The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Monday, August 28, 2017


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 At the low end of the continuum, individuals are depressed, withdrawn, and passive.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 is  to 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 a  rescue 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 not  inevitably 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.


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.

Friday, July 7, 2017


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 were  explaining 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 on  a 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 that  American 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.


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.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


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 forMicro-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.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


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.


Ekman, Paul. 1992. Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. NY: Norton.

Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen, 1984.  Unmasking the Face. Prentice-Hall.

"Mona Lisa Is No Mystery for Micro-Sociology"

Trump election night photos online: