Social class hierarchy, race, gender, inequality – all appear to be big immutable structures, but they exist only in strings of behaviour. Emotions between individuals are central in all of them. Emotions provide the glue of group solidarity and the dynamics of change. Thus focusing on the micro-level processes of social emotions gives a more fluid picture of stratification than arrays of abstract statistical categories. Focusing on emotional processes also gives a more optimistic view on mitigating inequality.
I will summarise four theoretical points. First, people are stratified by, among other reasons, the amount of emotional energy (EE) they have accumulated over time. Second, besides long-term EE, short-time situational stratification comes from emotional domination, 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. For this reason, inequalities are more changeable at the micro level than they appear to be at the level of huge structures.
Emotional energy is a variable quantity
At the high end of the continuum, high EE consists in 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 At the low end of the continuum, individuals are depressed, withdrawn and passive.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 individuals tend to succeed, while low-EE individuals tend to fail. In the ‘emotional middle class’ between the extremes, people with more EE tend to succeed better than those 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 micromechanism that makes them happen largely operates through generating higher EE, or negatively by reducing one’s EE.
Higher or lower EE is the result of successful or unsuccessful interaction rituals (IRs). Every situation of social interaction in everyday life can be analysed into ingredients that produce IR success or failure. Favourable ingredients are: assembling people face-to-face; focusing their attention on the same thing, so that they become aware of their mutual awareness; and feeling the same emotion. If these micro-processes reach a threshold, they feed back and intensify into rhythmic entrainment of voices and bodies that Durkheim ( 1964) called ‘collective effervescence’. People 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 ( 1964) pointed out. Goffman (1967) showed the same mechanism operating in the minor encounters of everyday life.
But the most important stratifying point is that rituals fail as well as succeed, so that individuals vary as to whether they have a string of successful rituals or mostly failed IRs. 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 on – 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 labelled emotional energy (EE). A successful IR makes you energised. You feel stronger, more confident, more active mentally and physically. You have a trajectory and you pursue it enjoyably, or even obsessively. 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 drainers.
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 group members, 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 – through lack of subjects 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, to 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 (Fine, 2012) 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, by moderate shades of attraction among other people, by outright feelings of rejection and failure with others. The term ‘micro-aggressions’ refers to IRs from the point of view of the people who fail in them.
Persons with high EE make their way into the top levels of organisations, 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 people who are most energised by their work as cultural producers get themselves into the centre of attention and reputation.
Further down are people 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, which leave them among the depressed dropouts of social life. Money, power and status flow through successful IRs at the top end, and their lack of money, power, and status is correlated with the proportion of failed IRs in one’s life.
Another complexity: people 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. It is insufficiently recognised that the criminal world does not consist entirely of educational failures and those who lack emotional self-control. Stratification exists inside the criminal world (well-illustrated by leaders and followers in gangs; Jankowski, 1991) where a distinctive type of EE for criminal goals is found. Still another branch of specialised EE trajectory are political rebels, who succeed to the extent that they find networks of other rebels who can generate rebellious EE together.
IR theory proposes that an individual’s EE is determined by success or failure in IRs, with a time-carryover as individuals retain some EE residue of past interactions (probably not more than a few days or weeks – a question that needs further research). There is also the possibility of multiple causes of high or low EE coming from non-social sources, such as genetic bases of depression or one’s diet. But such physiological propensities are filtered through social interactions; the relative influences of the social and non-social causes of EE are still to be determined. My bet is on the preponderant influence of IR success or failure in any given interaction, especially in interactions of high intensity. Genetic depression may manifest itself chiefly when individuals are alone.
Let us 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 in which individuals can dominate situations. One is emotional domination (EDOM); the other is charisma.
EDOM is an empirically based concept. Analysing 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 energises all of them. EDOM is a further mechanism by which some individuals 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 (Nassauer, 2018). 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 energised groups of rapists and their avid audience find an isolated and emotionally dominated victim (Sanday, 2007).
I cite evidence on violent EDOM because researchers have looked at it closely; but EDOM is crucial in other kinds of careers. Aggressive confrontations can be similar to violent threats (if more restrained), but EDOM can succeed without implying the possibility of violence. Success in business and financial careers also shows the pattern: people who build business empires cultivate networks in which their targets often have more money and assets but lack EE. Villette and Vuillermot (2009) call 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 ruthless 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 in 2016 is an example, but not the only one who practised such tactics on the way up.)
EDOM may well be characteristic mainly of males; but bear in mind that not everyone can have EDOM simultaneously, so these are necessarily a minority of men. EDOM is not a culturally preferred female style, although it may be contextual; family research indicates that women are often dominant in the home or with their children. Women with EDOM are sometimes found in politics (Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel), under conditions yet to be specified. These are fruitful areas for research.
Business success does not simply consist of the accumulated advantage of money to make money. EDOM in the networks where the money circulates is the key to large fortunes. This is just beginning to be recognised in studies of management and entrepreneurs.
Microsociology 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 works by including people within the interactional rhythm rather than excluding 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 followers 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 (Michelet  1967; Collins 2017). 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 people; he knew who could be moved to join him, and who had something else on their mind. (All recorded instances where Jesus interacted with a specific individual are analysed in Collins, 2015.) 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.
Consider the example of Steve Jobs (1955–2011), co-founder of Apple Inc. and dominant business entrepreneur (Isaacson, 2011; Kocienda, 2018). Jobs was not an engineer or a designer, but he had excellent judgement as to who were the most creative people to hire. He recruited them 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 EDOM 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 IR in the workplace. Jobs 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 would not have stood for this, that they would have quit or rebelled. But Jobs was not the kind of boss who walked in, shouted at his workers, threatened them if they failed to do better, then slammed the door and left. He 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 Jobs had a lot of EE to be able to do this: he showed the familiar pattern of the charismatic leader who does not need to sleep, a single-minded workaholic who never takes a break. This high level of EE is the result of constantly being in the centre of successful IRs. But the most energising IRs are not mere EDOM, wherein everyone else’s EE is crushed. Jobs wanted energised workers who shared his vision, technical experts who pushed beyond the limits of what they had thought was possible.
The crucial pattern is in the time sequence. Jobs enters, and forcefully seizes the emotional centre of attention. He uses negative emotions to begin with; he gets everyone seething with the same emotion, even if it is anger directed towards him. 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, ten minutes of insulting, then hours of heated argument. Over those hours, the emotions settle down; they are no longer focused on Jobs and his insults, but about a vision of the piece of computer equipment in front of them, and where they can go with it. Jobs did not always win these arguments; if something turned out to be genuinely impossible, he would tacitly accept it, provided they had figured out a workaround 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, which in itself was as cutting-edge as he could assemble. His core team became so convinced that Jobs 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 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: he 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 energises members of a group along a trajectory that they believe will be a glorious success.
We should also recognise the limits of charisma as local interaction. Charismatically generated solidarity and enthusiasm extends mainly to those people in its local orbit, and can simultaneously draw boundaries against outsiders. This is typical of most religious and political charisma. It is unclear how this works in business leadership.
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 upwards. Opportunities narrow towards the top, and competition among rivals intensifies. There are plenty of once-dominant individuals around.
People who control every encounter by EDOM are obnoxious to deal with, although in highly enclosed societies they are unavoidable. Such individuals make many enemies, but how long it takes for them to fall remains an empirical question.
More effective leaders are those who are charismatic, generating EE and spreading it within groups who share enthusiastic trajectories. Nevertheless, historically the careers of very charismatic individuals have not lasted for many years, often being subjected to periods of defeat, being overthrown or assassination. One of the limits for charismatic power is that it usually energises one group but creates plenty of opponents. (The fates of Julius Caesar, Jesus, Napoleon, Lincoln, Hitler and Gorbachev are among the many examples.) Charisma is not just unstable in the intergenerational succession, as Weber argued (Weber, 1922/1968); it is unstable in its own, usually rather meteoric, lifetime.
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. These are the patterns through which emotions drive social change.
Conflict of interest
The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.
Collins, R. (2015) ‘Jesus in interaction: the microsociology of charisma’, Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 11 (8): 1–29.
Kocienda, K. (2018) Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Nassauer, A. (2018) ‘How robberies succeed or fail: analyzing crime caught on camera’, Journal of Crime and Delinquency 55: 125–54. doi:
Villette, M. and Vuillermot, C. (2009) From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero, New York: Cornell University Press.