Norbert Elias Research Paper

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Born on June 22, 1897 to Jewish parents in Breslau (now Wroc aw, Poland), then part of Germany, Elias, after completing his secondary education, first set out to study medicine, but soon changed to philosophy. Only after having completed his dissertation in that discipline in 1925 did he turn to sociology, pursuing his studies at Heidelberg, then one of the leading universities in Germany. He was accepted by Alfred Weber, Max Weber’s brother, as a candidate for the Habilitation (conferring qualification as a university lecturer or professor), but when his colleague and friend Karl Mannheim obtained a chair at the University of Frankfurt, Elias followed him in 1930 as his assistant. His thesis for the Habilitation was completed by the beginning of 1933, but with the Nazis having taken over power in Germany, Elias had to flee, leaving Germany first for France, and then, in 1935, for London, on a grant from a philanthropic organization. Between 1935 and 1938, he completed his now famous two-volume Uber den Prozeß der Zivilisation (The Civilizing Process), which, as a book in the German language published on the eve of WW II, did not receive much attention before republication in 1969. Elias remained in England where he obtained a post as lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester but not before 1954. After retirement in 1962, he spent 2 years as professor of sociology in Ghana. Later on, he moved first to Amsterdam and then to Bielefeld (Germany), and was also invited to a number of European universities as visiting professor during the 1970s. In the mid-1980s he moved back to Amsterdam where he died on August 1, 1990 (on his biography, see Elias 1990 and Mennell 1989). Only during the 1970s, after a few sporadic articles, he had begun to publish extensively, first in English and later on, during his Amsterdam and Bielefeld years, drawing much on older manuscripts, in German. Some of the manuscripts were published only after his death.

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There are few sociologists for whom knowledge about their biography is as central in understanding both their fate as a sociologist and their influence on the discipline as in the case of Elias. His first major book, and by far the most influential one, was not recognized as a masterpiece before his retirement as a university teacher. During the 1950s and 1960s, Elias seemingly was cut off, and cut himself off from his former German contacts, such as Theodor W. Adorno. Neither he nor those very few sociologists who acknowledged the outstanding achievement of Uber den Prozeß der Zi ilisation (e.g., Johan Goudsblom or Dieter Claessens) were successful in campaigning for this book. It only became famous in the early 1970s, when copies of the 1969 edition began to circulate among students and when a best-selling German paperback edition appeared in 1976. Translations into about 15 languages testify to the wide interest the book still attracts. Elias later complained about the insufficient recognition of his other works he published, among other subjects, on the sociology of sciences (Elias 1974), on time (Elias 1988), on relationships between the established and the outsiders (Elias and Scotson 1965), on sports (Elias 1970a) and even on topics such as Mozart (Elias 1991a) or The Loneliness of the Dying (Elias 1987a). Yet, without any doubt Uber den Prozeß der Zi ilisation is by far his most important, and probably also his only truly original contribution to sociology.

This is not to say that this work, like his others, does not draw on many concepts and notions developed by fellow sociologists. The idea of conceiving of society in terms of processes, instead of states, the absence of which from contemporary sociology was a reiterating theme in Elias’s writings from the 1960s onwards, was firmly rooted not only in those American and English sociologists, such as M. Ginsburg and W. Osgood, whom Elias began to study in London in 1935 (van Krieken 1998, pp. 26–28), but also in important strands of German sociology, not least two thinkers whose work he was surely well acquainted with, Karl Mannheim and Alfred Weber. From the latter, he probably borrowed the notion of the civilizing process (Weber 1920), but giving it an entirely different content, as Weber by that term referred to the continual accumulation of knowledge, conceived of as a transition from ‘naivite’ to reflection and to mastering of nature (a theme that is not entirely absent from Elias’s late writings). Other important influences that are easily recognized were Sigmund Freud and the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, whose Herftij de middeleeuwe (Huizinga 1924) was Elias’s dominant source on the late Middle Ages. But the blend Elias formed from these, and other ideas (such as traces of Darwinism or even Malthusianism), together with his own research, was decidedly unique.

The main achievement lies in the rigor with which Elias portrays the development of certain forms of conduct or manners, and ties this development to large-scale processes of state-formation and modernization on the one hand, and the concomitant effects on the psychic level, above all the display of emotions, on the other. The first volume of Uber den Prozeß der Zivilisation, drawing on a variety of etiquette manuals, lucidly describes how norms of conduct we now think as self-evident, such as our eating habits, or norms concerning bodily functions including nakedness and sexuality, gradually developed from the Middle Ages onwards (with the selection of this ‘starting point’ not meant to imply that the process had not begun before that time). The Middle Ages are described as a time when man could answer needs and desires more spontaneously, when emotions were displayed with much less restraint. The gradual replacement of fingers with forks and knives at the table, the diffusion of the idea that spitting or blowing one’s nose onto the ground or into the fingers are to be considered embarrassments to others, or the refinement and suppression of violence—all these are examples of the changes of our outward, overt behavior in the direction of increasing ‘civilization.’ These changes are accompanied by a gradual shift of the psychic apparatus which is characterized by an increasing influence of the super-ego (especially feelings of shame and embarrassment), and also of the ego, over the human drives, or the id, and by a restriction of affects and impulses, a ‘damping’ of the amplitude of the swings of emotion.

These developments were, in the second volume of Uber den Prozeß der Zi ilisation, analyzed as embedded in large-scale historical processes. The rise of the European empires, especially French absolutism, and the concomitant development of monopolies of violence on the state level restrained aggressive behavior in everyday conduct. The French court was also the site where the nobility developed those manners that were continually refined in the courtiers’ competition for the king’s favor (a process described in more detail in Elias 1969). These manners also served as elements of distinction of the entire nobility in contrast to the bourgeoisie—but to no avail, as the latter, and later on also other social strata, began to imitate and to take over the nobility’s patterns of behavior. These interdependencies are part of the overall process of modernization, especially of social differentiation, which requires of modern man a degree of reflection, foresight, and calculation unknown to medieval man. The distinctive overall characteristic of this process is the increasing internalization of social constraints, or the gradual replacement of ‘outer’ constraints by self-constraint—a self-constraint we are only sometimes conscious of, as it is routinized and habitualized, or incorporated, in our everyday conduct.

The main thrust of the book thus resonates well with a theme that has become central to the social sciences and the humanities in the 1970s: the investigation of domination, or constraint, not (only) on the (macro) level of relationships between social groups, but rather as it makes itself felt on the (micro) level of emotions and of individual conduct. It is a topic that can be found in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, or of Michel Foucault of the mid-1970s, who both echoed, albeit with very different emphasis (and seemingly without relating to Elias), the ‘discontents of civilization’ Sigmund Freud had already articulated in the late 1920s. Elias’s account was perhaps received with even more sympathy as it nonetheless retained an optimistic tone. On the one hand, it was sensitive to the ‘costs of civilization’ that were felt by many at that time. On the other, Elias regarded the process of civilization as possibly leading to a balance between individual needs and the requirements of social life and in the long run to a more peaceful world society.

The uniqueness of Uber den Prozeß der Zivilisation has two (related) dimensions: In terms of content, it lies in its blend of sociology with historical and psychological insight. In terms of method, it lies in its linking of grand theory with careful scrutiny of detail. Many sociologists would readily acknowledge that sociology has to look at historical processes; however, few, if any, have actually delivered a picture that so vividly describes the changes in people’s manners and habits that have occurred from the Middle Ages onwards. Elias indeed gave a detailed description of how ‘medieval man’ (women are indeed largely absent from his account) gradually became ‘modern man’; that is, where others have rendered snapshots, Elias has produced a movie. We can indeed understand that medieval man, as depicted by Elias (i.e., more impulsive, aggressive, and yielding to emotions than modern man) is alive today, but in a more suppressed, constrained way.

This, together with its often lucid language, largely free of sociological jargon, has rendered Uber den Prozeß der Zi ilisation popular among a wider audience of non-specialists. It has also been received well by historians such as Robert Chartier or Robert Muchembled, and also in psychology and other humanities. This is not meant to imply that Elias has triggered new research agendas in these disciplines; rather, his work was considered as congenial and as providing an overarching framework for research that had been devoted to similar topics, but without his broad, all-encompassing approach. At the same time, it is often concluded that by assuming a long-term trend towards ‘more civilized’ behavior, Elias possibly has drawn too far-reaching conclusions. While accusations of eurocentrism in his work easily can be refuted, the observation that other cultures have developed comparable standards of civilization (in Elias’s sense) remains a challenge to the theory. It is also questioned whether medieval man indeed was so different. Certainly some of what Elias says on the display of emotions is valid; but the Middle Ages also had highly developed cultural rules for constraining and guiding behavior. A related problem is that Elias in the final analysis was not able to account for the cruelties of the twentieth century, not least those of Nazism. Elias certainly was aware of the ambivalences of civilization, but they were recognized by him mostly on the individual level, to the neglect of the dangers inherent in such seemingly civilized (and civilizing) forces such as modern technics or the state monopoly of violence. It must be added that during his late life, he became more sensitive to these issues, but still arguing fervently in favour of the possibility (not the unavoidability) of worldwide peace.

Elias’s account exhibits serious lacunae also on the more factual level (van Krieken 1989). Among the deficiencies of Uber den Prozeß der Zi ilisation is the absence of an account of the processes through which the manners of conduct, described by Elias only with reference to the etiquette manuals, were effectively brought about by (private, and later on public) educational practices. Even more importantly, some presumably decisive conditions of modern civilization (in Elias’s understanding of that term) are entirely lacking. Among these, most conspicuous are, first, the disciplinary mechanisms that were invented or became more widespread during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, especially the school and the factory, an observation that also points to the almost complete absence of the working class from Elias’s work. Second, going further back in history, we also find a neglect of religion, certainly one of the most important sources of (European) civilization in the form of monastic discipline and more generally the religious prescriptions (and proscriptions), not least of protestantism.

Elias’s later theoretical work, claiming to develop a general ‘theory of human beings’ (Menschenwissenschaft), exerted little influence on sociology in general. The earlier focus on social processes in these later writings was complemented by more emphasis on the ‘figurational’ nature of society, a term coined by Elias to point out that man and society could and should be understood as relational entities (see especially Elias 1970b, 1987b). With that concept, he claimed to overcome the alleged dichotomy of individual and society that he saw prevailing in most other sociologists’ thought—an idea borne not so much from indepth acquaintance with sociological theorizing but rather from his desire, obvious in most of his late works, to portray himself as a unique innovator of sociological theory. Figurations were analyzed mainly in terms of power—or more exactly of power differentials—of the dynamics resulting from these, and finally of the outcomes which, as he often argued, cannot be understood as a realization of the purposes of social agents but rather as unintended consequences. In other words, his sociology was mainly a structural-relational one, with emphasis on the dynamics of social relations (in contrast to much of the 1930s to 1960s structuralism). The price was a neglect of individual motivation as well as of broader cultural systems of meanings, such as values or norms. The absence of such aspects from Elias’s sociology is perhaps a consequence of his reluctance, acquired very early in his grappling with philosophy, of conceding ideas an existence of their own. Only in his latest writings did he start to acknowledge the influence of systems of meaning and language (Elias 1988, 1991b). With respect to some sociologists’ claim to apply or to extend Elias’s figurational sociology, it must be borne in mind that he never developed anything approaching a systematic account. Therefore, references to this theory must be viewed as partly gratuitous, as the idea of a ‘relational’ sociology certainly is not Elias’s original contribution.

In contrast, fruitful inspirations continue to come from his theory of the civilizing process. Research in this spirit is accomplished above all in those places where he spent the last two decades of his life, that is, The Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, and also Germany, whereas in the USA, in spite of a few admirers such as Lewis A. Coser, his work has not met with wide attention. There have been fine extensions of the theory to specific phenomena such as eating practices, the history of marriage, or the domestification of fire, demonstrating how Elias’s ideas are especially applicable to aspects of everyday cultural practices. But there are also attempts at rendering his approach useful to macro-analyses, such as in de Swaan’s (1988) work on the development of modern welfare states. There is still much debate concerning the idea of civilization as an irreversible process and its relationship to modernity. While some researchers have explored the possibilities, and the conditions, of decivilizing processes, others have investigated processes of informalization, that is, the development of less restricted, destandardized norms of behavior, a topic on which Elias (1992, pp. 33–60) commented himself in one of his last works. Overall, it seems to be difficult to use Elias’s ideas on the civilizing process as a starting point for really new developments; rather, much research focuses on applications of his insights to as yet unexplored phenomena, or on refining the theory in order to make it capable to account for phenomena that seem to contradict it at first sight.


  1. de Swaan A 1988 In Care of the State. Health Care, Education and Welfare in Europe and the USA in the Modern Era. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. Elias N 1969 Die hofische Gesellschaft. Luchterhand, Neuwied (1983 The Court Society. Pantheon, New York)
  3. Elias N 1970a The genesis of sport as a sociological problem. In: Dunning E (ed.) The Sociology of Sport. Cass, London
  4. Elias N 1970b Was vist Soziologie? Juventa-Verlag, Munich (1978 What is Sociology? Hutchinson, London)
  5. Elias N 1974 The sciences: Towards a theory. In: Whitley R (ed.) Social Processes of Scientific Development. Routledge & K. Paul, London
  6. Elias N 1939/1976 Uber den Prozeβ der Zivilisation. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main (1978 1982 The Civilizing Process. Blackwell, Oxford, UK)
  7. Elias N 1987a Uber die Einsamkeit der Sterbenden in unseren Tagen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main (1985 The Loneliness of the Dying. Blackwell, Oxford, UK)
  8. Elias N 1987b Die Gesellschaft der Individuen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main (1991 The Society of Individuals. Blackwell, Oxford, UK)
  9. Elias N 1988 Uber die Zeit. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main (1992 Time: An Essay. Blackwell, Oxford, UK)
  10. Elias N 1990 Uber sich selbst. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main (1994 Reflections on a Life. Polity, Cambridge, UK)
  11. Elias N 1991a Mozart. Zur Soziologieveines Genies. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main (1993 Mozart. Portrait of a Genius. Polity, Cambridge, UK)
  12. Elias N 1991b The Symbol Theory. Sage, London
  13. Elias N 1992 Studien uber die Deutschen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurtam-Main (1996 The Germans. Blackwell, Oxford, UK)
  14. Elias N, Scotson J L 1965 The Established and the Outsiders. Cass, London
  15. Huizinga J 1924 Herftij de middeleeuwe. (1972 The Waning of the Middle Ages. Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK)
  16. Mennell S 1989 Norbert Elias: Civilization and the Human Self-image. Blackwell, Oxford (Norbert Elias: An Introduction; reprint of this version 1998 at University College Dublin Press, Dublin)
  17. van Krieken R 1989 Violence, self-discipline and modernity. Beyond the Civilizing Process? Sociological Review 37: 193– 218
  18. van Krieken R 1998 Norbert Elias. Routledge, New York, London
  19. Weber A 1920 Prinzipielles zur Kultursoziologie (Gesellschaftsprozeß, Zivilisationsprozeß, und Kulturbewegung). Archi fur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 47: 1–49
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