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Randall Collins:
A Smart and Influential Theorist

Jonathan Turner, University of California-Riverside and University of California

Professor Randall Collins has had a remarkable career. AB from Harvard College, MA from Stanford (in psychology), and MA and PhD from Berkeley (in sociology). His first academic job at the University of Wisconsin, first promoted at the University of California-San Diego, then professor at the University of Virginia, senior professor at the University of California-Riverside, and most recently, endowed Chair at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he has held many visiting positions at elite universities and institutes in the United States and around the globe. He has even quit academia occasionally to be a private scholar; and, on the side, he somehow managed to write engaging novels.

Randy has founded the two major theory journals in our discipline, served on the editorial board of just about every major journal, elected to chair several ASA sections, elected president of the Pacific Sociological Association and to ASA Council, received honorary doctorates, elected as a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, received the ASA’s Distinguished Scholarship Award for his truly monumental The Sociology of the Philosophies, lectured all over the world, and, not surprisingly, had seen many of his books translated into diverse languages. Randy is certainly one of the most cited sociologists ever, and he has published an enormous body of work. And now, he is the 102nd President the American Sociological Association, an honor that seemed (to me) almost inevitable for several decades.

Meeting the "Smartest Person"

It has been a distinct honor and pleasure to be Randy’s friend for more than 30 years and, for 12 years, his colleague at University of California-Riverside (UCR). I cannot remember when we first met, but I had heard of him before I had read his work. Sometime in the mid-1970s, a colleague told me that he had just spent time with this incredibly smart assistant professor, Randall Collins, during a meeting at UC-San Diego. He proclaimed that Randy might be the smartest person he had ever met—a surprising admission since my colleague tended to see himself as this "smartest person." Impressed and intrigued, I eagerly bought and read Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Science (1975) and began to think that my colleague might be right.

Of the many foundational works that Randy has written, Conflict Sociology is for me his best because it is an effort to develop a general theory—stated in a system of abstract laws—of human society at the micro, meso, and macro levels of social reality. This work introduces the early elements of his famous "interaction rituals," which Randy argues are the driving force of the micro, meso, and macro social orders. Over the decades, the conceptualization of interaction rituals has expanded considerably beyond its early Goffman and Durkheim roots into a more general theory of emotions and interaction processes from which all other socio-cultural formations are ultimately driven. Randy’s most recent books—Interaction Ritual Chains (2004) and Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (2008) and his in-progress book on Time-Dynamics of Conflict—all attest to the continuity in his theoretical approach since Conflict Sociology was first published (and republished this year by Paradigm Press).

Randy and I began to socialize frequently in the late 1970s when he was in San Diego and I still lived on the coast in Orange County. With his two children often in tow (who somehow managed to entertain themselves), we discussed theory and began a series of lifelong arguments from which I have learned a great deal. We would sometimes meet in places where one of us happened to be for an afternoon or day. For example, we met in Pasadena while Judy, his wife, visited her father and Randy prepared for a presentation later in the day in Los Angeles; we adjourned to a bar for lunch and on napkins began to write out ideas for what eventually became the journal Sociological Theory. During one of his self-inflicted "private scholar" phases after he resigned from the University of Virginia (to end the cross-country commute and be with his wife and children), he began teaching at UCR occasionally, then for a year, and to my delight, he joined our faculty full time in 1985. Even though he commuted from San Diego a day or two a week, we still managed to have many discussions, often with graduate students, about issues pertaining to sociological theory. We team taught several courses in a point-counterpoint format—even one with more faculty than students.

Collins the Colleague

Randy is the most responsive colleague I have ever had. He read my papers quickly and offered many comments and suggestions, and I also read his. In addition, he read papers from scholars from all over the world; he gave many talks on and off campus; he participated in public debates (mostly with me) for the benefit of our graduate students; and in general, Randy created an intellectual synergy and dynamism that is rare. He carried a large load of graduate students and brought out the best in them, just as he continues to do at the University of Pennsylvania. He even taught our very large introductory sociology class and enjoyed doing so. And, despite the long commute from San Diego (at times staying over night at my place) and his constant travels all over the world, he was not, in any intellectual sense, "absent." He has always been present in his capacity to get others, including me, to think about the issues.

Some of my own work has been enormously influenced by Randy’s work and the many long-lasting debates that we had nurtured over the years. I would never have been pulled into the sociology of emotions, I suspect, had I not wanted to demonstrate that negative emotions as much as positive emotional energy drive interactions, nor would I have written the two books on institutions unless I desired to demonstrate (to Randy and the many doubters) that institutions are real emergent structures, not just reifications; I would not have begun to theorize at the micro social order unless I wanted to demonstrate that other key dynamics operate beyond interaction rituals. And so, a great deal of my productivity, and more importantly, the productivity of many others around the world has been kick-started by something that Randy has written. I had an often-loud dialogue with Randy, just as many others around the globe have used Randy’s ideas to stimulate their work in a more silent dialogue. Thus, what marks Randy’s intellectual achievements is not just their volume and obvious brilliance, but also their influence on generations of sociologists all over the world. Randy’s books are widely translated and cited in almost every place on earth where social scientists think, talk, and write.

Another quality Randy possesses is that he is both an easy-going "good guy" and, at the same time, a constantly engaged intellectual—fun to talk to, drink and laugh with, and (in the old days when I was younger and foolish) to smoke cigars with, while still managing to discuss the state of affairs in sociology. There have been many lunches, dinners, parties, hikes, car rides, and sailing trips where we continued to talk sociology. Even on ceremonial occasions, such as when his wife (then, a superior court judge) officiated at the wedding of two of my children, we still managed to talk some sociology. Randy is a true intellectual, but he also knows how to have a good time and enjoy life.

Thus, I cannot think of anyone more deserving of the presidency of ASA than Randall Collins. It would seem that he has done all that at an academic can do, but I cannot imagine that he is finished. Indeed, his best work is likely to come in the years ahead. I am sure members will enjoy the 2011 ASA Annual Meeting for which Randy has chosen the theme, "Social Conflict: Multiple Dimensions and Arenas."