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Norbert Elias (1897 – 1990) and Figurational Sociology


·        Biography: bon in Breslau (Wroclaw); influence of Karl Mannheim and Alfred Weber (Frankfurt, 1920s); exile in London (working in British Museum 1930s), internment during WWII, sociology at Leicester 1950s and 1960s; Amsterdam 1970s to 1990.


·        Main works: The Civilising Process, The Court Society  (1939); The Established and the Outsiders (with Eric Dunning); The Germans (1960s – 1980s), Involvement and Detachment,  Quest for Excitement, What is Sociology? (1970)


·        Minor Works: The Symbol Theory, Mozart, The Loneliness of the Dying, Time (these are of varying quality/readability to say the least)


·        Main theoretical claims:


·              1.  to overcome the split between subjectivist and objectivist sociology: e.g. Weberian and Durkheimian, Goffman and Parsons  ((The Civilising Process (1930s) says little explicitly about this - by the late 60s Elias believed it had widened, so his justifications of his approach became more vocal); this split is hard to overcome because it has become part of ideas about modern identity: ‘I am distinct from my roles/social involvements, I can distance myself from them’.  Sociology has to be doubly reflexive, and distance itself from this very conception.  We need to be able to explain where this sense of inwardness or reserve (cf. Simmel on the city) comes from, not simply assume its validity. 


·              2.  insistence on importance of history  and how it has been neglected by American sociology (cf. essays ‘The Retreat of Sociologists into the Present’, ‘The Concept of Everyday Life’ – irony of this – American sociology did much to revive historical sociology – Moore, Skocpol, Bendix, Eisenstadt etc) 


·        Two main theoretical tools:


·              1.  appeal to Freudian drive theory (aggressive instincts, emotional economy of individuals);


·               2. particular conception of social structure: Elias is a theorist of social integration (relationship between individuals and groups is key – e.g. classes) NOT a theorist of system integration (where relationship between parts of a system are key – e.g. ‘the economy, ‘the polity, ‘law’ etc.) – see Lockwood’s essay; the relationship between social classes is conceptualised as a configuration, or shape.  Elias struggles to provide an image– e.g. a dance.  The point of this metaphor?  Dances don’t exist separately from the people dancing (‘society’ doesn’t exist separately from people who make it up)  Sometimes he uses ‘game models’ but not v. successfully. (see lecture on metaphor)


·        Civilising process:


·              1. ‘Zivilisation’ is a loaded concept in German life and letters (French, opposed to German Kultur – see Thomas Mann, also Wolf Lepenies’ books on this)


·              2.  For Elias civilisation is a technical term designating: growing capacity for self-restraint; deferral of gratification; decrease in levels of everyday violence, lowering of shame thresholds (regarding violence or dirt (compare Mary Douglas) ; decreasing range of emotions/moods swings.  So: we can write a history of manners, e.g. regarding food, sex, bodily functions etc., we can take these physical phenomena and show them to have a sociological history.


·              3. Elias identifies a link between civilising process and two main factors: pacification of territory through monopolisation of means of physical force (culminating in the modern state in Weber’s definition of it); increasingly long chains of interdependence between people.


·              4.  Not much attention to religion (compare Weber); education (compare Foucault);


·              5.  civilising process is long and gradual BUT Elias does construct a tentative stage model:


·                          a) middle ages: competition between nobles who are also warriors, absence of monopoly, weak princes, warrior class not dependent on other classes.  Everyday violence makes sense as a means of pursuing power (‘Changes in Aggressiveness’ in The Civilising Process)


·                          b) consolidation of realms, growth of monopoly of force (beginnings of modern taxation), early modern states, harder to pursue power through force; growth of European courts, transformation of warriors into courtiers (the royal mechanism – e.g. court of Versailles is not for mere display and ritual, but is a power mechanism.  Central to this mechanism is refinement of manners.  Monarch become dependent on a greater number of non-nobles for finance, leads to increasing interaction between classes; power struggles channelled through ever more elaborate forms of etiquette; e.g. table manners become more and more elaborate (invention of fork, arrangement of utensils, courses etc.) 


·                          c) market society – ever more interdependence between classes, bourgeoisie is the first ruling class in history that works; manners developed in court society do not get refined any further, but are diffused through other channels (‘imitation’, partly through education, though education often linked to religion – secular standards have an elective affinity with Christian ideas about asceticism, self-control – Elias is vague on the connection between them)



·        Applications of this approach:

·              1. The Germans –  how does this deal with Nazism and growth of everyday violence in a modern state?  Elias forced to test applicability of his model – Germany never had centralised political courtly culture like France/Britain until late; collapse of Germany after 1918, proliferation of private armies, no monopoly of physical force; German Junker class – ethos of physical violence duelling) and high shame thresholds, wide range of formal and informal behaviour  (officers – formality within own class, letting go with prostitutes) 


·        Criticisms of Elias:

1.      Nothing on history of ideas (reformation?  Enlightenment?  Renaissance?)

2.      not much on content of education

3.      assumption that state’s monopoly of physical force is a good thing

4.      large leaps of reasoning needed to connect social constraint with self-constraint

5.      overemphasis on power seeking and class interdependence as an explanation for the emergence of manners (compare Mary Douglas on role of symbolism in our ideas about shame and repugnance)