I began "theory camp" today with a group of students, working our way through Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. The heart of the book is a sociological analysis of all the great schools of philosophy, east and west, as social networks. Before he gets to the philosophers, though, Collins outlines the "skeleton of theory." He argues that in any social network, people get emotional energy from exchanging, developing, and arguing over cultural capital in great chains of interaction rituals. In his terms, we get EE from CC in IR.
Interactions rituals are an idea he developed from the work of Erving Goffman, who in turn was expanding an insight of one of the founding sociologists, Emile Durkheim. Social structures aren't really physical structures like walls and floors, but rather are interactions that people have regularly, habitually -- that is, ritually. The specific words they say differ each time, but the form of the interaction is a ritual.
Cultural capital is the kind of knowledge that secures us a place in a social network. It is the kind of knowledge that is useful to you and to other people. We not only exchange it, we develop it, mostly by combining one kind of cultural capital with others to make new social value. Intellectuals, such as philosophers, are especially and primarily focused on exchanging and developing ideas. The idea of cultural capital Collins draws directly from Pierre Bourdieu.
The new idea I have learned from our studies so far is about "emotional energy." When we interact with others in our social networks, we have emotional reactions. The more the network matters to us, the more power these interactions have to lift up or dash our emotions. Collins says we are drawn to the kinds of arguments that our network finds most interesting. If we add to our network's argument successfully, the positive feedback will fill us with emotional energy; the reverse effect leads to negative feedback, which drains our emotional energy.
The stars of philosophy, or any intellectual network, are the most productive, some of their products being particularly insightful to the rest of the network. These stars have the drive to keep working so hard because of their great emotional energy. Emotional energy is clearly a cousin of Durkheim's "collective effervescence." Collins transforms Durkheim's notion from a product of collective emotion and solidarity, to be an engine of the social network. EE makes the social structure go.