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Interactive Ritual Theory

Interactive Ritual Chain Theory (IRC) is a perspective focusing on the interactions and the emotional input and feedback of individuals within those interactions.  Drawing on the work of Durkheim ([1912] 1995) and Erving Goffman (1959, 1967), the theory is formally posited by Randall Collins (1993, 2004; see his 2010 essay on micro-sociological approaches to religion).  IRC asserts that interactions produce or deplete the “emotional energy” of participants depending on key factors.  These factors include the physical co-presence of interactants, exclusivity of the group, a mutual focus and mood, and bodily synchronization.  Given its situational emphasis, IRC is difficult to measure quantitatively, but it is insightful for qualitative research, especially in areas such as worship rituals.  Importantly, IRC theory also situates religious actors in social space and outlines the linkages between ritual, affect, and belief.


Baker, Joseph O.  2010.  “Social Sources of the Spirit.”  Sociology of Religion 71(4):432-456.

Collins, Randall.  1993.  “Emotional Energy as the Common Denominator of Rational Choice.”  Rationality and Society 5(2):203-230.

Collins, Randall.  2004.  Interaction Ritual Chains.  Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1912] 1995.  The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  Translated by Karen Fields.  New York, NY: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving.  1959.  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  New York, NY: Anchor.

Goffman, Erving.  1967.  Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviors.    New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Heider, Anne and R. Stephen Warner.  2010.  “Bodies in Sync: Interaction Ritual Theory Applied to Sacred Harp Singing.”  Sociology of Religion 71(1):76-97.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
Pentecostalism refers to a religious movement started in the United States in the early 20th century, with a pivotal event taking place during the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.  Since then, the movement has spread rapidly and globally, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.  Although Pentecostal groups cross racial and ethnic boundaries, they are typically more popular among individuals of lower socioeconomic status.  There is a heavy emphasis placed on the "holy spirit" in the form of intensely emotive worship, religious experiences, and speaking in tongues.  Worship services are characterized by an informal and extemporaneous style.  Although there are some larger Pentecostal denominations such as Assemblies of God, but the movement is also characterized by independent, non-hierarchical congregations. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
A religious movement that emphasizes spiritual gifts and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Charismatic movements are similar to Pentecostalism, but can occur among religious traditions outside of conservative Protestantism, such as Catholicism.
The type and amount of religious actions an individual exhibits. Closely tied to the concept of religiosity, religious behavior focuses upon what individuals are doing in relation to religion specifically. The most commonly used measure of religious behavior is church or worship service attendance. Research shows that the act of attending alone exerts a powerful influence on individuals. Private forms of practice such as frequency of prayer or the reading of sacred scriptures are also important considerations.  Other forms of religious behavior that can be operationalized are contributions toward, and participation in religious activities or entities outside of worship. Self-reported religious experience can also be used as a measure of religious behavior. This measure is less well-known and as such, utilized less in research. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
This refers to one's level of religious commitment. It is most commonly measured through self-report of various practices. Frequency of attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer, and reading sacred texts are all potential indicators of religiosity.  However, beliefs such as Biblical literalism can also be used as indicators of religiosity, but they are limited in their general application due to a tradition-specific relevance.  It is also worth noting that religious groups vary in the frequency with which they require certain types of practice.  Other potential measures, such as how much money a person gives to their place of worship, are occasionally used. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:

View related items in Measurement Wizard Scales:

Used generally, this concept refers to all of the experiential aspects of religion.  More commonly, however, it refers to the claiming of intense experiences perceived as religious, i.e. attributed to religious sources.  Overall, religious experiences are defined by those claiming them; if they define their experience as religious in nature, researchers must rely on these reports.  However, there is some latitude in the types of experiences that researchers choose to focus on. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
Strict and frequent performance of the public rites of religious observance, even in the absence of fervent belief.  This would be measured by combining high scores on religious behavior with relatively low scores on belief.
Ritual is one of the key concepts in the sociology of religion.  Emile Durkheim (1965) posited a relationship between ritual behavior and the adherence to social order, putting collective veneration of the sacred at the heart of his theory of social solidarity.   Ritual, organized around sacred objects as its focal point and organized into cultic practice, was for Durkheim the fundamental source of the “collective conscience” that provides individuals with meaning and binds them into a community.  Participation in rites integrates the individual into a social order both in one’s “day-to-day relationships of life” and in those celebrations of the collective “which bind [one] to the social entity as a whole.”  Veneration of an object held to be sacred by a community is a powerful affirmation of collective conscience and a call to obey communally defined morality. Durkheim argued that every religious group had three features: a system of beliefs that express the sacred and define the sacred and profane; a moral community (or “cult”), such as a clan, tribe, sect, synagogue, masjid, church, etc. that develops in concert with these beliefs and enforces the norms and rules of the believing society; and a set of collective behaviors, rituals.  Rituals provide a focal point for emotional processes and generate symbols of group membership. They help people to experience a shared sense of exaltation and group transcendence.  This feeling, which is only experienced through ritual veneration, is collective effervescence. The unique condition of ritual participation is that people systematically misunderstand the emotional energy they experience in the ritual process as having a supernatural origin.  This misunderstanding thus confirms their religious beliefs and the exhilaration they experience leads them to return to their community to re-experience it through sacred rites. Durkheim’s theory implies that (a) any object could become socially defined as sacred and (b) repeated veneration of sacred objects creates stable social relations.  His theory of rituals provides a powerful social mechanism that reinforces group coherence and produces social solidarity, but he does not explain how social groups originate or how they change, dissolve, fracture, and so on.  Innovations in social life – including the formation of new solidary groups – seem to occur only because of exogenous events, since, in Durkheim’s sense, rituals are merely forces for reproduction.  From a functionalist perspective, social and cultural innovations, however rare, are quickly normalized and institutionalized through ritual practices. Stark and Finke (2000) jettison the functionalism of Durkheim and focus exclusively on religious rituals, rather than all repeated social interactions, arguing that confidence in religious explanations increases with ritual participation.  Rituals generally follow customs or traditions, but they are deliberate ceremonies in which the object is exchanged with a god or gods and the outcome is reinforcement of the “central ideas and ideals of the group.”  Rituals are thus intentional features of religious life and can shift with alterations in either the demand or the supply of religious goods. Rational-choice accounts argue that rituals are ubiquitous features of social life because they provide the common focal points and common cultural knowledge that provide actors with information about how others will act.  This makes mutual assurance possible and helps actors solve the coordination problems that usually bedevil and obstruct effective collective action.  Armed with common knowledge, actors can more credibly make commitments to one another and mutually orient their actions to one another, often without the need for organization (Chwe 2001).   Cultural practices – such as rituals – that facilitate coordination develop and persist because they are, ultimately, efficient and enhance the productivity of social action.  Not surprisingly, rituals are foundational to voluntary collective action, as is especially evident in religious groups. According to Durkheim, “[A religious group] is not a simple group of ritual precautions which a man is held to take in certain circumstances; it is a system of diverse rites, festivals, and ceremonies which all have the characteristic that they reappear periodically. They fulfill the need which the believer feels of strengthening and affirming, at regular intervals of time, the bond which unites him to the sacred beings upon which he depends.”  Rituals often venerate heroic forebears and bringers of salvation. “The hero is the symbol of a given society, the society’s progenitor in many cases and a sort of ideal summing up in one mythic individual of the chief characteristics of the various empirical members of the group” (Maus, Hubert, and Hertz 2009).  Neo-Durkheimians contend that ritual participation tends to “open up the space for community or for collective identity in its most elementary form” and link present to past in rituals understood as “iterations of events” going forward into history (Giessen 2006).  The cult helps to constitute moral boundaries, exclude strangers, provide access to goods and privileges, and define a sacred citizenship that operates across social distinctions status (Maus, Hubert, and Hertz 2009).  Yet this need not imply that integration occurs without conflict, as struggles frequently occur among the adherents of the cult for their position in it, their rival interpretations of the core beliefs and myths, and its relevance and importance to the challenges they face. Neo-Durkheimian theorists of the ritual process insist that the theory of rituals must endogenize change (e.g., through the study of failed rituals and creation of new sacred objects) and specify circumstances under which rituals fail to produce collective emotions or the focus of rituals gets redirected to a new object. Randall Collins has proposed a bold theoretical synthesis that builds upon Durkheim’s theory of moral integration through ritual and Goffman’s situational analysis.  In Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), Collins contends that rituals are powerful because they instigate social interaction based on bodily co-presence and mutual emotional attunement.  When engaged in rituals, individuals feel solidarity with one another and imagine themselves to be members of a common undertaking; they become infused with emotional energy and exhilaration; they establish and reinforce collective symbols, moral representations of the group that ought to be defended and reinforced; and they react angrily to insults toward or the profanation of these symbols.  Yet this is not a functional account of social order; drawing on Goffman, Collins shows how actors are obliged to perform in chains of ritual encounters which they can attempt to manipulate but which may also fail to produce emotional energy and attachment. In analyzing a diverse range of social behaviors from the veneration of the 9-11 “ground zero” site, to the enactment of social status differences, to drug consumption, to sexual intercourse, Collins observes similar features of common emotional entrainment, the production of symbolic focal objects that become invested with the emotional energy of ritual participants, and the continuation or transformation of social relations as rituals either link performances into chains of interaction into the future or produce dissonant emotions that lead social relations to decay. Ritual participation does not always perpetuate social order.  For instance, growing self-consciousness is deadly to ritual participation and its fundamentally spontaneous, emotional character (Giessen 2006).   Collins observes that formal rituals sometimes fail, or decay over time, such that they produce “little or no feeling of group solidarity; no sense of one’s identity affirmed or changed; no respect for the group’s symbols; no heightened emotional energy”.  The decay of rituals provokes a sense of stale ceremonialism, inappropriateness, or even “strong abhorrence.”  When rituals feel imposed, rather than spontaneously joined, they usually provoke resentment and disgust.  The rejection of imposed rituals and the destruction of symbols associated with them seem to be typical elements in the collapse of social orders, a violent reaction to “a kind of formality that one wishes never to go through again.” Ritual remains one of the most important concepts not just in the sociology of religion but in sociology more broadly.   Varying theoretical formulations focus on solidarity and integration, on the confidence in beliefs, and the generation of common knowledge that facilitates collective action.  Each is the foundation of a contemporary research program in the sociology of religion. References: Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press. Chwe, M. 2001. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. Durkheim, Emile. [1915] 1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by J. W. Swain. New York: The Free Press. Giesen, Bernhard. 2006. “Performing the Sacred: A Durkheimian Perspective on the Performative Turn in the Social Sciences.” Pp. 325-367 in Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual, edited by J. Alexander, B. Giesen, and J. Mast.  New York: Cambridge University Press. Mauss, Marcel, Henri Hubert, and Robert Hertz. Saints, Heroes, Myths, and Rites: Classsical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society. Translated and edited by A. Riley, S. Dynes, and C. Isnach. Boulder: Paradigm. Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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