The 2011 Rosenberg Lecture: An Interview with Randall Collins by Sarah Wananchak

Dr. Randall Collins has made a career within the big and the small, and in how the two interrelate. With his father in the Foreign Services Department, the young Collins spent a childhood on the move, spending time in post-WWII Germany and Russia, among other places. In an interview given in 2000, he credits his interest in both Goffmanian social interaction and geopolitics to exposure to freshly war-torn Europe, while he lays his interest in social class at the door of his time in a New England boarding school. His interest in micro-level work, he says, comes from much of his early exposure to sociological scholarship itself. It is at the intersection of these two–the micro and the macro–that he has found something of an intellectual home, and in his work he has made great strides both in approaching them separately and bringing them together.

Since those formative days, Dr. Collins has built a career of which any scholar would be proud. He has worked and studied at a wide range of universities and institutions around the world, and is now the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he has served on the editorial board of almost every major sociology journal and has chaired several ASA sections, in addition to his current position as the 102nd president of the ASA. He has received several honorary doctorates and many awards, including the ASA’s Distinguished Scholarship award. Recently

To mark his delivery of our annual Rosenberg Lecture, Dr. Collins agreed to talk briefly via email.

When asked where he thought the future of sociology lies right now, he responded thusly:

Several things that I think are cutting edge: New sources of data from visual images– the proliferation of real-life interactional data recorded from cell phone cameras, CCTVs, etc.  We are really entering the age of the image as a tool of research.

Mining the internet for data, especially on networks, has been done for a couple of years now.  I think a next step is to be more critical about what people are posting— try to examine this through Goffman’s eyes, as a new form of frontstage presentation of self.  On the other hand, people are pretty indiscreet about what they post; how is this related to strategic or just plain unconscious inflating of one’s projected image?

Relatedly, what is happening to the concept of “friend”, as people can claim to have hundreds of friends?  The concept has been historically changing over the centuries, in any case: in ancient Rome, “friend” was not somebody you palled around with, but a political ally.  The informal/ backstage ideal of the friend was created pretty recently, probably in the late 1700s at the latest. So more change in “friendship” is not surprising— and hence is the kinds of things that social networks do. We need to work on comparisons across such cases to develop a theory of what causes friendship ties (and network ties in general) to take on different sorts of content.

This is just a sample of what is clearly at the cutting edge; technologies of communication are just the most obvious thing to track in the perspective of larger sociological questions.

Also there are big macro questions about social conflicts coming up on the horizon– the long-term trend to growing economic inequality especially.  What is this going to do to social structure, to politics and social movements, etc.?  Class conflict is going to be the big issue of the next few decades.

When asked about how he views the process of “intellectual maturation”, he said:

Certainly one can observe a big change that happens when students shift from being an undergraduate, to about the second year of graduate school.  It’s professional commitment and therefore internalizing the discourse and the problems of the field, whereas undergraduates seem to be mostly trying to form some kind of gestalt, or just fending off the course requirements.  One of my professors at Stanford, where I was studying psychology 45 years ago, said that when you take your comprehensive exams you will know more about the field than you ever will in your life.  I’m not sure that’s strictly true, since you can go on being on top of at least some portions of your fields, but “intellectual maturation” comes in a rapid burst and pretty early. Most people seem to get imprinted with what direction they take in graduate school.

Parting thoughts:

I was having dinner in a slightly offbeat restaurant with a sociologist who is a great ethnographer, making occasional observations of what was going on at the other tables, and he commented:  “Just think, we even get paid for doing sociology!”  It’s not a job. Sociologists seem to me more in love with their field than just about anybody.

Sarah is a 3rd year graduate student.

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