Randall Collins was recently named the 2011 Rosenberg Lecturer at the University of Maryland, and I recently attended the talk he gave for the honor. I would bargain that most sociologists are aware that Collins is uncommonly prolific, and most are also aware of how widely cited he is. As the Rosenberg lecturer, it was one of those rare instances when it was entirely possible to sincerely introduce him as “a person for whom no introduction is necessary” without being accused of simply repeating a tired cliché. So rather than use this space to dote on him or list his accomplishments, in what follows, I’ll briefly recount his presentation and conclude with a couple thoughts I had about his project.
_In true sociological form, the title of Collins’ presentation left nothing to the imagination: “Informalization of Manners and Self Presentation and How to Explain It.” His argument went something like this: There has been an accelerated shift toward informalization since about the 1980s, and to piece together the driving force behind this process, Collins takes us through an attic shoe box full of still photos, which cross continents, social strata and span the last century. They appear to be his personal photos, not simply pasted into his study from a Google search, and they are clearly taken from a variety of different cameras, using a variety of different film speeds, under a variety of different light conditions.
Collins first examines informalization as it pertains to the garb of protesters throughout the last century, and he explains that even in the militant labor movement around the turn of the 20th century, protesters were dressed in formal attire, or what Charles Tilly referred to as a WUNC display. That is, in contrast to the Occupy Wall Street protesters of recent months, these striking industrial workers represented themselves in formal attire to telegraph their worthiness, unification, large numbers, and commitment. "Why," he asks, "has there been such a dramatic change in the protester's uniform?"
Whatever the answer, it was clear Collins wasn't giving it up yet. Instead, as he talked through the next series of photographs, it became clear that his analysis was drawing from Erving Goffman’s attention to both formal and informal rituals and the face-work these rituals imply. However, I think Collins is endeavoring to make sense of a process for which Goffman’s analytical tools are ill-equipped to provide answers. It is not what is happening in any particular photograph that interests Collins so much as what is behind the general drift toward informalization, which can only be discerned from a sea of photos. To this end, Collins serves up three theories to account for this drift. First, following Norbert Elias, he proposes that informalization is the result of a social democratization. Perhaps social outsiders have begun to increase their political participation, and second order manifestations of this increased participation are cropping up in language, customs, and behaviors. Second, Collins puts forth what he refers to as an antinomian elite theory, which describes the propagation of informalization as due to a shared reaction against a formal elite aesthetic. Here, “cool” prevails among persons determined not to be “square.” Finally, he suggests that there has been an emergence of a different kind of elitism, but one that we might recognize as a “leisure elite,” typified by the athletic fantasy figure. Here the impulse leading to greater informalization is a result of sport and prominent figures in sport becoming something like Durkheimian ritual objects.
Collins’ unassuming presentation style betrays the ambition of his project. To put it bluntly, he is attempting to explain why an image of men wearing hats in a diner during the 1950s should be considered alongside a contemporary image of an erect penis with piercings (oh, yes he did). Unfortunately, that much anticipated moment where all the pieces of Collins’ puzzle fall into place and this otherwise random barrage of still photos reveals something about why our contemporaries consistently eschew formalities never came. In my view—and I think Collins agrees—not one of the theories he proposed at the outset worked very well. Instead, he concluded with the provocative idea that class disparities are better disguised amidst this relatively undifferentiated field of informal garb and behaviors.
So Collins’ proverbial curtain was lifted to reveal an empty stage with only the sound of a whimpering trumpet, but I’m writing this post with a forgiving heart. As I said, Collins’ project is an ambitious one, and after all, I don’t think it was ever really possible for Randy Collins to live up to the reputation of "Dr. Randall Collins, Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania."
I was left with several other concerns about his project, but in closing, I’ll mention just two. First, in addition to social class, I think Collins’ project would benefit from a more sustained analysis of other dimensions of inequality. After talking to others who attended, there is some agreement that he appeared to overlook the way the informalization process may be working differently for women. I would also be interested to know how informalization varies by race.
Finally, Collins’ project is global in scope, and it would be interesting for him to locate this drift toward informalization amidst other global processes. For example, it is tempting to draw connections between a global drift toward informalization and the growing income inequality often remarked upon by those interested in the outcomes of economic globalization. If informalization truly hides income disparities—which is an idea he proposed in his talk—then the fact that both processes began to quicken about 30 years ago seems to be a rather suspicious coincidence and one worth investigating.
Admittedly, I’ve never been very successful at persuading other sociologists to pursue questions that I personally find interesting or important, but one never knows. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the next iteration of Dr. Collins’ analysis of informalization.