouen at 11 o’clock in English territory near the Channel. The battle of Agincourt happened further north, at 12 o’clock.

Arriving at the Dauphin’s court at Chinon, Joan entered a political situation of rival factions. Famously, the Dauphin hid himself among the courtiers; but she picked him out immediately despite lack of royal insignia. We are in the realm of miracle stories, or what passed for them; but a person with acute observation, who had no doubt heard gossip of the Dauphin’s immature personality, would have little difficulty in scanning body postures and facial expressions to find the pocket of uneasiness in the crowd where he was pretending. Another incident from the same period is more telling. One of the soldiers swore loudly and made a lewd comment about her. She approached him and said: “A pity that you blaspheme against God, when you are about to die.” Some time thereafter (probably not the same day) the man fell into a river or moat wearing his armour and drowned. Whether accurate or not, it solidified her miraculous reputation. It illustrates her ability (again like Jesus) to pick people out of crowds and confront them individually, shifting the tone to something jarring and unexpected. It is not at all impossible that he was unnerved by the prediction of his imminent death, reinforced by the following that Joan already had, even in the divided court and certainly among the common people. In effect, she gave him the evil eye, like the bone-pointing magic dreaded in primitive tribes.

And so throughout the up-phase of her career. The court politicians being divided, they referred her to a parlement (a conclave of canon lawyers, not a legislative assembly) at Poitiers. The churchmen quizzed her skeptically about her voices and visions-- contrary to modern views, the Catholic church was not a push-over for miracles, and aimed to cull out the many contenders. One learned theologian asked her what language her voices spoke; “Better than yours,” she replied to his provincial accent. Asked to produce a miraculous sign of her authenticity: “My sign will be to raise the siege of Orleans,” she responded. “Give me the soldiers and I will go.” Full of self-confidence, she was not intimidated by authorities. They quoted theology to her. “There is more written in God’s book than in all of yours,” she said. Unabashed-- this was a time when most women, even aristocrats, were illiterate-- she called for paper and ink and dictated a message to the English commanders: “I order you in the name of the Heavenly King to return to England.” Again, the calm confident tone: not angry nor argumentative, but taking the initiative as a matter of course. The judges wrote her message. *

* How did Joan learn to argue with professionals? A clue is that her parents tried to dissuade her from her mission by getting her married. A young man brought a suit that she had been promised to him. She argued the suit herself before an ecclesiastical judge and won. In her early life, most of the time she was silent about her voices; she was learning when to speak and how.

Given a command of soldiers, she quickly changed the tone of the army. Troops were a mixture of nobles with changeable loyalties, upstarts and mercenaries making their way in a time of political chaos; and in any local battle, crowds of peasants who might be attracted to scavenging and revenge on the wounded and dead. Joan gave religious fervour to the peasants, the initial support of her charisma. From the professional soldiers, she demanded that they cease cursing, and to put away the camp-followers who entertained soldiers with sex and drink in the long periods between battles. Shaw remarks on the power of prudery in restoring order and morale in the army-- in this case, one that had gone through a disastrous series of defeats. Probably not prudery per se, but Joan’s focus on purpose and self-control; she converted some of the troops and got the most fervent to follow her in assaults previous commanders were unwilling to attempt. As mentioned, she led more with her banner than her sword; the only instance recorded of her using it was when she used the flat of her sword to drive away prostitutes from the camp -- rather like Jesus driving the money-changers from the temple. And she turned mercenary soldiers, who got most of their income from looting and by taking prisoners for ransom, into fighters for a national cause.

Success-magic charisma: Her first success was to be heard.

As she proceded from her family circle to the local commander-- to the Duke of Lorraine-- to the Dauphin’s court-- to the Poitiers parlement-- her supporters grew and stories of her successes in winning over the elites were esteemed as miracles. In two months, she had electrified the populace in a swath across central France. Reaching Orleans at the beginning of May, she entered the city in a paroxysm of public enthusiasm. She rode around the walls followed by the city population, even closely inspecting the silent English fortifications. At vespers in the cathedral, she wept and brought everyone to tears. When French troops arrived, she paraded them back and forth before the English, as if the sheer manifestation of support would drive them away.

The English siege hinged on blocking supplies and reinforcements, while the besiegers themselves occupied a string of forts outside the walls. Rival bodies of French troops squabbled over accepting Joan’s leadership and held back from attacking these bastilles.

Finally they launched an attack without telling Joan; the attack failed but Joan turned around the retreating soldiers and with her crowd of followers, took the first bastille. Joan devoted the next day to prayer, while the English consolidated their scattered forces, and the French plotted to attack again without Joan. Orders were left to keep the city gates closed upon her; but the clamor of her followers overawed the commander of the gates.

When she arrived at the strongest bastille, the attack was flagging; she jumped into the moat and was holding a ladder against the wall, ignoring a shower of arrows when one pierced her through the shoulder. Carried to safety, she insisted on staying nearby. Handing her banner to a trusted follower, she told him: “As soon as the standard touches the wall, you will be able to enter.”

“It is touching now.”

“Then go in, the position is yours.” The attackers went up “as though there had been stairs.”

A crowd of civilians surged behind them; bridges collapsed under cannon fire; English resistance disintegrated inside the bastille and the defenders were all massacred.

The six-month siege was lifted; the remaining English retreated and were beaten again on the road, this time without Joan’s leadership. It had been the high-water mark of English penetration, the last major French city not in English hands. 


blue: English;

yellow: Duke of Burgundy;

purple: Anglo-Burgundian;

pink: Duke of Brittany;

white: France

French war-lords now wanted to follow up by liberating their own corners of France, but Joan focused on the political goal: to get the Dauphin crowned. This meant escorting him through hostile territory to Rheims. On the way her army was challenged by a garrison from the fortified city of Troyes. Bringing her banner before the city walls, she was followed by a crowd of common people who rapidly filled the moat with firewood and trash, creating a bridge for the soldiers to cross. The citizens panicked and the occupying troops parlayed to evacuate the place-- a nearly bloodless victory. In a little more than two weeks, she brought the Dauphin to Rheims and had him crowned. She had won the race. She knew the English King could be proclaimed in Paris (and indeed he was, in 1431) but Rheims was the traditional coronation place, and she got Charles there first. In the cathedral she clasped the King’s knees and burst into tears, joined by the entire congregation.

There was a good deal more of France to be reconquered, but the momentum had shifted. Joan’s successes had reversed a string of disastrous defeats: Agincourt in 1415, major losses again in 1421, near-annihilation of the French army in 1424, a bad defeat on the road to Orleans a few weeks before Joan started out in February 1429. After the coronation, Joan wanted to take all possible forces and recapture Paris, but the war-lords had other priorities. King Charles VII took the occasion to make a triumphal procession through the north-eastern territories, receiving the capitulation of cities that had sided formerly with the English.

Meanwhile, a fresh English army arrived to reinforce Paris. When Joan attacked the outer moats in September, she was wounded by an arrow through her thigh while plumbing the depth of the water with her spear and calling for the moat to be filled. Without emotional momentum, the place could not be carried and the French took 1500 casualties. Her victory string was broken; enthusiasm on her side was turning to blame. Joan was reduced to one among other commanders. In minor battles outside of Paris, she took one city, but at another the siege dragged on until the attackers themselves dispersed in an episode of rumour and panic. Joan was still bold but her crowd magic no longer worked. Within a year, in May 1430, she was captured while trying to relieve a Burgundian siege of Compiègne. As soon as she arrived, she led a sortie that almost succeeded, but a counter-attack drove them back. Joan, covering the retreat, was isolated on the wrong side of the moat, surrounded and pulled from her horse.

Sold to the English under the ransom system, she was tried as a witch (the enemy interpretation of her supernatural voices) and executed. None of her former allies tried to rescue her. The King himself no longer needed her. She had rescued him from being treated like a child by his courtiers; but she treated him like a subordinate too, under the voice of God. In fact, Charles VII had grown up and became quite a capable King, reigning for 30 years and overseeing the rebuilding of the French state. Becoming a martyr like St. Catherine must have been in the back of Joan’s mind, if not in her game plan. Her voices failed her, for the first time, by assuring her she would be rescued. When she realized the voices were wrong, she stopped trying to escape (she had jumped from a 60-foot tower and survived), and gave in to her fate. Both the inner and outer sources of her charisma, her voices and her crowds, were gone. Her effective charisma had lasted a little more than a year, most intensely in the first few months.

Reputational charisma: The downstream of history was good to Joan’s reputation. She was burned in 1431 after a lengthy show trial designed to bolster English legitimacy. But the tide had turned: the English gradually lost their gains in the north, accelerating after 1435 when the Duke of Burgundy switched sides and made a treaty with the French King. In 1436 Charles VII was able to enter Paris on his own. By 1453, the English lost their southwest territories in France, a long hold-over from Norman days of patch-work feudalism, and the Hundred Years’ War was over. It was just at this time that the verdict of Joan’s witchcraft trial was reversed by French jurists. After 1455 England was busy with its own civil War of the Roses and unable to intervene abroad.

Joan had not only saved the crown lineage but made a step towards reforming the army. At the time of Agincourt, it was no longer feudal service by retainers who followed their lords in return for grants of land; soldiers were promised pay but seldom received it, and they lived off the people and the war itself by looting and ransom. One reason troops were so unwilling to risk combat was they were only attracted when chances were good for taking lucrative prisoners. The English archers who had slaughtered the French knights at Agincourt were outside the system-- too poor to be worth ransoming; neither were the peasant crowds who aided Joan. The most cynical kind of warfare was being displaced by a more ideological kind. Charles VII followed up in the late 1430s and 40s by decreeing a royal monopoly on raising troops, at the same time prohibiting anyone but the crown from imposing taxes. The reforms met resistance but eventually enough royal companies were raised (paid and equipped by local communities) to expel the English. It was the end of feudalism and the beginning of the modern state; although it took Charles VII’s son, Louis XI (r. 1461-83) to establish more or less the borders of modern France. Lous XI was hardly a hero; his successes came by diplomatic marriages and negotiations, together with grasping for revenue wherever he could. Crooked and spider-like, paranoid over plots and assassinations (he himself had rebelled against his father), Louis XI built France as we know it, but could hardly be adulated for it. All the more opening for the reputation of Joan of Arc, the woman who saved France.

Cleopatra: sexual power in dynastic politics

Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, lived from 69 to 30 BC and reigned from 51 to 30. The dates tell us something: Not only did she come to power when she was 18 years old, but she was 39 when she died by suicide. That means she was an effective politician at a time when her throne was constantly under threat, holding on for 21 years. Although she is legendarily sexy-- the most famous example of sexual power in all history-- that doesn’t explain much, considering that extremely beautiful and erotic woman have generally been prized objects rather than independent actors.* One could make out a case that powerful women have generally been plain-looking.

* A very beautiful woman of my acquaintance, who has had a career as a political insider, replied to my question about whether being beautiful was an advantage: It’s a disadvantage-- men don’t take you seriously.

In fact, how beautiful was Cleopatra? There are several surviving likenesses. One version shows a woman, no longer young, without any of the trade-mark features like huge coloured eyeliner, and not especially attractive. The other shows her in a stereotyped pose as as Egyptian goddess.

Contemporary busts of Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII as temple goddess

Modern image of Cleopatra

No question, she was a political operator of great skill. She was dealt a weak hand and played it far longer than might be expected. She took on three of the most famous men in antiquity, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian/Augustus Caesar and played them, on the whole, to a draw or better. Was she a charismatic leader? Let us examine the criteria.

Frontstage charisma: Cleopatra did not make speeches, but she certainly knew how to attract crowds. She visited Julius Caesar in Rome in 46 BC, 2 years after their affair in Egypt. We don’t know if she resembled Elizabeth Taylor hauled on a huge golden replica of the sphinx, but she made quite a stir. She brought along their son Caesarion (“little Caesar”), and her official husband, her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, plus a large following. Caesar put her up in his country house and had a gold statue of Isis, resembling Cleopatra, erected in his family temple in the Forum. All this scandalized the Romans, especially the conservative republicans, all the more so since Caesar’s own wife was in Rome, and Cleopatra was lobbying to have Caesarion named his heir. Cleopatra’s presence could well have encouraged the rumour that Caesar was planning on making himself King, and thus his assassination. (Talk about femme fatale.) In fact she was still in Rome on the Ides of March 44 BC, and left for Egypt soon after.

She had already shown her boldness at home. Cleopatra was Greek, of the dynasty that had ruled Egypt since 300 BC. Although her ancestors always spoke Greek, Cleopatra was the first to rule her subjects by speaking Egyptian; in fact she could speak 9 languages and negotiated personally with neighbouring powers. She further solidified her power at home by having herself declared a reincarnation of the goddess Isis, and made herself the first female Pharoah.

An even more spectacular incident was in 41 BC during the civil wars. Mark Antony summoned her to Tarsus (southern Turkey) on charges of having supported his rival. As Plutarch describes it:

“She sailed up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Cupids in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise the fairest of her serving maidens, attired like river sprites and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river banks.”

Even more important was the crowd reaction:

“Of the inhabitants, some accompanied her on either bank of the river from its very mouth, while others went down from the city to behold the sight. The throng at the market-place in Tarsus gradually streamed away, until at last Antony himself, seated on his tribunal, was left alone.”

Antony is dominated before he even sees her. He invites Cleopatra to dinner, but she makes him come to her. Of course! on her own turf:

“Antony obeyed and went. He found there a preparation that beggared description, but was most amazed at the multitude of lights. For, as we are told, so many of these were let down and displayed on all sides at once, and they were arranged and ordered with so many inclinations and adjustments to each other in the form of rectangles and circles, that few sights were so beautiful or so worthy to be seen.” (For its day, long before electricity, Lady Gaga’s light show in the Superbowl.)

Cleopatra was surrounded by lavish spectacle, but far from being trapped by it, like Queen Elizabeth in her fancy gowns amid her courtiers, or most Chinese and Japanese Emperors. Antony intended to shake down Cleopatra for money for his campaign against Parthia (the big threat just then expanding from Iran into Syria); he ended up following her to Alexandria for a year and neglecting his wars. Cleopatra knew how to trap others in her spectacles, adjusting them to the victim’s personality. Plutarch comments that Cleopatra observed Antony liked jests and pranks, and adopted the same manner towards him.

“She played dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and when by night he would stand at the doors or windows of the common folk and scoff at those within, she would go with him on his round of mad follies, wearing the garb of a serving maiden. Antony also would array himself as a servant. Therefore he always reaped a harvest of abuse, and often of blows, before coming back home; though most people suspected who he was. The Alexandrians liked him, and said that he used the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them.”

Antony was quite literally being a playboy, and Cleopatra was egging him on. They created an exclusive club, dedicated to outdoing the other in the profusion of their expenditures. Plutarch’s grandfather, who was a physician in Alexandria at the time, said the royal cooks prepared food for a huge banquet, even though it was an intimate dinner, but cooked at different speeds, so that whenever Antony had a whim for a particular dish, it would be ready immediately.

They would give away all the gold beakers on the table for a clever remark. Cleopatra reportedly bet him she could spend a fabulous sum on one dinner; when it arrived, it was quite plain, but then she called for a chalice of wine, dropped her best pearl into it, and drank it.

Nevertheless, there was method in the madness, or culture in the context. It was a period when Roman generals used wars and foreign conquests as income-making machines, both to pay their soldiers, and to win votes with the populace in Rome. Julius Caesar, although no party-animal himself, was famous for the extravagant games and gladitorial shows he would put on before an election. Cleopatra knew what she was doing. Egypt had the reputation of being the wealthiest part of the ancient world, and she was constantly impressing Antony with this, no doubt instilling the idea it would be better to be ruler of the world from Egypt than from Rome. And extravagant splendour was a public statement. Especially in the East, it was customary to bring mythology to life, in more than half-serious fashion. When they first met at Tarsus, Plutarch says: “A rumour spread on every hand that Venus was come to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia.” *

* After years of playing Bacchus in Alexandria, Antony’s story was about to end in 30 BC by being crushed by Octavian’s army. Plutarch reports the rumour that went around the city: “During the middle of the night, when the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of what was coming, suddenly harmonious sounds from all sorts of musical instruments were heard, and the shouting of a throng, accompanied by cries of Bacchis revelry and satyric leapings, as if a troop of revellers, making a great tumult, were going forth from the city; and their course seemed to be toward the outer gate which faced the enemy, where the tumult became loudest and then dashed out. Those who sought the meaning of the sign were of the opinion that the god to whom Antony was always most likened was now deserting him.”

Cleopatra played the frontstage charisma of spectacle in her own key. Her leadership style in other areas had ambiguous results. Except when Caesar or Antony were present, she played the man’s role. Her most important geopolitical weapon was the Egyptian fleet. It had been traditionally the strongest in the Mediterranean. Its strength kept the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt the most durable of the three successor states that divided up Alexander’s empire. During the wars of the Hellenistic period, there had been an arms race in naval power; the banks of oars that gave ships speed and power to ram the enemy had gone from triremes (three decks of rowers) to enormous battleships with six banks of oars. By Cleopatra’s time, the Romans were catching up, but the Egyptian navy still had a big reputation-- something of a paper tiger, but it was Antony’s civil war that would find that out. In the same way, Alexandria towered over Rome in its monumental architecture (Octavian would fix that when he became Augustus). Cleopatra’s task was to keep up appearances.

She commanded the fleet herself on at least two important occasions. In 43 BC, as the Antony/Octavian alliance was still battling it out with Brutus’ faction, Cleopatra took her fleet out into the Mediterranean in an effort to bring supplies to Caesar’s successors. The fleet was badly damaged by a storm, Cleopatra was sick, and they returned to Egypt. A more famous failure was in 31 BC, at the battle of Actium (on the Aegean coast of Turkey), where Antony’s and Octavian’s fleets lined up for a showdown. Cleopatra again personally commanded the Egyptian fleet, which was in reserve at the rear of Antony’s ships. As the battle mounted, a wind came up-- filling their sails and making rowing unnecessary for speed; and Cleopatra suddenly took off with her fleet. Antony impulsively followed her in a single ship, and was taken on board. His fleet remained to fight, unaware their commander had gone; eventually as the battle subsided, most of Antony’s ships were captured, and when news of his desertion was confirmed, went over to Octavian’s side. Antony himself quickly regretted his impulse; for 3 days he sulked on the prow of Cleopatra’s ship, angry or ashamed to see her, Plutarch says; until Cleopatra’s women prevailed on them to reconcile and to eat and sleep together.

Clearly Cleopatra was no charismatic battle-leader. The reason for her flight has never been explained; the surviving accounts are all from the Roman point of view. Her strength was manipulating men, and here it proved too strong for her own good.

Backstage charisma: Back-track to 48 BC. Julius Caesar arrives in Egypt, chasing Pompey, the other famous Roman general, whom he has defeated in the first round of civil wars. Cleopatra is 21, exiled by supporters of her 13-year-old brother and co-ruler. Pompey had shown up seeking asylum, but Ptolemy XIII decided to curry favor with Caesar by having him executed and sending his head as a present. Julius, however, is offended-- possibly by a foreigner executing a Roman; possibly because this offered a good excuse to annex Egypt, much the same way that he had annexed Gaul. At this moment,

Cleopatra has herself smuggled into Caesar’s presence, rolled up in a rug. Exactly what happened is not known, but the result is a tremendous diplomatic reversal of fortune. Instead of annexing Egypt, Caesar puts Cleopatra back on the throne. Ptolemy XIII is killed in battle, and Cleopatra formally marries yet another brother, Ptolemy XIV. Julius, who is usually fast-moving and had plenty of mopping up to do in the aftermath of the civil war, stays some months in Egypt with Cleopatra, who has a son 9 months later.

How does she do it? Both Plutarch and Cassius Dio comment on her voice and her conversation. “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her, but converse with her had an irresistible charm... There was sweetness in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased.” (Plutarch) *

* Shakespeare catches some of this, in Antony and Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetite they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies.

But Shakespeare depicts her as flighty and moody, and misses Cleopatra’s political astuteness and ruthlessness. George Bernard Shaw, who liked surprising reversals and usually took issue with Shakespeare, presents her in Caesar and Cleopatra as a frightened child. Incidentally, Shakespeare invents Antony’s famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” funeral address in Julius Caesar; it is the turning point of the play, but not mentioned in Plutarch. When Julius Caesar himself writes about his wars, he mentions Antony as someone who is good at delivering logistics and recruiting troops, and who can be relied upon to reinforce him at crucial moments. When Cleopatra first meets Antony, that is what he is doing: raising money from conquered cities. On the whole, Plutarch seems closest to the truth, except that he cannot see the politics from Cleopatra’s point of view.

Cleopatra’s emotional domination over others was a combination of sex and political awareness. She had a blithely pragmatic attitude about sex; she was married or shacked up four times (including twice to her brothers). This was an era of dynastic marriage politics; particularly in elite Roman families during the social wars and other feuds of the last century of the Republic, leaders would marry off their daughters or sisters in order to make an alliance; and divorce when alliances were broken. Julius, Pompey, Octavian, and Antony alike did this with each other. Love had nothing to do with it. Cleopatra was different in that she chose her own partners; and her most important liasons were for love. (Marrying her brothers was a matter of Egyptian royal custom, and she got rid of them as soon as possible.)

Cleopatra’s initiation into the great world had less to do with sex than with politics. Royal family politics in Egypt may have been closely-held, but it was anything but harmonious. Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, was overthrown in 58 BC in a coup that made his two eldest daughters co-rulers. Auletes went into exile in Rome, taking Cleopatra with him, until Roman military support put Auletes back on the throne in 55 BC. One of the daughters being already dead (probably murdered), Aultes had the other usurping daughted killed, and named Cleopatra and her next younger brother co-regents with himself. From age 11 she had an inside view of Roman politics while Caesar was conquering Gaul and forming the first triumvirate including Pompey. By 14 she was co-ruler of Egypt with her father; by 18 when her father died, ruler with her ten-year-old brother, whom she soon stopped mentioning in royal documents and depicting on coins. By 21, she had been pushed out in a coup, avoided assassination, and hooked up with Caesar (could they have talked Roman politics while having sex?)

Her rule in Egypt was never threatened domestically again. Her 18-year run itself was some kind of record, set against innumerable political murders of the previous half-century. Among her immediate ancestors, there were a dozen changes of ruler, only two of whom died a natural death. Kings killed their mothers, step-mothers, and children; sisters killed each other. Cleopatra used the same methods, but she lasted longer because she always found a Roman protector. Her brother Ptolemy XIII was killed in battle with Caesar’s troops; and Cleopatra apparently poisoned her next brother/husband, Ptolemy XIV during the period when Julius’s death left her vulnerable. And her visit to Antony at Tarsus was not just about sex; her younger sister Arsinoe had taken refuge in Ephesus, where Cleopatra arranged for Antony to have her killed.*

* Why was Egyptian family politics so treacherous? Marriages that elsewhere would be considered incestuous-- siblings, step-parents-- plus their cold-bloodedness, meant they were without love or personal attraction. This was normal in inter-family political marriages, but here the family itself contained the biggest threats to one’s rule. Cleopatra herself was prolonging the system while also trying to break out of it, sexual politics as alternative to deadly-incestuous family politics. See my post, Really Bad Family Values --- for the origins of murderous family politics among the Ptolemies’ Macedonian ancestors at the time of Alexander. Before the Ptolemies, Egypt had conventional incest taboos, and few royal murders.

Snaring Antony gave Cleopatra safe harbor for a while. He spent a year with her in Alexandria, during which she gave birth to twins. But it was not all non-stop partying for ten years. Tensions between Octavian and Antony were emerging; and Pompey’s forces were still to be reckoned with, especially the warships of his son, Sextus Pompeius, in Sicily and the western Mediterranean. Eventually Antony had to go back to war. He had been allotted the eastern part of Roman possessions, which included Greece, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, and needed new conquests to keep up prestige and income. Antony was gone four years, returning to Egypt in 36 BC. From then on, Alexandria was his home base, although he was intermittently away on campaigns. Politically speaking, Antony was now leading a double life. In Rome, he was one of the triumvirs controlling the state; but he left his wife Fulvia in charge-- keeping up alliances, raising money and troops for his side. (Cleopatra wasn’t the only woman empowered by a husband’s absences.) In Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra ruled as husband and wife, having married in an Egyptian rite-- even though, after Fulvia’s death, he was also married to Octavian’s sister, in one more effort to patch up their alliance.

Antony’s war against the Parthians in Iraq did not go well; but there were enough victories in Armenia so that he could celebrate a

Roman-style triumph in 34 BC. This in itself was a breach; a triumph was a victory parade through the streets of Rome showing off captives and booty from foreign victories, but Antony celebrated it in Alexandria. It was Cleopatra’s high-water mark. Cleopatra and her son by Caesar-- Caesarion-- were named co-rulers of Egypt. The daughter and two sons of Antony and Cleopatra received titles reigning over possessions respectively in Libya, Armenia and Parthia, the Levant and Asia Minor. This was playing fast and loose with Roman conquests (also some that were iffy, such as Parthia). Antony himself took no titles, but named Cleopatra “Queen of Kings.” Caesarion was being set up for something bigger, as Julius’s son, presumably if Octavian could only be gotten out of the way.

The rest we know. Octavian broke with Antony and defeated him in 31 BC. Octavian pursued him to Alexandria; Antony’s last loyal troops began to switch sides; the rest is suicide. But even at the end-game, there are indications Cleopatra was still maneuvering. Octavian sent feelers to Cleopatra promising good treatment if she would betray Antony; he found out about it and it took some patching up to get them back on loving terms. And there is a suggestion, in Appian’s history of the civil wars, that Sextus Pompeius, having been defeated by Octavian in Sicily, was negotiating for refuge and alliance simultaneously with the Parthian king, with Antony, and even with Cleopatra. Who knows-- a little more room in the timing and Cleopatra might have found herself another protector.

Success-magic charisma: Obviously Cleopatra had no reputation like Caesar or Joan of Arc for always being victorious. But consider her string of recovering from losing her kingdom. She did it twice; first with her father, when he fled to Rome; and again with Julius; preemptively enlisting Antony as her protector was the third time. And she didn’t just rest with getting back to even. She saw the opportunities for much bigger aggrandizement: getting her son Ceasarion named heir to Julius, always an ace in the hole until the very end; getting Antony to crown his own children as kings, not only of former territories of the old Ptolemaic empire, but of Roman conquests in the East. She almost split the Roman empire, making herself Queen of Kings, as Antony proclaimed her. It is one of the world’s great records of almost.

Reputational charisma: She did not exactly have a reputation for being charismatic, except as a personal charmer of the first order. But she certainly was famous. Already around 40 BC, Cleopatra must have been one of the three most famous persons in the western world (along with Antony and Octavian). Even her death added to the fame that made her, almost continuously, the most famous woman leader in history.

Fame per se is not charisma. It has its own causes. To note one here: very famous persons tend to cluster, in networks of acquaintance and antagonism. All four big names of the late Roman republic (we can add Pompey here) were connected, both directly and by 2-link intermediate ties (usually sexual and familial). * They made each other famous. The drama of Antony and Octavian revenging Julius; the drama of Antony against Octavian; the drama of Cleopatra and everybody. Fame multiplies fame, especially since it comes from interaction.

* Pompey was married to Julius’ daughter, while Julius married Pompeia, a relative of Pompey. Octavian was son of Julius’ niece, and adopted by him as his son and heir. Antony was related to Julius on his mother’s side.

Was Cleopatra charismatic?

Yes, in a unique combination of sexual backstage charisma, frontstage spectacle, and political astuteness. She knew how to use spectacle to keep her own freedom of action, since she directed it herself and did not let it turn into an entrapping ceremonial routine.

Is Cleopatra the archetype of distinctively female power? Or an anomaly of special historical circumstances? She seems a premodern figure, of the era of hereditary family rule, with enhanced chances for sexual maneuver while the conservative Roman Republic of elite families was distintegrating into dictatorships.

Could anyone do this in the era of modern democracies-- that is, win power by sexual charm? No doubt we could find examples of the charm, but who could a woman turn it onto? She might captivate a political or corporate leader, but their positions are temporary, not hereditary; and once captivated, what could they do for her? --certainly not give her a kingdom.*

* Ironically, the best opportunities for hereditary charisma today come inside political movements, especially of the left or populist brands. A movement may operate in a democracy (or for creating a democracy from an autocracy), but a leader like Martin Luther King’s wife and children, Nelson Mandela’s wife, or Aung San Suu Kyi or Indira Ghandi or Benazir Bhutto stepping into her father’s or husband’s shoes, is not democratically chosen by the movement. It is the power of reflected charisma or fame, plus having a head start in the magic circle of political visibility, that makes them automatic contenders for the top.

Perhaps surprisingly, women’s access to top power is greatest in conservative and autocratic regimes. In early modern Europe, the best example is Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Not a great beauty when she arrived as a German princess, she had the advantage-cum-disadvantage of being married to an incompetent young heir to the throne. The joker in the deck of hereditary rule is that the skills and energies of leadership are not automatically passed on. Weakness is an opportunity for whoever is in position to seize the machinery of organization; and Catherine expanded the modernizing bureaucracy started by her husband’s grandfather, Peter the Great. The danger was assassination and palace coup, which Catherine guarded against via a succession of court lovers, who murdered her opponents, starting with her husband.

Future Catherine the Great at her betrothal, 1746

Women do as well in autocracies as anybody, except generals. When political rulers are careful to keep generals from taking over, the woman closest to the male dictator has a unique opportunity.

And this bring us to:

Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s voice

Dozens of Chinese teenagers crowd into a room. They have trapped an official and are demanding that he admit his errors. He is a bourgeois counter-revolutionary, a capitalist roader, a revisionist black-liner, a deviant from the Red line spelled out by the Great Leader, Chairman Mao. They wave the Little Red Book in his face; they tear his shirt; they slap his face. They pressure him relentlessly. It goes on for hours, sometimes day and night, in new shifts. Finally he has confessed, been cross-examined, accused of insincerity, brought out to make his public self-criticism. He is paraded in the streets as the crowd watches, chants in unison, waving their Little Red Books of Mao’s sayings.

It is the Cultural Revolution and this is a struggle session. It happens in dozens of places, then in thousands-- first at universities in Beijing, then government offices, schools, factories, newspapers and radio stations, spreading across the country. Demonstrators split, accuse and attack each other. They have gone too far, they have attacked the wrong person. They are counter-revolutionaries, anti-party groups. No, the accusers themselves are the counter-revolutionaries, bourgeois road-takers, fake leftists. They clash in the streets, invade each other’s schools and dormitories, fortify themselves with barricades. They take prisoners and torture them into making confessions. Such are the scenes in China from 1966 to 1969.

Frontage/backstage merged: It is group charisma, enthusiastic energy that will not be denied. It is based on unity, and casting out disunity. It is done in the name of our great comrade leader Mao Zedong. But he is not here. Struggle sessions proliferate as student Red Guards form spontaneously. Mao is the guiding spirit, but he gives little or no instructions, only slogans, from a distance. There is no chain of command. It is a movement outside all chains of command, designed to purge and purify and eliminate all command.

Everything is done in groups, in moveable public gatherings. Frontstage and backstage are merged; there is to be no backstage where anyone can hide.

Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch’ing) is in at the beginning of the turmoil. In 1965, she and a young newspaper editor criticize a play written by a Beijing official as a veiled attack on Mao. He has been under fire within the communist leadership since 1959, for the failure of the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to spring China into an industrial giant rivaling the Soviet Union, and to abolish all remnants of bourgeois private property. But the communes failed, agriculture fell, famine followed. Mao retired from the government, gave up all offices, retaining only one: Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. He became surrounded by reformers who want trade rather than self-sufficiency and isolation, pragmatism rather than communist perfection.

In 1965 and into spring 1966, Jiang Qing and her allies strike back on behalf of Mao. She had been his wife since 1938 (Mao’s fourth), while communists were protecting their enclave in northwest China, avoiding the Japanese and waiting their time to overthrow the Nationalists. Before that, Jiang Qing (this was her party name assumed at this time), had been a young movie star, until the Japanese overran Shanghai. She had risen from the bottom, her mother a concubine, cast out from her family, degraded to a servant and prostitute; the future Jiang Qing made her way by her beauty and her acting talent, marrying and divorcing a string of men who she met in her progress through school and theatre. Mao soon took up with her, although other Party leaders objected-- Mao was already married to a long-serving Party member who had made the Long March with him. Mao did not yet have the absolute authority of later on; he agreed to marry Jiang Qing secretly, keep her out of public eye, allow her no place in Party affairs for 30 years. Jiang Qing became his private secretary, as backstage as one could be in the CCP.

Jiang Qing as film star, 1935

Mao and Jiang Qing, 1946

Now, with Mao 73 years old and fading, Jiang Qing and her followers went on the attack in his behalf. The play, they declared in the press, set in the past about an evil emperor who dismisses a loyal official, was really about a high-ranking communist who has criticized Mao. The play’s official supporters struck back, decreeing the dispute merely an academic matter apart from politics. In May 1966, Jiang Qing renewed the attack: academic matters are no place to hide from political issues of life or death for the Great Proletarian Revolution; such writers and their supporters must be reformed and purged. Mao got the Politburo (central committee of the Chinese Communist Party) to agree. Shortly after, a Beijing University teacher put up the first wall poster attacking the older professors as “black anti-party gangsters.”

So-called “work teams” were quickly sent out by government ministries to investigate and purge the schools and universities, but they served mainly to shatter authority. By mid-summer, student Red Guards exploded into the power vacuum, launching their own struggle sessions. The Cultural Revolution was under way.

Jiang Qing’s position in the regime was merely as head of film and theatre (including the Beijing opera), but a revolution

in culture was being demanded. The material foundations of communism existed but the ideological superstructure remained to be reformed. Young students, born since the 1949 revolution, who had no memory or taint of the old ways, were the best troops for this assault on their recalcitrant elders. Thought reform (what American prisoners during the Korean War had called brain-washing) was their task.

To direct the campaign, the Politburo set up a new committee, the Central Cultural Revolution Group. Jiang Qing was only a Vice-chairman but soon became its real power behind the scenes, since everyone assumed she spoke for Mao-- she certainly acted as if she did. She and three of her protégés came to be known as the Gang of Four.

Mao spoke out only intermittently. At first he mostly praised the actions of the Red Guards. Police were forbidden to interfere with the Red Guards, even when they used violence; the army was forbidden to interfere, then required to cooperate; all students were to be allowed to travel to Beijing, all officials to help by providing free train travel and accommodations. It was at this time that the personality cult of Mao began, with demonstrators carrying pictures of Chairman Mao everywhere, brandishing his Little Red Book (published when he was under criticism in 1964). People’s Liberation Army general Lin Biao came aboard, vying with Jiang Qing as the greatest of Mao’s public adulators, declaring in a speech: “everything the Chairman says is truly great; one of the Chairman’s words will override the meaning of tens of thousands of ours.” As the Cultural Revolution burgeoned into violence and destruction of old temples and religious monuments in the summer of 1966, Mao urged all Red Guards to come to Beijing, where 11 million of them paraded through Tienanmen Square to cheer Mao and Lin Biao standing beside him. Eventually the two names were always used in conjunction in public announcements, “Chairman Mao and Vice-Chairman Lin.”

Jiang Qing and Lin Biao were now allies, initiating fresh attacks on recalcitrant targets. In January 1967, they crushed resistance from China’s second major city, Shanghai, by encouraging Red Guard assaults against all municipal officials, and setting one of the Gang of Four in charge of the city. Next month, Jiang Qing and Lin Biao demanded purges and “class struggles” in the military. Army generals pushed back, but again Mao backed Jiang Qing’s initiative. Jiang Qing was flying from one city to another, addressing mass meetings and denouncing opponents as “counter-revolutionaries.” In July, she went so far as to order Red Guards to replace the army.

The Cultural Revolution spiraled out of control. Local officials mobilized their own Red Guards to combat others, workers took various sides, and the Red Guards based in different schools tended to split and fight against each other. In cities with armaments factories and military installations, fighting was particularly violent, seizing military weapons or embroiling the soldiers. Altogether 1.5 million persons were killed during these years. Many of those who were purged and humiliated committed suicide.

Eventually Mao, realizing the administrative apparatus of the country was being destroyed, ordered the military to stop the Red Guard purges, and sent 18 million youth to work in the remote countryside. Schools and universities were closed. They went off ritualistically at the railroad stations, singing about their new task. It turned out to be farm labor, living in sheds and caves and subsisting on poor people’s food like mushrooms, an exile that would last almost ten years.

Political struggle at the top went into a new phase. In 1969, Jiang Qing was promoted to the Poliburo; Lin Biao moved up to be second-in-command and Mao’s successor. But the Red Guard weapon was gone, and the army had reasserted its indispensability. Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), the other famous communist hero from the early days of revolution, was viewed increasingly as a threat. Jiang Qing treated him as a personal enemy; although she could not remove him from his official position as Premier, she made Zhou sign an order to arrest his own brother, and had his son and daughter tortured and murdered, even cremating the body to forestall an autopsy. Meanwhile, Lin Biao was provoking jealousies, including from Mao himself, and probably from Jiang Qing, who was rumoured to be aiming to make herself Chairman of the CCP. By 1971, Lin Biao was being pushed out, and his supporters (notably Lin’s son) launched a military coup. Over a period of six days in early September 1971, there were attacks on Mao’s private train, fended off by guards posted for hundreds of miles along the tracks. Lin Biao with his family fled by plane to Russia. They never made it, the plane crashing in Mongolia in circumstances that have never been explained.

With Mao’s health declining, Jiang Qing’s prominence was at its peak. But political opposition and public hatred of her were building. She and the Gang of Four controlled all news reporting and cultural performances. Pivoting on Lin Biao’s downfall, she launched a campaign called “Criticize Lin, criticize Confucius” which tried to link her former ally with cultural reactionaries, and implicitly with Zhou Enlai.* But the public was exhausted with campaigns of militant communism; exhausted too with forced rituals of pretending to show frontstage enthusiasm for whatever was the campaign of the moment-- and knowing the target could change abruptly.

* Done with typical Chinese innuendo and punning on names, since Zhou had the same name as the Duke of Chou, hero of ancient Confucian texts.

The campaign against Zhou Enlai turned into the downfall of Jiang Qing. When Zhou Enlai died in January 1976, his state funeral spilled over into spontaneous commemorations all over China. The Gang of Four issued instructions in the press against wearing mourning emblems for Zhou, but as a test of control it signalled the wrong result. Deng Xiaoping, soon to take over as the great market reformer, delivered the funeral oration in front of all the Communist leaders except Mao, who was already dying. Again in April, at a traditional festival for the dead, crowds put up posters in Tienanmen Square praising Zhou Enlai, and-- for the first time-- publically criticizing Jiang Qing. One person would read the poster aloud, while the people behind him would form a “human microphone”-- repeating the words in loud voices so that it carried back into the crowd. [Guobin Yang, 148] Security forces made arrests and Deng Xiaoping was put under house arrest. But it was a nervous equilibrium. Mao died on September 9, Jiang Qing at his side. Within a month, she and the Gang of Four were arrested by a special military unit. There were celebrations all over China.

Jiang Qing was imprisoned for 5 years while Deng Xiaoping consolidated power, then put on trial in 1981. Refusing to recant, she had maintained a stoic silence. At the nationally televised trial, she was the only one of the Gang of Four who spoke up. “I was Chairman Mao’s dog,” she said. “I bit whoever he asked me to bite.” Sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment, she committed suicide in 1991.

Success-magic charisma

did not cling to Jiang Ching, except during her years of upward ascent between 1966 and 1971 when it was dangerous to challenge her. Being feared is not real charisma, if we define it as the power to move people spontaneously. We could call the entire movement group magic charisma, enthusiastic believers in the infallibility of their collective will. In fact Mao’s policies failed repeatedly, but his Little Red Book was treated like a magic talisman, providing all the answers. And it was dangerous to disregard it. Call it the magic of hope, the magic of a movement armed with an embodied ideology-- they had it in their hands, thousands of hands, visible wherever one went. Their mass mobilization was proof of their magic, the palpable proof of their power over whoever resisted.

In the not-very-long run, it was self-undermining. The movement so certain of its path repeatedly split, each faction lashing out in fear of being labelled on the wrong side of history, until it must have become apparent there was no magic path to success. It was the self-destruction of the egalitarian revolution, like the Reign of Terror in Paris during 1793-94, when the French revolution cannibalized itself.

Reputational charisma: Jiang Qing was only secondarily famous during the Cultural Revolution, since she always portrayed herself as the conduit of Mao’s wishes. She took the most radical initiatives and Mao backed them up, at least for a while; and even when he had to pull back and send the Red Guards into exile, she quietly enhanced her official position and her backstage power. As Mao weakened and his opponents returned, Jiang Qing became increasingly prominent on her own-- all the more so as her main rival in riding on Mao’s image, Lin Biao, became the new target for attack. But now fully in the public eye, Jiang Qing acquired what might be termed negative charisma, as the most hated person in China. Certainly she played the part of arch-villain at the trial of the Gang of Four, defiant to the end. She had once played the lead in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, the feminist heroine who walks out and slams the door. This is how she went out in real life: one person who could not be thought-reformed, who would never give in to performing self-criticism.

Jiang Qing and Lin Biao had reflected charisma, in the halo of Mao Zedong. But Mao’s charisma, too, was being created simultaneously during the Cultural Revolution; and they were the stage-managers of his reputation. If the puppet-master was calling the plays, Jiang Qing found she could not entirely control what Mao would do, especially when he had to clean up the destruction she encouraged. What was happening was the joint construction of each other’s charisma, in all its degrees of unreality and the emotional power of collective belief.

Was there any distinctively feminine aspect to Jiang Qing’s charisma? Her early career was made by sexual attraction and the ability to choose partners and change them as a better one came along. Some men attempted suicide when she left them. This may have been a reason why the early communist leaders were unwilling to let Mao marry her. Late in life, Mao had a quasi-harem of younger women, no doubt downgrading Jiang Qing’s strictly erotic position. * But she had been his private secrtary, keeper of his closest secrets, and the most politically adept of Mao’s wives and lovers. In this respect, Jiang Qing resembles Cleopatra.

* It was rumoured that Mao and Jiang Qing had separated in 1973, although it was never announced, and she continued to play on her reputation as Mao’s wife.

Better than anyone, Jiang Qing was able to ride on Mao’s image and manipulate it to her own ends. She lasted longer and did better than the famous general, Lin Biao. This must have come from her intimate tie with Mao. Sex, love, a long career of living closely together-- nothing could put someone in a better position to claim to channel a great leader’s wishes.

The question once again: when are women charismatic leaders?

Jiang Qing was not the only prominent woman in the Cultural Revolution. Nie Yuanzi, a young philosophy instructor at Beijing University, put up the first wall poster that sparked the movement. She became leader of one of the biggest Red Guard groups in the city, chaired a Red Guard unity congress, and attempted to take over Beijing the way Red Guards had overthrown the municipal goverenment in Shanghai. [Walder, 279] But her group was badly split by violence inside her own university, some of which she ruthlessly ordered herself. She was criticized for being dictatorial, and Jiang Qing had to intervene to save her. The communists were pursuing a unisex policy at this time, men and women dressing alike -- and taking identical, non-gender-marked names. There were a number of women among Red Guards leaders, although men predominated. The radical revolutionary atmosphere favored some gender equality in the leadership, but Jiang Qing did better than other women, with her double sources of power.

Joan of Arc lived at the cusp of a big structural transformation, the end of feudalism and the rise of the modern state. It is in just such locations in history where the biggest names are made.

It was also virtually the last time battles were won by charging the enemy with hand-arms. Cannon were beginning to come in, and would be used not just in sieges to batter walls but to sweep battlefields, along with musquet fire. Castles were being replaced by organization and logistics. Joan, the leader with a sword-- really, the leader with the banner followed by the swords-- was near the end of the time when anyone could lead by sheer inspiration from the very front of the troops.

Cleopatra, too, lived at a time of structural transformation. This may be the underlying logic in the fact that the other candidate for the most famous woman of all time-- Mary, mother of Jesus-- was born in the next generation after Cleopatra, and within a few hundred miles of each other; Judea being one of the satellite kingdoms in the Ptolemaic empire, taken over in the Roman conquest. Super-fame comes from being in on the action of important people, however that is read by following generations. Cleopatra is the end of something, Mary and her son the beginning of a more universal movement, facilitated by a universal empire. Being a charismatic leader means taking a very active part in the action. Cleopatra did that, in a spectacular way that makes her particularly memorable as a political woman. If her political skills are veiled in her erotic reputation, that is appropriate, since that was how she presented herself. Sex is probably a universal resource, but also a liability.

Cleopatra knew how to use the political iron hand in the sexual glove, a move that was more structurally available to women in a time of hereditary family dynasties.

Where does that leave us? The conditions that made Joan of Arc and Cleopatra possible no longer exist. Jiang Qing, who has some resemblance to Cleopatra’s methods but wrapped in a Mao jacket, shows what remains-- at least in the vehement form of charisma in the midst of dangerous and radical movements. As I noted, stable democracies do not seem to be very good for women’s dramatic domination on the political stage. If it is to be found, look for periods of turmoil where backstage politics meshes with turmoil in the streets.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


Jules Michelet. 1853/1957. Joan of Arc.

George Bernard Shaw. 1924. Saint Joan: Preface.

John Keegan. 1976. The Face of Battle.

Cambridge Modern History. Vol. I. 1907.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary.

Randall Collins. “Jesus in Interaction: the Micro-sociology of Charisma”

Plutarch. Life of Caesar; Life of Antony.

Julius Caesar. Gallic Wars; Civil Wars.

Appian. The Civil Wars.

Robert Morkot. 1996. Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece.

Randall Collins. "Really Bad Family Values."

Wikipedia. Cleopatra VII.

Andrew Walder. 2009. Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement.

Guobin Yang. 2016. The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China.

Wikipedia. Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution; Jiang Qing.


The Trump saga bears an uncanny resemblance to the TV show, The Sopranos, that ran from 1999 to 2007. Both are essentially soap operas, serial melodrama of domestic life, set on the edge of criminality, and beyond. This is a big part of their popular appeal.

A family in every sense of the term

Tony Soprano is the head of a Mafia family, seen through the lens of his family life. This is a good way to sentimentalize organized crime, even with its violence and treachery. It makes these into homey and sympathetic people who go through the same things as the rest of us: the kids growing up, messing up in school, teens stretching the limits. A mid-life crisis that sends the husband into psychotherapy with a female psychiatrist. A middle-aged housewife flirting with a good-looking Catholic priest, while her husband shacks up with young bimbos. Soap-opera stuff, but she can brush it aside precisely because they are bimbos, not real rivals, knowing underneath it all that Tony Soprano is committed to his family. Just boy stuff, as Melania Trump might say.

It is an old-fashioned Italian family.  The father is the undisputed boss, loyalty the chief virtue. Everything centers on a family business, continuing across the generations, branching out to relatives who can’t be forgotten, no matter what. Uncle Junior, an over-the-hill hoodlum. Tony’s querulous mother, who berates him for not coming to see her enough, while he maneuvers her into a nursing home she hates. Christopher, the nephew learning the business, callow and sleazy but an eager enthusiast, a sort of male ingénue working his way up in a crime career.

As a Mafia family, it combines domestic with fictitious kin and pseudo-family relations. Hoodlums like Pauley and Big Pussy, who come over for home-made Italian pasta and are regarded as family by the kids. Boyhood friend Artie, a genial restaurateur who provides another meeting-place and prospers under Tony’s protection. The Mafia operates in a world of small family-run businesses, never in bureaucratic corporations or chains. They are independent, outside of formal rules and record-keeping, under the radar. Family-like loyalty and privacy is the secret of their success.

Tony’s headquarters is the back office of a roadside strip joint-- or for that matter, out front at the bar where the girls undulate while insiders shop-talk and plot. Tony lives in a big house in a wealthy suburb, but he commutes every day to a neighborhood of cheap store-fronts where his business associates hang out. Killings take us inside kitchens and meat-lockers; bodies are buried in garbage dumps-- one of Tony’s fronts is the waste disposal business.

This is crime with a work ethic. Tony and his gang are always taking care of business-- one difference between the Mafia elite and casual robbers who commit the intermittent stickup to finance their drug habit. They keep regular hours and put in overtime when needed. Tony suddenly stops his car to chase down and beat up a guy who owes him money-- a gambling addict on the hook for huge interest to Tony’s shylocking operation. Taking his daughter on a visit to a New England college, Tony spots an aging police informer now in an FBI witness protection program; so while Meadow listens to the college admission spiel, Tony sneaks out to kill the rat. Drama is always popping up in the midst of ordinary routine.

Behind the scenes of everyday life, something is hidden and exciting. This is the formula for detective stories-- that distinctively modern form of literature, enlivening our disenchanted world where almost everything is routine. The Sopranos works the formula from the point of view of the criminals, while bringing it closer to our own lives by embedding crime business in the cycle of domesticity.

The Trumps

The Trumps are another family in the pre-modern mold.

Donald, of course, the head of family, both domestic and business, with precious little distinction between them. An over-the-top egotistical self-promoter. That itself is a business asset, since Trump is a brand name, in a post-modern economy where branding is the core money-maker and the grunt work is shunted off to the periphery. Even the controversies add to the attention. Is he a mega-billionaire? Is he faking it, a pyramid of debts and shaky holdings? It’s all part of the drama.

Trump is a pre-modern business model in the most post-modern of economic sectors. Flashy hotels, golf resorts, casinos, the “in” places where the action is. His venues are places for spectacle and entertainment. Beauty pageants. Boxing promotions where famous fighters shake hands in the front rows and Penthouse Pets parade around the ring carrying the round cards and have their pictures taken with Donald Trump.

The web of businesses is family held, avoiding bureaucratic strings. Trump decides as much as possible himself, surrounded by a loyal core of long-time employees, many of them women. In addition to this pseudo-family, his businesses are run by his children, especially his highly competent older daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared. He is the kind of relative who gets absorbed into the core of loyalists. Jared is a parallel to Donald’s own career: launched by a wealthy entrepreneurial father, striking off in his early years on his own ventures; even taking over when the father gets caught on the wrong side of the law. Like the Mafia, it is more of an umbrella for holdings than a vertical bureaucracy. As a closely-held family business, it stays as far as possible from the formal rules and record-keeping of big corporations, publicly-traded companies, and government regulations. Like the Mafia, it is based on the opposite of transparency-- which means open to formal oversight and outside interference.

Managing the network of enterprises is very labor-intensive, a more than full-time job-- in effect no time off at all, no distinction between private life and work. Trump manages it by being very quick and decisive. He also needs very little sleep, a workaholic who gets his emotional energy from his business interactions where he is always in the center of control. For implementation, he has to rely on trusted followers whose loyalty is unquestioned. And he does this successfully by grooming his children to join him in the inner circle. Far from leaning over backwards to avoid the impression of nepotism, he concentrates on making nepotism work.

Even Trump’s bitterest opponents give tribute to his family. On campaign and in the public eye, they make a good impression: good-looking, well-dressed, well-behaved, seriously involved. They are in implicit contrast to so many children of elite families, the spoiled rich, the money squanderers, the druggies, the Teddy Kennedys with their car crashes, Sarah Palin’s family of trailer-trash scrapes, Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s black-sheep brothers. Donald himself may create the scandals but his family is united in riding them out; this is not one of the all-so-frequent upper class families divided by battles over inheritance or waiting for the older generation to quit. How does Trump keep them loyal and committed? Apparently, by involving them from an early age. He keeps them around and pays frequent attention to them--- not by taking time out from his business, but by bringing them into it as much as possible. Donald’s divorces and remarriages do not prevent him from keeping his children close. He claims to have told them every morning at breakfast to stay away from drinking and drugs. Like Donald, they are not party animals but call the shots at promoting parties: similar to Mafia chiefs who run the drug business but strictly prohibit using it themselves. Trump himself does not drink, one reason why he can be up in the middle of the night sending Tweets.

Trump’s pre-modern family/business is a source of controversy, especially in the period of transition to the Presidency, and very likely beyond. The two entities are almost co-extensive, the opposite of the now-conventional wall between public and private life. It is considered mildly scandalous that Ivanka, Jared, or Donald Jr. are involved as diplomatic contacts and go-betweens with foreign leaders. This will not go away. Trump’s business and political careers have been based on defying pressures to adhere to conventional consensus. Like the Mafia, the familistic structure is the source of its strength. Controversies about it are just one more thing keeping the Trump saga in the center of attention.

Another level up in social class

The Trumps and The Sopranos are not identically patterned. The Sopranos are upwardly mobile from the working class. They have made it into the upper-middle class segment that lives in the expensive suburbs but still does their own cooking. They have all the middle-class comforts but talk in the accents of East Coast immigrant working class. Tony’s mob is centered in grubby working class areas and caters to working class male recreations. They have money for NFL games, NBA, hockey-- for that matter, they are the clientele as well as some of the more profitable workers servicing Atlantic City casinos like Trump’s. As sociologist David Halle found in his research on oil refinery workers in northern New Jersey (almost exactly where Tony lives), they are working class on the job, but at home they are middle class, by their expenditure patterns and by the respectable activities their wives drag them to.  The sociology of this group is perfectly captured in the tug-of-war between the stripper bars across from the factory where many workmen spend their lunch and after-work hours, and the Catholic church events and school activities their wives involve them in. The Mafia is, so to speak, the most aristocratic of the working-class aristocracy.

If The Trumps are a version of The Sopranos, they are a very upper-class version. They are the glittery part of the upper class. There also exists a more traditional, boringly respectable part of the upper class, the world of polite formal occasions, charity balls and opera openings, ladies’ luncheons, stuffy men’s clubs (now become stuffy men’s and women’s clubs), testimonial dinners and cliché-recycling conferences. The Trumps have entree into this, but it is not what elevates them to the center of public attention.

Women are a crucial part of Trump’s image. His wives have all been fashion models, but distinctive ones.  Sexy rather than the skeletal look of the runways; sleek and glamorous in a throwback style that is more Playboy than fashion-world edginess.  Supermodels who spin off their own brands and ride the momentum of their circle of fame into personal business lines. Trump and his women play off each other like acrobats on a high-wire act. Their audience is middle-brow, not the esoteric in-group fashion statements of the self-consciously sophisticated. This is not Mamie Eisenhower’s upper class, nor Truman Capote’s. The Trumps present the upper-class image most palatable to today’s lower-middle and working class.

Are there sleazy business dealings? Of course. Hard-ball lawsuits; aggressive bankruptcies; stiffing your contractors; making your lenders absorb losses because you are too hard-charging and too big to fail. These tactics are not exactly unknown in the creation of big business fortunes, from the time of Rockefeller to the corporate raiders of the present. French sociologist Michel Villette found that virtually all of the big fortunes made in Europe and the US since the 1950s involved shady legal tactics. Machiavelli wrote that the way to carry out a coup is to chop off your enemies’ heads, display them on the city walls, and join the church procession at the cathedral next morning. The modern American way of laundering predatory fortunes into respectability is to ostentatiously give a lot of money to charity, especially through a family foundation. Trump’s style is more in-your-face, making up in boldness for what it lacks in smarminess.

The Mafia-family genre

The Sopranos is in the lineage of sentimentalized Mafia films going back to the early 1970s. The Mafia was a very secretive organization, above all in its center of power, New York City. Although there were occasional spectacular murders and high-profile investigations, on the whole the structure and operations of the Mafia were little known until the revelations of Joe Valachi, an FBI informant, in 1963. This inspired a popular novel, which became the Godfather  in 1972. Like The Sopranos, the technique is to present a Mafia family sympathetically, from the point of view of its home life.   We see less about Mafia rackets than in The Sopranos, as most of the plot is taken up with a Mafia war. The aging Godfather (Marlon Brando) is badly wounded in an assassination attempt; his boys have to take over the family and fight off a rival borgatta.

The plot takes a sentimental turn. The youngest son (Al Pacino) has been brought up to go straight; he has gone to college-- the first of his family-- and is expected to assimilate their wealth into the WASP elite. But with his father incapacitated and the war going badly, the youngest son volunteers to be the go-between to negotiate peace with the rival Mafia chief. They scope out the meeting place in advance, a restaurant where they can hide a gun in the toilet. Pacino arrives, is patted down for weapons; eventually excuses himself to go to the bathroom, comes back and shoots the enemy chief. Then he goes on the lam to Sicily, where he learns about his Mafia roots and acquires the manners that will eventually promote him to Godfather when he returns to America.

The Godfather mixes incidents from different historical periods. Marlon Brando’s character is based on Carlo Gambino, who took over one of the five New York families after a Mafia war in 1957. But the restaurant murder is based on the 1930-31 Mafia war that established Italian hegemony in the New York crime world. One of the lieutenants, “Lucky” Luciano, decided to end the war by double-crossing his boss. What happened was roughly what we saw in The Godfather-- the young man telling the Boss he's got a deal with the enemy, going to the toilet, the bodyguards disappearing while killers burst in shooting. A few months later, Luciano pulled another tricky set-up on the other remaining Boss, using  hired Jewish hit-men in disguise. This was epoch-making for the New York Mafia, since Luciano proceeded to set up a five-family “Peace Commission” to approve all Mafia hits and keep its affairs under cover by systematic bribing of New York officials.

Flash back to the present, which is to say 1972, the year The Godfather set a box office record. It was the triumphant era of the black Civil Rights movement, the latter phase when white ethnics started making similar demands for recognition. Mafia secrecy was not blown just by best-sellers and Hollywood. Joe Colombo (head of the Colombo family) was making public speeches rallying Italian-Americans like Frank Sinatra, to protest against defamation (such as the slur of mentioning the Mafia). Joey Gallo, believed to have engineered the shooting of Colombo at his Columbus Day rally in 1971, was temporarily the darling of cafe society before being shot at a Manhattan restaurant in 1972.

The Mafia saga is full of ironies and contradictions, as far as its public image goes. One of the slogans among intellectuals in the 1970s was “the rise of the unmeltable ethnics”-- an attack on White Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination, and a refusal of the ethnics to assimilate to it. This is part of the rhetoric that by the 1980s became known as Political Correctness, and which continues today in an expanded array of group identities that claim revenge on WASP (and male) domination. The Godfather films were the first triumph in popular culture of this anti-establishment rebellion. The irony is that The Godfather represents successful upward mobility from ethnic roots into the American upper class. In a climactic scene, Al Pacino is now the Godfather, married to a naive WASP woman, a trophy bride for the upwardly mobile. She has qualms about whether her husband is involved in all the violence that swirls around their luxurious life. Finally she confronts her husband: Tell me the truth. Did you order these killings? Pacino counters: if I tell you, will you stop asking? Yes, she says. OK, he replies, No. The Mafia has made it; the family is intact, even managing to assimilate a clueless upper-class WASP into its underground life.

The Godfather is a coming-of-age movie, reaffirming your ethnic roots. Our hero grows up to become his true ethnic self, defeating all enemies both professional and cultural.

The Sopranos have not changed much from this point. They are middle-class Americans, with the lifestyles of 30-40 years later. Instead of grand Mafia chiefs, they are in the local grind of organized crime, showing more working class roots than The Godfather did. Partly this reflects a real historical decline in the Mafia; with RICO prosecutions since the 1980s, the remaining Mafia families have nothing like the money and influence they had at mid-century. This is one reason why it feels harmless to be a fan of thinly fictionalized Mafia characters; they have been displaced by Dominican mobs, Russian oligarchs, and Mexican cartels in the sphere of big-time crime. Minor league criminals with a family organization that lends itself to sentimentalizing, the Mafia has become a comfortably naughty entertainment.

Why Trump is Great Box Office

Trump’s political campaign dominated public attention from the outset. It’s the Hollywood principle-- it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right-- in spades. Trump hooks people’s attention, whether they like him or not; especially when not. It is like being addicted to daily soap opera. The Sopranos blended soap opera with Mafia violence. The Trumps blend soap opera with edgy big business and edgy politics. Tune in for another episode to find out what outrageous thing he’s said today.

Trump goads people into responding to him, so much so that every candidate he faced spent most of their time talking about him. On policy issues, his stances have been heard before. The movement of grass-roots outrage at illegal immigration has existed for decades. Trump ratcheted up the hyperbole with his slogan about building a wall, and when Mexican leaders responded angrily, topped himself by claiming he would make Mexico pay for it. Job loss to foreign countries and profits going overseas has been an issue on the left; Trump made it his issue with over-the-top threats against China. Opponents play into his game by taking what he says literally and venting about it, whereupon instead of backing off he thumbs his nose at them. The underlying game is who gets to frame the issues and who grabs the center of attention speaking about them; Trump wins on both counts.

Even without the issues, the topic became his unconventionality and norm-breaking of the established customs of public life. It began with Trump belittling other candidates to their face, turning dignified debate formats into a political version of the Jerry Springer show. The press is accustomed to creating news by their questions at press conferences; Trump refused to let them control the situation, calling out persistent reporters for their pushiness. After the election, the usual behind-the-scenes selection of top officials was been turned into try-outs televised at the front door. Manners became the message. Established media and politicians constantly find themselves playing straight man to his punch lines. Constantly upsetting the apple-carts made all other candidates look static.

How to defeat the politics of scandal

Established social life relies on the mechanism of scandal to keep things conventional.  But Trump constantly plays on the edge of scandal anyway; digging up dirt about his past is only ephemeral news. He won’t release his tax returns, although every other candidate has done it for years? It’s a custom, not a law, and anyway (actions speaking louder than words) I’m not going to do it just because you demand it. Bring on the next scandal. How about the pussy-grabbing tape? Ordinarily sex scandals are deadly in public life. How Trump survived the outcry is instructive. He refused to apologize, and even counter-attacked with sleazy sex-charges of his own. The refusal to apologize is itself outrageous, in the eyes of the attacker. But a scandal is an emotional snowball; once it gains momentum, anyone caught off balance by it gets flattened. Whether by instinct or by calculation, Trump held his ground and played for time.

One thing that helped is how expectable the politics of scandal has become. In the normally deadlocked mode of American politics, where it is difficult to win on the issues, the weapon of choice has been to spring a scandal. Experienced political operatives are familiar with the Saturday Night Special (for a Tuesday election date); with the October Surprise that the Clinton campaign surely must have thought would clinch their victory. Trump not only rode it out but battened on it. As Republican political pros joined the chorus of shocked voices, Trump marshaled his supporters to stand fast: whatever we may feel about his language, we’re still there on the issues; the other side is worse; it’s just dirty politics, this October surprise. Above all, breaking the emotional momentum.

As sociologists have pointed out, a scandal is a multi-layered event. First, something is revealed that is considered a scandalous breach of propriety. But what gives the scandal its power is the secondary scandal, looking for the cover-up; widening the hunt to those who not only connived but failed to do anything about it. A truly powerful scandal is where everyone who fails to denounce the scandal becomes a target. If you are not with us in the witch-hunt, you must be one of the witches. That is why the chorus of former supporters joining in the denunciation is the switching point. The attitude of prominent supporters like Mike Pence and Reince Priebus kept the secondary scandal from getting out of hand. (There would be no equivalent of the Republican senators who joined the Watergate investigation and thereby raised their own popularity.) It was a pause, a slowing-down that broke the emotional momentum. During this period stories emerged of voters who were afraid to express their support of Trump; but at least they didn’t denounce him. Pressure to join a nation-wide denunciation dropped. Soon it was just the Democrats talking to themselves. In the politics of scandal, the time-dynamics of collective emotions are the key. A few weeks of relative calm gave opportunity for other events to intrude (the FBI/email flurry, round 2) and the sex scandal was old news.

Has America gotten beyond the politics of scandal? Not likely. Not everyone has the bluster to play it like Trump; and he had plenty of experience with scandals in his business/ entertainment career, where scandals don’t necessarily hurt. Probably the profession of political operatives, battered as they are, will keep the Saturday Night Special in their playbook.


A new era of media politics?

It is often said that Trump’s style is tailored to the social media and the dispersion of attention away from the traditional gatekeepers of public information. This is true, although the mainstream media still provide some common focus of attention, that would otherwise be lacking when everyone is camped in their own little Internet world of the like-minded. Trump won because the mainstream media, competing among themselves for market share, quickly publicized every outrageous thing he said on Twitter and every incident at his rallies. After all, long political campaigns are very repetitive, and stump speeches hardly make breaking news. The politics of edginess, combined with the saga of the glittering Trump family, made it irresistible to put him in the driver’s seat in the struggle for attention.

The Sopranos are the archetype of the serial melodrama that lets us live vicariously in a family that is like ours but more exciting. But at least we knew it was a show put on for our entertainment. The Trump show is orchestrated by Trump himself, with the aid of a loyal family team, smoothly on display. It has just the combination of glitter,  shock value, and old-fashioned loyalty to keep us watching. And in politics, as in most things, controlling the center of attention is the formula for success.

How long will it last?  Even the most popular TV shows have their day; the greatest box office records are eventually eclipsed. Here is another problem for the sociology of emotional time-dynamics. If scandals have a make-or-break turning point within their first weeks, what determines how long political soap opera keeps up its fascination? Stay tuned.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon



Ari Adut. 2008. On Scandal.

David Halle. 1984. America’s Working Man.

Joseph Pistone. 1987. Donnie Brasco. My Undercover Life in the Mafia.

Selwyn Raab. 2006.  Five Families. The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Families.

Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons. Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.


The civil war in Syria has now killed a quarter of a million people, and driven 4 million people to foreign countries where they wait hopelessly in the limbo of refugee camps. Half the people who remain in Syria are homeless. Out of a population once estimated at 18 million,  about three-quarters have lost everything.

This self-destructive war began in 2011 in the Arab Spring, imitating popular demonstrations elsewhere in the region that temporarily brought down authoritarian governments. But these were tipping-point revolutions, winning by contagious mass enthusiasm that brought a segment of the regime's forces over to the revolutionary side. Tipping points work best when the action is concentrated in a capital city. But where struggles are dispersed, the regime fights back and battles take place across the country, the moment when a few army leaders can settle things by switching sides has passed. Concentration favors short and relatively bloodless transitions; dispersion creates lengthy civil wars.

Syria had two big metropolitan areas, each about 2.5 million. While fighting developed in Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north initially tried to stay out of it. But neutrals soon become victims as conflict escalates. Rebels turned from peaceful demonstrations to guerrilla tactics. Since guerrillas depend on hiding in the civilian population, they made places like Aleppo into battlegrounds. Civilians were hit both by guerrillas weapons and by the regime's counter-attacks. The cycle of atrocities had begun, each side motivated by hatred and revenge for what the other side did to them. In the atmosphere of polarization, neutrals are condemned as no better than enemies. This helps explain the callous disregard for the millions whose livelihood is destroyed in somebody else's fight.

What can the rest of the world do?  The spontaneous sentiment in a world of mass communications is to support the good guys and help defeat the bad guys. The problem is that in this kind of war the good guys turn into bad guys too. Guerrilla war is intrinsically messy, and anti-guerrilla war carried out by air power tends to destroy everything on the battlefield, no matter who happens to live there.

Outside intervention makes things worse.  A civil war that would wind down by running out of resources is kept going artificially, when outside regimes send in weapons and fighters to their favorite factions. Ideological wars are particularly vicious, since an ideology recruits the most dedicated believers.  Today this is most obviously militant Islam, but the same destructiveness has been seen for ideological volunteers fighting for fascism, communism or democracy, as in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.

And multi-sided conflicts are most difficult to settle. A two-sided war has a clear termination point. But three, four, five or more factions, especially when they have independent bases and external allies, make an intrinsically unstable situation, where the weakening of some factions opens up opportunities for others to form. This is chaos in the technical sense of the term; the system does not stabilize if one faction is destroyed, it just gives rise to further conflicts.

In such a configuration, the rise of something like ISIS was predictable. Its potential destruction will not end the instability. Syria was not simply democratizers vs. Assad's regime; but Sunnis, Shi'ites and sub-factions (Alawites, Druze), and Christians; Arabs and Kurds; plus tribal alliances. Superimposed on this are the outside interventions, some motivated by religious sympathies, others by geopolitical aggrandizement.  High-minded outsiders like the US are not exempt; whether our motive is fostering democracy, countering terrorism, or just acting like a Great Power, we add one more source of fuel for the fire.

Is there any realistic solution?  Hobbes proposed, apropos of the English civil war of the 1640s, that any strong regime is preferable to endless fighting of everyone-against-everyone-else.  It is hardest to see this at the outset, when everyone is enthusiastic for their cause and sure they will win. But once a conflict has been going on long enough, many people realize that the fighting is worse than whatever we were fighting about. This is certainly the case in a civil war like Syria that has been going on for almost six years and destroyed three-quarters of the country.

The emergence of a sentiment for peace ushers in the most difficult phase of political conflict: the peace movement opposed by the hard-liners. There are hard-liners in different factions, but united in the emotion that their sacrifices should not be in vain, that they must continue to fight because victory by the enemy is unthinkable. The new axis of conflict becomes victory at any cost, against peace while there still is something to be saved.

Hobbes' solution in Syria would be to let the Assad regime win. None of the fanatical religious factions would bring a stable government; the Assad regime at least has protected minorities like Christians. This solution would be unpalatable to many, especially to outsiders who have other concerns than the plight of the Syrian population. This includes politicians in the U.S. who don't want to look weak, and whose only idea is to throw more military force into the chaos. A really courageous diplomatic move, allying the US and Russia to end the war with an Assad victory, would save lives. The alternatives are to go on destroying what is left of Syria, and generating even more of a refugee crisis.

A U.S. general in Vietnam, after obliterating a village, said that in order to save the place it was necessary to destroy it.  Can we learn enough from history to stop following this kind of thinking?


Further analysis in:

Randall Collins, "Tipping Point Revolutions and State-Breakdown Revolutions"


In a previous post ["Does Trump Have Charisma? What is Charisma Anyway?"],

I argued there are four kinds of charisma (frontstage charisma, backstage charisma, success-magic, and reputational charisma); the more kinds you have, the more charismatic you are; but there are other kinds of political leadership and charisma does not always or even typically win elections.

Of the four kinds of charisma, the most easily visible are front-stage charisma as an inspiring public speaker, recruiting followers dedicated to a mission; and being known for a string of successes.

As a measure of public appeal, look at the percentage of popular vote won by all major candidates for president from 1828 through 2012, from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama. I will leave aside, for the moment, the earlier elections from 1788 to 1824,  since these were essentially indirect elections by state legislatures.


Home run records and popular vote records

If we followed the changing record for presidents winning the highest percentage of voters-- in the same way we can follow the record for home runs in a season-- it would look like this:

Andrew Jackson 1828           56.0% of the vote

(since Jackson’s record wasn’t broken until 1904, I will insert in parentheses some other players who had very good years: )

(Andrew Jackson 1832  54.2%)

(Abraham Lincoln 1864  55.0%)

(Ulysses S. Grant 1872  55.6%)

Teddy Roosevelt 1904  56.4%-- new record

Warren G. Harding 1920 60.3%  -- new record

(Calvin Coolidge 1924  54.0%)

(Herbert Hoover 1928  58.2%)

(Franklin D. Roosevelt 1932 57.4%)

Franklin D. Roosevelt 1936  60.8%  -- new record

(FDR 1940   54.7%)

(Dwight D. Eisenhower 1952   55.2%)

(Eisenhower 1956    57.4%)

Lyndon Johnson 1964  61.1%  -- new record

(Richard M. Nixon 1972  60.7%)

(Ronald Reagan 1984   58.8%)

Since Reagan, no one has come close to the record. The highest have been G.H.W. Bush 1988 (53.4%) and Obama 2008 (52.9%). In three recent elections, no one broke 50% (a return to the fragmented politics of the mid-1800s). [Update November 2016: make that four recent elections.]

There are some surprises. No matter how great you are, charismatic, victorious, or likeable, you never get as many as 2 out of 3 people to vote for you, at least not in the United States.  In the 47 elections from 1828 to 2012, only 4 times someone cracked the ceiling of 60%. In fact, getting 54% of the vote was done only 16 times (out of 112 major candidates); it is like hitting 50 home runs or batting .350.

Is getting a high vote percentage a mark of charisma?  Some of the undoubtedly charismatic presidents were record-holders-- Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR--- and a couple of other charismatic leaders are high on the list (Lincoln hitting 55%; Reagan hitting 58.8%).  But Lyndon Johnson, who holds the current record at 61.1%, was not charismatic. And the president who smashed Teddy Roosevelt’s record at 60.3% was Warren G. Harding in 1920-- an astounding surprise, since Harding went on to become one of the most scandal-ridden and ineffective presidents. (In his previous career, it is true, he was regarded as a great orator.)  If Andrew Jackson is the Babe Ruth of American presidential sluggers, Harding was the Roger Maris-- a record with an asterisk. We all breathed a sign of relief when the home run record was smashed by a real slugger like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds-- in politics, it was FDR, who proved it was no fluke by beating the 54% mark 3 times. (Jackson and Eisenhower was the only other persons to do it twice.)

And there were up-and-down politicians like Richard Nixon, who had one great year-- 60.7% in 1972-- but who lost other elections and won in 1968 with 43.4%.  Calvin Coolidge was the opposite of charismatic, but he is on the list (barely at the cut-off point of 54.0%).  Herbert Hoover was briefly second highest all-time (58.2% in 1928), then went on to take one of the worst defeats in his match-up against FDR. (He also did exactly the wrong things in dealing with the Great Depression of 1929.)

Charisma can help win elections, but it isn’t essential even for winning big. Some charismatic politicians either were defeated repeatedly (Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, each three times), or scraped into office (JFK and Woodrow Wilson never cracked 50% of the popular vote). 

Other things are involved in winning elections, notably who your opponent is, and whether something dramatically good or bad happens near election time. Nixon’s nearly record-breaking victory in 1972 happened against a little-known anti-war candidate (George McGovern). How Warren G. Harding dominated in 1920 seems mysterious, but it was apparently a backlash against Woodrow Wilson taking the U.S. intoWorld War I after promising not to; and then campaigning for a League of Nations and a nation-state for every ethnic group, which made him a charismatic figure in Europe during 1918-19, but played badly at home. Some popularity happens on the rebound or as a continuation of somebody else. Eisenhower’s popularity in 1952 and 1956 came as he succeeded a very unpopular president (Truman’s ratings had fallen to a record-low 22% in 1952; and Ike went on to end the Korean War deadlock that brought Truman down).  LBJ’s record-setting victory in 1964 came as he stepped into Kennedy’s shoes after the emotion-grabbing assassination, and proceededin a wave of legislation in 1964 to do everything JFK had promised but didn’t carry out. LBJ’s popularity ratings started high but slid downhill continuously during the Vietnam War, enough so that this political pro recognized it was time to bail out on running for re-election.

Popularity ratings highs and lows

Since the 1940s, we have standardized popularity polls. Gallup polls ask the question of whether you approve of how the president is handling his job. This isn’t exactly a measure of charisma, since it doesn’t tap into that I’d-follow-him-anywhere quality of the symbolic leader.  Charisma is not a personality trait but an emotional relationship between a person who represents a principled ideal and a group of dedicated followers.

Presidential approval ratings respond to emotional events, but these peaks are very unstable. Here are the highest ratings:

90% approval for George W. Bush, mid-September 2001 (right after the 9/11 attack).

89% for George H.W. Bush, early March 1991 (right after victory in the 4-day Gulf War).

87% for Harry Truman, June 1945 (right after Victory in Europe -- V-E Day).

84% for Franklin Roosevelt, January 1942 (a month after Pearl Harbor and declaration of war against Japan).

83% for John F. Kennedy, May 1961 (just after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba).

These are called rally-round-the-flag ratings. The nation comes together around the presidential symbol immediately after a dramatic conflict event. It isn’t necessarily a victory; 3 of the top 5 ratings happened after we were attacked or defeated.

The peaks come from the emotional effect of outside events, not from the individual. George W. Bush’s rating was 51% in early September, just before the 9/11/01 attacks. Harry Truman’s rating dropped to the low 30s in 1946, bounced up and down in the mid-levels, and bottomed out at 22% in February 1952, during the bogged-down Korean War. George H.W. Bush’s ratings shot up from the mid-50s in late 1990 to 89% with the Gulf War, but dropped 60 points in the year-and-a-half that followed.  George W. Bush fell from 90% on a downward path to the low 30s in 2007 and 19% in the financial crash of October 2008.

FDR and JFK, on the other hand, maintained quite high ratings throughout their terms in office (JFK averaged 70%, FDR 63%). This is probably an effect of charisma, since these were charismatic speakers who inspired many idealistic followers.

Other peaks for non-crisis presidents were 79% for Lyndon Johnson, immediately after taking over for Kennedy-- an overflow of JFK adulation in the period of national mourning. Dwight Eisenhower had 79% in December 1956, just after he had won his second term. Since Eisenhower was not a charismatic speaker or personality, this shows more of a good feeling or likeability rating. Ike’s average ratings in office were 65%, next highest to JFK’s 70.1%.

Approval ratings are a mixed measure, a melange of sudden events, likeability, and charisma. Is there anything else we can do with these polls? It would be nice if we had a series of questions across all the presidents asking, does this person represent an ideal you are dedicated to? Are you an X-follower, equivalent to a follower of Jesus or Joan of Arc?

Look at popularity polls from the other direction: lowest popularity ratings. Including the ones we have already seen, the record lows are: George W. Bush 19% (October 2008),  Harry Truman, 22% (February 1952), Richard Nixon 24% (July-August 1974), Jimmy Carter 28% (June 1979), George H.W. Bush 29% (July 1992). Everybody had their ups and downs.

So who had the highest floor? JFK never dropped below 56%.  FDR’s floor, and Eisenhower’s, were next at 48%.  The only president whose floor never went below 50% was one of the three most charismatic presidents of modern times. (Since there were no polls of this sort before 1937, we don’t know about Teddy Roosevelt; but he did lose an election in 1912, coming in impressively second on a third party ticket.)

One conclusion is that charisma is never universal. Nearest to it are the momentary events that stir everyone into public rituals like putting out flags that proliferated during September-to-November 2001, but even these peaks never get above 83-90% of the population. Looking at it the other direction, even very unpopular moments for presidents leave about a quarter of the population supporting them. These are the hard core base that anyone successful on the national stage acquires. Charisma is what adds to that base and pulls one’s public reputation up to a solid majority, unshakeable even in bad times.

Politics is a process of conflict, a struggle between opposing factions. This is especially true in a democracy, where popular elections regularly mobilize people both to support and to reject. Democracy is a good breeding-grounds for charisma, but we should not expect it to produce unanimity.

And this is what we see in presidential elections. Getting 56% to 61% of the vote is as high as it gets.


All 44 U.S. presidents from 1788 to 2016

We can divide them in 3 groups:

I. the first 7 presidents from George Washington to Andrew Jackson: the founding network

II. the 18 presidents from 1837 to 1901: mostly mediocre except for Lincoln

III. the 19 presidents from 1901 to 2016, Teddy Roosevelt to Obama: intermittent charisma


I. The first 7 presidents are the famous names of American history: Washington-- Adams-- Jefferson-- Madison-- Monroe-- John Quincy Adams-- Jackson. But being famous is not the same as being charismatic. Of the 7, only 2 were charismatic: Jackson strongly so, Jefferson in a milder version.

George Washington was certainly revered.  He was elected twice, unopposed, by the electoral college that was not selected by popular vote. He did not have front-stage charisma: he was not famous for making speeches or stirring up emotional crowds. He had no success-magic; his record as a general was mainly a string of defeats and retreats; the key battles of the Revolutionary War were won by others. What Washington did was hold the Continental Army together through bad times until the British finally gave up their costly effort to hang onto the colonies. In the chaos of the loose Confederation, Washington led the movement for a Constitutional Convention, presided over it, and saw it through-- with the assistance of a strong team, most of whom also became presidents.

Personally, he was known for great dignity and dedication. Did this amount to back-stage charisma? He impressed people in personal contact, although he did not always get his way, as in asking the Continental Congress for money. His reputation grew in the period of constitution-making, and he became an icon, his picture in every patriotic home. Score Washington un-charismatic on most counts-- demonstrating that charisma is not the only way to become an icon.

John Adams was more of a political organizer, on the northern end of the Massachusetts/Virginia coalition that made the new nation. He negotiated peace with Britain in 1782 and served as a key diplomat. Un-charismatic, but an important coalition-maker rewarded as Washington’s vice president and successor.

Thomas Jefferson was the best-known of the Virginia politicians. He became known, not so much for speeches but for his writings criticizing British rule, which made him Virginia’s member on the Committee of Correspondence organizing the colonies into revolt. His eloquence got him chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. He was minister to France, America’s most important ally, and Washington’s secretary of state. Jefferson was among the first to see the new direction of politics, resigning from the cabinet to oppose Hamilton’s policies, then running against John Adams with a new Democratic-Republican party. Jefferson led the emergence of political parties, creating the first nation-wide network to campaign for electoral votes. This made him widely popular, not just as a hero of the Revolution, but by actively stirring up public support. He was famed as the spokesman for decentralized democracy and for the Louisiana Purchase, the first big territorial expansion of the U.S. and a result of his diplomatic experience. Jefferson’s charismatic reputation came less from swaying crowds than from circulating written ideology, from a new style of political organizing, and spectacular diplomatic successes.

James Madison was a political negotiator and coalition-builder. Agreeing with Washington on the need for a stronger union than the disastrous Articles of Confederation, Madison’s plan became the basis for discussion at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He campaigned for it by writing pamphlets-- the main form of political communication at the time. The Federalist papers were an act of coalition, written by Madison together with Hamilton and John Jay, even though they would become political enemies in the new government. A member of Jefferson’s political team, he became his secretary of state and successor, winning re-election even though the War of 1812 was going badly at the time.

James Monroe was primarily a diplomat and loyal team member. An officer in Washington’s army, Monroe learned law as an aide to Jefferson, then followed him as minister to France, and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. He became Madison’s secretary of state and secretary of war. After belated victory against the British in 1815, Monroe won the elections of 1816 and 1820 with virtually no opposition, the opposing Federalist party (which was anti-France and pro-British) having collapsed. His most famous achievement, the “Monroe Doctrine,” was actually formulated by his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. It made a principle out of U.S. success in keeping European states out of the continent, extending the project to Latin America where a series of revolts against Spain were breaking out as the Napoleonic wars disrupted distant colonial rulers. (Monroe took advantage by purchasing Florida from Spain in 1819.) Jefferson and his successors, although militarily weak, played on the advantages of their French alliance to expand territorially; meanwhile settlers and Indian-fighters were moving west anyway. The whole team became cloaked in an aura of national success.

John Quincy Adams was a lifelong diplomat. He accompanied his father on European missions in the 1780s; and served every president as minister to European states. As Madison’s secretary of state, Adams purchased Florida and improved relations with Britain.  Following the usual succession, Adams ran for president in 1824, and was defeated by Andrew Jackson in the popular vote; but since no one had a majority of the electoral college, the election was thrown in the House of Representatives, where political deals made Adams president. Regarding himself as old-school gentleman above politics, Adams made no effort to deal with Congress or to dispense patronage, and was overwhelmingly defeated by Jackson in 1828. John Quincy Adams worked quietly behind the scenes and was uncharismatic in every respect. He considered himself a failure as president.

Andrew Jackson was the first really charismatic American politician. A long-time frontiersman and Indian fighter, he became famous by defeating the British in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans. His new form of party politics was like Jefferson on steroids. He brought class conflict out into the open, campaigning as the people’s choice against the rich elites of the East. The 1828 election was the end of the founding network that had handed on the torch of office for 40 years. 

It also was a transition to a new style of campaigning. By 1840 it consisted of marches festooned with banners, wagons with brass bands (“bandwagons”), slogans endlessly repeated, the whole baby-kissing ritual that has endured down through the television era. Jackson had frontstage charisma that his predecessors lacked, in part because electioneering was becoming a big noisy public ritual. Combine this with a contentious ideology, and the ingredients were there for a president expected to turn things upside down. This Jackson did, above all by instituting an all-out spoils system for federal offices. This too enhanced political enthusiasm and Jackson’s reputation as a man of the people rather than the established elite.

Bottom line on the founding network: they were uncharismatic because they didn’t need to be. They got power by circulating writings among the high-literate class and building the country by skilled diplomacy. The new electioneering style came in with the prestige of wider democracy, which also set off a demand to manufacture charisma and hero-worship. With paradoxical results, as we shall see.


II. The 18 presidents from 1837 to 1901 are remarkable for lack of charisma.

From Van Buren to McKinley, there is only one strongly charismatic president, Abraham Lincoln. Only 3 ever won two consecutive terms (Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley--the latter two distinctly uncharismatic). Two died in office of natural causes; 3 were assassinated; 4 were not even renominated by their own party; another 2 were defeated for re-election; 4 declined to run again, declaring themselves exhausted or disillusioned with the office. In other words, 15 out of 18 could not generate enough popularity or success to keep on going.

Leaving Lincoln aside, few of the rest had any kind of charisma. Five presidents (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Hayes, Garfield) were former generals, nominated as war heroes rising above divisive political issues; none did well in office. Grant’s administrations were full of corruption scandals, though he won reelection on the prestige of his Civil War victories; but even as a general, Grant was quietly persistent rather than charismatic.

Only 3 presidents had frontstage charisma, in the form of great speech-making. Lincoln, of course, but the rest of the list is surprising. James Polk was known as a star orator in Tennessee politics, an avid follower of Andrew Jackson, whose seat he occupied in Congress. He attempted to evade the increasingly divisive slavery issue by a platform of national expansion. Polk bluffed a war with Britain to settle claims to the Oregon territory, then invaded Mexico to acquire the rest of the continent all the way to California. Despite his success, the Mexican War was opposed by principled northerners, and a split among Polk’s own Democrats over slavery left him so exhausted that he died 3 months after leaving office at the age of 54.

Andrew Johnson has the historical reputation as one of the worst presidents, as the first to be impeached (although acquitted). In fact, Johnson was unusually courageous. He was the only one of 22 southern senators who refused to leave the Union, whereupon he was almost lynched by outraged Virginians. Lincoln gave him an administrative job and added him to the ticket in 1864, as a gesture of reconciliation towards the South. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson attempted to continue Lincoln’s policy of leniency, but he was sharply attacked by the Republican majority in Congress who wanted a punitive reconstruction. Early in his career, Johnson had been another Jacksonian populist, known as a fiery stump speaker. Having both charisma and courage of his principles did not save him from ignominious failure; in fact his courage contributed to it, since he refused to maneuver politically, and he lacked the key requisite of charismatic leadership, an admiring audience.

Cleveland, who won two terms separated by a defeat (followed by winning the rematch), had the reputation as a reformer, taking on the corrupt Tammany Hall machine in New York, then pushing for civil service reform at the Federal level. This was obviously a political opportunity, since so many administrations had gone through scandal, and presidents found themselves besieged by office-seekers who sometimes shot them when disappointed. He was one of the few presidents to ride out a sex scandal, admitting to fathering an illegitimate child, and then beating the opponent who made the charge-- Blaine, equally tarred with the reputation as a corrupt machine politician. Defeated for office in the 1888 election, Cleveland declared there was “no happier man in the United States.”

The most charismatic speaker of the entire period ran for president three times and lost all of them: William Jennings Bryan. Known as the silver-tongued orator of the prairie, Bryan was defeated twice by McKinley over banking interests versus cheap money for farmers. McKinley had strong establishment and machine politics backing, and projected an image of dignified respectability that prevailed over the tub-thumping of Bryan’s raucous campaigns.

Putting it all together, frontstage charisma paid off in political success for only two: Lincoln and Polk. Both paid the price; Polk retired exhausted from political infighting; Lincoln was assassinated.

What brought them down is emblematic of the entire period. There were too many contentious issues and deep-rooted factions: class conflict, banking issues, slavery, territorial expansion, the spoils system. That is why so many presidential candidates were compromise candidates nominated after lengthy convention balloting, or were disowned by their own party. A charismatic speaker on matters of principle might seize the public imagination of one segment, but could rarely win the presidency or carry out his program when in office. Inability to generate really sweeping charisma was built into the divisive structure.

Lincoln, who had great skills as a negotiator and coalition-builder, to go along with his oratory, was alone in coming out of it with a towering reputation. His martyrdom helped. In fact, we can date the moment when Lincoln became adulated by huge numbers of people: late April 1865. His body was taken home from Washington to be buried in Springfield, Illinois. It was a distance of 700 miles, but the train route covered 1700, snaking back and forth so that millions of people could stand by the tracks to witness the procession. It took 13 days. It was probably the biggest funeral ritual ever, and had all the successful ingredients: people assembled, united in focusing their attention on one thing, welling up with one common emotion intensified by each other. The result was turning a man into a symbol, a sacred object representing the solidarity of the nation.


III. The 19 presidents from 1901 to 2016. This is the era of statistics and surveys, and we have already seen its high and low points.

Three presidents were charismatic speakers and public heroes (Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy), although only two had a record of successes; JFK’s program was largely carried out by his uncharismatic successor, Lyndon Johnson. Eisenhower, although uncharismatic, was unusually popular. Reagan, quite successful in his program (though correspondingly disliked by the ideological opposition), also was near the peak in voter support, although his popularity floor was lower than the others. Obama, known as a charismatic speaker, was an ineffective politician. His peak popularity rating (not unusually high at 69%) was just after his inauguration in 2009. His floor was a mediocre 37%, and his average approval 47% (a figure beaten by 10 of the last 13 presidents).

Overall, 6 of 29 modern elections were won by strongly charismatic leaders (Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK); another 4 elections were won by well-liked but uncharismatic figures, Eisenhower and Reagan.  About 80% of the time, an uncharismatic person wins the presidency.


Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy
Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon


“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon



In addition to the standard sources, see:

On the struggle to expand the voting franchise in the U.S. from the 1780s to the 1840s:

Chilton Williamson, 1960. American Suffrage from Property to Democracy.

On the creation of political parties in the Jefferson era:

John Levi Martin, 2008. Social Structures. Chapter 8, “From pyramid to party.”

On the dynamics of political scandals:

Ari Adut, 2008. On Scandal.

On flags and other rituals of public support after the 9/11/01 attack:

Randall Collins, 2004. “Rituals of solidarity and security in the wake of terrorist attack.” Sociological Theory 22: 53-87.


The phrase “war on cops” is partly correct. There also has been a war of police against black people. Both have been going on for a long time, and each reacts to the other.

The recent argument is that violence is encouraged by black protests, mainstream supporters and officials who have caused police to withdraw from active policing, putting them in a defensive position with black criminals on the offensive. This is a part of the causal pattern, but it is embedded in a much larger process: counter-escalation of each side against the other. Both political mobilization and violence play a part in the escalation process, and this happens on both sides. A key mechanism is the emotions that pervade both camps: sometimesrighteous anger, sometimes jittery tension that blows up little incidents and feeds the fire with atrocities.

Only a small fraction of each side engage in violence; but for their opponents they become emblematic of the entire enemy camp. The emotions of the most volatile fringes drive the back-and-forth process.

The micro-sociology of emotions shows there is something practical we can all do to de-escalate the conflict. I will discuss this at the end.


Counter-Escalation Theory

Conflict escalates when whatever one side does gives rise to a counter-attack. This doesn’t always happen. Some conflicts come to an end. The ones that go on longest are where conflict with an outside group increases solidarity; we feel a stronger identity, resolve to fight back harder. The other side does the same. The most dangerous feedback loop is when the two groups become morally polarized. The other side is seen as more and more evil; therefore whatever we do against them is morally right; it is righteous vengeance, it is street justice, it is doing whatever it takes to beat back the menace.

Individuals disappear from view; the cop you are ambushing may be one of the good guys who sincerely believes in community outreach; the black man whose car you are stopping may be a middle-class citizen. But at the moment of confrontation they all fade into the category of the stereotyped enemy.

Since whatever the other side does is seen in the worst possible light, we are quick to see atrocities in whatever they do to us. Whether their attacks come from racism, bureaucratic policy, emotions, or sheer accidents of mistaken identity and poor shooting aim, they are lumped together as atrocities. In our own eyes we are the good guys, so whatever we do is good; our own mistakes are minimized and our violence is viewed as proper, righteous and heroic. Since the psychology of both sides is the same, conflict at a high level of polarization becomes a war of competing atrocities.

Communities which are already isolated are particularly prone to escalation. Police tend to be a closed community, who socialize mainly with each other, and avoid contacts with ordinary citizens when they are off duty. They have strong solidarity, and put up a front to outsiders. The result is that police generally refuse to criticize each other in public, and regard the rest of the society as not understanding them. Somewhat similar processes occur in the black lower-class ghetto, except that there is much more internal conflict.

Escalation does not go on forever, although it may take a long time to run its course. The level of conflict goes up and down depending on other factors, including each side’s logistics and its degree of organization. I will weave in these factors as we survey the sequence of racial violence in the United States.


Gangs and Cops from 1940s to 2010s

The modern history of gangs began in the late 1940s when the first youth gangs were formed, initially by Puerto Rican teens in New York City. Criminal gangs existed before, but those were adults; often they were connected to political factions in the machine politics of big cities, and their members were usually white immigrants. The new youth gangs are best described as fighting gangs, since their main purpose was to project a tough image and to fight against nearby rival gangs. While 1950s news sensationalism publicized them as “juvenile delinquents”,  youth gangs were generally not involved in crime for making a living. They were drug consumers but not yet drug dealers, heroin then being monopolized by adult syndicates. Gangs were more like neighborhood social clubs for working-class teens, now pushed out of the labor force by high school attendance requirements. They evolved an alienated ideology and spearheaded the newly created teen culture of rock-’n-roll music, blue jeans, T-shirts and attitude. These styles were regarded as outrageous by white middle-class traditionalists, but the alienated youth culture soon spread into the mainstream as well. Despite its racial anchoring, a rebellious counter-culture acquired a large sympathy population among white youth and urban adults after they grew up, underpinning a on-going conflict between law-and-order and hipness.

In the 1950s, youth gangs spread in urban black and Hispanic ghettos, and mushroomed in the 1960s and 70s. In cities like Chicago, large corporate-style gangs formed; in Los Angeles and elsewhere, horizontal loyalties to “color” gangs. Some cities, like Philadelphia and much of the East Coast, continued to have little street gangs-- which produce high rates of violence because their rivals are so close by, and they lack bigger organization to restrain them.

Although youth gangs are almost always ethnic and very racially conscious, on the whole their violence is aimed not at dominant white society, but at each other. This has always seemed paradoxical, but is explainable by how violence is organized. In the 1950s, gang ideology was anti- “squares”-- i.e. middle-class white people with their respectability and support of the police. In the 60s, gang ideology aligned themselves with the civil rights movement against white dominance, but scorned the tactics of non-violence and political reform. On the other side, Irish youth gangs made a point of representing whites and acted as a violent militia to resist school integration. Nevertheless, the vast proportion of gang violence was against other gangs of their same race. Andrew Papachristos shows that virtually all gang killings in Chicago have been black-on-black, Hispanic-on-Hispanic, or white-on-white.


Why so much black-on-black violence?

Similarly among the most militant groups on the violent fringe of the 1960s civil rights movement. The Black Muslims, or Nation of Islam, held an ideology that the devil is a white man and that the world is heading for a final war of black against white. Nevertheless, Black Muslims did virtually all their fighting between rival factions, invading each other’s mosques and assassinating leaders like Malcolm X. Their angry anti-white rhetoric upset the mainstream but there were virtually no attacks on whites. Why not? In the segregated society of the time, blacks rarely appeared in white spaces except in the role of service workers; it was a lot easier to carry out attacks on one’s on turf. Black Muslim temples were heavily guarded by a elite members called the Fruit of Islam, on the lookout for attacks; in this atmosphere of suspicion, confrontations escalated and mosques found themselves in local wars with each other. Similarly, the first “color” gang, the Crips, was formed in L.A. in the early 1970s during the height of the civil rights period as a movement to stop violence among black gangs, and channel it into war against whites; in practice, this meant Hispanic gangs.  Within two years, the Crips alliance split, with the Bloods breaking off into a rival color gang (red emblems vs. blue or black); henceforward, the main concern of gangs in these two alliances has been to fight against the other. (There have been more sub-splits and alliances, but the pattern remains the same.) The parallel between youth gangs and religious militants shows something deeper going on: ideological hatred of a strong distant enemy turns the weaker side to violence against more accessible local targets-- against rivals similar to themselves rather than enemies who operate on a different scale of organization.

This is in keeping with general theory of violence. Despite rhetoric of bravery, dedication to fighting the enemy, and self-sacrifice for the cause, most violence is successful when it attacks a target weaker than oneself. In street violence, bigger groups attack smaller ones they happen to encounter; in riots, it is mainly isolates who get beaten up by larger clusters. The preferred tactics of violence on all scales are to catch the enemy off guard, to establish surprise and momentum; to beat the enemy psychologically before beating them physically. Thus burglars prefer to break into houses in their own neighborhood, even if there is better loot to be taken in richer places; but burglars from the ghetto feel uneasy about being in the suburbs, and more psychologically empowered on their home turf. Armed robbers tend to stay close to home, too, but will venture out to no-man’s-lands like semi-deserted commercial districts, or look for isolated victims in interstitial areas with little street traffic. Having a gun is not sufficient to feel strong; feeling dominant in the setting is even more important.

This is one reason why black street gangs virtually never take part in mass shootings in schools; this is a phenomenon among alienated white youth in all-white schools. Black gang violence almost always takes place on their own turf-- on their street, or the streets adjacent to it, the turf of a familiar rival. On the whole, more distant parts of the city are a mystery to local gangs, since they rarely venture there. Although they may have an anti-white ideology, it rarely comes into play as a practical opportunity for violence.

So far, this has been about small group violence, usually armed with no more than handguns. In the world of better organized violence, military and police forces can range more widely; so do insurgent groups like terrorists. Fighting further away from your home base requires more organization. It needs more logistics, ammunition, transportation; better planning and intelligence; more organizational backup to call in for help or to extricate you. And it requires more organizational solidarity-- groups which continually motivate each other to adhere to an ideology and to commit themselves to the emotionally difficult task of confronting the enemy, especially when taking the attack to their turf. Big organizations like armies and police usually undertake such ventures when they have overwhelming numbers and weaponry. Small terrorist groups need the support of closed-off cells, living clandestinely, obsessively planning their moves. Casual street gangs have none of these resources and little of their tight, dedicated organization. Hence their rhetorical commitment to toughness and violence can only come out against easy targets, like themselves.

An escalated war against the police needs more social resources to go on the attack.


Race riots and politicization

Riots are an opportunity for mass participation. Although gangs may take part in them, a much larger proportion of the local population is involved: In the biggest race riots of the 1960s, 10-15% of black men took part, and another 30-40% were spectators and sympathizers .(Collins, Violence: 520)  As usual in most kinds of violence, a small percentage of the crowd does most of the violence, but the part of the crowd that merely acts as spectators adds to the emotional atmosphere of breakdown of ordinary law. This is what creates a “free space” or “liberated zone” where the police, for a time, do not intervene. In fact, violence between authorities and rioters takes up a relatively small amount of the time during a riot; looting and burning give the crowd something to do, prolonging the dramatic atmosphere that would otherwise disappear if there were nothing to do but go home.

A paradoxical result is that American race riots always take place in the minority ghetto, usually on its borders and main commercial streets where there are stores operated by non-black ethnics. The 1992L.A. riot after the Rodney King verdict was largely property attacks on Korean and other Asian store-owners; photos show widespread participation by black and Hispanic crowds. The Crips and Bloods called a truce in their normal hostility so that they could take part in the riot.

Riots publicize ideologies of protest. But whatever the slogans and the statements of spokespersons who are quoted in the news, at the line of confrontation mainstream society is always represented by the police. The police are often the onlyvisible presence of white society in what Elijah Anderson calls “black spaces.” Much of the time they are regarded as an occupying force. A riot not only brings about a confrontation of masses of local people against masses of police, but it is one of those rare moments when locals have enough numbers and enough emotional dominance to be able to defy the police.

The precipitation point for riots has usually been a confrontation with the police. The Detroit riot of July 1967, which lasted 5 days and resulted in 43 killed, 2000 injured, and 7000 arrested, began when police raided an after-hours bar on a hot summer night; in the atmosphere of the civil rights struggle, bar patrons fought back and the small police party retreated. When they returned several hours later with reinforcements, locals pelted police cars with bricks, again causing them to withdraw. The June 1967 Newark riot (26 killed) began when a taxi driver was arrested and rumors of police atrocities spread among taxi drivers. Although the issues of a riot may be framed as white vs. black, or mainstream society vs. criminals and radicals, on the ground the main conflict is between police and locals; and this sets the pattern for polarization within those groups as they perceive each other. *

* Sometimes also the Army is called out to end a riot. But in the US the army is a national institution with a lot of legitimacy; occasional killings by the army (such as Kent State in 1970) do not give rise to anti-army ideologies. Things are different in this respect in Mexico, and in many Latin American, African, and South Asian states, where the army is widely regarded as a political instrument or a corrupt organization. In the US, however, most collective resentment is acted out against the police.

Rioters always lose in the end, but riots give memories of pride and defiance. Their residue over time is to escalate long ground-swells of rebellions, in whatever form they come out.

Riots are better able to make a political statement than gangs. Although they almost never invade white territory, riots attract universal public attention; and although their threat of “the fire next time” is just rhetoric whose reality consists in burning their own neighborhood, the city and usually the nation has to at least temporarily pay attention to the racial divide. This is also an opening for political movements and non-violent demonstrations; the radical-flank effect of riots is to give the moderates more claim to make reforms, lest the violent fringe grow stronger. Liberal politicians and even some conservatives reacted by making reforms in the 1960s, dismantling the legal institutions of segregation. The movement for racial integration also improved the situation of black and other minorities in the middle class.

It left a lower-class black population that continued to be segregated and in an increasingly dead end economic situation. Poverty itself does not mobilize well-organized rebellion, since mobilization needs resources. The inner-city ghetto devolved into the land of the gangs, creating an underground economy of the drug trade, and in some places like Chicago, big corporate gangs taxing the off-the-books economy of the poor. For several decades, riots and demonstrations declined, while the crime rate surged, above all in black neighborhoods.

In the relatively peaceful period without riots to mobilize political concern, the black-vs.-mainstream divide deepened and entrenched. Civil rights reforms on the legal level mainly benefited a minority middle class. The worst part of the ghetto has remained black-- that is to say, African-Americans, descendants on the historic slave population; newer dark-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean on the whole have done better at acquiring middle-class jobs. This class-race-ethnic combination is the core identity for the contemporary race war. Although many black people are middle class and most are not gang members or criminals, * thepolice widely perceive themselves as facing a hostile enclave in the midst of the larger society. The cops are not even necessarily white European ethnics; many are Hispanic, some are Asian and a few are black. But on the whole these ethnic groups identify with mainstream society and historically have conflicted with blacks. Cops (whether they are seen as heroes or racists, and whether or not they are white) and black men (whether as dangerous criminals or innocent victims) have become the two counterpart symbols of everyday conflict in America. The African-American lower-class gang culture is the image that outsiders have of where the trouble comes from, and the atmosphere of polarization generalizes this image to all ambiguous encounters with blacks.

* The proportion of the black male population of teens and young adults who belong to gangs is about 10-12%.  Calculated in Collins, Violence: p. 372.


Escalation of police tactics

Police tactics against crime in the ghetto have gone through a series of developments. Traditional policing in the era of official segregation in the South meant white police would arbitrarily enter any black dwelling looking for suspects. But on the whole, crime of blacks against each other was not regarded as very important. In the North and especially in the era of the civil rights movement, police tended to abandon the ghetto. Elijah Anderson reports that in the 1980s and 90s the ghetto was largely unpoliced; both in the sense that police did not patrol there often and that they were slow to answer complaints; moreover when police did arrive at a scene of robbery or violence, they were peremptory towards everyone. In scenes with a good deal of angry talk, the victim or complainant could easily find oneself being arrested. Accordingly, ghetto residents were wary of calling the police. In this atmosphere, residents attempted to provide their own protection, what Anderson calls “the code of the street.” The stance was for everyone to appear tough, especially men but also women, dramatizing by voice and gesture they were ready to use violence. Anderson emphasizes that for the majority of people, the street code is a front, an effort to head off violence; only a minority within the ghetto would actually “go for street,” carrying weapons and living as predatory criminals. As noted, only a fraction, about one-tenth of black male youth belong to gangs, but the “decent” citizens (Anderson describes this as a folk term in some northern cities) also give off a protective veneer, that could impress outsiders that they are dangerous. Thus the street code, meant to act as a show to fend off being a victim, in the eyes of the mainstream and the police, made most ghetto residents appear indistinguishable from violent criminals.

Another tactic, largely by white politicians, was to create severe penalties for drugs. These laws were increasingly enforced, both for sale and for possession, leading the huge growth of incarceration of blacks and Hispanics by the 1990s. Since the drug laws fell on both the criminal segment and many of the “decent” segment of the ghetto, they added to racial polarization. Prisons became the center for spreading the antinomian culture. Severe sentences did not much affect the drug business itself, since those most likely to be caught were low-level dealers, who could easily replaced since they were one of the few prestigious career paths in the ghetto.

The high volume of drug arrests also had an effect on the police. As Peter Moskos shows in his ethnography of the Baltimore police force, and Philippe Bourgois in his research on north Philadelphia drug markets, police know the justice system is overcrowded, and that prosecutors and judges let many suspects off. Police become cynical about the revolving-door process, as well as exasperated by the defiant attitude it fosters among those they arrest. Police respond with their own informal punishment. This includes the tactic known in the culture of Eastern police forces as “a rough ride”-- leaving a prisoner shackled but not secured to a seat in the police wagon while they are roughed up by wild driving. This is apparently the scenario in April 2015 by which Freddie Gray-- a black man who been in and out of court multiple times for minor offenses and parole violations-- ended up dying from a broken spine after being arrested by Baltimore police.

Around the year 2000 came a reversal in police tactics. Previously they tended to neglect ghetto crime except for easy busts for drugs. Now computerization added new weapons. One version was COMSTAT, a centralized system put in place by the New York Police Department, that compiles crime reports not in old fashioned monthly or yearly statistics, but in real time; now police commanders could see where crime was surging in the city and flood that area with cops. COMSTAT is credited with having reduced the crime rate in New York City from one of the higher to one of the lowest big cities; it resembles the “surge” that General Petraeus used in Iraq to secure areas from insurgent forces. The main limitation of COMSTAT is that it is expensive to implement. The NYPD is unique in the size of its police force (35,000), and its ability to move forces around; most smaller police departments lack the manpower for local surges.

Computerized record-keeping has been put to a different use in other cities. Patrol cars now have on-board computers, which officers can use-- not only at any arrest or encounter with a suspect, but at any contact with a civilian. Infractions as minor as driving with a broken tail-light or selling cigarettes on the sidewalk now routinely result in a records check. Many minorities living in the gray economy have past infractions; and these are often compounded by failing to appear for court appearances, or failing to pay fines. As Alice Goffman shows in her ethnography of a small Philadelphia street gang, the court system tends to nickel-and-dime poor people to death-- metaphorically, of course, since these are generally fines in the hundred-dollar range that poor people have a hard time paying. The fines mount up since failure to appear or failure to pay results in yet another fine. Everything compounds each other in this system of city administration, policing, and antinomian street culture. Any innocuous police stop can result in arrest on outstanding warrants; it is still a revolving door but the police now are a constant, annoying presence in people’s lives, spreading the feeling that everyone is a suspect. The court system supports itself with fines, encouraged by city administrations under the pressure of mainstream resistance to raising taxes.  And not only big city courts and police forces use this strategy of controlling the poor by collecting fines on them. Towns like Ferguson, Missouri use a version of old-fashioned speeding traps on passing motorists, now updated with computerized records to fine the poorer citizens of their own town for minor offenses and accumulated penalties.

The result is escalation on both sides. The police are now more actively harassing the poor, and the poor are exasperated and defiant like the man in Ferguson who walked away from an officer and was shot in the back.

Middle-class tax revolt, revenue-strapped city administrations, and the predatory use of police as a cash-collecting machine blend together into a Kafka-esque system of feedback loops. Legitimation was given to the process by the “broken windows” theory of crime control, which encourages police to crack down on small offenses like urinating in public in order to eliminate signs of being places where laws are not enforced. Modern day computerization and so-called “best practices” have their worst effect on the street where the two most exasperated components of the system come together: cops and poor black people. *

* Other kinds of escalation in police tactics have happened, such as the militarization of police equipment since the late 1990s. But helicopters, armored vehicles, and body armor are used mainly for crowd control and riots, and probably have little effect on the tensions of everyday policing. Demonstrations and riots, as noted, are occasions where the anti-police constituency gets better organized and more politically effective; so the threatening face of heavy military equipment probably is no more than false comfort for the police.


Escalation of gang weapons and insurgent resources

On the other side, escalation of weapons and tactics has also gone on. In the 1950s, gangs mostly fought with handmade “zip guns” firing single shots. Their most dramatic weapon was the switch-blade knife, which made a sinister motion as the blade whipped out-- but was not itself particularly deadly, since knife fights are mostly for show and usually inconclusive. Gangs became more deadly, and the murder rate picked up in the 1970s and 80s as more guns came on the scene.

Nevertheless, for the most part gang weapons do not producemuch firepower. The accuracy of pistols is poor beyond a few dozen yards; while at very close range, the adrenaline surge tends to produce wild firing. Urban gang members rarely practice on a shooting range; and most patrons of gun ranges are white. There is great admiration for guns in the gang culture, but most gang members are not gun experts. The guns available in the illegal market are often of low quality-- here too the poor tend to get shoddy products. In the gang milieu, these defects don’t matter so much, since most of the time what happens consists of blustering and showing off. Close ethnographic observers of the gang scene find they display their guns, even gesture with them, far more than they fire them. Shoot-outs with rival gangs usually are brief , and getting hit is mostly a matter of chance. Not surprisingly, when shots are fired they often hit bystanders, including children; this is particularly likely in drive-bys where members of one gang fire at a gathering in a park or street that includes members of a rival gang. Hitting innocent victims is sometimes welcomed by gang members since it enhances their reputation for being ruthless.

The low quality and low competence of gang firepower is one reason they use it mainly against each other. Rarely do they attempt to shoot it out with the police, since they are almost always outgunned, not to mention the capacity of police to call in reinforcements to almost any level necessary to prevail. *

* The most organized violence against the police was by the Black Panther Party during 1967-70, in ambushes, gunfights, traffic stops and police raids. A total of 1 officer was killed and 4 wounded, while the Panthers lost 10 killed. By 1969-71, the Black Panthers were mainly involved in internal violence against splits and rival groups, with another 10 killed.  The Panthers began as a group to monitor police violence by armed patrols, but turned into a combination of political movement and gang, financing themselves by a tax on robberies and extortions carried out by members. 

In recent years, there are occasional postings of cell-phone photos of gang members carrying heavier weapons such as AK-47s. Nevertheless, this looks like the usual blustering, since one rarely hears of such weapons being used in gang fighting, or against the police. Long guns are more accurate than pistols, and can deliver a higher volume of fire. On the whole, they have been used in overt race war only when the local situation gave temporary emotional dominance to insurgents.  In the 1967 Newark and Detroit riots, snipers with rifles fired at police and National Guard troops from their home base in the ghetto. The July 2016 Dallas sniper represents an exceptional level of escalation of firepower, producing a total of 12 casualties. He came from a suburban area and never participated in the gang lifestyle-- which as we have seen, is very poorly adapted for fighting with the police. In this respect, the Dallas sniper more resembles the isolated school rampage shooter, amassing weapons in secret; the difference being both his target-- police rather than school children-- and his military training and his practicing weapons tactics. The Dallas sniper, in effect, was more assimilated into white society, and he used white weapons and followed a white scenario of mass killing.

The strongest similarity is to the so-called “Beltway sniper” in October 2002, who fired on white people from a car, killing 10 over a period of weeks.  This turned out to be a black military veteran, who (unlike gang members) trained for sniper skills, including with his 17 year-old protégé, who did the firing from a peep-hole in the trunk of their car. The motives and tactics of gangs, armed robbers, and grudge-obsessed rampage killers are different. But such tactics propagate by imitation, especially when they are highly publicized in the media. In a situation of emotional escalation of black-vs.-police conflict, one can expect cross-overs as the most militant individuals pick up the most lethal tactics.


The most effective escalation: communications and multi-pronged mobilization

The biggest weapon in escalating black insurgency has been, not weaponry, but publicity and politics.  During the civil rights period of the 1960s, victories were won because different styles of organization fought on different fronts. Non-violent protests by Freedom Riders, church-led alliances, and direct-action organizations like CORE, created a certain amount of attention, especially when they became well-publicized martyrs to segregationist violence. Riots engaged more of the black population, and created an unavoidable sense of national emergency. A fringe of individuals and organizations (SNCC, Black Panthers, Black Muslims) emerged that openly advocated violence. Most of the actual gains, however, were won by the most conventional part of the movement, the NAACP and the Urban League, whose lawyers challenged segregated arrangements in the courts. It was more of a tacit coalition than an explicit one, since most of these organizations disavowed at least some of the others. But their combination created the sense of national crisis that eventually moved the balance point of American politics and the judiciary towards integration.

The same pattern is reemerging in the current war of cops and blacks. The side against police violence includes legal organizations, some politicians, organizations of non-violent demonstrations, as well as a violent fringe of militants. We should also count the gang violence of the black community as part of the larger movement or atmosphere of resistance, along with the antinomian thrust of the youth culture. The big difference from the 1950s and 60s is now there is a national mobilization on the other side as well. The civil rights movement was opposed by a mainly Southern segregationist bloc. Today there is a widespread national constituency for cracking down on what is seen as out-of-control lawlessness.  Escalation and counter-escalation have been occurring on both sides. Both sides have gotten more sophisticated in recognizing each other’s tactics. The pro-police side sees that the black insurgency operates in tandem with political and media fronts, and has tried to counter them as abettors of violence.

The major new weapon on the side of the anti-police insurgency is in the realm of communication: the cell-phone camera. This had its analogy in the 1950s and 60s, when on-the-spot television news was just appearing, and police attacks on civil rights marches made sensational coverage, especially when reporters were also attacked in the mêlée. The new phase of mobilization against the police began in 1991 when Rodney King’s beating by a group of police was filmed by a resident with a new product, the video camcorder. The cell phone camera has made videos recording ubiquitous, and the decentralized social media of the Internet has made it hard for authorities to crack down on it.

Mobile videos of the police in action are not the whole story; they only work in tandem with the range of other tactics and organizations-- demonstrations, riots, political movements, law suits. The police recognize videos as an escalation against themselves. Confiscating cameras becomes a new side-issue and flashpoint for further conflict. There is some validity in arguments that videos capture only a part of the encounter and miss the verbal lead-up to the confrontation; the solution to this, however, could be more recordings, including voice, of police encounters with citizens. It is also true that police body cameras can be dysfunctional or deliberately turned off. All such recording devices become an expanding battleground. One can anticipate there will be more things to fight about in the future.

Counter-escalation on both sides spins off from the same technical innovations. Cell phone cameras and the social media come from the same IT revolution that brought squad-car computers and police tactics of running the record on everyone they stop. Both police and citizens use their electronic networks to call for backup; the police in a more organized way, with greater weaponry and authority; the street people in a more sensationalist way, seeking backup in the form ofcollective emotions, demonstrations, and politics.


Are there any paths to de-escalation?

After every highly publicized incident, whether the casualties are among the people or the police, mainstream figures call for calm and reconciliation. These calls have little effect on de-escalating the overall situation. Most violence and conflict in all forms is carried out by small fractions of the population. There is always an array from the most militant fringe, through the seriously committed partisans, to those who are less involved. Between the two sides of a conflict, those nearer the center are the ones most willing to listen to a message of reconciliation.  But it is the extremes who carry on the fight, and drive the level of escalation.

The flashpoint is the police on the streets.  Cops are under tension every time they stop a suspect. Tension is higher if conflict has escalated recently by previous incidents; higher if it is a neighborhood with a high crime rate; higher if there has been a chase, or alarming reports over police radio links.

Tension rises sharply when the citizen isn’t cooperative or is defiant. Richard Rubenstein, a sociologist who worked in the Philadelphia police force, reported that the first thing an officer wants in any encounter are signs that the person will not make trouble. He insists on taking the initiative, and controlling the situation in little details, since these are the warning signs for bigger trouble. Donald Black, who pioneered ride-along observations in patrol cars, calculated that the chances someone would be arrested did not depend on race per se, but on whether the person was defiant-- and in the 1960s black persons were more defiant to the police (not surprisingly, since this was the era of the civil rights movement). Car chases and running away increase officers' tension even more, since these are also acts of defiance. Citizens who turn their backs and refuse to stop are acting defiantly, even if the initial order was something trivial like “move to the sidewalk” (the first step in the 2014 Ferguson shooting).

Adding together any or all of these factors increases tension. Bodily this is experienced as adrenaline rush, the flight-or-fight arousal. The biggest danger with an adrenaline spike is the loss of perception and fine motor control. When heart rate races to 150 beat per minute or more, fine motor control is lost. An officer may reach for a gun when he thinks he is reaching for handcuffs or a taser. Trigger fingers produce wild or uncontrollable firing. Officers in shootouts report time distortions like going into a bubble, vision turning into a blur or tunnel vision on only one part of the scene. Hearing often goes out so that they don’t hear their own gunshots; voices become incomprehensible. It is a situation ripe for miscommunication and misperception.

Adrenaline-produced distortions explain why shooting incidents happen where it turns out the suspect did not have a gun, or was reaching for an ID; situations where stops for trivial reasons blow up into killings. Since adrenaline takes time to subside, the cop may empty the magazine of his gun, even after the suspect is motionless on the ground. Catching these details on video certainly looks like an atrocity.


Teaching awareness of body signs and emotional control

What can be done? The key is training cops to keep their bodily tension under control.  Sociologist Geoffrey Alpert found that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more police officers up to a high level of competence.

Individual officers vary widely in their use of force. About 10% of police account for the bulk of all force reports; and less then 1% fire their guns in multiple incidents. (Collins, Violence: 371) The polarized viewpoint see cops in general as being out of control; but the real issue is to make better officers out of the fraction that cannot control their emotions and physiology.

Adrenaline can be lowered, for instance by breathing exercises described by Army psychologist David Grossman. Police training should incorporate more explicit awareness of the distortions caused by tense confrontations. Weapons training tends to go in the opposite direction, stressing quick reaction, and training for automatic “muscle memory” in the default scenario that saving lives depends on rapid action. Police tend to be trained for extreme situations rather than clear assessment and self-control.

In the field, police dispatching and radio calls tend to turn situations into scenarios where the suspect is regarded as extremely dangerous.  Citizen calls to the police may say, someone might have a gun; or that someone might be engaged in a burglary. The dispatcher tends to turn this into a simpler form, there is a gun or a burglar. When messages are transmitted from one patrol car to another, the process by which rumors are propagated takes over. As psychological experiments have shown, each link in a chain of oral reports tends to simplify the message, leaving out any special qualifications and turning it into the most obvious cliché.  In the case of police transmissions, the more cars called to a scene, the more likely the message is to turn into an extreme threat; weapons are definitely asserted to be present; hostages tend to mentioned whether they exist or not and the suspect becomes reported as saying he will won’t die alone.

The combination of these processes explains events like the incident in Clevelandin November 2014. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.

Such events are preventable. The answer is not so much after-the-fact criminal charges and court trials-- these rarely result in conviction, and focus on punishing individuals rather than on the improvements that can be made in police procedures. Better training can be undertaken at local initiative by police forces willing to do so. This should include techniques for becoming aware of one’s own adrenaline level and heart rate-- body signs monitors like those used in physical exercise would help here. And techniques should be emphasized for getting adrenaline under control.  There also should be better training of police dispatchers, to make them aware of the distortions they introduce into messages; and making patrol officers aware of the rumor-like exaggeration in their own chains of messages to each other. A useful role of Federal and State governments would be to review police training programs, to assess whether they are sufficiently teaching bodily and perceptual awareness of the distortions of adrenaline rush. Emphasis needs to be upon best methods for calmly and accurately assessing the situation before escalating it.

What about the other side of the counter-escalation, the anger, hostility, and defiance in the black community? I have focused on what can be done by police to control their use of force, because this is where public policy might be implemented. But escalated conflict is driven by the extremes at both ends of the distribution, and the tough guys of black and Hispanic communities wouldbe harder to reach.  Nevertheless, the message is much the same.  Be aware of one’s own adrenaline, one’s rush of emotions, the situational blurring of attention to everything but the impulse to dominate. And be aware of the same processes going on inside the person on the other side-- awareness of how to calm police down rather than rile them up. A glimmer of optimism comes from group psychology programs in California prisons, where convicted murderers learn to re-experience the events that led to their imprisonment, and to focus on better control of their emotions. Prisoners who completed the program and were released on parole had a re-arrest rate much lower than usual. It is not impossible that in the future self-training in micro-situational awareness could spread even in the most violent part of the population.

Framing the issue as racism doesn’t solve it. Cops without racist attitudes, under these kinds of tense situations, and with their adrenaline out of control, can trigger off violent atrocities. The answer isn’t in the attitudes; it is in the micro-techniques of how to behave in confrontations. There is a workable solution. Whether we will implement it or not is another question.

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon




Randall Collins. 2008.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.

Randall Collins. 2012: “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Conflict.” American Sociological Review

Eric C. Schneider. 1999. Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York.

Martín Sánchez-Jankowski.  1991. Islands in the Street.

Scott Decker and Barrik van Winkle. 1996. Life in the Gang.

Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. 1994.  Burglars on the Job.

Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. 1997.  Armed Robbers in Action.

Elijah Anderson.. 1999.  Code of the Street.

Elijah Anderson. 2012. The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life.

Deanna L. Wilkinson.  2003.  Guns, Violence and Identity among African American and Latino Youth.

Sudhir Venkatesh. 2006.  Off the Books. The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

Sudhir Venkatesh. 2008.  Gang Leader for a Day.

Randol Contreras. 2012. The Stickup Kids.

Andrew Papachristos. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and The Social Structure of Gang Homicide,” American Journal of Sociology.

Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship. 2015.   "Keeping Up the Front: How Black Youth Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City"  in Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (Eds.),  The Culture Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.

Alice Goffman. 2014. On the Run.

David Skarbeck. 2014.  The Social Order of the Underworld. How Prisons Gangs Govern the American Penal System.

C. Eric Lincoln. 1994.  The Black Muslims in America.

Jonathan Rubinstein, 1973. City Police.

Donald Black. 1980. The Manners and Customs of the Police.

Peter Moskos. 2009. Cop in the Hood.

Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.

David Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone. A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force.

Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.


The term charisma is thrown around a lot these days, applied to everyone from pop stars to the merely well-dressed. Sure, words can mean whatever you want them to mean, but they lose their power to explain what is going on. In sociology, charisma is a theory about a particular kind of power, contrasted with bureaucratic power and mere traditional authority. For Max Weber, who originated this analysis, charisma is a main source of historical change, but it is unstable and doesn’t last. It doesn’t mean just fashionable or popular; it means leadership that accomplishes big things.

We can improve Weber’s theory. When we closely examine charismatic people, we find four kinds of charisma-- i.e. there are four different ways that people get charisma. A few people have most or all of them; some get it from only one source.

1. Front-stage charisma

2. Back-stage charisma

3. Success-magic charisma

4. Reputational charisma


1. Front-stage charisma

Front-stage and back-stage are Goffman’s terms for regions of everyday life: whether you are putting on a public performance and doing official things, or when you are in private with your intimates. Back-stage is informal, and it includes both hanging out with your buddies and confidantes, and planning how to handle your front-stage performances. The glib term “transparency” so widely demanded today implies there should be no backstages; no one ever gets to plan anything or to say what they really believe; it all has to be goody-goody front-stage clichés.

Front-stage charisma means putting on overpoweringly impressive performances in front of an audience. The crowd is not just convinced; they are swept off their feet. It is more than just an entertaining moment; after such an experience, we will follow them anywhere. Charisma seizes people’s emotions and shapes their will. A charismatic leader is a great speech-maker. Their speeches recruit a movement.

Jesus is the archetype of front-stage charisma. His sermon on the mount spills over into miracles among the audience. Throughout his career he has mastery of crowds. Even with hostile crowds, he breaks their momentum, seizes the initiative, and ends up emotionally dominating.

Other speech-makers with charismatic power include Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Julius Caesar, and on the dark side of the force, Adolf Hitler. The entire Nazi movement was built on mass-participation performances, including their sinister marches, swastikas, Heil Hitler! salutes, and loud-speakers. A charismatic leader is master of the mass media of the day, whatever they may be.

2. Back-stage charisma

Having front-stage charisma does not mean you are charismatic in the informal situations of everyday life. Winston Churchill was regarded as rather an ill-mannered drunk at dinner parties. Alexander the Great was inspirational at the head of his troops in battle, but he palled around with his buddies and sometimes got into fights with them.

An example of purely backstage charisma is T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). When recruiting an Arab army against the Turks in WWI, Lawrence did not try to dominate meetings or give orders. He let the warrior equality of the desert take its course as they discussed at leisure whether to follow the British or not; when the timing felt right, he would quietly announce that he was going to attack such-and-such, whoever felt like coming was welcome. Lawrence also had weapons, money, camels, and a string of military successes, so he soon was being greeted with enthusiastic shouts by warriors rushing to join him. Back on the British side of the lines, Lawrence was quiet but welcome because he brought good news. After the war, he hated publicity and disguised himself as much as possible.

Others with back-stage charisma included Napoleon and Steve Jobs. I will comment on their interactional techniques in a further post.

3. Success-magic charisma

Weber’s main criterion is that charismatic leaders are credited with supernatural powers. Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses are associated with miracles and direct contact with the divine. On the secular level, charisma comes from a string of successes, especially against the odds. Such a leader becomes regarded as unbeatable.

Napoleon acquired such reputation for a long string of battle victories that enemy generals said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 troops, and advised the strategy of going up against other French generals rather than Napoleon himself. Hitler’s reputation in Germany took off with a series of diplomatic and military victories from the mid-1930s through 1941, backing up his earlier boast to make Germany great again.

In the business world, Steve Jobs already had a reputation for backstage charisma when he first developed Apple Computer Co, but his public image changed from eccentric to unbeatable after his return to Apple in 1997 and a ten year string of soaring product roll-outs. He artfully combined success charisma with frontstage charisma, organizing dramatic product launches and making Apple stores scenes for enthusiastic crowd participation.

Unbroken success is hard to come by, and virtually all charismatic leaders have to deal with failure at some point. But charisma requires at least an aura of success. One way this happens is that belonging to a growing movement of enthusiastic followers gives confidence the leader’s promises will pay off. In the stock market, a cascade of followers is a financial success in itself.

4. Reputational charisma

If you have charisma, you get a reputation for it. The fourth type of charisma is a result of the other three. There is also some feedback effect; the more widespread your reputation for charisma, the more it pumps up your appeal as a frontstage performer and as a miracle-worker. But this brings us onto tricky grounds. People who want to be charismatic can try to manipulate it, by working the public relations machine. How successful is this?

One limitation is that the competition can get crowded. There is a limit on how many charismatic people can exist at the same time, especially when they go up against each other. * It would be like having too many prima donnas at a party.

*  In examining the networks of philosophers across history, I found a pattern of “the law of small numbers”-- the number of famously creative persons in one generation was almost always between 3 and 6. Whether a similar law of small numbers operates for politics or business has not yet been found.

The struggle for fame will shoot down many contenders, especially in an era dominated by easy access to mass media. This implies that you need a foundation in one of the other three forms of charisma, to have a chance at reputational charisma.

Television and video images convey not just reports of what people did and said, but what they looked like saying it, as if they were face-to-face with the viewer. That turns the most basic test of charisma more into the second type. Back-stage charisma depends on the kinds of emotions conveyed by facial expressions and body rhythms; people are good at picking up genuine emotions and feel uneasy about emotions which are forced. **

** Soon after the 1980 campaign, I attended a meeting with Paul Ekman, the psychologist who pioneered research on the facial expression of emotions. Ekman commented that Jimmy Carter had a forced smile, whereas Ronald Reagan’s smile was genuine. Similarly fateful were the disastrous attempts at false impressions in the 1988 campaign, with Michael Dukakis shown in a political ad riding in a tank, and the 2004 campaign with John Kerry shown duck hunting.

Subtypes of merely reputational charisma include:

-- ephemeral pseudo-charisma:

You get a big reputation; enthusiastic crowds flock to see you; everybody wants to get near you, touch you, get your autograph or a selfie with you. This is pretty much the definition of being an entertainment star. It tends to be ephemeral, all the more so as the competition for attention goes on.

It also happens in politics. An example is Gorbachev, who was treated like a rock star, especially in Europe during the mid-1980s. He held out a new future, ending the Cold War, negotiating nuclear weapons reductions, and democratizing the Soviet Union. By 1989-91, these reforms overtook Gorbachev himself; he was not only deposed, but lost his charisma.  It comes and goes; until the early 1980s, Gorbachev was just another Communist apparatchik, protégé of the KGB chief Andropov who came to power after Brezhnev’s death. Gorbachev had a period of genuine successes, but his reputation at its height was a bubble that burst when public attention turned elsewhere.

-- historically retrospective charisma:

Some individuals’ charisma is created after their death. An example is Queen Elizabeth the First, whose name is attached to the Elizabethan age. She was not a speech-maker, and she did not direct the policy of England to any great extent during her reign. Major decisions, like executing Mary Queen of Scots and thereby setting off the Spanish Armada, were made behind her back. She had no great skill in winning people over backstage. The impression of her supreme greatness comes from two things: first, her court made a big deal out of flattering her, surrounding her with elaborate courtesy and ostentatious display. She wore magnificent costumes and jewels and was the center of impressive entertainments and ceremonies. In this respect, she was quite a lot like a Chinese Emperor, surrounded by protocol in the Forbidden Palace, while the secretaries ran the country.

Second: the Elizabethan period (and its continuation into the reign of her successor, James I) was a time of great successes for England: the end of the Protestant/Catholic struggles; the growth of English sea power to world class; the historic outpouring of English literature, a good deal of which was dedicated to Elizabeth or performed in her presence. Truth be told, Elizabeth was a magnificent symbol, but a charismatic leader only by historical courtesy.

One of the loosest ways of getting called “charismatic” is merely to be a famous name at a time when important things happened. If we use all four criteria, we can check empirically whether this person was charismatic or not, and in what way. We can look at whether they were good at swaying crowds and recruiting followers; and if they could make disciples out of their intimate acquaintances. Every famous person can be assessed this way, if we have the records. For ancient people this is not always clear. We know too little about the life of Gautama, who became the Buddha. Confucius was not a public success although he did recruit the first generation of followers who later burgeoned into a dominant movement in the history of China.

At any rate, we have four ways people become charismatic, and these can be used to examine any particular case.


Does Donald Trump have charisma?

[1] Front-stage charisma is his strength.  He dominates public meetings, making the crowd enthusiastic and intensely loyal on his behalf. In that sense he is a great speech-maker, although not at all in the style of traditional oratory. His sentences are short and often repetitive, his vocabulary limited. This brings out an important point: effective speech-making does not depend on its formal qualities. Front-stage charisma is generated by connecting with the audience, building emotion, and riding with it. 

Trump stands out from other politicians by constantly doing something surprising. From the point of view of his opponents, this means saying things which are shocking; but it also leaves them spending most of their time responding to him, expressing outrage, and rebutting his claims. Trump thus always seizes the initiative, and refuses to give it up. Whereas most people lose emotional energy when they are attacked by a barrage of criticism, Trump does not back down, but renews the attack. Media scandals usually destroy people’s careers, but Trump is unfazed by them, and uses them to focus even more attention upon himself.

Trump uses the media to monopolize the focus of attention of the wider public; he uses his rallies as a stronghold to protect himself from fallout. The way he stands firm and plunges even further ahead in his pathway makes him a beacon for his followers. He becomes an emotional energy hero: no one can top him or push him off his trajectory. *

* In contrast, in the 2000 campaign, Pat Buchanan, a candidate with a similar anti-immigration message, was confronted at a rally in Arizona by a young man, who said, I am one of the Mexican border-crossers you are talking about. What about me? Buchanan was shaken, replying apologetically, I didn’t mean you in particular. Trump is not shaken by pressure to behave according to conventional good manners; in similar situations he attacks. Early in his campaign, he rejected persistent questioning by television journalist Megyn Kelly, shifting the focus to her effort to control the topic. This is where his notorious “blood oozing out of her...” remarks came from. Feminists found this scandalous; but it also alerted the audience that this was someone who would not be pushed around by reporters, even in the smallest details of questioning.

Always doing something surprising; never letting the other side set the agenda; seizing the initiative and never giving it up: these are key characteristics of highly charismatic persons. I have documented these same traits in the face-to-face encounters of Jesus. Obviously I am not saying that Trump resembles Jesus in other respects; yet both illustrate a high degree of front-stage charisma.

Emotional energy is confidence, enthusiasm, initiative, and persistence. In Interaction Ritual (IR) theory, emotional energy is the result of successful encounters. That requires getting everyone’s attention focused on the same thing; generating a shared emotion; and building up rhythmic entrainment so that the group feels themselves unified and strengthened. Successful IRs do not have to start with positive emotions; negative emotions like fear or anger also work because they attract so much attention. The key to a successful IR is to transform the initial emotion into a feeling of collective solidarity in the group. We may be angry but we are angry together, and that makes us strong; fearful or frustrated but fearful and frustrated together. Trump is a master of this dynamic in public events. Pushback from the outside does not faze him, since it is what keeps his rallies intense; and his followers, who might otherwise be emotionally intimidated by that pushback in the general population, find Trump a pillar of strength. He is the unusual person who not only rides out scandals, but flourishes on them.

[2] Back-stage charisma.  Trump is much less charismatic here. By all reports, when he interacts with people one-on-one, his attention wanders. He gets along with persons who are extremely deferential to him. He is more domineering than inspiring. Hence his preference for big rallies; small meetings with one-on-one interaction are not his forte, not where he gets his emotional energy.

[3] Success-magic charisma. This is part of the image that Trump claims for himself, that unlike others he is always the winner. Nevertheless, many of his business ventures have been failures, with numerous bankruptcies. Clearly Trump is not in a league with Caesar or Napoleon with their string of victories, or with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett in business success.

A number of mitigating points need to be made. Virtually no one has an unbroken string of successes (see Napoleon, Caesar..). A reputation for success-magic can be upheld by springing back from failures. This is what Trump does with his bankruptcies, especially since he dumps the loss on his investors. Michel Villette, in his study of great fortunes made in Europe and the US during mid-20th century, found that most of them went through bankruptcies and legal fights, which they emerged from successfully by hard-balling everyone else. Trump fits that pattern.

In his business career, Trump uses his claims to making great investments as a way of snowing financiers into investing. When the enterprise fails, they are in so deep that they have to bail him out. In his personal business, Trump has played explicitly on the theme, too big to be allowed to fail.

Is this success-magic charisma? At best, a manipulative form of it, characteristic of the world of skyrocketing finances from the 1990s through the present.

[4] Reputational charisma. This kind of charisma is derivative of the other three. There is a multiplier effect, once the reputation machine get rolling. Thus far (mid-October 2016 at time of writing) it remains to be seen whether Trump will turn out to be another instance of ephemeral pop-star reputation.

In sum, Trump has front-stage charisma, and not a lot of the other three kinds.


Does charisma win elections?

Politics is a competition. Being charismatic for one group of people does not make you charismatic for everyone; and that is true for any historic figure we can think of. So having opponents who deny your charisma does not mean you don’t have it.

Modern media-oriented political campaigns give a premium to charisma or what looks like it. Are elections determined by who has more charisma?

In the primary campaigns, the only other person who built up a charismatic profile was Bernie Sanders. Clearly this was all front-stage charisma. Sanders is not imposing as a personality. Throughout his career in Congress, he was an isolated figure whose vote was rarely sought out by anyone. He has no record or reputation for success. What he did find, in the 2015-16 campaign, was a constituency who wanted somebody radical, who could voice their criticism of the establishment. Bernie Sanders epitomizes Weber’s point that charisma comes from the audience more than from the individual himself. This helps explain Bernie’s reluctance to shut down his campaign, even after he had clearly lost and his continued criticism was damaging Hillary Clinton’s general election. He went from nobody to charismatic leader-- as long as he stayed in the magic spotlight of his enthusiastic rallies. In this last respect, the Sanders and Trump campaigns are similar.

Hillary Clinton is not charismatic. She has had to learn how to make political stump speeches. She has mastered the rhetoric, the gestures, the facial expressions. It still doesn’t look spontaneous.* Over the years, Hillary was known as a get-down-to-business, get-things-done person, the opposite of warm and fuzzy. Her campaign smile, in particular, is what Ekman would call a forced smile. I suggest that her front-stage demeanor, more than anything else, is what gives many people the feeling she is not trustworthy. The scandal-politics of issues about emails and Monday morning quarterbacking over terrorist attacks are less telling than the emotional resonance that many people feel is missing in her public face. By all accounts, she is a capable person backstage. She has a mixed record of success, no reputation for magic. Like most politicians at the height of a campaign, she does generate enthusiasm from her hard-core supporters; that comes less from her own charisma than from the audience projecting their emotions onto her.

* Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries displayed a speaking style that also looked artificial: rhetorical statements, followed by pause for effect, accompanied by sweeping arm gestures. It went on too long and looked like it was coached, without getting the rhythm right. Trump beat everyone to the punch with his spontaneity. The other politicians made him look good.

Strong charisma is rare. In most elections, in the US and elsewhere, there has been no charismatic figure. If we drop down to a looser criterion-- how did the candidates compare in whatever lesser degrees of charisma they had?-- it still would not be clear that the person who looked more charismatic won. Sometimes clearly charismatic persons lose: Churchill’s party lost the election of 1945 even though Churchill personally was at the height of his war-time reputation.

This is an open field for research: examine elections by rating the candidates on the four kinds of charisma. There are instances where the most charismatic figure rolled to victory (FDR’s string of four terms), others where the charismatic leader lost (Teddy Roosevelt in 1912), plenty of elections where nobody was charismatic or their charisma did not come until later (Lincoln during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI). Charisma is just one ingredient in political success, and we haven’t yet measured how it stacks up against other conditions.


Charisma is not the only form of leadership

There are other kinds of successful organization leaders.

-- The harmonious team manager,  who gets everyone working together and focused on goals. Eisenhower was an example; never a battlefield leader, he kept the war effort going by managing difficult personalities like De Gaulle and Churchill, Patton and Montgomery. Another person, well known to myself, is a woman who wherever she goes is always elected to lead the organization or chair the committee. She gets along with all factions, keeps things moving, and is appreciated for winding up meetings without wasting time. (She is my wife.)

-- The smart decision-maker and strategist. There is a lot of hype about this, especially in business, so we need to keep a careful scorecard.  In politics, an example is 19th century German chancellor Bismarck, who engineered the unification of the German Reich, and out-maneuvered the left by introducing a welfare state. Today, the nearest example may be California Governor Jerry Brown (in his later career): he plans ahead for political crises and budget shortfalls, using the ballot initiative to change legislative rules so that his bills can get through. Brown avoids charisma and minimizes public campaigning. Backstage, he skips chit-chat and plunges immediately into goals and how to reach them. Unlike charismatic leaders, strategists of this sort tend to be undogmatic, and are willing to buck their own party and borrow policies from the opposition. Bill Gates’ career at Microsoft is a business example.

-- The coalition-builder.  Lyndon Johnson, never charismatic in public, was a power-house at lining up votes for legislation, with a mixture of schmoozing, horse-trading, and putting on pressure. Abraham Lincoln, who was a good orator, also had this skill. Coming into the presidency in a very divided political situation, he put as many of his opponents as possible into his cabinet, then played them against each other so as to get the most effective financial and logistical effort for the war. His non-charismatic side was just as important as his public charisma, which grew towards the end of the Civil War.

Bottom line: Charisma is one way to mobilize people into action. In elections, charisma does not always win. In running an organization, charismatic leadership works best in combination with a details-oriented team, as seen in the second incarnation of Steve Jobs at Apple. In running a government, the non-charismatic styles are an indispensable ingredient.

Charisma shakes things up. Other leadership styles are needed to get things done.


Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon


“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon


Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies. 1998.

Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. 2009.

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 1959.

Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot, From Predators to Ikons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero. 2009.


On Jesus’s interactional style:

“Jesus in Interaction: the Micro-sociology of Charisma”


On Steve Jobs, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great:

Randall Collins and Maren McConnell, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Emotional Energy.  2016. Maren Ink.


On T.E. Lawrence:

“How to Become Famous: the Networks of T.E. Lawrence”


On Queen Elizabeth the First:

Susan Doran, The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603.  2009. N.Y.: Metro Books.

Garrett Mattingly, The Armada.  1959.  Houghton Mifflin.


Virtually all controversial police shootings arise from misperception and over-reaction to the situation. These are results of bodily tension and high adrenaline levels, which in turn cause perceptual distortions and out-of-control shooting. The good news is that adrenaline levels can be recognized and monitored on the spot. And methods now exist for reducing one's adrenaline to a manageable level.

From studies of violent situations, we have learned the following.  Face-to-face conflict raises bodily tension. At high levels, opponents become clumsy and inaccurate. This happens through a sudden rise in levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. These are triggered by the primitive fight-or-flight center of the lower brain, an undifferentiated arousal for rapid action that can go either way.

Heart rate is an easily accessible measure of adrenaline arousal. Ordinary resting heart rate is about 60 BPM (beats per minute) in adults, about 100 BPM in moderate exercise. Optimal athletic and physical performance is around 115-145 BPM.  As heart rate goes up, the big muscle groups are energized, while fine muscle coordination is progressively lost. You can see this for yourself at the gym on a machine that monitors heart rate: trying writing with a pen when your heart rate is 145 or more. The effect of emotional tension and fear are stronger than vigorous exercise alone.

At levels around 150-175 BPM, perceptual distortions tend to happen. These experiences are typically reported by combat troops and police who have been in shoot-outs. Time becomes distorted-- both speeded up or seemly slowed down to dreamlike walking under water. Vision becomes blurred, surroundings are lost, tunnel vision narrows in. Hearing tends to shut down-- a cocoon-like experience in which one can't hear the sounds of one's own gun, or the voices of people around you.

Virtually all controversial police shootings show signs of these perceptual distortions. A traffic stop in which the officer misperceives the driver reaching for his wallet as reaching for a weapon. In the Tulsa, Oklahoma shooting of Terence Crutcher in September 2016, the officer said she temporarily lost her hearing just before she fired-- even though there were sounds of sirens and a police helicopter overhead. I am not addressing the point here of whether this makes her legally culpable or not, but noting that it fits the pattern: perceptual distortions are the immediate flashpoint for out-of-control shootings.

Having more police on the scene increases the chances of uncontrolled shooting. Tension is contagious. Cops who are tense tend to make officers around them tense.

On New Years night 2009 in Oakland, California, a white police officer put a gun to the back of the head of a young black man who was lying of the ground being arrested, and killed him with one shot. The incident began with reports that groups of young black men were fighting on the train; at the station, four police began making arrests. There was much loud shouting on both sides, about who was or was not involved in the fighting. The young men argued and struggled with police officers; one of the four cops, not the officer who did the shooting, was particularly aggressive, throwing black youths against the walls, pushing them down, and yelling the word ‘nigger’ at them. The officer who eventually shot his pistol was relatively restrained, trying to calm both the excited cop and the men being arrested; one photo of him, a minute before the shooting, shows a perplexed expression on his face. The officer said afterwards he thought he was reaching for his Taser but pulled his pistol by mistake. In a state of high adrenaline arousal, this is entirely plausible. If the most out-of-control cop in the group had been calmer, the killing most likely would not have happened.

Some officers get impatient about what they feel as indecisiveness or confusion, and act to resolve the situation by opening fire. This is apparently what happened in the Charlotte, N.C. September 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was apparently high on drugs, possibly displaying a gun, and ignoring police orders.  The shooting officer had initially been calm, waiting until other police business had been taken care of. Several officers first watched their suspect before finally attempting to get him out of his car. As the situation became more stalemated, it also became louder. More officers arrived, as well as the suspect's wife who kept telling the officers he was harmless and also on medication. One officer (a plain-clothes black cop) who had been there since the outset apparently grew exasperated to the point where he couldn't control himself.

To these kinds of distractions, add the effect of adrenaline arousal on hearing. In the cocoon of high tension, voices disappear. The more persons who are present-- cops, suspects, friends and family members, vocal bystanders-- the more likely sounds blur into a babble of raised voices. Clear communications break down.

With more people on the scene, the higher the tension of the police officers, and the higher the chance that one of them will begin firing. This can set others off as well: the sound of firing may be misperceived as coming from the suspect, or directly by emotional contagion. In the Charlotte incident, the standoff comes to a climax just after another officer (who has arrived to support) tries to break the windshield of the suspect's vehicle with his baton-- a loud crashing noise.  The officer who has been on the scene the longest now fires a burst from his pistol, even though the suspect has made no sudden move.

Such circumstances are also dangerous for the police themselves. When a suspect is surrounded by large numbers of police in different directions, police sometimes shoot each other, especially when they are in plain clothes. About 10% of police killed or wounded on duty are victims of friendly fire.

A sign that the shooting is caused by out-of-control adrenaline is overkill: when an officer fires many more shots that necessary to disable the apparently threatening suspect. In New York City, February 1999, four undercover police looking for a rapist saw a man duck back into a hallway, then reach for what turned out to be his identification. The four cops rushed from the car and fired 41 shots at a range of 3 meters; 19 of those shots missed. Both the poor aim and the overkill are results of adrenaline rush, amplified by contagion among the four officers (case of Amadou Diallo).

Overkill usually brings public outrage, and tends to be interpreted as evidence of police racism and malice. Such controversies are hard to settle. Whatever else it is, overkill is a sign of adrenaline rush.

What can be done?

First, recognize the danger of perceptual distortions in high-tension situations. Recognize the danger of getting confusing non-verbal messages and emotional contagion from fellow officers on the scene, and from other people present.

Second, check your adrenaline level and bring it down to the level of effective performance and clear perception.

A method for reducing heart rate is via breathing. (The following is from US Army psychologist Dave Grossman.) 

            breathe in four counts;

            hold your breath four counts;

            breathe out four counts;

            hold your breath four counts;

            repeat until heart rate comes down.

This does not mean simply "take a deep breath." The key is to repeat the entire sequence until a slower bodily rhythm is established, with feedback to bring down the adrenaline level. The periods of holding your breath between breathing-in and breathing-out are crucial.


Practical steps for more cool-headed cops

Wear a heart rate monitor. These are easily available now, on wrist devices used for exercise.

Practice observing one's own heart rate in various situations. You can train yourself to recognize high adrenaline levels by the feeling in your body--- especially the feeling of one's heart pounding and the quality of one's breathing.

Practice the four-part breathing exercise to reduce heart rate.

In a tense situation, check your heart rate, and bring it down if necessary.

But what if there is no time for this? What if it is an immediate, kill-or-be-killed situation? In police work, sometimes this may be the case.  But such situations do not arise very often. Many instances of police shootings-- and especially those which turn out to be based on misperceptions-- take time to develop.  The Charlotte N.C. confrontation built up over an hour, and could have been resolved peacefully with better management of emotions.

Some officers speed up the situation unnecessarily. In Cleveland November 2014, the officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone of perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation.

Checking your heart rate and controlling it by a breathing exercise may not be possible in some fast-moving situations. And some victims collude in their own death, in suicide-by-cop, by pretending to aim a weapon at officers in order to be shot. Some such events may be inevitable. But even here, very situationally-aware officers may be able to sort some of them out.

The large majority of the police do not shoot anyone. Among those who do, some are unlucky in being in a bad place at the wrong time; some are the workaholics of the force; some are tough guys looking for action; some have poor control over their tension levels. Research by sociologist Geoffrey Alpert on escalated police encounters found that cops who handle situations better have a better sense of timing.  Many cool-headed cops exist, who have better situational awareness, better control over their tension levels and adrenaline arousal. Our aim should be to increase the proportion of cool-headed cops.

Police shootings of unarmed or unresisting persons have brought huge controversy. Most proposed solutions focus on more body cameras, more release of video data to the public, and more criminal prosecution of officers. These proposals have spiraled into more conflict, in the form of demonstrations, riots, and angry politics on both sides. In the balance of political forces today, none of these has been successful in reducing police shootings.

Another route can be tried. Rather than reacting after police shootings happen, and concentrating on ways to pin the blame in court, we can take steps so that out-of-control behavior in police encounters does not happen in the first place. We do not have to solve huge problems like racism or political gridlock to achieve this.

It is in the interest of all police officers to ensure that their tension-control skills are high. Individuals cops do not have to wait until a government agency, or their own police chief, orders them to wear a heart-beat monitor. Everyone can get it yourself easily enough; and do your own training in controlling heart rate and adrenaline level.

Thinking outside the box is often advocated. But most policy people automatically think in terms of top-down solutions. It is at the bottom level-- each moment people encounter each other on the street-- that the problem arises. Better emotional awareness can help to head it off, on the spot.

 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon



Geoffrey P. Alpert and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.

Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.

Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.

Jennifer C. Hunt. 2010. Seven Shots.

David Klinger. 2004.  Into the Kill Zone. A Cop's Eye View of Deadly Force.


Note: Research by Min-seok Pang and Paul Pavlov ("Armed with Technology: The Impact on Fatal Shootings by Police", 2016) has shown, paradoxically, that police wearing body cameras act more aggressively than those without, because they believe the video will back up their perception of the situation. In other words, their emotions tend to overrule their perceptions here too.


When Erving Goffman arrived at University of Chicago in the late 1940s, he was an ardent Freudian. A few years later he devised a new way to study mental illness: he got himself into the schizophrenic ward of a mental hospital, incognito, for two years. Instead of the retrospective method of psychoanalysis, probing for the meaning of symptoms deep in past childhood, Goffman directly observed what mental illness is in the present, as disturbed social interaction

Goffman is an emblem of the take-off of micro-sociology. No one creates an intellectual movement by oneself. In the background were not only the Freudians, seeking unconscious meanings in everyday life; also what Blumer named Symbolic Interactionism, emphasizing the social construction of the self and everything else.  At Berkeley in 1964, after a student sit-in for civil rights shut down the university, Blumer commented to us in class: a social institution exists only as long as it is enacted; when we collectively stop enacting it, it stops existing.

Another movement was springing up, the ethnomethodologists, insisting that sociology does not even exist, but only the study of folk methods for making sense of what is taken for reality. This was the phenomenology of everyday life, in the sense of Husserl and Schutz, but Garfinkel and his followers changed it from philosophical introspection into micro-situational observation. Especially important was the invention of conversation analysis by tape-recording real-life conversation. This shifted the emphasis from the cognitive and rather individualistic focus of phenomenology onto the details of social interaction; and transcribing the tape-recordings made it possible for other researchers to examine the empirical findings and to point out new patterns in them. When Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson in 1974 laid out the turn-taking rule as the fundamental process of talk, it became possible to reinterpret it later as the socially ideal form: no gap, no overlap between speakers is talk in maximally attuned rhythm, and it exemplifies high solidarity in that little temporary group. Violating the no gap rule gives embarrassing pauses, micro-indications of what Goffman called alienation from interaction. Violating the no-overlap rule is people trying to talk over each other; this is the most characteristic form of incipient conflict and struggle for dominance, as became clearer in micro-studies of violence. By reinterpreting the data I assimilated the empirical findings of conversation analysis to a Durkheim-Goffman synthesis eventually called interaction ritual chains. I can’t say my ethnomethodological acquaintances were happy with this Gestalt shift; but theoretical reinterpretation of good evidence is how research fields build new knowledge.

Feedback between innovation in research methods and theoretical concepts has driven the advance of micro-sociology. New research techniques spin off from each other. By the 1990s came portable video recorders, followed by even more ubiquitous mobile phone cameras and CCTV. Knowing what to look for theoretically makes photos key evidence, because we can read photos in tandem with new understanding of the emotions in facial expressions, body postures and rhythms (research by Paul Ekman and others). We are seeing what causes what in the micro-dynamics of situations, both conflict and domination, alienation and solidarity. The deepening spiral between research technology and theory also improves traditional methods of observation and interviewing; it sharpens our ethnographic eye as to what to look for and what kinds of detail to probe for in our questions. Today’s ethnographer can say, I am a camera, echoing Christopher Isherwood describing Berlin in the 1930s.

Goffman exemplifies how traditional methods of participant observation yielded theoretical results that assimilate other strands. In the 1950s Goffman deserted Freud for Durkheim, reinvigorating the social anthropology that he learned from his British Commonwealth teachers. Like Lloyd Warner and Mary Douglas, he brought ritual home from the colonies and applied it to our own natives, ourselves. Durkheim’s theory of religious and political rituals takes us beyond the cognitive emphasis of both symbolic interaction and phenomenology; it gives us a mechanism that generates solidarity, morality and cognition simultaneously by pumping up symbols with shared emotion. Although the macro-sociological version of Durkheimian theory was functionalist equilibrium, Durkheim down-sized to the interacting group becomes dynamic. It makes a great addition to the study of historical and even revolutionary changes when religions, regimes, and manners are delegitimated and replaced by more engrossing ones. The ingredients that produce successful rituals are variable; when assembly, mutual focus, shared emotion and rhythmic synchronization are absent or disrupted, sacred objects are desacralized, cultural beliefs fade, and moralities become outdated. Far from being a idealization of perpetual solidarity, neo-Durkheimian micro-sociology is a tool for dissecting social change and conflict. When Lloyd Warner shifted from Australian clans to American cities, he found more than one tribe: social classes, stacked up like a totem pole. What Marx and Engels called the means of mental production and Gramsci called hegemony is determined by the micro-sociology of interaction rituals; but we don’t have to wait for macro crises in the system to bring changes, since the ingredients for stability and change are here at the micro level.

Followers of Goffman, Blumer and Garfinkel have proliferated in the last 40 years, producing many strands of micro-sociological research. I will single out a few areas of recent discovery. As a link between mid-20th century and today, consider some theoretical developments in the sociology of emotions.

There is the pioneering work by Theodore Kemper; by Tom Scheff on the shame-rage cycle; and by Norbert Wiley, whose 1994 book The Semiotic Self is probably the greatest contribution to symbolic interactionist theory since Mead. Here I will concentrate on a particular pathway.

Arlie Hochschild’sethnography of flight attendants uncovered emotion work, Goffmanian efforts to control the emotional frontstage of the situation, as part of the job. This led to a large body of research on workers’ emotional presentations. Perhaps Jack Katz’s title,  How Emotions Work, is a riff on “emotion work”,  while he shifts to radically situational methods, visual and auditory recordings, and a more embodied theorization. Katz dissects the major emotions by examining in micro-detail interactional situations where they happen. Laughter, the happy solidarity emotion par excellence, he finds in the fun house of mirrors. But seeing the distorting image of one’s body in the mirror is not enough to produce laughter; instead the child runs to bring father or mother; they all focus together on the image, and then they laugh. The emotion is spontaneous and bodily self-entraining in the physical rhythms of laughter, but it is body-to-body entrainment channeled by a sharpened mutual focus of attention. The physiological process is social physiology, and it works from the outside in. Katz starts from phenomenology but what he finds is deeply social and embodied.

And emotions are moments in a sequence through time. Road rage comes from disrupted rhythms and frustration over the lack of communication channels with the other driver, other than using the car itself to make embodied gestures like cutting the other car off. Time-dynamics are also crucial for the various kinds of crying that Katz records, such as resistance by a small child to her pre-school teacher, producing a rising-and-falling whine along with each exercise she is being forced to do, while retreating into the fortress of resonance inside her own whining body. Whining is truly a weapon of the weak, and in a child-centered age, sometimes a local source of power. This is a long way from Freud, but deepening what he was trying to do.

Another important theorization of emotions comes from Jonathan Turner, by reconceptualizing evidence of human evolution. Humans diverged from other primates, not at first by larger brains but by increased neural wiring between emotional and cognitive centers. Humans thus have a much more differentiated range of emotions they can express and recognize in others, in face, voice, and gesture. This enables more flexible kinds of solidarity and social coordination; it enables religious and other rituals, marking both group membership and moral obligation, and boundaries to outsiders; and it enables ways of manufacturing new memberships. The Durkheimian mechanism was there at the origins of human society. The entwining of emotion, cognition and their embodied communication are what made possible speech and memory codified into symbols, which is to say culture as well as personal habitus. What one thinks comes from the symbols and gestures that spring most spontaneously to one’s consciousness, because those have been marked by strong emotions, positive or negative, deriving from the most successful interaction rituals, or from the searing memories of dramatically broken rituals.

In recent years neuro-physiological research has caught up with the Durkheimian point, recognizing that strong memories are emotionally marked; the rational emotionless calculator assumed by many non-sociologists as the epitome of human behavior does not fit everyday cognition. It is nice to have some legitimacy conferred by the so-called hard sciences. But micro-sociology still leads the way, since mirror neurons do not work automatically across all situations; the human brain is programmed from the outside in, by the success or failure of social interactions to generate emotions focused on shared experiences in the chains of everyday life.

Interaction ritual theory has been applied in the sociology of religion, not surprisingly since this is where Durkheim originated it. But there are many different kinds of religions in today’s religious marketplace. Scott Draper, using survey methods but asking the right questions about religious practice, shows how churches generate different amounts and kinds of spiritual experience by different mixes ofingredients. Sociology of prayer examines the micro-details of what is said, done, and experienced. Michal Pagis’s research on group meditation shows that even in a retreat where persons are not supposed to talk or even communicate by gestures, nevertheless they orient bodily to each other and follow the lead of more experienced meditators in falling into a harmonious rhythm. That this rhythm is shared comes out by the contrast to meditating at home alone; individuals find it much more difficult to maintain concentration, and feel a need to return to the silent meditation group to keep up their spiritual experience.

I will add a parallel that is perhaps surprising. Those who know Loic Wacquant would not expect to find silent harmony. Nevertheless, Wacquant’s study of a boxing gym finds a similar pattern: there is little that boxers do in the gym that they could not do at home alone, except sparring; but in the gym they perform exercises like skipping, hitting the bags, strengthening stomach muscles, all in 3-minute segments to the ring of the bell that governs rounds in the ring. When everyone in the gym is in the same rhythm, they are animated by a collective feeling; they become boxers dedicated to their craft, not so much through minds but as an embodied project. Although Wacquant does not conceptualize this in Durkheimian terms, nevertheless his research contributes via the theoretical reframing of good data.

Now some applications of micro-sociological methods and theory to mainstream sociological topics: especially our concern with stratification, inequality, power, conflict and resistance.

I began to study violence when I realized that conflict theory in the Weberian sense had very little action in it, but was comparative statics. Micro-methods brought new discoveries. Originally our data were police statistics, bureaucratic artifacts remote from the scene of action. Closer data came from interviewers armed with symbolic interactionism, talking to prisoners or doing gang ethnographies. A different slant emerges when we look directly at violent confrontations. The first inkling came in World War II, when S.L.A. Marshall interviewed combat soldiers immediately after battle, and found only a small proportion actually fired their weapons at the enemy. Later the Army psychologist Dave Grossman found evidence they are held back not by fear of being hurt (since persons in some situations ignore very high danger, including medics, and officers who are not using weapons); they are inhibited by a deep-seated fear of killing someone. This sounds paradoxical but I have connected it with several wide-spread patterns.

A large proportion of violent confrontations of all kinds-- street fights, riots, etc.-- quickly abort; and most persons in those situationsact like Marshall’s soldiers-- they let a small minority of the group do all the violence. Now that we have photos and videos of violent situations, we see that at the moment of action the expression on the faces of the most violent participants is fear.  Our folk belief is that anger is the emotion of violence, but anger appears mostly before any violence happens, and in controlled situations where individuals bluster at a distant enemy. I have called this confrontational tension/fear; it is the confrontation itself that generates the tension, more than fear of what will happen to oneself. Confrontational tension is debilitating; phenomenologically we know (mainly from police debriefings after shootings) that it produces perceptual distortions; physiologically it generates racing heart beat, an adrenaline rush which at high levels results in loss of bodily control.

This explains another, as yet little recognized pattern: when violence actually happens, it is usually incompetent. Most of the times people fire a gun at ahuman target, they miss; their shots go wide, they hit the wrong person, sometimes a bystander, sometimes friendly fire on their own side. This is a product of the situation, the confrontation.  We know this because the accuracy of soldiers and police on firing ranges is much higher than when firing at a human target. We can pin this down further; inhibition in live firing declines with greater distance; artillery troops are more reliable than infantry with small arms, so are fighter and bomber crews and navy crews; it is not the statistical chances of being killed or injured by the enemy that makes close-range fighters incompetent. At the other end of the spectrum, very close face-to-face confrontation makes firing even more inaccurate; shootings at a distance of less than 2 meters are extremely inaccurate. Is this paradoxical?  It is facing the other person at a normal distance for social interaction that is so difficult. Seeing the other person’s face, and being seen by him or her seeing your seeing, is what creates the most tension. Snipers with telescopic lenses can be extremely accurate, even when they see their target’s face; what they do not see is the target looking back; there is no mutual attention, no intersubjectivity. Mafia hit men strike unexpectedly and preferably from behind, relying on deception and normal appearances so that there is no face confrontation. This is also why executioners used to wear hoods; and why persons wearing face masks commit more violence than those with bare faces.

NOTE THE POLICY IMPLICATION:  The fashion in recent years among elite police units to wear balaclava-style face masks during their raids should be eliminated. It operates as a status marker for such units, and in some countries as a deliberate effort to intimidate people; but in democracies like the United States it ought to be recognized by police authorities that wearing masks increases the likelihood of out-of-control violence by these forces.

Confrontational tension/fear is a corollary to interaction ritual theory. Mutual focus of attention-- awareness of each other’s awareness-- is an ingredient of high mutual entrainment; normally, with a shared emotion building up, the result is collective effervescence and solidarity.  But conflict is action at cross purposes. Face-to-face confrontation simultaneously invokes our hard-wired propensities to get into a shared rhythm, and contradicts it because one is trying to impose dominance on the other. No wonder face confrontations are so tense. It is not being afraid of being hurt that generates the most tension; nor is it exactly right to say it is fear of hurting the other; it is above all tension specific to tightly focused mutual action at cross purposes. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called in confrontational tension/fear, except that the facial and bodily expressions look like fear.

Face-to-face confrontation is what pumps adrenaline and cortisol, and creates the tension we see on faces and bodies. Asheart beat rises over 140 beats per minute or BPM, fine motor coordination declines, such as aiming a gun; over 170 beats per minute experience becomes a blur; over 200 BPM paralysis can set in. Face confrontations, especially when combined with other sources of tension and arousal such as running, car chases, an angry argument or an emergency call, result in several patterns that we see in violent situations.

NOTE ON POLICY IMPLICATION:  Training of police officers should emphasize explicit awareness of the consequences of very high heartbeat and other bodily signs of extreme tension. The officer who shot an adolescent carrying a toy gun on a playground(Nov. 2014 in Cleveland) had raced to the scene and fired within 2 seconds after jumping from his car, within the acute confrontational distance of less than 3 meters. Better trained officers would be aware of their own body signs and the danger zone for perceptual distortion, and would not attempt to fire until they had a clear view of the situation. Geoffrey Alpert has shown that officers who are better at controlling the escalation of force have a more deliberate and refined sense of timing in the moves of both sides. More attention to such micro-details should train more officers up to this high level of competence.

If both sides get into the zone of high tension and physiological arousal, the fight will abort; if they do fight (given further situational conditions I will come to shortly), the fight will be incompetent. The same pattern is true for other weapons besides guns, such as knives, swords and clubs, and for fist fights. Since these weapons need very close confrontation, their competence in doing damage is generally low, contrary to what one might think from sword-fighting movies, including those with samurai or magical super-heroes.

How does violence sometimes succeed in doing damage? The key is asymmetrical  confrontation tension. One side will win if they can get their victim in the zone of high arousal and high incompetence, while keeping their own arousal down to a zone of greater bodily control. Violence is not so much physical as emotional struggle; whoever achieves emotional domination, can then impose physical domination. That is why most real fights look very nasty; one sides beats up on an opponent at the time they are incapable of resisting. At the extreme, this happens in the big victories of military combat, where the troops on one side become paralyzed in the zone of 200 heartbeats per minute, massacred by victors in the 140 heartbeat range. This kind of asymmetry is especially dangerous, when the dominant side is also in the middle ranges of arousal; at 160 BPM or so, they are acting with only semi-conscious bodily control. Adrenaline is the flight-or-fight hormone; when the opponent signals weakness, shows fear, paralysis, or turns their back, this can turn into what I have called a forward panic, and the French officer Ardant du Picq called “flight to the front.” Here the attackers rush forward towards an unresisting enemy, firing uncontrollably. It has the pattern of hot rush, piling on, and overkill. Most outrageous incidents of police violence against unarmed or unresisting targets are forward panics, now publicized in our era of bullet counts and ubiquitous videos.

Can we predict which pattern will happen? The barrier of confrontational tension can be circumvented if one or more conditions are present:

One is attacking the weak. Successful attackers seek out a weak enemy; sometimes this is someone physically weaker, but situational weakness is far more important.  Armed robbers seek isolated victims and avoideven unarmed groups, and try for surprise, catching their victim off guard, in order to seize the interactional momentum. Attacking weakness also comes fromimbalance of numbers; in photos of riots, almost all the violence happens when clusters of 5 or 6 persons attack an isolated opponent, who is usually knocked to the ground and has their face turned from the attackers. This is more of a social than a physical advantage, because when two or three are attacked, they often succeed in fighting off a much bigger group of attackers; that is, the little group generates enough mutual support so that they are not emotionally dominated.

Another condition, then, is social support from a highly coordinated group of violent actors; an army squad, a SWAT team, a historical phalanx of warriors in close formation: these are drilled to act together, and as long as they focus on their own rhythm, confrontational tension with the enemy is a lesser part of their experience.

Another pathway is where the fight is surrounded by an audience; people who gather to watch, especially in festive crowds looking for entertainment; historical photos of crowds watching duels; and of course the commercial/ sporting version of staged fights. This configuration produces the longest and most competent fights; confrontational tension is lowered because the fighters are concerned for their performance in the eyes of the crowd, while focusing on their opponent has an element of tacit coordination since they are a situational elite jointly performing for the audience. Even the loser in a heroic staged fight gets social support. We could test this by comparing emotional micro-behavior in a boxing match or a baseball game without any spectators.

Finally, there are a set of techniques for carrying out violence without face confrontation. Striking at a distance: the modern military pathway. Becoming immersed in technical details of one’s weapons rather than on the human confrontation. And a currently popular technique: the clandestine attack such as a suicide bombing, which eliminates confrontational tension because it avoids showing any confrontation until the very moment the bomb is exploded. Traditional assassinations, and the modern mafia version, also rely on the cool-headedness that comes from pretending there is no confrontation, hiding in Goffmanian normal appearances until the moment to strike.

All this sounds rather grisly, but nevertheless confrontational theory of violence has an optimistic side. First, there is good news: most threatening confrontations do not result in violence. (This is shown also in Robert Emerson’s new book on quarrels among roommates and neighbours.) We missed this because, until recently, most evidence about violence came from sampling on the dependent variable. There is a deep interactional reason why face-to-face violence is hard, not easy.  Most of the time both sides stay symmetrical. Both get angry and bluster in the same way. These confrontations abort, since they can’t get around the barrier of confrontational tension. Empirically, on our micro-evidence, this zero pathway is the most common. Either the quarrel ends in mutual gestures of contempt; or the fight quickly ends when opponents discover their mutual incompetence. Curtis Jackson-Jacobs’ video analysis shows fist-fighters moving away from each other after missing with a few out-of-rhythm punches. If no emotional domination happens, they soon sense it.

Micro-sociology of violence is much more optimistic than conventional macro-theories of class or racial inequality, or cultures such as masculine hegemony and honor. These long-term factors are hard to change. But immediate situational conditions are always the bottleneck through which macro-conditions must pass if conflict is to turn into violence. Micro-interactional theory points out situational conditionsto avoid. And it offers micro-practices for each of us to deal with threatening situations in your own life. Keep any confrontation emotionally symmetrical; make confrontational tension work for you by maintaining face contact; avoid micro-escalations; let the situation calm down out of boredom, which is what happens when an interaction becomes locked into repetition. In the violent sociology of emotions, boredom is your friend.

A long-standing criticism of ethnomethodology and other micro-sociology has been that it tells us nothing except tedious details that are really determined at the macro level. The sociology of violence shows this is not true; there is crucial causality at the micro level. And we are extending this to other areas.

Anne Nassauer, assembling videos and other evidence from many angles on demonstrations, finds the turning points at which a demo goes violent or stays peaceful. And she shows that these are situational turning points, irrespective of ideologies, avowed intent of demonstrators or policing methods. Stefan Klusemann, using video evidence, shows that ethnic massacres are triggered off in situations of emotional domination and emotional passivity; that is, local conditions, apart from whatever orders are given by remote authorities.  Another pioneering turning-point study is David Sorge’s analysis of the phone recording of a school shooter exchanging shots with the police, who nevertheless is calmed down by an office clerk; she starts out terrified but eventually shifts into an us-together mood that ends in a peaceful surrender. Meredith Rossner shows that restorative justice conferences succeed or fail according to the processes of interaction rituals; and that emotionally successful RJ conferences result in conversion experiences that last for several years, at least. Counter-intuitively, she finds that RJ conferences are especially likely be successful when they concerns not minor offenses but serious violence;  the intensity of the ritual depends on the intensity of emotions it evokes.

Erika Summers-Effler shows the diversity of emotional practices that sustain social movements whose goals are so difficult that they are permanently failing. Cathartic laughter tinged with mysticism emotionally reboots Catholic Workers among the self-destructively poor; harnessing righteous anger keeps an anti-death-penalty group going although its leader gets most of the energy. Interaction Ritual works very widely as a mechanism, but it can use different emotional ingredients; the landscape of emotion-marked group idiocultures (to borrow Gary Alan Fine’s term) remains to be mapped.

High authorities are hard to study with micro methods, since organizational high rank is shielded behind very strong Goffmanian frontstages. David Gibson, however, analyzing audio tapes of Kennedy’s crisis group in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, penetrated the micro-reality of power in a situation in which all the rationally expectable scenarios led toward nuclear war. Neither JFK nor anyone else emerges as a charismatic or even a decisive leader. The group eventually muddled their way through sending signals that postponed a decision to use force, by tacitly ignoring scenarios that were too troubling to deal with. This fits the pattern that conversation analysts call the preference for agreement over disagreement, at whatever cost to rationality and consistency. Stefan Fuchs, in his micro-sociologically informed theory book Against Essentialism, says that organizational authority looks most rational and decisive when communicating to outsiders; the closer one gets to the inside, the more activities look ad hoc. Authority is a performance for the distance; up close, it dissolves into particularistic idiosyncrasies; perhaps a better way to put this is that it becomes the micro-details of situational interaction.

We have a long way to go to generalize these leads into a picture of how high authority really operates. Does it operate the same way in business corporations? The management literature tells us how executives have implemented well thought-out programs; but our information comes chiefly from retrospective interviews that collapse time and omit the situational process itself. Lauren Rivera cracks the veneer of elite Wall Street firms and finds that hiring decisions are made by a sense of emotional resonance between interviewer and interviewee, the solidarity of successful interaction rituals. Our best evidence of the micro details of this process comes from another arena, where Dan McFarland and colleagues analyze recorded data on speed dating, and find that conversational micro-rhythms determine who felt they “clicked” with whom.

Finally, I will mention my most recent book, Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy. Among others, it analyzes how a famous organization-builder like Steve Jobs used anstyle that generated a tremendous amount of emotional energy focused on cutting edge innovation.  Jobs’ interactional style was to evoke extreme emotions, including very negative ones, but unlike authoritarian leaders who bark out critiques and orders and then slam the door behind them, Jobs stayed to argue at great length until the group emotion became transformed into a shared trajectory of action. His insults and obscenities were only the opening move that revved up group emotion; successful IRs transmute the initiating emotions-- whatever they are-- into solidarity, and Jobs kept the group focused throughout the argument until this happened. And it increased everyone's emotional energy; by the end, if it meant staying up 48 hours to fix it, let's get to it.

(Note: The 2015 film Steve Jobs inaccurately portrays how he dealt with his high-tech team, assimilating him to the management cliché of motivating workers by threatening to fire them.)

Such interactional techniques are rare, since they require constantly recycling emotional energy between leader and group; whereas most hierarchic authorities become cut off from those doing the work. Interaction ritual processes suggest a way to make network analysis more dynamic rather than comparative statics; for instance we observe Jobs’ techniques for recruiting the most desirable people and thereby building a productive network.  More generally, we see how entrepreneurs flourish by playing in ambiguous or dangerous networks, interacting with potential rivals and enemies who can steal key information and key opportunities, or band together temporarily to exploit them jointly. Dangerous networks expand by a timely application of emotional domination, in contrast to inner circles of allies (like Jobs' high-tech work group) which are built by cascades of EE.

I will end this scattered survey with someresearch that falls into the rubric of Weberian status groups, i.e. social rankings by lifestyle.  David Grazian has produced a sequence of books, Blue Chicago and On the Make, that deal with night life. This could be considered a follow-up to Goffman’s analysis of what constitutes “fun in games” as well as “where the action is.” For Grazian, night-life is a performance of one’s “nocturnal self,” characterized by role-distance from one’s mundane day-time identity. By a combination of his own interviewing behind the scenes and collective ethnographies of students describing their evening on the town, from pre-party preparation to post-party story-telling, Grazian shows how the boys and the girls, acting as separate teams, play at sexual flirtation which for the most part is vastly over-hyped in its real results. It is the buzz of collective effervescence that some of these teams generate that is the real attraction of night life. And this may be an appropriate place to wind up. Freud, perhaps the original micro-sociologist, theorized that sexual drive is the underlying mover behind the scenes. Grazian, looking at how those scenes are enacted, finds libido as socially constructed performance. As is almost everything else.

In conclusion.  Will interaction ritual, or for that matter micro-sociology as we know it, become outdated in the high-tech future?  This isn’t futuristic any more, since we have been living in the era of widely dispersed information technology for at least 30 years, and we are used to its pace and direction of change. A key point for interaction ritual is that bodily co-presence is one of itsingredients. Is face contact needed? Rich Ling analyzed the everyday use of mobile phones and found that the same persons who spoke by phone a lot also met personally a lot. Cell phones do not substitute for bodily co-presence, but facilitate it. Among the most frequent back-and-forth, reciprocated connections are people coordinating where they are.  Ling concluded that solidarity rituals were possible over the phone, but that they were weaker than face-to-face rituals; one was a teaser for the other.

There is a theoretical reason why full-body co-presence makes for more successful IRs. Full-body presence is multi-channel; it is much easier to catch the other’s emotions, gestures, body posture and rhythm than from voice alone, or even voice-plus-image of the sort that Skype provides.  Bodily co-presence is an important ingredient not in itself, but because it enhances mutual focus-- meta-awareness that the other is focused on what you are focused on; or for that matter, that you are not so fully focused; alienation from interaction is also easier to detect face to face. Full channel bodily co-presence also enhances the other main ingredients of an IR, building a shared emotional mood to a high intensity via a continuous feedback loop; for instance that is why people laugh more when there are more people present.  We could test this by measuring the intensity of laughter among remote users reading on-screen emoticons or expressions like LOL, compared to laughter during physical presence. And bodily co-presence helps build rhythmic coordination; not to say there are no rhythms in exchanging text messages etc, but those rhythms are almost certainly not as fine-tuned as those found in voice recordings of persons who are clicking with each other.

Also there is touching another person, something that can only be done when bodily present. Such expressions of affectionate or sexual contact are generally reserved for a few relationships (although there are formal versions like handshakes, air-kisses and forearm bumps enacting more limited bits of solidarity). Conceivably future electronic devices might wire up each other’s genitals, but what happens would likely depend on the micro-sociological theory of sex (chapter 6 in Interaction Ritual Chains): the strongest sexual attraction is not pleasure in one’s genitals per se, but getting the other person’s body to respond in mutually entraining erotic rhythms: getting turned on by getting the other person turned on. If you don’t believe me, try theorizing the attractions of performing oral sex. This is an historically increasing practice, and one of the things that drives the solidarity of homosexual movements. Gay movements are built around effervescent scenes, not around social media.

Voice conversations require co-presence in time if not in space, whereas this limitation does not hold for other electronic media, allowing them to reach far larger networks. It still appears that the greatest amount of back-and-forth messages happen among a relatively small proportion of social media “friends” who also meet physically. Big media-only networks numbering in the hundreds or more-- other than for celebrities who use them essentially as broadcast media-- are built either by assembling old schoolmate networks, or among professionals in a specialty. Yet the one type of professional network I have studied, philosophers and other intellectuals, has the pattern that those who have the most network connections to eminent persons, themselves are more likely to become eminent; and these connections involve a crucial period of face contact. In other words, having a far-flung network does not do very much good for one’s intellectual career unless you meet these people personally.  Meeting to do what?  To carry out intense intellectual IRs, getting the emotional emphasis that comes from being at the forefront of research and argument. In the absence of systematic research it is dangerous to extrapolate from one type of arena to another; but my impression is that although top financiers and business executives have very large social networks-- they had these already in the era before the social media-- their crucial deal-making happens by face meetings. Emotional domination and persuasion happen most subtly and effectively in full-body presence. It seems likely that persons who rely exclusively on distant electronic networks are stratifying themselves into a lower tier beneath the elite.

Of course the media of communication change; but the stratified patterns of intellectual networks have remained across a very long history of media inventions, including writing, book publishing, printing, letters delivered by postal service, newspapers and journals, and the first electronic media, the telegraph and telephone. In recent years I get communications from distant scholars by email; but those in areas of strong mutual interest soon travel to discuss things personally; and these personal contacts are what accelerate the process of creative research.

It would be foolish to postulate that electronic or other media technologies will never be invented that mimic the key aspects of bodily IRs:  that is to say, that can enhance sense of mutual attention, strengthen shared emotions, and get people electronically entrained in interpersonal rhythms. Given the existence of micro-sociological understanding, it is more than likely that media technologists will try to mimic real-life IRs. Crude advances in social Artificial Intelligence are already pointing the way, as are efforts at virtual reality. It may become possible to electronically stimulate the emotional and rhythmic parts of the brain; the result might well be a high-tech version of heroin addiction. But I doubt that the real social interactional world will go away; people who become electronic junkies will be dominated by people who use a wide spectrum of successful IRs, and at the core of those networks will be real people who meet bodily.

I am not a fan of science fiction, which always struck me as mostly recycling mythologies of the pre-modern past. In this talk I have been tracing the history of micro-sociology over the past half-century or so, and we can see the direction things are going. Micro-sociology grew up with a sequence of inventions that might be called information technologies: tape recorders, videos, photos of facial expressions of emotions, long-distance photography, computer-stored messages, and now portable monitors of physiological body signs being used in sports training and the military. Better to call these micro-interactional technologies, or micro-interactional recording technologies, because they give us new kinds of data we can pore over in detail and thereby discover new patterns.

Thus, two projections for the immediate future of micro-sociology, let us say the next two decades, by which time I will probably be dead. First, micro-sociology is going to get even better data, and the key things we will learn will be about mechanisms of mutual awareness, the causes and consequences of a variety of shared emotions, and the patterns of rhythmic entrainment that together determine levels of solidarity and emotional energy. What Durkheim and Goffman formulated are among the most important discoveries of sociology; they will be modified but they will not go away.

Second, micro-sociological technologies are going to spin off new combinations and advances from themselves, in the usual cascade of technological innovation.  But technologies develop in tandem with theories, and the theory that knows the most about how humans do interaction is micro-sociology.  We are going to be part of that technological cascade, whether we like it or not.

As we said in the 1960s, it’s been quite a trip. And it's not over yet.

 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
 Micro-sociological secrets of charismatic leaders from Jesus to Steve Jobs
E-book now available at and Amazon

“Collins has channeled his deep knowledge of human violence and the intricacies of combat into a taut and compelling what if fantasy that takes the cultural fissures of our nation to full scale rupture."
– Alice Goffman, author of On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

CIVIL WAR TWO Available now at Amazon




Alpert, Geoffrey P., and Roger G. Dunham. 2004. Understanding Police Use of Force.  Cambridge Univ. Press.

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