Reading Guide to: Rojek, C (1986) 'Problems of involvement and detachment in the writings of Norbert Elias', in British Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXXVII, no.4: 584 -- 96.

Elias's work has begun to attract critical attention. The main points can be summarised as:

1. Position and method

Elias offers a 'realist position', where social knowledge corresponds to some real world. Thus real social factors and constraints determine human action, regardless of consciousness or subjective choice. However, the real social world can be understood, managed, and even modified, following an attempt to understand consciously those social forces. This has been criticised as positivism, seeing the only point of understanding as attempting to control events, and 'neglecting the social context of human knowledge' (585). In particular, Elias has been accused of seeing science as impartial, and identified with human progress itself.

However, other tendencies in the work serve to refute this reading. The emphasis on 'process reduction' in particular warns us not to reduce dynamic processes into static categories, including the 'forest of false conceptual dichotomies... [such as those] ... between individual and society... base and superstructure' in modern sociological theory (586). This is what figurational sociology is supposed to avoid in its emphasis on 'relatively open-ended processes'.

Even natural data arises from processes, as does the attempt of science to grasp and relate to them with its own symbols. However, this view that science reflects the processes of formation of groups of scientists has its own problems.

In discussing involvement and detachment, individuals are involved in particular social identities with both resources and 'specific background assumptions, values, orientations... [which impose]... a partial perspective on social life' (587). This seems to imply that there is no independent reality, and gives a major role to '"involved" consciousness' -- and to relativism (587). Rojek argues that this is a limited form of relativism, however, denying that all social perspectives are equally valid. Instead, some are more 'detached' than others, arising from an ability to 'stand back', and see reality 'afresh' --  thus 'scientific methods [really] are more objective, testable and accurate than traditional approaches' (588).

In discussing the concept of figuration, a figuration is 'a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people' (588), and it is clear that social consciousness emerges from such groups, including scientific knowledge. Popper fails to recognise the effects of these processes in his claim that there is a universal logic of scientific discovery: different scientists tend to have different conceptions of science, however, some (physicists) stressing universal laws, others (biologists) accurate observation. Power relations are also apparent between these groups, so that physicists and chemists happen to be dominant and to be able to equate their characteristic procedures with science itself. Kuhn also falsely separates normal and revolutionary science, and the scientific community and society itself -- this stops us studying science as a full part of social life itself.

In discussing the civilising process and science, we can see the emergence of scientific detachment as a part of the civilising process itself. Urbanism and the growth of the modern state lengthens the 'chains of interdependence' between people, and this has effects on social structure and personality. The nobility were first to develop self restraint and refinement in interpersonal conduct, but this spreads down to the lower orders, and helps develop a more general notion of 'proper public conduct' (590). Individual freedom is increasingly valued, and eventually non-conformity and dissent, which helps the emergence of science. In turn, scientific endeavour increasingly operates with a split between the self and the external world, and involves a search for universal statements and laws, first principles and hidden knowledge (590).

2. Critical Discussion

Figurational sociology is global and realist. Scientific theories are aimed at the truth about the external world, but they are affected by membership of figurations which can change and which can involve power. Power is both repressive and enabling. Process is a crucial theme in 'producing social theories with high object adequacy' (591).

Elias has attracted some devoted followers, but his work can be criticised. Firstly, the dichotomy between involvement and detachment has problems, particularly in that detachment lacks an 'empirical basis' (591). There is clearly more involved  than simple description of how people behave. Secondly, detachment helps us  to destroy myths about social relations, yet we are provided with no guidelines or procedures to help us become detached. Indeed, 'Detachment is a blind, unplanned aspect of structural transformations in human figurations' (591). Ironically then detachment is itself a form of involvement in such figurations. Elias believes that time is the ultimate arbiter between theories, but this is still inadequate: '"Retrospective wisdom" is...a dubious standard of truth to differentiate current statements of detachment from statements of involvement, theory from ideology' (592).

Thirdly, although Elias argues that social life is process, he wants to deny relativism, yet does not embrace the idea of reason and objectivity as manifestations of power. He does admit that statements claiming object adequacy often reflect personal group interests, but has the long term view that truth will be accumulated. However, ideologies of science themselves have strong social effects, and are not easily banished just by exposing their logical inadequacies. Nevertheless, Elias still seems to hope that the drive towards truth and object adequacy is in the human interest in the long term.

Fourthly, Elias's work assumes that once myth can be destroyed, the truth may emerge. The evidence for this is debatable yet this can be covered by the insistence on the long term nature of such developments. More generally, any data which appear to falsify the figurational approach are managed as either transient, or lacking serious negative significance. As a result '... figurational sociology has no solid predictive content. Its role is reactive. In this way to achieve relevance to changing social relations, but at the cost of abandoning any pretence of theoretical explanation' (593).

3. Conclusion

Elias is good at attacking static thinking, and insisting that sociologists should not allow their own convictions about how society ought to develop to affect their work. Moral convictions represent excessive involvement. Yet this means that moral and political values cannot be effectively criticised in their own right, and that we must confine itself to understanding figurations as a means to achieve social progress. This is unlike the position of Weber, where analysis must be value-free, but still value relevant. Elias is unwilling to allow individuals much autonomy in choosing their values, since individuals are deeply affected by the figurations they inhabit -- 'Individuals are never free to choose what they ought to do or how they should lead their lives, because their lives are always involved with the lives of others' (594). This may be a welcome retreat from political commitment, or it may be 'evasive and unsatisfactory', a way of deferring commitment in the face of endless complexity (594). Yet it does offer a serious challenge to all reifying tendencies and myths in sociology, and, fittingly, the process of time does seem to have shown the value of Elias's work.