Norbert Elias and Process Sociology

Robert Van Krieken. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

An interviewer once drew Norbert Elias’ (1897-1990) attention to a comment made on his work by Zygmunt Bauman, that he was ‘perhaps the last representative of classical sociology, someone striving after the great synthesis.’ Elias’ response was to say that he did not appreciate the observation, because he ‘would rather be the first one to open up a new path’ (1994b: 75). This exchange actually captures one of the more arresting features of his work. Elias combines a synthesis of the most powerful elements of classical sociological thought with a strongly independent and intellectually rigorous mobilization of that synthesis in relation to a wide range of empirical evidence.

Although he began writing in the 1930s—he was in Heidelberg at the same time as the young Talcott Parsons—Elias has only recently begun to be recognized as a major sociologist. He had only an underground reputation in the 1950s among some of his English colleagues and a scattering of scholars in Europe who had managed to obtain a copy of his major work, Uber den Prozefi der Zivilisation. In the 1960s, word gradually spread in Western Europe about the importance of his approach to sociology and history, and interest grew in the English-speaking world from the time translation of his work into English began to accelerate in the 1980s. In Germany, students read the 1969 re-issue of ber den Prozefi der Zivilisation alongside Foucault’s (1977) book Discipline and Punish as an account of the increasingly disciplined character of modern social life; by 1993 Elias was leading German publisher Suhrkamp’s best seller, outselling Jiirgen Habermas (Taschwer, 1994).

The substantive issues Elias dealt with—including the history of subjectivity, power, knowledge, violence, state formation, attitudes towards the body and sexuality—anticipated later historical and sociological scholarship, often providing a more systematic and effective approach to the same problems. His analysis of the historical development of emotions and psychological life is particularly important in relation to the connections he established with larger-scale processes such as state formation, urbanization and economic development. The aim of this chapter, then, is to provide a basic sketch of Elias’ sociological perspective and his approach to sociological theory and research, as well as to locate and position his ideas within broader debates in social science and social theory.

Towards a Theory of Human Society

Elias always resisted making the claim that he was a ‘social theorist,’ because he wanted to avoid the tendency towards fetishising theory, theorists and theoretical perspectives, at the expense of getting on with the practice of sociological investigation. Elias preferred simply to develop his conceptual framework in the process of conducting his research. But it was, none the less, an ambitious theoretical position. As he put it, he saw his task as one of drawing on the work of Marx, Weber and Freud, inter alia, and ‘elaborating a comprehensive theory of human society, or, more exactly, a theory of the development of humanity, which could provide an integrating framework of reference for the various specialist social sciences’ (1994b: 131). Although he was willing to present his sociological theory for some time as organized around the concept of ‘figuration,’ he grew to dislike the term ‘figurational sociology’ and ended up preferring ‘process sociology’ as a label.

Elias was also concerned to develop a different form of perception of the social world (1969: 127). He believed that many of the problems and obstacles in contemporary social science were built into the very categories and concepts which thought about society and human behaviour was organized around. To a large extent, his work constitutes an argument for a particular sociological vocabulary and conceptual framework, which in turn has embedded within it a form of social perception he believed would get closer to the reality of human social life. A number of concepts are important here: figuration, process, habitus, civilization, relation, network/web, power-ratio, interdependence, established/outsiders, involvement/detachment, not only in themselves, but also as radical alternatives to the standard concepts used by most sociologists in the second half of the twentieth century: society, system, structure, role, action, interaction, individual, reproduction.

Unplanned ‘Order’ and the Question of Agency

Elias shares with most sociologists a concern with explaining the orderliness of social life, and he sees sociology as fundamentally concerned with a ‘problem of order,’ but from a very particular perspective. He did not see the very existence of ‘social order’ itself as problematic, saying that he understood the concept ‘in the same sense that one talks of a natural order, in which decay and destruction as structured processes have their place alongside growth and synthesis, death and disintegration alongside birth and integration’ (1978a: 76). He directed his attention to a very different question, namely, the apparentindependence of social order from intentional human action. For Elias, the question was: ‘How does it happen at all that formations arise in the human world that no single human being has intended, and which yet are anything but cloud formations without stability or structure?’ (1994a: 443-4).

The thinkers who first contributed to a developing understanding of this problem included Adam Smith, Hegel, the Physiocrats, Malthus, Marx and Comte. Hegel’s concept of the ‘cunning of reason’ was one of the first attempts to capture this ‘ordered autonomy’ of social life from the individuals who make it up:

Again and again … people stand before the outcome of their own actions like the apprentice magician before the spirits he has conjured up and which, once at large, are no longer in his power. They look with astonishment at the convolutions and formations of the historical flow which they themselves constitute but do not control. (Elias, 1991: 62)

The most acute question for Elias was the apparent lack of relationship between social order and human intentions, the seemingly alien character of the social world to the individuals making it up. He saw ‘society’ as consisting of the structured interweaving of the activity of interdependent human agents, all pursuing their own interests and goals, producing distinct social forms such as what we call ‘Christianity,’ ‘feudalism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ ‘capitalism,’ or whatever culture and nation we happen to be part of, which cannot be said to have been planned or intended by any individual or group.

In analysing the relationship between intentional human action and unplanned surrounding social preconditions and outcomes, Elias emphasized, on the one hand, the dependence of any given individual, no matter how central a position they held, on the surrounding network of social, economic and political relations (1991: 50). He indicated a very clear preference for understanding social transformations in terms of changes in social conditions, or in the structuring of social relationships, rather than attributing very much causal significance to the decisions and actions of particular, supposedly powerful individuals or groups (1994a: 266).

On the other hand, although within the broad sweep of history it is apparent how much individuals are buffeted by forces beyond their control, ‘the person acting within the flow may have a better chance to see how much can depend on individual people in individual situations, despite the general direction’ (1991: 48). It is equally unrealistic to believe ‘that people are interchangeable, the individual being no more than the passive vehicle of a social machine’ (p. 54). Elias saw social life as both ‘firm’ and ‘elastic’: ‘Crossroads appear at which people must choose, and on their choices, depending on their social position, may depend either their immediate personal fate or that of a whole family, or, in certain circumstances, of entire nations or groups within them’ (p. 49). Agency thus consisted of the strategic seizure of opportunities that arise for individuals and groups, but not in the actual creation of those opportunities, which ‘are prescribed and limited by the specific structure of a person’s society and the nature of the functions the people exercise within it’ (p. 49). Moreover, once an opportunity is taken, human action ‘becomes interwoven with those of others; it unleashes further chains of actions,’ the effects of which are based not on individual or group actors, but ‘on the distribution of power and the structure of tensions within this whole mobile human network’ (pp. 49-50).

One of the primary focuses of sociological analysis is, then, the relationships between intentional, goal-directed human activities and the unplanned or unconscious process of interweaving with other such activities, past and present, and their consequences. Often Elias emphasized the unplanned character of social life, largely because he was concerned to counter the notion that there can ever be a direct and straightforward relationship between human action and its outcomes. However, all his observations taken together indicate a more complex understanding, for he always believed that improved human control of social life was the ultimate objective of sociological analysis. In his words, ‘people can only hope to master and make sense out of these purposeless, meaningless functional interconnections if they can recognize them as relatively autonomous, distinctive functional interconnections, and investigate them systematically’ (1978a: 58). Elias saw an understanding of long-term unplanned changes as serving both ‘an improved orientation’ towards social processes which lie beyond human planning, and an improved understanding of those areas of social life which can be said to correspond to the goals and intentions of human action (1997a: 370). In relation to technological change, he commented: ‘From the viewpoint of a process theory what is interesting is the interweaving of an unplanned process and human planning’(1995: 26; 1997a: 370).


For Elias, the structure and dynamics of social life could only be understood if human beings were conceptualized as interdependent rather than autonomous, comprising what he called figurations rather than social systems or structures, and as characterized by socially and historically specific forms of habitus, or personality-structure. He emphasized seeing human beings in the plural rather than the singular, as part of collectivities, of groups and networks, and stressed that their very identity as unique individuals only existed within and through those networks or figurations.

The civilizing process itself, argued Elias, had produced a capsule or wall around individual experience dividing an inner world from the external world, individuals from society. Rather than seeing individuals as ever having any autonomous, pre-social existence, Elias emphasized human beings’ interdependence with each other, the fact that one can only become an individual human being within a web of social relationships and within a network of interdependencies with one’s family, school, church, community, ethnic group, class, gender, work organization and so on. The essential ‘relatedness’ of human beings, said Elias, began with being born as a helpless infant, over which we have no control: ‘Underlying all intended interactions of human beings is their unintended interdependence’ (1969: 143).

He developed this point in part through his critique of what he called the homo clausus, or ‘closed personality’ image of humans. Elias argued for a replacement of this homo clausus conception with its emphasis on autonomy, freedom and independent agency with:

the image of man as an ‘open personality’ who possesses a greater or lesser degree of relative (but never absolute and total) autonomy vis-vis other people and who is, in fact, fundamentally oriented toward and dependent on other people throughout his life. The network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together. Such interdependencies are the nexus of what is here called the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people. (1994a: 213-14)

Elias introduced the concept of’figuration in the 1960s because it ‘puts the problem of human interdependencies into the very heart of sociological theory’ (1978a: 134) and he hoped it would ‘eliminate the antithesis … immanent today in the use of the words “individual” and “society” (1994a: 214).

Elias regarded societies as basically ‘the processes and structures of interweaving, the figurations formed by the actions of interdependent people’ (1978a: 103). He also believed that it made it easier to overcome the tendency to apparently deny human agency and individuality with the use of concepts like ‘society’ or ‘social system.’ Indeed, ‘it sharpens and deepens our understanding of individuality if people are seen as forming figurations with other people’ (1983: 213).

He used the analogy of dance to illustrate the concept figuration, saying that ‘the image of the mobile figurations of interdependent people on a dance floor perhaps makes it easier to imagine state, cities, families, and also capitalist, communist, and feudal systems as figurations’ (1994a: 214). Although we might speak of ‘dance in general,’ ‘no one will imagine a dance as a structure outside the individual.’ Dances can be danced by different people, ‘but without a plurality of reciprocally oriented and dependent individuals, there is no dance.’ Figurations, like dances, are thus ‘relatively independent of the specific individuals forming it here and now, but not of individuals as such’ (p. 214). In other words, although it is true that figurations ‘have the peculiarity that, with few exceptions, they can continue to exist even when all the individuals who formed them at a certain time have died and been replaced by others’ (1983: 142), they only exist in and through the activity of their participants. When that activity stops, the figuration stops, and the continued existence of the figuration is dependent on the continued participation of its constituent members, as the East European regimes discovered in 1989.

The dynamics of figurations also depend on the formation of a shared social habitus or personality makeup which constitutes the collective basis of individual human conduct. In Elias’ words:

This makeup, the social habitus of individuals, forms, as it were, the soil from which grow the personal characteristics through which an individual differs from other members of his society. In this way something grows out of the common language which the individual shares with others and which is certainly a component of his social habitus—a more or less individual style, what might be called an unmistakable individual handwriting that grows out of the social script. (1991: 182)

Elias gave the example of the concept of ‘national character,’ which he called ‘a habitus problem par excellence’ (1991: 182). He also referred to it as ‘second nature,’ or ‘an automatic, blindly functioning apparatus of self-control’ (1994a: 113, 446). The organization of psychological makeup into a habitus was also a continuous process which began at birth and continued throughout a person’s life, ‘for although the self-steering of a person, malleable during childhood, solidifies and hardens as he grows up, it never ceases entirely to be affected by his changing relations with others throughout his life’ (1994a: 455).

The Relational View of Social Life

Elias maintained that it was necessary for sociologists to avoid seeing social life in terms of states, objects or things, what Georgy Lukács called the reification (‘turning into a thing or object’) of what are in fact dynamic social relationships. His attempt to transcend reification in sociological theory consisted of a double movement: the first was towards a consistent emphasis on social life as relational, and the second was an insistence on its processual character. We will look at the first in this section and the second in the following section. It is important to emphasize both sides of this double movement away from reification, because many sociologists undertake one or the other (for example, Berger and Luckmann, 1971), but very few pursue both.

The principle is simple enough, that it is necessary in sociology ‘to give up thinking in terms of single, isolated substances and to start thinking in terms of relationships and functions’ (Elias, 1991: 19). A ‘person’ or ‘individual’ is thus not a self-contained entity or unit, she or he does not exist ‘in themselves,’ they only exist as elements of sets of relations with other individuals. The same applies to families, communities, organizations, nations, economic systems, in fact to any aspect of the world, human or natural, for the concept arose from Einstein’s physics. Relations between people, the ties binding them to each other are, for Elias, the primary object of sociological study, the very stuff of historical change: ‘The “circumstances” which change are not something which comes upon men from “outside”: they are the relationships between people themselves’ (1994a: 480).

Recently the significance of this has been underlined by Pierre Bourdieu, who defines this form of perception as thinking in terms o fields, a mode of thought which ‘requires a conversion of one’s entire usual vision of the social world, a vision which is interested only in those things which are visible’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 192). Referring to Elias, he points out that thinking non-relationally also has the effect of treating social units as if they were themselves human actors, and mentions the possible ‘endless list of mistakes, mystifications or mystiques created by the fact that the words designating institutions or groups, State, bourgeoisie, Employers, Church, Family and School, can be constituted … as historical subjects capable of posing and realizing their own aims’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 192; for a discussion of Elias within ‘relational sociology’ generally, see Emirbayer, 1997).

What Elias found most important about relationships between people was the way in which they were constituted as power relations, so that he develops this argument in most detail with reference to ‘the relational character of power’ (1978a: 75). ‘The whole sociological and political discussion on power,’ he wrote, ‘is marred by the fact that the dialogue is not consistently focused on power balances and power ratios, that is, on aspects of relationships, but rather on power as if it were a thing’ (1987: 251). If we see it more as a relation, it also becomes possible to recognize that questions of power are quite distinct from questions of ‘freedom’ and ‘domination,’ and that all human relationships are relations of power (1978a: 74).

Elias understood power in terms of power-ratios or ‘shifting balances of tensions’ (1983: 145), and regarded these concepts as the best successors to debates about freedom and determinism. He said that the recognition that all human beings possess some degree of freedom or autonomy ‘is sometimes romantically idealized as proving the metaphysical freedom of man,’ its popularity arising primarily from its emotional appeal (1983: 144). However, he argued that it was important to go beyond thinking in terms of a fictional antithesis between ‘freedom’ and ‘determinism’—fictional because of human beings’ essential interdependence—and move to thinking in terms of power-balances.

Elias also stressed the reciprocal workings of power, so that within the network of relations binding the more and less powerful to each other, apparently less powerful groups also exercise a ‘boomerang effect’ back on those with greater power-chances (1983: 265). This was, he felt, a problem with concepts like ‘rule’ or ‘authority,’ since they ‘usually make visible only the pressures exerted from above to below, but not those from below to above’ (p. 265). He gave the example of the relation between parents and children: parents clearly have greater power-chances than their children, but because children fulfil particular functions and needs for their parents, they also have power over their parents, such as calling them to their aid by crying, requiring them to reorganize their lives (1997b: 195).

Against Process-Reduction

The second step Elias took away from the reification of social life was to see it as having an inherently processual character. Figurations of interdependent individuals and groups can only be properly understood as existing over time, in a constant process of dynamic flux and greater or lesser transformation. The analysis of the interrelationships between intentional action and unplanned social processes had to be undertaken over periods of time, for as Johan Goudsblom has put it, ‘yesterday’s unintended social consequences are today’s unintended social conditions of “intentional human actions’” (1977: 149). Elias spoke of the ‘transformational impetus (Wandlungsimpetus) of every human society,’ and regarded ‘the immanent impetus towards change as an integral moment of every social structure and their temporary stability as the expression of an impediment to social change’ (1997a: 371).

The expression Elias used to identify the tendency in sociological thought which he was arguing against was Zustandsreduktion- literally, ‘reduction to states,’ although in English he preferred ‘process-reduction,’ that is, the ‘reduction of processes to static conditions’ (1978a: 112). A manifestation of process-reduction was sociologists’ turning-away from historical analysis, the emphasis by both functionalists and structuralists on synchronie rather than diachronic analysis, and the assumption that stability was the normal condition of social life, and change a ‘disruption’ of a normal state of equilibrium. By ‘long-term’ Elias meant periods of not less than three generations (1986: 234).

Just as individuals, families, communities and so on should be conceived as embedded within a network of relations, rather than being seen as isolated objects, Elias argued that they should also be seen asdynamic, in a state of flux and change, as processes. Individuals, for example, rather than having a fixed identity, move from being dependent infants, to adolescents, mature adults and then to old age and death. An individual, then, ‘may justifiably be seen as a self-transforming person who, as it is sometimes put, goes through a process’ (1978a: 118). Indeed, suggested Elias, although it is not how we are used to thinking about ourselves, ‘it would be more appropriate to say that a person is constantly in movement; he not only goes through a process, he is a process’ (p. 118). We can only understand and explain any given sociological problem if it is seen as the outcome of some long-term process of development, if we trace its socio genesis.

Instead of speaking of static ‘states’ or phenomena such as capitalism, rationality, bureaucracy, modernity, postmodernity, Elias would always wish to identify their processual character, so that he would think in terms of rationalization, modernization, bureaucratization and so on. Often it is difficult to come up with the appropriate concept. For example, ‘capitalism’ is difficult to render in this way—but the point is to attempt a conceptualization along these lines, to identify the process underlying what one was studying. If, for example, one observes what appear to be a large number of single parents in Western societies, a productive approach for Elias would be to look for the long-term trends in marriage and fertility, to see how this current phenomenon fits in with other processes of social development, in order to possibly explain its occurrence. This example also illustrates Elias’ emphasis on the existence of a plurality of processes, all of which interweave with each other, with no causal primacy being given to any one of them. Transformations in social relationships are thus intertwined with a variety of other processes of change: economic, political, psychological, geographical, and so on.

Although Elias distanced himself from theories of social progress which simply assumed that all social change was progressive, he did feel that, overall, humanity was in fact progressing. It is important to bear his fundamentally ambiguous attitude to progress in mind, because it helps explain why so many of his critics accuse him of reverting to nineteenth century evolutionary perspectives. He was also confident that human beings have gradually developed more control over the natural world, and that this increased control could be put in the category of ‘progress.’ Despite the barbarism which Western ‘civilized’ people were capable of, for Elias (1984) this meant merely that ‘we have not learnt to control ourselves and nature enough,’ for he was insistent that the contemporary world was considerably less brutal and violent than it had been in the ancient or medieval world. He felt that relations between classes, men and women, superordinates and subordinates, adults and children, were gradually becoming increasingly equal and democratic, and that the point of identifying those instances where this was not the case was to further the process of ‘functional democratization,’ not to suggest its impossibility.

On the other hand, he also argued that processes of integration could at any time be accompanied by those of disintegration, civilizing processes by decivilizing processes (1986: 235), and he placed more emphasis on these in his later work, such as The Germans. Elias should be read both ways, as optimistic about the progress of humanity, and as acutely aware of how easily we can descend to barbaric cruelty.

Sociology and ‘Object-Adequacy’: Between Involvement and Detachment

Questions of objectivity and values, the position of the social scientist in society, the relation between the natural and social sciences, were all central to Elias’ understanding of the role that knowledge plays in the historical development of humanity. He emphasized the historical development of human knowledge, and argued for seeing science as a social and collective endeavour, consisting of sets of social institutions located within a particular process of social development, rather than springing from the mind of an idealized ‘subject’ of scientific activity. As a result, he rejected both the concept of ‘truth’ as absolutely distinct from ‘falsity’ and a relativistic conception of knowledge, in favour of the concept of a greater or lesser ‘object adequacy’ in human knowledge, lying somewhere between ‘involvement’ and ‘detachment.’

Elias was concerned to identify how the knowledge available to members of any given society is both built upon and advances on previous generations’ attempts to comprehend the world around them. Rather than engaging in arguments about the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of knowledge, Elias thought it was more appropriate to assess the relationship of any given idea or theory with its predecessors, with specific reference to its ‘object-adequacy’ or ‘reality-congruence,’ and its ‘survival value’ (1971: 358).

For Elias, scientific ‘advance’ has two features: first, it consists of the attainment of relative autonomy in relation to the specific human groups engaged in the production of scientific knowledge. An exemplary case for Elias was the progressive decentring of the physical world, the development from geocentric to heliocentric, and finally to relationist conceptions of the universe. In the work of Aristotle and Ptolemy, human beings were conceived as constituting the centre of the physical universe. The work of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, in contrast, ‘shows in a paradigmatic manner the crucial changeover from the dominance of a subject-centred to that of a more object-oriented orientation’ (1971: 359). However, even this model is still subject-centred to the extent that it presumes a single frame of reference for the entire universe, whereas Einstein’s theory of relativity allows for an infinite number of frames of reference, putting forward ‘a model of a universe without an absolute centre’ (p. 360).

Second, Elias explained the basis of greater or lesser ‘object-adequacy’ in terms of an opposition between what he called ‘involvement’ and ‘detachment,’ and he used the example of Edgar Allan Poe’s story of two fishermen caught in a maelstrom to illustrate his argument. In the story the elder brother was so overcome by the immediacy of the situation and his direct emotional response, his ‘involvement,’ that he was unable to formulate any course of action to avoid his fate. The younger brother, on the other hand, was able to exercise greater self-control and develop some detachment from his terror, observing how the maelstrom actually worked, in particular that cylindrical objects descended more slowly, as did smaller objects. Tying himself to a cask, he jumped out of the boat, failing to persuade his brother to do the same. The elder brother in the larger object, the boat, was dragged under, while the younger managed to stay on the water’s surface until the maelstrom subsided. This does not mean that a cool head is always what a situation demands, and Elias commented that there will be times when ‘force, skill, courage and a hot temper may be … of greater value than a high capacity for sustained self-control,’ although he could not help adding ‘even though a bit of reflection may still help’ (1987: 47). The point is a more complex one that particular situations will demand particular balances of involvement and detachment, and we can judge the adequacy of our conceptions by the effects they have—in the case of the fishermen, whether one goes under or not.

Despite Elias’ argument that scientific knowledge is distinguished from ideology by its degree of relative autonomy and detachment, he also believed that scientists can never achieve absolute autonomy from their social location. In the first of his articles on the sociology of knowledge, Elias began the piece referring to a passage from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, where a character responds to the question, ‘Are you not prejudiced?’ as follows: ‘Madame, rarely will you meet a more prejudiced man nor one who tells himself he keep his mind more open. But cannot that be because one part of our mind, that which we act with, becomes prejudiced through experience, and still we keep another part completely open to observe and judge with?’ (Elias, 1956: 226). For Elias, all scientific endeavour is characterized by this permanent tension between the reality of ‘prejudice,’ what many sociologists refer to as the socially constructed nature of all knowledge, and the possibility of a responsiveness to the observation and analysis of an ever-changing surrounding world, a balance between ‘involvement’ and ‘detachment.’

Civilizing and Decivilizing Processes

Elias’ focus on the concept ‘civilization’ in analysing the origins of contemporary Western societies was rooted in dual synthesis of Freud with Marx on the one hand, and with Weber on the other. He drew on Marx’s materialism to explain the development of a particular personality structure, emphasizing its ‘production’ by particular sets of social relations, and elaborated on Freud’s understanding of the effects of developing civilization on psychic life in terms of Weber’s conception of the state as organized around a monopoly of the means of violence. Elias’ historicization of human psychology provides empirical support for an understanding of the processes by which changes in social relations are interwoven with changes in psychic structure.

Processes of Civilization

What Elias felt sure was the product of a long historical process had, by the end of the eighteenth century, come to be defined by Europeans ‘simply as an expression of their own high gifts’ (1994a: 41). Civilization became a crucial part of Europeans’ sense of superiority over all other peoples in the world: ‘the consciousness of their own superiority, the consciousness of this “civilization,” from now on serves at least those nations which have become colonial conquerors, and therefore a kind of upper class to large sections of the non-European world, as a justification of their rule’ (p. 41). It was Europeans’ perception of themselves as particularly ‘civilized,’ at the very hour of their indulgence in a horrific barbarism, around which Elias organized his observations about the development of modern social life, because he felt it went to the heart of the constitution of the psychic structure characteristic of contemporary Western societies.

Elias believed that what we experience as ‘civilization’ is founded on a particular habitus, a particular psychic structure which has changed over time, and which can only be understood in connection with changes in the forms taken by broader social relationships. Elias insisted that ‘the moulding of instinctual life, including its compulsive features, is a function of social interdependencies that persist throughout life,’ and these interdependencies change as the structure of society changes. ‘To the variation in this structure correspond,’ wrote Elias, ‘the differences in personality structure that can be observed in history’ (p. 249). The first point was explored by Elias in relation to the successive editions of a variety of etiquette manuals, and the second in relation to the history of state formation in Britain, France and Germany.

The first volume of The Civilizing Process traces gradual changes in expectations of people’s interpersonal conduct in European societies, as well as the way they approached their own bodily functions and emotions. In outlining ‘correct’ behaviour, Erasmus pointed to ‘attitudes that we have lost, that some among us would perhaps call “barbaric” or “uncivilized”,’ and it spoke ‘of many things that have in the meantime become unspeakable, and of many others that are now taken for granted’ (p. 44). Elias suggested that typical medieval conduct was characterized by ‘its simplicity, its naivete,’ emotions were ‘expressed more violently and directly’ and there were ‘fewer psychological nuances and complexities in the general stock of ideas’ (p. 50).

As time went by, he found that the standards applied to violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, eating habits, table manners and forms of speech became gradually more sophisticated, with an increasing threshold of shame, embarrassment and repugnance. Gradually more and more aspects of human behaviour become regarded as ‘distasteful,’ and ‘the distasteful is removed behind the scenes of social life.’

Again and again, wrote Elias, we see ‘how characteristic is this movement of segregation, this hiding “behind the scenes” of what has become distasteful’ (p. 99). For example, a French etiquette manual from 1729 advises its readers as follows:

It is very impolite to keep poking your finger into your nostrils, and still more insupportable to put what you have pulled from your nose into your mouth …

You should avoid making a noise when blowing your nose … Before blowing it, it is impolite to spend a long time taking out your handkerchief. It shows a lack of respect toward the people you are with to unfold it in different places to see where you are to use it. You should take your handkerchief from your pocket and use it quickly in such a way that you are scarcely noticed by others.

After blowing your nose you should take care not to look into your handkerchief. It is correct to fold it immediately and replace it in your pocket. (1994a: 120-1; emphasis in original)

‘Formerly,’ suggested another etiquette manual in 1672, ‘one was allowed to take from one’s mouth what one could not eat and drop it on the floor, providing it was done skilfully. Now that would be disgusting’ (1994a: 76).

Elias described medieval society as being characterized generally by ‘a lesser degree of social control and constraint of instinctual life’ (p. 159), in particular by a violence which dominated everyday life and was rarely subject to much social or self-control. His interpretation of his evidence was that it suggested ‘unimaginable emotional outbursts in which—with rare exceptions—everyone who is able abandons himself to the extreme pleasures of ferocity, murder, torture, destruction, and sadism’ (1978b: 248). Elias felt that there was great pleasure in killing and torturing, describing it as ‘a socially permitted pleasure’; indeed, to some degree ‘the social structure even pushed its members in this direction, making it seem necessary and practically advantageous to behave in this way’ (1994a: 159).

The social process of ‘courtization’ subjected first knights and warriors, and then everexpanding circles of the population (p. 88), to an increasing demand that such expressions of violence be regulated, that emotions and impulses be placed more firmly in the service of the long-term requirements of complex networks of social interaction. Slowly and gradually, argued Elias, ‘the code of behaviour becomes stricter and the degree of consideration expected of others becomes greater,’ and ‘the social imperative not to offend others becomes more binding’ (p. 64). In court society we see the beginnings of a form of mutual and self-observation which Elias referred to as a ‘psychological’ form of perception (p. 63). Elias did not see courts as the ‘cause’ or driving force of this process, but as its nucleus, and he drew a parallel with the form taken by a chemical process like crystallization, ‘in which a liquid … [being] subjected to conditions of chemical change … first takes on crystalline form at a small nucleus, while the rest then gradually crystallized around this core’ (p. 95).

The result was a particular kind of habitus or ‘second nature,’ an ‘automatic self-restraint, a habit that, within certain limits, also functions when a person is alone’ (p. 113). Elias argued that the restraint imposed by increasingly differentiated and complex networks of social relations became increasingly internalized, and less dependent on its maintenance by external social institutions, developing what Freud was to recognize as a super-ego (p. 154).

He did say that these developments in habitus were not unilinear, that ‘the civilizing process does not follow a straight line’ and that ‘on a smaller scale there are the most diverse crisscross movements, shifts and spurts in this or that direction’ (p. 153). None the less, at this point he felt that there was a more significant overall tendency with a particular direction, towards increasing ‘regulation of affects in the form of self-control’ (p. 153). ‘Regardless,’ then, ‘of how much the tendencies may criss-cross, advance and recede, relax or tighten on a small scale, the direction of the main movement—as far as is visible up to now—is the same for all kinds of behaviour’ (p. 154).

The second volume of The Civilizing Process dealt with the explanation of the transformation of psychic structure revealed by the etiquette books and other historical evidence. ‘When enquiring into social processes,’ he wrote ‘one must look at the web of human relationships, at society itself, to find the compulsions that keep them in motion, and give them their particular form and their particular direction’ (p. 288).

Among those changes in the ‘web of human relationships’ there was, first, ‘the process of state-formation, and within it the advancing centralization of society’ (p. 269), especially as it was expressed in the absolutist states of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. Second, he stressed the gradual differentiation of society, the increasing range, diversity and interdependence of competing social positions and functions composing European societies. There were other, related changes which he also mentioned, such as the development of a money economy and urbanization, but it was these two processes of social development which he emphasized most (p. 457).

There was, Elias believed, a powerful ‘logic’ built into any configuration of competing social units, such as states, towns or communities, towards an increasing monopolization of power and, correspondingly, of the means of violence. He saw this ‘logic’ as emerging from the dynamics of social, political and economic competition, and saw it as being organized around two ‘mechanisms’: the ‘monopoly mechanism,’ which ‘once set in motion, proceeds like clockwork’ (p. 343), and the ‘royal mechanism.’ The operation of the ‘monopoly mechanism was that as social units competed with each other, ‘the probability is high that some will be victorious and others vanquished, and that gradually, as a result, fewer and fewer will control more and more opportunities, and more and more units will be eliminated from the competition, becoming directly or indirectly dependent on an ever-decreasing number’ (p. 347). Unless some countervailing process is set in motion, argued Elias, competition would generally drive any human figuration towards ‘a state in which all opportunities are controlled by a single authority: a system with open opportunities has become a system with closed opportunities’ (p. 347).

Accompanying the monopoly mechanism was another tendency, that of what Elias called the ‘royal mechanism,’ which was a feature of the evenness or indecisiveness of any pattern of competition. If social conditions are not bad enough for any one group to risk the loss of their current position, and power is distributed so evenly that every group is fearful of any other group gaining the slightest advantage, ‘they tie each other’s hands’ and ‘this gives the central authority better chances than any other constellation within society’ (p. 397). The position of a central authority is not based simply on some greater power that they might have over any other social unit, but on their function as a mediator or nodal point for the conflicts between the other groups in society, which can neither individually overcome any of the others, nor stop competing to the degree required to form an effective alliance with each other.

The consequence of these mechanisms in terms of power relations was not, however, simply to increase the power-chances of those individuals and groups in more central positions of authority and influence, which is how we usually think of any process of monopolization. Elias emphasized that ‘the more people are made dependent by the monopoly mechanism, the greater becomes the power of the dependent, not only individually but also collectively, in relation to the one or more monopolists.’ This was because those in the more central, monopoly positions were also made increasingly dependent on ‘ever more dependents in preserving and exploiting the power potential they have monopolized’ (p. 348). The greater monopolization of power-chances is thus accompanied by a greater collective democratization, at least, because a monopoly position is itself dependent on a larger and more complex network of social groups and units. Examples here would include the position of the head of government in any of the advanced industrial countries, or the managing director of a large corporation.

The state-formation process in Europe was accompanied, necessarily, by an increasing monopolization of the means of violence, and a pressure towards other means of exercising power in social relations. Rather than the use of violence, social ‘success’ became more and more dependent on ‘continuous reflection, foresight, and calculation, self-control, precise and articulate regulation of one’s own affects, knowledge of the whole terrain, human and non-human, in which one acts’ (p. 476). Elias argued that this ‘rationalization’ of human conduct, its placement at the service of long-term goals and the increasing internalization of social constraint was closely tied to the process of state formation and development of monopolies of physical force (p. 447). The ‘requirement’ placed on each individual is not a direct one, but one mediated by the individual’s own reflection on the consequences of differing patterns of behaviour (p. 450).

Underlying the processes of state-formation and nation-building were also others of increasing social differentiation, increasing density, complexity and what Elias called ‘lengthening chains of social interdependence’ (p. 448). A central developmental process in European societies was their increasing density, produced by a combination of population growth and urbanization, and the ever-larger circles of people that any single individual would be interdependent with, no matter how fieetingly.

He spoke of the ‘conveyor belts’ running through individuals’ lives growing ‘longer and more complex’ (p. 452), requiring us to ‘attune’ our conduct to the actions of others (p. 445), and becoming the dominant influence on our existence, so that we are less ‘prisoners of our passions’ and more captive to the requirements of an increasingly complex ‘web of actions’ (p. 445), particularly a demand for ‘constant hindsight and foresight in interpreting the actions and intentions of others’ (p. 456). Just as important as the ‘length’ of chains of interdependence was the increasing ambivalence of overlapping and multiple networks: as social relations become more complex and contradictory, the same people or groups could be ‘friends, allies or partners’ in one context and ‘opponents, competitors or enemies’ in another. ‘This fundamental ambivalence of interests,’ wrote Elias, is ‘one of the most important structural characteristics of more highly developed societies, and a chief factor moulding civilized conduct’ (p. 395).

All of these processes of civilization ‘tend to produce a transformation of the whole drive and affect economy in the direction of a more continuous, stable and even regulation of drives and affects in all areas of conduct, in all sectors of his life’ (p. 452). We are all compelled more and more to regulate our conduct ‘in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner.’ Elias referred to this increasing self-regulation as a process of ‘psychologization’ and ‘rationalization,’ because it revolved around the growing reflexive understanding of our own actions, those of others, their interrelationships and their consequences. ‘The web of actions grows so complex and extensive,’ wrote Elias, and ‘the effort required to behave “correctly” within it becomes so great, that beside the individual’s conscious self-control an automatic, blindly functioning apparatus of self-control is firmly established’ (pp. 445-6).

It is useful, too, to recall the qualifications which Elias added in response to his critics. First, his concept of a civilizing process in European social history did not imply the existence of any sort of original ‘state of nature’ in some early historical period. There is no ‘zero point in the historicity of human development’ (p. 131), no example of human existence without social constraints. Second, there was no particular beginning to civilizing processes, so that in any given period people will regard themselves as more civilized than the peoples in the preceding periods. ‘Wherever we start,’ he wrote, ‘there is movement, something that went before’ (p. 48). Third, civilizing processes were never-ending, and we can never regard ourselves as having attained a state of ‘true’ civilization. Although he was confident that considerable social development had taken place since antiquity, he was equally sure that we had by no means stopped ‘civilizing’ ourselves and each other, which was why the final line in The Civilizing Process included these words from Holbach: ‘la civilisation … n’est pas encore termine’ (p. 524; see also Elias, 1996: 173).

Decivilizing Processes

The Civilizing Process was completed in 1939, and both Elias himself and his interpreters, supportive as well as critical, have often tended towards the view that his understanding of the development and dynamics of Western societies did not change substantially afterwards. The development of Elias’ ideas between the 1960s and 1980s reveals, however, a more nuanced picture, and his writings can be regarded as ranging from a reiteration of his arguments in The Court Society and The Civilizing Process, through a development or refinement of his ideas, to a distinct change of direction and emphasis.

One of the themes running through the way that Elias changed and developed his approach after The Civilizing Process was an examination of the contradictory and ambivalent character of processes of civilization, their ‘dark’ sides and the question of ‘civilized barbarism.’

In The Civilizing Process, the relationship between barbarism and civilization had been presented largely as mutually exclusive, one turning into the other, with possible ‘reversals’ of direction. To a large extent The Germans is consistent with this line of argument, raising the possibility that specific processes of state-formation produce either a ‘deficient’ process of civilization, or result in a clear process of decivilization encouraging the more widespread manifestation of brutal and violent conduct. However, Elias also raised the possibility that civilization and decivilization can occur simultaneously. For example, he made the point that the monopolization of physical force by the state, through the military and the police, cuts in two directions and has a Janus-faced character (1996: 175), because such monopolies of force can then be all the more effectively wielded by powerful groups within any given nation-state, as indeed they did under the Nazi regime. Pursuing a line of thought he had been developing since the 1970s (Wouters, 1977: 448), in one of his entries to a German dictionary of sociology published in 1986 he argued for the reversibility of social processes, and suggested that ‘shifts in one direction can make room for shifts in the opposite direction,’ so that ‘a dominant process directed at greater integration could go hand in hand with a partial disintegration’ (Elias, 1986: 235). Similarly, in The Germanshe remarked that the example of the Hitler regime showed ‘not only that processes of growth and decay can go hand in hand but that the latter can also predominate relative to the former’ (1996: 308). In a critique of Kingsley Davis’ understanding of social norms, he argued that Davis emphasized the integrative effect of norms at the expense of their ‘dividing and excluding character.’ Elias pointed out that social norms had an ‘inherently double-edged character,’ since in the very process of binding some people together, they turn those people against others (Elias, 1996: 159-60). Critics like Stefan Breuer, however, have remarked that a central problem with Elias’ work overall is his disinclination to perceive processes of social integration as being accompanied by other, equally significant processes of social disintegration and decomposition (Breuer, 1991: 405-6).

Elias had pointed out that a large part of his motivation in writing The Civilizing Process was precisely to come to a better understanding of the brutality of the Nazi regime, since ‘one cannot understand the breakdown of civilized behaviour and feeling as long as one cannot understand and explain how civilized behaviour and feeling came to be constructed and developed in European societies in the first place’ (1994a: 444-5). In other words, Elias was advancing the very important argument that barbarism and civilization are part of the same analytical problem, namely how and under what conditions human beings satisfy their individual or group needs ‘without reciprocally destroying, frustrating, demeaning or in other ways harming each other time and time again in their search for this satisfaction’ (p. 31). The problem for Elias was both to make events such as the Holocaust—and one could add any number of other examples of ‘modern barbarism’—understandable as the outcome of particular social figurations and processes of sociohistorical development, and also to explain what it was about the development of modern state-societies which generated organized critical responses to such large-scale genocide (p. 445).


There are, of course, a range of critiques of Elias’ work (Mennell, 1992: 227-50), including the question of continuity versus change, or whether there has been the degree and kind of transformation in human conduct that Elias argues for, the issue of contradictions and conflicts within civilizing processes, and the question of ‘civilized barbarism,’ but it is not possible to do justice to all of them here (see van Krieken, 1989, 1998). The topic I will use as an example is Elias’ stress on the unplanned character of civilizing processes, and the possibility that intentional, deliberate action has been neglected. Should we speak of civilizing processes or civilizing offensives’!

Although Elias did explicitly argue that we should analyse the interweaving of intentional action with unplanned social processes, in the substance of his analyses he laid far greater stress on the unplanned character of social change. A number of commentators, such as Haferkamp, Arnason and Chartier, argue that the result is a relative neglect of the organizing interventions of powerful social groups into the form and direction of civilizing processes. Elias’ understanding of European history, suggests Arnason, ‘seems to leave no place for a relatively autonomous, let alone a “pace-setting” development of world views’ (1989: 56). Haferkamp also argues that Elias did not ‘give much weight to the success of intentions and plans,’ nor did he ‘check to see when the planning of associations of action has been successful’ (1987: 556). When Chartier speaks of self-discipline and emotional management as having been ‘instituted’ by the state (1989: 16), he is actually using a logic which is very different from Elias’ in The Civilizing Process, where the emphasis is placed on the requirements of particular types of social figuration. Most social historians also paint a picture of European history where particular groups of lawyers, inquisitors, clergy, judges, entrepreneurs and so on played an active, constitutive role in shaping history, rather than merely reflecting their social context. The argument can be summarized as revolving around whether we should speak of civilizing processes or civilizing offensives (van Krieken, 1990).

The major conclusions we can draw from this and other criticisms are, first, that there seems to be a need to push Elias’ own work towards a more dialectical understanding of social relations and historical development, one which grasps the often contradictory character of social and psychic life. This applies both in relation to social relations and the conflicting consequences of state societies organized around the logic of the market, as well as in relation to psychic processes and the contradictory dynamics between our affects, desires and impulses and the requirements of social relationships. Elias himself moved in this direction in his later writings, and the issue can be seen as one of ‘reading back’ this conceptual shift into his earlier writings. This issue is particularly significant in coming to an adequate understanding of ‘civilized barbarism,’ of how it is possible for dehumanizing violence to continue at both an individual and collective level at the very same time that we appear to be becoming increasingly civilized. An important question, then, is the extent to which civilization in Elias’ sense actually generates barbaric conduct, rather than simply being its opposite.

Second, Elias’ concentration on state-formation and social differentiation in his earlier writings appears to require modification, to take account both of alternative aspects of social organization which can have almost identical civilizing effects, and of the diverse, often barbaric effects of state-formation, indeed the brutality lying at the heart of almost every nation-state (van Krieken, 1999). This is particularly significant in relation to developing a less linear view of European history, to the ways in which we approach non-Western societies and the relations between civilizations and cultures across the globe. An important area of research will thus be working through many of these arguments in relation to parts of the world other than Europe. For example, it is debatable how well Elias’ analysis works even for the United States, with its weaker centralization of authority and a state with a much shakier hold on the monopoly of the means of violence. The way in which one might analyse civilizing processes outside Western Europe remains an under-examined area of study. Central here is the question of colonialism and imperialism, the ways in which nation-states have established a brutal and violent relationship between their own ‘civilization’ and the supposedly ‘barbaric’ cultures of subjected peoples. This applies both to the ways in which Europeans dealt with their colonies, and the ways in which nation-states such as the USA, Canada and Australia based their civilization on an essentially violent and barbaric relationship with their respective indigenous peoples.

Third, the theoretical injunction to see planned, intentional action as interwoven with unplanned social processes can be explored in much greater detail in analyses of processes of civilization. Dealing with this problem will also establish much clearer linkages between Elias’ work and that of social and cultural historians generally, as well as the arguments of thinkers such as Weber and Foucault (van Krieken, 1990).

Elias and Sociology Today

Because of the comparative lateness of both his own university career and his appearance within English-language sociology, Elias’ presence in sociological thought is not as strong as it might have been. Although leading sociologists like Lewis Coser have been generally supportive, there has been no real ‘champion’ of Elias’ work in the United States, as Parsons was for Weber, Mills and Gouldner for Marx, or Levine and Coser for Simmel. Despite this late start, Elias’ work has had a powerful impact on sociology worldwide since the 1970s, and it also has enormous potential to contribute even more, both to a reorientation of contemporary sociological theory, and to a wide range of topics in empirical social research, with great promise of generating powerful lines of enquiry, explanation and debate.

Lewis Coser referred to him as ‘one of the most significant sociological thinkers of our day’ (1980: 194) and Zygmunt Bauman described him as ‘indeed a great sociologist’ (1979: 123). ‘Long before American scholars had discovered the idea of historical sociology,’ wrote Christopher Lasch, ‘Elias understood the possibilities of this new genre and worked them out with an imaginative boldness that still surpasses later studies in this vein’ (1985: 705). Anthony Giddens describes his work as ‘an extraordinary achievement, anticipating issues which came to be generally explored in social theory only at a much later date’ (1992: 389). Elias’ teaching, writing and ideas are gradually exercising an increasingly pervasive influence on an everwidening circle of sociologists as well as a broader lay public, in an expanding number of countries and languages, and he is now starting to take his place in the sociology textbooks and dictionaries (Ritzer, 1996: 511-24; Waters, 1994: 196-8). Intellectual ‘impact’ is notoriously difficult to measure, but one can look, just as an indication, at citations in Sociological Abstracts, where Elias is referred to at a rate similar to Bourdieu, Giddens, Goffman, Luhmann, Mannheim, Derrida, Merton, Mills, Althusser, Baudrillard and Wallerstein.

In relation to the research utility of Elias’ ideas, a growing number of books and articles on topics including sexuality (Hawkes, 1996), crime (Pratt, 1998, 1999), national and ethnic identity (Stauth, 1997), globalization (Mignolo, 1998), in a variety of disciplines, make positive reference to Elias as an important reference point if not an authority on the history of emotions, identity, violence (Fletcher, 1997), the body (Turner, 1984) and state formation (de Swaan, 1988).

His analysis of court society, for example, has significant implications for the sociology of organizations, especially organizational culture and power relations within organizations (Dopson and Waddington, 1996; Newton, 1999; van Krieken, 1996). His ideas are important for the analysis of consumption and the role of representation in the construction of subjective identity (Finkelstein, 1991, 1996; Ogborn, 1995). The work of Steven Shapin (1994) and Mario Biagioli (1993) in the history of science has indicated the importance of the development of particular types of ‘civility’ for the emergence of the practices of modern science. His sociology of sport and leisure serves as a springboard for detailed studies of the intersection between increasingly globalized and commercialized forms of sport and the formation of national and individual identities—the Olympic Games are only the most obvious example here (Dunning, 1999; Dunning and Rojek, 1992).

The position of concepts such as ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’ has never been satisfactorily resolved in theories of social change, and as sociologists continue to wrestle with their possible utility, Elias’ approach to long-term processes of development and change remains a useful reference point. Civilizing processes have often operated through the prism of ‘health,’ which serves as an organizing principle for what constitutes ‘civilization,’ so that the sociology of health and illness is an arena in which Elias’ concepts are being used to analyse the long-term development of health, medical knowledge and public health (Pinell, 1996). In general his work has played a central role in the resurgence of historical sociology over the past few decades. As Goudsblom (1997) has argued recently, one useful way to think of Elias’ work is in terms of a linkage of historical sociology with symbolic interactionism, a combination which develops the strengths of both fields of scholarship in a way which neither does on its own.

The theory of established-outsider relations also has potential for a deeper sociological understanding of the dynamics of multiculturalism and racism, especially in the current context of increasing international migration and mixtures of cultural identities within nation-states (Wacquant, 1997). As social interaction becomes increasingly organized around computers and the Internet, the sociological understanding of this development will benefit enormously from seeing it as a particular social figuration based on changing patterns and lengthening chains of interdependency. Computer-mediated communication and social interaction can thus be seen as exercising a particular kind of civilizing, and decivilizing, effect, constructing a corresponding ‘net habitus’ among increasing numbers of people around the globe. As a set of sensitizing concepts, then, Elias’ ideas have been exercising a gradually widening influence on contemporary sociological theory and research. Like Foucault, with whom he is often compared (Burkitt, 1993; Dean, 1994; Ogburn, 1995; Smith, 1999; van Krieken, 1990), more and more sociologists and social theorists are finding that Elias is ‘good to think with.’


Elias himself would not have used the term ‘radical,’ but it may be the best way to describe his approach to sociology. At a time when most sociologists turned away from history and poured scorn on the dangers of evolutionism, he insisted on placing historical analysis and a concern with directional social development at the centre of sociological thought. He maintained a linkage between sociology and other human sciences such as psychology and history while the discipline became increasingly isolated and fragmented. He argued for the importance of transcending the boundaries of nation-states and thinking in terms of ‘humanity as a whole’ well before social scientists started using the term ‘globalization.’ His conceptualization of history in terms of long-term processes subjects, arguably more effectively than any of the existing critiques, the self-assessment of ‘modernity’ itself to critical analysis. This also means that he did not accept the notion that we have entered a ‘postmodern’ period; indeed, he preferred to describe us today as ‘late barbarians’ (1988: 190) living at the closing of the Middle Ages. Like Bruno Latour (1993), Elias felt that ‘we have never been modern,’ let alone become postmodern.

The overarching theme of Elias’ sociology was the question of human barbarism and its relation to whatever we might wish to call civilization. Alvin Gouldner once complained about Elias’ work that violence had not been eliminated in contemporary civilizations, it had simply been transformed from explicit ferocity to ‘passionless, impersonal callousness, in which more persons than ever before in history are now killed or mutilated with the flick of a switch … where killing occurs without personal rancour and the massacre of nations may be ordered without a frown’ (1981: 418). This was, however, exactly the point Elias was trying to address: how to understand such a development and, more importantly, to develop a sense of what it was about the way our social relations are ordered, and have developed in the long term, which may make it possible to move beyond the mere ‘civilization’ of barbarism to its genuine elimination. His theory of civilizing processes was above all concerned with the problem of when and how civilization takes place, an analysis of the extent to which we have come to treat each other more humanely, precisely in order to identify how we might continue such a change into the future and live with each other with neither ferocity nor callousness.