Reading Guide to: Mennell, S (1992) Norbert Elias An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell

The Introduction sketches out Elias's intellectual and social history, and shows how the two have intertwined. For example , he studied medicine, producing some striking analogies, such as describing the 'complex interweaving of social interconnections into a... social tissue' (7)

Main theoretical interests turn on a rejection of universalism, as 'process reduction', especially a rejection of the view that searches for universal categories of Mind. This led to disputes with a number of rival theorists, including Mannheim, with whom Elias worked at Frankfurt, Popper, Parsons and phenomenologists. Against these theorists, Elias championed sociological investigation rather than philosophical, and the pursuit of objectivity as a matter of social detachment. the concept 'civilisation' was intended as more objective, in this sense, then the notion of 'culture', which had already taken on particular nationalistic connotations .

His personal experience of Nazism was formative too, leading to a suspicion of political ideology, and intention to critique myth, and a view that violence and rational organisation go together. Some of his main work was written in exile in London, although he was interned during World War 2. He moved to Leicester in the 1950s, and became interested in sport, partly from his teaching technique of choosing something interesting, and then doing a sociological analysis of it. Like all the best academics, he suffered from a lack of fashionability until the student up people's and the 1960s helped to rehabilitate him, especially in Holland, and later in Germany.

Chapter 2

This features the analysis of manners found in volume one of The Civilisation Process. The term 'civilisation' was meant to be a technical one, and related to the standards of the day. It consisted of a group of behaviours and their underlying psychological make-up. Elias coined the term 'habitus' ( borrowed by Bourdieu) to describe 'that level of personality characteristics which individuals share in common with fellow members of their social groups' (31). Civilisation turned on the long-term developments of such habituses. The process of civilisation was important, and it always involved a notion of social distanciation.

This can be demonstrated by examining the changes in manners, taking as evidence a number of early 'manners books', ranging from the 13th to the 19th century. These offered advice about etiquette and politeness, and began with the regulation of grosser forms of manners, such as burping or spitting, then tended to stress 'emotional management', clearly indicating rising 'thresholds of shame and embarrassment' (36). These trends were linked with changes in social contexts, especially those affecting the life of the secular upper classes, but other factors included the influence of the Church and the changing power relations between the sexes. The advice was aimed at a courtly audience first, but then spread to wider groups. It increasingly became focused on adult standards as well.

Some lovely examples of the advice are provided from page 38 onwards. Thus people were urged to blow their noses into the non engaged hand at dinner, or wipe their spoon before re-use. They were advised not to speak to anyone urinating or defecating, and advised to spit into the handkerchief or spittoon. There was advice about how to share beds with strangers.

The Renaissance led to a further interest in checking impulses, and a gradual awareness of the reactions of others, or possible reactions. There was a growing threshold of shame and repugnance, and a growing movement towards reserving certain activities to the private sphere. These standards were used to maintain social superiority, and increasingly built into child rearing. Thus personal feelings of guilt or discussed moved inward, and became self-restraint.

This growth of manners came before material changes such as the alleviation of poverty or the provision of facilities (such as proper cutlery). Freud is a better guide than Weber here. The whole movement was to do with rank and the need to respect one's betters by not coughing over them, which was later generalised. These changes did arise first in the upper classes and permeated down, but the barriers between social classes were diminishing, as a result of greater social circulation. Class was to reassert itself in the 16th century with the emergence of a new upper class formed from diverse elements, which displayed an anxiety about how members should relate to each other. This concern was later colonised by the new emergent bourgeoisie displaying even more heightened sensitivities.

Despite the diversity, there is a directional trend detectable, however, in that the immediate social referent for shame recedes in favour of impersonal compulsions [rather like a shift from mechanical to organic solidarity here]. Developing manners seems voluntarist and individual, but it is socialised: the inhibitions become internal and unconscious, displaying the trend towards self restraint. Greater distinctions also appeared between adults and children: adults were expected not only to have more self-restraint, but to control themselves more generally.

The same trends also affect the social rituals of death, sleeping, and appetite. Thus death becomes a repressed and privatised matter, sleep becomes a more regulated activity with the increase in industrial work, and appetites now have to be restrained. The same goes for sex, which becomes privatised, shameful, and implicated with different relations between men and women, and increasing distance between adults and children. Thus male desires were simply forced on to women in the medieval period, and marriage had little to do with love. The growing impersonal regulation of bourgeois sex excluded children, and gave them a sense of shame and awkwardness in talking about it. Violence also changed, from a routine part of the life of the warrior ruling classes, exercised with few inhibitions leading to considerable cruelty to prisoners and animals. Emotional volatility was also much greater. These impulses were tamed and refined in a number of ways, including the growth of disciplined killing in the military, and the increasing transference of emotions to spectators. Thus a civilising tendency might underpin Foucault's work on the transition from public executions to reforming imprisonment.

Chapter 3

This considers Volume 2 of The Civilising Process, and examines the political struggles between nobility, church, princes and the emergent bourgeoisie in the Middle Ages. The centrifugal forces of feudalism were reversed after the 11th century, and the state emerged through a process aimed at monopolising violence and taxation [a complex political and social history ensues]. In political terms, the consequence was that power was dispersed, that the absence of taxes weakened central administration. Social changes contributing to this trend included overpopulation, producing reserve armies of both knights and labourers, strengthen social barriers and hierarchies. Centralisation was eventually able to build on unifying forces such as the growth of towns, trade, transport, longer chains of exchange, and the growth of the money economy -- but there is no economic determinism here. As examples of complexity : the growth of monopolies also emerged, from both military and economic forces; economic trade helped political centralisation, and then vice-versa; the outcome of these trends were not at all predictable, so that, for example boundaries between states remained fluid, and emerged.

The whole description serves as an example of the dynamics of social figurations. Once started, the processes become compelling in their own right, but an accidental variation can be very significant, especially at the start. The politics of the period also displays a whole 'system of tensions' (73).

This can be seen by examining the emergence of the monarchy. Although ruling by divine right, monarchs were highly dependent on certain social apparatuses to exercise effective rule. This forced monarchs to consider the relations between several powerful groups, which implies a network or a figuration, some relation of mutual dependence and mutual possibilities of conflict, some process of checks and balances. Royalty had to act cautiously in order not to threaten the whole mechanism, and the successful monarchs acted like a counterweight, lending their support first to one side and then the other, trying to influence the usual deadlock. Thus the weaker side was supported against the strongest, which included sponsoring the bourgeoisie against the old nobility. Foreign intervention and economic development were important elements of context here.

The changes in court society are also interesting, as warriors became courtiers. This process was also uneven and complex, but had the important role of sponsoring culture, and occasionally achieving a reconstruction of upper classes. The details of court life look contradictory and strange, but they were rational in their own terms, and developed some complex and elaborate political relations, based on things such as the rights to attend the King and to do honorific duties. Self-control was very important in success here, since emotional outbursts became seen as a 'sign of weakness' (86). Such self-control had a number of cultural effects, on the development of salon culture, or the artistic styles of romanticism and nostalgia (romance goes with obedience, argues Mennell, page 87). Self control and the ability to reflect on oneself was even elevated to the status of Reason in Descartes (88).

Cycles of violence and pacification can arise where figurations from two or more groups are 'trapped in mutual fear and distrust'. This can lead to a cataclysmic victory for one side, mutual reduction of the party's, or the emergence of a strong third party which is able to pacify and bureaucratise the struggle (89). This helps understand the French court, but might also guide a study of the Mafia in Sicily (attempted in Quest for Excitement): this also indicates the importance of 'chains of interdependence and balances of power tying [the Mafia] to other layers of Sicilian and Italian society' (90). English history leading to the civil war also shows the importance of complex splits and alliances, and a cycle of conflict and self pacification.

Chapter 6 Sport and Violence

Sports are obvious sites for a number of excitements and tensions, and the emergence of rules point to their social functions and origins. Sport offers one of the few opportunities for unrestrained emotion and excitement in modern society. It offers mimetic pleasure for the audience, just as plays do. The example of sport also breaks the idea that there is an easy polarity between work and leisure, since it demonstrates that virtually anything can be routinised or deroutinised: it is the dialectic between the two which provides the dynamic (143). Modern forms of sport emerge as internalised restraint grows. Although leisure is increasingly restrained and regulated, it retains an element of unpredictability too, which includes the dangers of spillover from football to real violence.

The example of ancient Greece shows how a volatile life leads to volatile and brutal games, with much less restraint. Traditional football in Europe shows the effect of the rediscovery of local rivalries and tensions which overcome any solidarity. Although we can manage these examples with functionalist analysis, we need a much more specific history to explain the emergence of specific sports in specific countries. In the UK, for example, the regulation of sport follows similar processes to the development of Parliament: not only do the same personnel enter politics and the regulation of sport, but both reveal the effects of a relatively relaxed class struggle, which enables different strata to come together to pursue mutual interests in regulation.

Fox hunting also shows the gradual civilisation of tastes and an increasing detachment from killing as a pleasure to wards the pleasures of process and symbolic elements. Us with other sports, fox hunting shows it can evolve in order to get the right tension balances. The emergence of rugby is pursued along these lines too, connected to increased social action between the classes, development according to the relations between various factions, such as public schools and other players. Sports like this grow as the result of a 'civilising spurt' between 1780 and 1850: the same spurt results in the cult of the amateur.

Modern sport is multi-polar, it is played for fun and it has become a serious matter for national policy. If anything, sporting violence has increased, but has taken a more calculating form, such as with the professional foul -- this is still civilisation for Elias. Dunning has also analysed expressive and institutional violence, and explored social bonding at different levels, between different segments. Football hooliganism has always been present, but its modern form is different -- working-class violence in particular is more visible now that everyone else is more civilised. The ebb and flow of violence also reflects the cycle of growth and decline of the respectable working-class, and its counterparts, the rough working-class. The latter are inclined to form more segmental bonds, and to favour an immediate kind of social attachment [a kind of residual mechanical type of solidarity]: they are likely to respond more to external rather than internal constraint. Nevertheless, this group is best seen not as representative of their class but in terms of the older work on outsiders, and how they tend to take on the more established groups.

This chapter ends by invoking some theory of human needs for enjoyable excitement and its regulation, although, as we would expect, it denies any move to reduce the actual development of sport to just to this simple set of needs.

Chapter 10

This chapter summarises some common criticisms, beginning with the observation that decivilisation is just as common, as the Nazis showed. More abstractly:

(a) The work is clearly attempting to connect civilisation with European domination, despite the usual defence that no value judgments are involved. Ethnocentrism is the issue of, which is especially likely as Elias agrees that common sense and science must be interconnected. Elias's relativism arises from his preference for historical particularism, and his rejection of universal explanations. He claims this helps him explain the rationality of the past rather than to condemn or universalise it

(b) Can there be a general agreed standard to measure the progress of civilisation? Elias tries to provide an objective descriptions of the changes, but this will not convince all the critics. He tries to explain progressions rather than progress as such, and attempts to focus on measurable matters such as types of independence, or the number of power centres and so on. He relies on specific historical or anthropological denials of the role of the state, for example.

(c) The 'permissive society' has been cited as a counter example to the apparent growth of internal restraint. Elias argues that this may be no more than the occasional informalisation of social relations, which we have seen before, and finds high levels of restraint even affecting matters such as sexual display. Alternatively, sexual permissiveness may be a new kind of licensed zone for excitement, like sports. What we see can also be described as a 'controlled decontrolling' where, for example, psychological modes replace moral ones [rather like Foucault here], or new forms of individualism require new forms of social restraint [and rather like Giddens here]. There have been no actual reversals of the civilisation process, in other words.

(d) Nazism's Final Solution was possible, ironically, only in a technically developed and civilised society, and it has since been universally reviled. Even the Nazis were forced to make very elaborate attempt to prise Jews out of their webs of social interdependence first. [Some sort of functionalist deviance theory is developed here too, so that Nazism becomes explained as some inevitable dysfunction of the system? Mennell also suggests that we leave this tricky matter for further research.

Chapter 11

Elias dislikes the term 'figurational sociology'. A figuration connotes a process of giving shape to something, which leads to an analysis of networks, shifting power balances and the like, but the problem is that the approach has now become reified into a school. For example, Goudsblom (1977) has offered the following systematisation:

(a) sociologists should study how people as independent actors affect and are affected by figurations

(b) figurations are in flux, and change at different rates

(c) long-term developments are unplanned and unforeseen

(d) the development of human knowledge takes place in and is affected by figurations (Mennell's summary, page 253).

The approach certainly offers a general focus on process and on theoretical and empirical clusters. The offers a critique of process reduction at a very deep level, pointing out, for example how our whole language is good at describing states rather than changes, and criticising the whole tendency to split actors and activity, subjects and objects, structures and agencies are. For Elias, social bonds are the necessary starting point, and these create both individuals and social structures.

He has been accused of being guilty of 'concept avoidance' (256), but he has rejected the philosophical obsession with the total clarity of concepts and has tried to be 'object adequate', instead, trying to explore real types rather than abstract ideal types. This may involve a pragmatic stance to concepts, but Elias has a broad interest in unintended consequences too: indeed, these are universal and fundamental to social action.

The approach enables us to study conflicts as well as cooperation, as the poles and dimensions of power shift. The shifts can also render figurations more opaque. This further develops the idea of a figuration as a non intended structure, rather than one arising from some requirements of logical order, and reinforces the point that there is a general interdependency among actors, even when they are enemies.

The role of sociology is to develop analyses of social relations, and to provide maps of them rather than laws. Although Elias wants to demythologise the scientific pretensions of sociology, he is well aware that social knowledge itself is mythologised in the first place. He has always been interested in arriving at the correct level of abstraction, and theorising about something specific.


Goudsblom, J (1977) Sociology in the Balance, Oxford: Blackwell