The Sociology of Norbert Elias

elias_P1_70_6.jpgGerman-born sociologist, who held academic posts in Germany, the United Kingdom, Ghana and the Netherlands, Norbert Elias‘s (1897-1990) approach to sociological inquiry is characterised by the use of highly detailed historical study, so that even theoretical questions are addressed in a highly concrete manner. His work covers such diverse issues as death (Elias 1985), time (Elias 1992), sport (Elias and Dunning 1986) and art (Elias 1993). His first major works, The Court Society and The Civilizing Process, both dating from the 1930s, already contain much that is distinctive to his sociology.

The two volumes of The Civilising Process (1939) ultimately address the problem of the relationship between the individual human being, and particularly the formation of individual personality, and the broader structures of society. The first volume develops a detailed account of the historical development of manners, etiquette and civilised behaviour from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Elias focuses upon the way in which the biological functions that are common to all human beings, such as eating, urination and defecation, spitting and sleeping, are managed, and how that which is embarrassing or shameful changes. He identifies a trend towards the greater management of their emotional lives on the part of adults. The second volume deals with the development of the European state during the same period. Elias’s underlying theoretical point, albeit one supported by a mass of historical evidence, is that the changes in the individual occur within a complex interweaving of processes within the structure of society. These include not merely the extension of state power (over the legitimate use of violence and monopolistic control of taxation), but also the increase in the division of labour, the expansion of urban living and trade, increased bureaucracy, and increasing populations. The individual is thus forced to live peaceably with ever larger numbers of other people. The process of civilisation may then be understood as the internalisation of what were originally external constraints, and that this internalisation leads to the constitution of modern individuality and individualism.

By the nineteenth century, European culture had forgotten the historical process that went into its formation. European standards of civilisation could therefore be presented as being of universal and ahistorical legitimacy, and be imposed upon others (both in colonies and in the subordinate classes within European societies). An important implication that Elias draws from this analysis entails a criticism of philosophy. He argues that the image of humanity drawn in Enlightenment philosophy (such as that of Descartes and Kant) is merely a product of its age, although it presents itself as universal. The rationalism and individuality of the Cartesian (or indeed Kantian) self is a reflection of the human mode of experience in post-Renaissance Europe. Elias terms this image homo clausus (closed man) and pits it against the homines aperti (open people) that informs sociological inquiry. Elias is arguing that even philosophical questions cannot be answered, or even properly addressed, through abstract reflection, because such reflection too readily takes as given much in the intellectual and emotional life of human beings that is actually historically constructed. Elias’s essay on time illustrates this. Time is not seen as an objective entity (as it is by physicists), nor yet as a metaphysical condition of human existence (as it might be by Kantians), but rather asocial phenomenon. Time is a symbol that facilitates the co-ordination of distinct sequences of change (including sequences of social activities), and thus the experience of time will vary according to the complexity of society, and the individual’s internalisation of that

Elias’s later works take these themes further, by engaging with the theory of science (1972, 1974) and by examining the relationship of human evolutionary and social change (in the context of a theory of communication) (1991a). Elias’s account of science stresses the greater ‘detachment’ that is achieved in the natural sciences (1987). The results of the sciences acquire greater relative autonomy from the conditions and historical traditions within which they are produced. These results can be more readily formulated as laws. In contrast, the social sciences are more emotionally charged. In part The Symbol Theory is an attempt  to give greater detachment to the social sciences, as it makes an initial attempt to synthesise the sciences, by embedding symbols (tangible physical patterns) and the development of the use of symbols by humans in an evolutionary context. Elias is not a reductionist, and one of the implicit targets of Symbol Theory (1991a) is socio-biology (with its assumption that human social processes can be explained through the principles of population biology), but nor does he wish to see culture interpreted as a realm that is wholly autonomous from nature or the rest of society.


Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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