Sociological Theorists: Norbert Elias

By | September 11, 2014

Norbert Elias argued for a developmental approach to the study of society, in contrast for example to Parsons’ static approach; but he was for many years neglected in Britain, none of his works being translated into English during his sojourn as a teacher at Leicester. Like the great French historian Braudel, Elias was interested in the slow unfolding of historical processes. His research was focused on the period between the 13th and 19th centuries and targeted people’s ordinary, everyday behaviours and, in particular, changes in their ‘manners’. His concept of a civilizing process was pivotal: behaviours that were once acceptable and familiar have become unacceptable and frowned upon. For example, gnawing bones at the table and then returning them to the serving dish has become an anathema, as has nose-picking and breaking wind (witness my trouble writing ‘farting’). Newly weds no longer perform to an audience, as was common in the Middle Ages.

So how did Elias account for this civilizing of manners? At the level of macro-sociology, he stressed the importance of the emergence of the king as a strong head of state. The king was associated with stable central government in control of taxation as well as warfare. Moreover the ‘court’ (a significant notion for Elias) emerged around the king, allowing for a limited, ‘contained’ diffusion of power.

Before the emergence of the court warriors held sway, and warriors could wage war more or less at will. This was because they had short dependency chains characterized by segmental bonding. In other words they were dependent on a small group, and their activities – like waging war – affected relatively few others; their violence did not impact on society as a whole. Court nobles, by contrast, developed long dependency chains characterized by functional bonding. With the emergence of a division of labour they became increasingly dependent on others for goods and services even as others became dependent on them. They grew more alert to the needs and demands of others. Violence perpetrated or promoted by nobles promised to ripple out to affect large numbers of people, even whole populations. It was of course the king who ultimately controlled resources and weaponry!

But how does this analysis of warriors, kings and nobles translate into ubiquitous and mundane nose-pickings and breakings of wind? Elias maintains that patterns of behaviour established at the top gradually penetrated lower echelons of the social hierarchy. Dependency chains grew longer and the division of labour more complex for more and more of the populous, in the process enhancing their sensitivities towards others. Word of unacceptable behaviours spread surprisingly quickly.

Elias applied his study of the civilizing process to the history of sport, noting how once popular pastimes like fox hunting have been toned down: hunters no longer kill and eat the fox for example. Not just combat sports like boxing and wrestling, but association and rugby football, even cricket, became less violent, ‘more civilized’, during English-led phases of ‘sportization’ in the 18th and 19th centuries. In my Sport and Society, published in 2005, I revisited Elias’ thesis in some detail. I also noted that Elias emphasized that there is nothing irreversible about the civilizing process, and I argued that there is prima facie evidence of a ‘de-civilizing spurt’ in today’s post-1970s financial capitalism. Witness the televising of mixed martial arts fighting and the cross-class filming of ‘real’ fights on smart phones and subsequent postings on YouTube.

In recent years, with the rise of ISIS and its aspiration for an Islamic Caliphate across Iraq and Syria, the same point might be made more broadly. But there is a deeper argument to be rehearsed here. The English Methodist Minister Donald Soper once memorably asked at the time of the war in Vietnam: ‘What is the difference between dropping napalm and putting a baby on a fire?’ His answer: ‘The anonymity of 30,000 feet.’ According to Elias, the former is more ‘civilized’, or less barbaric, in his sense than the latter. This is a sociological and not a moral appraisal. It is not that the former is in any sense okay! Beheadings on YouTube ‘offend’ Occidential sensibilities because homicide has for us been sanitized.

As his thinking developed Elias became attached to the idea of a process sociology beyond macro- versus micro-sociology. He also rejected simplistic dichotomies like individual/society. His concept of figurations is relevant here. Figurations are social processes hinging on people’s interrelationships. Small groups and the population of China alike comprise figurations. As his notion of dependency chains suggests, his interest is in how and why people are inter-linked. Individuals are not independent, but interdependent. This is the appropriate and optimal take-off point for sociology. In his What is Sociology? Elias wrote:

‘the network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together. Such dependencies are the nexus of … the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people. Since people are more or less dependent on each other first by nature and then through social learning, through education, socialization, and socially generated reciprocal needs, they exist … only as pluralities, only in figurations.’

In 1989, 50 years after the publication of The Civilizing Process, Elias’ The Germans saw the light of day. This text, consisting of a collection of essays and lectures, elaborated his core theory. The focus was on the German habitus, a word he used long before Bourdieu and which denoted ‘second nature’ or ‘embodied social learning’. His central contention was that the fortunes of a nation over the centuries become ‘sedimented’ into the habitus of its individual members. In The Germans he sought to show how the particular properties of German state-formation and of the German personality and mode of behaviour precipitated the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. He highlighted four features of state-formation in relation to the German habitus.

The first concerned the location of the German-speaking peoples as a middle bloc between Latinized and Slavonic groups and the enduring sense of unease and fear experienced by all parties. The second was the longstanding structural weakness of the German state, which repeatedly invited invasion and colonization. This weakness, Elias maintained, induced a military temperament and ambition for power of a kind experienced only belatedly – under Bismarck – and dissipated once more by defeat in 1918. Third, there existed a marked lack of continuity in German state-formation (especially in comparison with France and Britain) and related social and cultural stability. And fourth is the crucial role of the German military nobility in securing unification, and the resultant salience of military models well after 1871 together with their penetration into the bourgeois middle classes. This ‘background’, Elias argued, is vital if we are to understand the late unbridled resort to acts of violence ‘as the only realist and decisive vehicle of politics’, which was at the centre of Hitler’s doctrine and strategy during his rise to ascendency.

Elias also pondered in this volume the ‘problems’ of ‘national pride’ confronting Germans after the 2nd World War, plus the student rebellions of the late 1960s and their roots in inter-generational conflict, against this historical background. What I would personally emphasize is that the theoretical ‘frame’ that informs his work is implicit rather than explicit. He was concerned to demonstrate how the ‘structure and manner of functioning’ of the nation-states of the 20th century were ‘often highly opaque to their individual members’. History is vital in this regard. Our contemporary perspectives are grounded in earlier fortunes, by their ‘ beginingless development’. If you want to comprehend the present …

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