“In Western Europe societies since the Middle Ages, a more or less continuous elaboration and refinement of manners and social standards can be shown to have taken place....an increase on people to exercise greater social control.” Dunning, E. (1989) in Rojek, C. (ed) Leisure for Leisure. Critical Essays. MacMillan, London. Discuss the quotation concerning the figurational approach to sociology using sporting and non-sporting examples to illustrate your arguments.

Lyn Winter

This essay looks at figurational sociology and its concept of ‘the civilising process’ outlined in the question.  Firstly, it gives a brief overview of the theories of this process and of figurations.  Followed by examination of the examples of football, boxing, table manners, sexual behaviour, crime, death and food production.  Some of the criticisms of this approach are considered and finally the influence of figurationalism in the sociology of sport and leisure is examined.

The quotation in the question is a brief summing up of the civilising process developed by Norbert Elias as part of his development of the figurational approach to sociology.  Elias claimed that a new approach to sociology was needed to avoid the dualisms found in many other theories and perspectives (Elias and Dunning 1986).  For example, the work/leisure basis of functionalist work (Parker 1983), the male/female starting point of feminist writers (Green et al in Critcher et al 1995) and the class dichotomy of Marxist commentators (Clarke and Critcher 1985).  In trying to reconcile these problems and retain a scientific approach, Elias maintained that it was necessary to retain a detachment or ‘separation from oneself’ for objective research, as society is formed by ‘oneself and other people together’ (1970:13). 

Elias developed the theory that individuals formed different interdependent figurations or interconnecting webs which influence in different ways (1970).  For example, the individual who exists within a family figuration, a school figuration, an industrial figuration and as part of local and national figurations.  Therefore, in order to understand social behaviour it is necessary for its study to be within the context of these complex interdependencies.  Within the figurations, balances of power will vary and exert different pressures, in both directions, affecting individual and group behaviour in terms of restraint or enablement (Rojek 1985).  Other examples of figurations could be tourism, where the figurations could include the people taking the trip, the media or advertising agencies, family influences, community expectations, accommodation providers, local authorities, national and international regulators, to name just a few. 

This work is similar to Giddens theory of structuration which aimed to overcome the problem of structure verses social action as explained in Harlambos and Holborn (1995).  Structural approaches, such as Marxism or Functionalist, see society as dictating human behaviour, whereas social action theories see society formed by the actions of individuals.  Giddens, like Elias, maintained that both are true, as either one approach alone is too simplistic and ignores various influences and power struggles.  Where Elias differs from Giddens is in his theory of the civilising process.

Dunning in Rojek (1989) tells us that the civilising process is the cornerstone of figurational sociology.  This process is one where, historically, there has been a general trend towards greater constraint of emotions and behaviour which acts to regulate behaviour and suppress aggressive tendencies.  As the interdependency chains have lengthened to include more influence from local, national and international figurations so the effect of the civilising process has increased.  Elias and Dunning (1986) used the area of sport and leisure to research their theories. 

Two of the examples they use are football and boxing.  By looking at these sports in an historic context, they maintain that a move towards more regulated behaviour, with less tolerance towards aggression, has occurred.  They look at football and its origins in what they call ‘folk games’, where a large crowd would take on another large team to transport a ball, or other item, from one location to another.  While there were some limitations on the play in terms of start and finish, it was very aggressive and unregulated in comparison to the game of soccer played on a limited pitch, with rules and sanctions to curb what is considered inappropriate behaviour  Today, as well as within the teams, there are interdependency links with the supporters, committees, league structures, refereeing bodies, local authorities and national governments. 

Evidence from boxing is also used to demonstrate the civilising process.  Bare fist fighting again had fewer restraints and regulation.  Legs and feet, as well as fists, were also used to inflict injury and there was no authority responsible for control of events.  Over a period of time, this changed to incorporate boxing rings to contain the movement, officially appointed referees and Boards of Control.  Rules continue to be introduced to protect areas of the anatomy from serious injury and codes to regulate training.

Outside of sport, examples of the civilising process could be seen in table manners, sexual behaviour and our detachment from crime, death and even food processing.  Rojek (1985) looks at historical changes in table manners as evidence of the civilising theory.  He states that in the thirteenth century it was common at a meal table for people to belch, break wind and use the table cloth to blow ones nose.  Over the centuries to the present day a refinement of table manners has occurred that now make those habits unacceptable and  new codes of manners have been developed to introduce new practices, such as passing a knife by the blade or not placing elbows on the table. 

Rojek(1985) also tells us of sexual behaviour which in the Middle Ages would have been much more casual and less inhibited.  People would be less self conscious about undressing and sharing casual sexual relations with maybe little opportunity in some homes for privacy, making it difficult for others in the household not to be aware of the activities.  Today sexual activity takes place mostly in private, to the extent of shielding others, especially children, from witnessing the behaviour.

Other examples could be present day detachments from such things as crime, death and food processing.  Historically these things would all have been dealt with fairly locally.  Prior to the introduction of a national police force local communities would have dealt with crime, maybe violently and with little sense of rights for the accused.  Today we pay the police, judiciary, prison and probation services to deal with these matters for us, and the rights of the accused or the convicted are matters of public concern.  In a similar way when an individual dies, it is possible for the body to be dealt with completely by others, with no individual direct contact with the corpse.  Prior to the introduction of professionals to deal with these processes, families or local communities would have had to deal with all the necessary procedures to dispose of a body.  Also the killing and preserving of food no longer needs to concern us as individuals if we don’t want it to.  Whereas at one time it would have been more common for individuals and local communities to provide food for consumption and be involved in the breeding, rearing, slaughter or harvesting, preparation and preserving of food.  Today we can choose to buy our food already prepared and even pre-cooked, thus distancing ourselves from what we may consider to be the less appealing aspects of food provision. 

One aspect of the theory of the civilising process is the mimetic nature of sport and leisure.  This, Rojek (1995) informs us, is the way in which our leisure activities allow us to abandon restraints on our naturally aggressive or less controlled behaviour in a socially acceptable form.  For example, when watching a film, theatre production or a sporting fixture we can transfer strong emotional feelings, which are generally kept under control into the enjoyment of the drama or sport.  This links with Freud’s theory of displacement as a defence mechanism by the sub conscious mind.  While this theory is often accepted as common sense, it is, at this time, impossible to prove or disprove.  Likewise, the mimetic nature of sport and leisure is impossible to prove, as it would stem from the subconscious, which it could be argued, is impossible to access for controlled analysis or experimentation.

Criticisms of the civilising process by Newman (1986) on the evidence of examples of contemporary aggression and violence, such as football hooliganism, acts of terrorism or sexual harassment, have been countered by Dunning in Rojek (1989) and Elias (1970).  They claim that the civilising process is not always a straightforward, unchanging move in the direction of more controlled behaviour.  There can be changes of direction and periods of struggle which slow or change the process in the short term.  But in the long term, figurationalists maintain that the process of a move towards more restraint and less aggression in sport and leisure can be observed.  It may be that the word ‘civilising’ is a problem with its connotations of ‘better’ or ‘superior’.  More restrained behaviour is not necessarily better or more civilised, just different.  What is clear is that, historically, there has been a change in behaviour considered by the majority as socially acceptable.

Another major criticism of the figurational approach is that it is purely historical and cannot predict trends for the future (Bauman1990).  The best that it can do is establish where any society is in the process at any given time.  Elias and Dunning (1986) say that this can be established by observing the extent of that society’s control over natural events, its control over inter-human connections and the extent of individuals learned control.  This problem means that the approach is of little use to governments or leisure providers who wish to predict demand for services.  Horne and Jary in Horne et al (1987) also add that by discounting other methodologies and approaches, Elias remained limited in his focus.

If this approach is limited to Western Europe since the Middle Ages then research into development of the civilising effect in other countries and prior to the Middle Ages would be useful.  This could give additional evidence and shows other areas for further research which may be useful to understanding.

Feminist writers such as Hargreaves (1986) criticise Dunning for ignoring the social production of gender relations in and through sport.  She also accuses the civilising process of glossing over “contradictory forces and fragmented patterns of social development.” (1986:111).  Dunning and Maguire (1996) look at gender issues in sport from a figurational perspective and conclude that:

males can use sport to reinforce masculinity and often resist female participation in sport on an equal basis, the patriarchal nuclear family equalised power relations between the sexes and enabled females to exercise greater control,putting females on a pedestal lessened the incidence of violence against them and as females became more assertive so violence against women increased, and thatthere has been a shift in gender power relations with greater female participation in sport we see an equalising trend and more female empowerment.

Together these findings are used by Dunning and Maguire (1996) as evidence to further prove the civilising effect.

Contemporary artwork is an area which could cause dispute as to whether or not it proves or disproves the civilising process.  Many modern artists push the boundaries of acceptable media in their artwork.  Artists such as Danien Hurst, Antony-Noel Kelly and Marc Quinn who use bodily waste, fluids, human or animal parts in their work could be seen as contradicting or proving Elias’s theory.  The fact that artists are using such media for paintings or sculptures could be seen as uncivilised and no different to more historical practices such as the impaling of the heads of executed victims in public places.  Those sympathetic to the figurational approach may say that our tolerance, or our intolerance, of these practices proves that there has been a change in attitude towards what is acceptable in art.

The influence of the figurational approach to the sociology of sport and leisure varies according to the perspective of the commentator.  Elias first wrote his theories in German in 1939 but due to the war and the need for him to establish his career in England, having fled Nazi Germany, so it was not until 1978 and 1982 that his two volumes were published in English and became available to mainstream sociology for examination, Rojek (1995).  Critics of figurationalism, seek to minimise its importance depending on their own sociological perspective.  For example, feminists would argue that figurationalism ignores the patriarchal nature of society, and functionalists, that it ignores social structure.  Supporters of Elias, such as Dunning, see his theories as opening up a new perspective on sociological thought which goes further in explaining social behaviour than previous theories.

In conclusion then, the figurational approach to social study is important to consider along with the other approaches.  I feel that the concept of figurations goes further than other approaches in explaining social behaviour than other perspectives because it acknowledges the multiplicity of influences on society and individuals.  The civilising process has come under greatest criticism.  This could be due to ambiguity over the meaning of the word ‘civilised’.  There is still much behaviour considered uncivilised evident in all societies and difficulties occur when the same evidence can be used to prove or disprove a theory, such as in discussions on contemporary art.  Dunning (1996) himself maintained that the figurational approach was never intended as the final word on the sociology of leisure, but merely a contribution to overcoming some of the problems with existing theories.  In that respect, I feel it has been very useful and has opened up the debate about the study of social behaviour. With study based on sport and leisure it has also reiterated the importance of the study of leisure within social thought.


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