Randall Collins, “Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist Attack”, Sociological Theory, 22:1, March 2004, pp. 53 – 87.
Randall Collins is, of course, well-known for his work on social theory and symbolic interactionism. In this article, he focuses on the rituals of solidarity displayed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and their own dynamics as they unfold over time.
“Ritualistic mobilization about solidarity and security generates its own processes of conflict, as persons in particular social locations struggle over control of symbols and access to the center of collective attention; and these produce ancillary conflict and sometimes violence in their own right, in a period I call the hysteria zone.” (53)
Specifically, Collins identifies four periods of group solidarity based on conflict:
Initial shock with individual idiosyncratic reactions (few days after the attack)
Standardized displays of solidarity symbols (one or two weeks)
High solidarity plateau (two to three months)
Gradual decline towards normalcy (six to nine months)
The starting point of the article is the very Durkheimian (and Simmelian) claim that conflict produces solidarity. Solidarity is at its peak right after the attack, when the attacked party goes on the offensive (that would be the offensive on Afghanistan) and the moment of victory (the defeat of the Taliban – however transitory that might have been – along with the installation of the new government).
The same hold for war: high enthusiasm at the beginning that does not last long, followed by more normal levels of patriotic solidarity that might last longer. However, should the war cause high casualties with no victories, then, one can expect it to become unpopular. There are conditions though for the production of high levels of solidarity:
“The key to such a pattern is the dramatic incident, the attention-focusing event: a sudden attack and response to the attack, or a dramatic celebration at the end of the conflict. Solidarity is produced by social interaction within the group, not by the conflict itself as an external event. What creates the solidarity is the sharp rise in ritual intensity of social interaction, as very large numbers of persons focus their attention on the same event, are reminded constantly that other people are focusing their attention by the symbolic signals they give out, and hence are swept up into a collective mood. Individual reactions to violent conflict generally are fear or paralysis; solidarity is not the aggregation of individual emotions about conflict but is an entirely different emotional process.” (55)
I emphasize this because I think it is an important general sociological point: the emergent properties of social facts as more than, and different from, the sum of individual reactions.
The above timeline also corresponds to specific displays of solidarity symbols. In the first period, a few days after the attack, displays of solidarity behavior are mostly private and idiosyncratic as people’s attention is still largely intensely focused on news broadcast and wall-to-wall coverage. Displays are not present in public places. Then follows the second period where there is a progressive build-up of solidarity symbols displays. Then follows the plateau of high solidarity then followed by a return to normalcy (no more freedom fries).
I have to say that I found this part to be the weakest of the article for its lack of broad methodological scope. I am not sure someone other than Randall Collins would have gotten away with a few counts of cars and flags in his city with some extrapolation.
The analysis is much stronger when it comes to examining what Collins calls the social clusterings of solidarity displays:
“The display of symbols is not uniform. Conflict does not generate solidarity simply by creating a psychological current passing through everyone equally. Solidarity is orchestrated in part by rather official processes and in part by more informal and seemingly voluntary actions. Several different processes mesh over time. In the very first period, isolated individuals make idiosyncratic symbolic displays, but these are generally taken as too extreme and are met largely with embarrassment. Then official and quasi-official organizations get into the act. (…) These are front-stage displays in the Goffmanian sense, a statement of what the organizational leaders believe is appropriate to be done.” (61)
The point of this ramping up of more or less formal and rigid displays is to convey a sense of consensus through overwhelming presence of standardized symbols of solidarity. There is also an orchestration of emotions that take place through large-scale, spectacular ceremonials dedicated to the victims. These can take the form of concerts, sports events that build up what Collins calls peak experiences of solidarity. These ceremonies are especially present in the second period and less in the third. Ceremonials may make a comeback at specific anniversaries, but by then, some of the intense emotionality is gone.
Additionally, rituals of solidarity provide a form of what could be called “think national, act local”. Most symbol displays take place within communities or local groups but the symbols displayed tend to be nationalistic in nature (flags). Actually, community embeddedness plays a big part in the density of solidarity displays. For instance, Collins notes that patriotic displays were more prominent on pick-up trucks and commercial vans. This is not explained by lower class workers being more obviously patriotic because displays were more prominent in upper-middle class neighborhood:
“An alternative explanation is that pick-up trucks are operated by owners of small business, as are many commercial vans. These are the kinds of businesses that are the most dependent upon a local network of personal acquaintances; thus, it is both to their commercial advantage to show their emblems of conventional solidarity (good for business) and also the display of symbols is facilitated by their group solidarity, just as it it among neighbors wll known to each other.” (62-3)
And just as prominent displays of solidarity symbols were prominent within social clusters (cities, upper-middle class communities, pick-up trucks, etc), lack of symbols were also socially clustered: places where there is opposition to national solidarity, or dispersed communities where displays would not be seen or where solidarity is low. However, again, displays are somewhat standardized and those who deviate from the local norms, for instance, those Collins calls the “Superpatriots” who go over the top do not get much support for their extreme displays.
The solidarity rituals show the contemporary relevance of Durkheim’s analysis of early religious forms in building up solidarity.
“The most intense expressions of solidarity are the most ephemeral. These occur at gatherings where crowds are assembled, sharing a contagion of emotion from body to body, with mutual awareness of focus of attention that makes the feeling of belonging to the group palpable and sometimes overpowering. (…) Thes rituals illustrate the Durkheimian theory in a very strong sense: the ingredients of group assembly, emotional contagion, and mutual focus generate respect for symbolic objects and solidarity within the larger group.” (67)
This is why it is socially necessary to reactivate such feelings at regular intervals over the years, through various commemorative ceremonies. These ceremonies generally involve large audience that provide emotional resonance and amplification. Early into the second and third phase, political actors proclaim their putting aside of partisan fights in favor of national solidarity. Usually opposing teams show their united solidarity by opening games with specific emotional rituals. Normal social reality is thereby partly suspended for a while.
Solidarity is also reinforced through the construction of symbolic figure: the fallen firefighter, in the case of 9/11. This symbolic figure of courage, selflessness and sacrifice serves as what Collins calls symbolic simplification and concentration. It becomes a symbol of the national consciousness.
According to Collins, another function of such ceremonials is to revive the sense of hysteria that was present in the early phases after the attack. As “fateful” anniversary dates approach, security threat levels are upped, security becomes tighter, false alarms are more likely as tensions are heightened.
The flip side of solidarity is the promotion of ethnocentrism and conflict. Therefore, solidarity rituals may involve conflicts as well. Contention can emerge from different sources and contexts:
- The ritual itself becomes an object of contention as to who are the legitimate “owners” of the symbols. Internal conflict may also emerge from social pressure to maintain symbolic displays in a standard form.
- Conflict may also emerge as to who has access to the ritual center. Who are the legitimate “sacred” figures? Who can make claims to access to Ground Zero?
- Conflict may also emerge on the definition of who is a victim. How close does one have to be to a dead victim of the attack to claim symbolic association (which might lead to very material financial compensation).
Such potential for conflict is also heightened by the operation of security procedures that are symbolic in nature: to make a show of security rather than effectively “do” security. For Collins, these security rituals are also part of front-stage reality for the performance of emotional reassurance, which is why they were not initially questioned.
“The security procedures were a form of ritualistic participation in which all members of the crowd took part. Being physically touched by security guards checking bags and coats was a form of symbolic contagion, making people part of the authoritative social collective. It also made entry into a stadium a feeling of passing a barrier into a realm of exclusivity – heightened participation in a Durkheimian sacred space. It temporarily gave people the sense of moving into a zone of importance “where the action is.” The security rituals evoked a sense of danger as much as they calmed it; it was this reminder and evocation of collectively shared danger that made the combination of rituals effective on these occasions.” (75)
But after a while, these security rituals do get questioned from two sources: pragmatists who focus on the ritualistic and impractical nature of the procedures and who might demand their relaxation. This open the field for what Collins calls the security zealots who thrive on keep the hysteria alive by maintaining these procedures, if not upping them further. These are also called hysteria leaders.
Hysteria leaders work to maintain the hysteria zone, defined as the rush of mobilization that takes place during the three-month plateau.
“It is the apex of Durkheimian collective consciousness, the most widely shared feelings of emotion and most intensely focused attention. The solidarity plateau is the hysteria zone for two reasons. The emotions that most powerfully draw people into a society-wide peak of focused attention are the emotions of conflict – especially fear and its transformation into righteous anger. (…) A second reason is that any dissipation from focusing attention on the public emergency gives rise to hysterical reactions (i.e., individuals manifesting the full sense of fear that defines the emergency, combined with righteous aggression). They are in effect Durkheimian agents of social control, punishing those who let down the intensity of the ritual.” (77)
The hysteria zone is where one finds hoaxes, ancillary attacks (the anthrax scare) and dramatic actions by hysteria exploiters. However, the hysteria zone is too intense to last and as the plateau phase ends, so it does.
As Collins concludes,
“An extremely high level of collective solidarity is also collective hysteria: what people do during that period is not judged by themselves as falling into normal standards of behavior; they are both more heroic, more altruistic, and more fearful and vicious than at other times.” (86)
And again, most importantly, these dynamics of solidarity are sustained by social rituals and not produced by individual psychological processes multiplied by the numbers in a crowd. They are forms of collective behavior with their own timing and unfolding based on specific social clustering.