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The Micro-sociology of Religion: Religious Practices, Collective and Individual - Guiding Paper

Randall Collins

What do people do when they do religion? Especially, what are they doing during their most religious acts, those moments at the core of what people feel it means to be religious? The micro-sociological approach is to observe everything as closely as possible, to watch the action in the moments when it is taking place. Micro-sociology pragmatically and open-endedly makes use of careful observation; but observation without theoretical sensitivities is half-blind.

In this paper, I will emphasize interaction ritual theory based on Durkheim and Goffman, focusing on the relations between religious and secular rituals, and on what causes differing intensities of religious rituals; these enable us to see when religious practices succeed or fail socially-- when belief, enthusiasm, morality and community are stronger or weaker, growing or fading. Micro-sociological descriptions also point us to the operative differences among religions, and to their most consequential historical changes. I will also make use of theory and research on interior dialogue and the sociology of mind, a research lineage going back to Meadian symbolic interactionism, in order to understand prayer and mystical experience.

Please use the following when citing this paper:

Collins, Randall. 2010. The Micro-sociology of Religion: Religious Practices, Collective and Individual (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from

Randall Collins is the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of "Interaction Ritual Chains" (Princeton University Press, 2004).

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