The Legacy of Norbert Elias, Leicester and Beyond

As part of the University’s ‘Legacy of Leicester’ project, Professor Jason Hughes from the Department of Sociology looks back over the career of the ‘father of ‘figurational sociology’ Norbert Elias.

Norbert Elias was born into a German Jewish family in Breslau, Germany (now Wroc?aw, Poland) in 1897. His most important study entitled On the Process of Civilisation (in its English translation) was first published in 1939. The idea of a German Jew on the eve of the Second World War writing on, of all things, the subject of ‘civilisation’ is rather unusual. Perhaps even more so given Elias’s life history: how, at eighteen, he encountered the carnage of the First World War as a soldier on the Western and Eastern fronts; how he was forced to flee from the Nazis to exile in 1933; how, after seeing his parents for the last time in 1938, his mother was killed at Auschwitz. However, it was characteristic of Elias to channel such experiences into a kind of ‘passionately involved detachment’. Elias was acutely interested in how it was that particular social groups in particular historical periods came to think of themselves as ‘civilised’ and ‘others’ as ‘barbaric’; and, indeed, how some of the most horrific acts of the twentieth century were conducted in the very name of ‘civilisation’.

Civilising Processes

At a broader intellectual level, however, Elias was interested in ‘civilising processes’. These involve more than simply the emergence of ‘civilisation’ as a watchword which expresses the self-consciousness of particular social groups; the term has a more general technical sense. To explain this, it is first helpful to compare Elias’s use of the term ‘civilisation’ with how anthropologists have used the term ‘culture’. One can draw a fairly straightforward distinction between ‘culture’ as an everyday term to mean ‘higher things of the mind’, and culture in a more anthropological sense as meaning shared ways of seeing, saying, doing, understanding the world, and so forth. In a similar manner, we can draw a distinction between the highly value-laden term ‘civilisation’, and Elias’s usage in which the concept refers to a series of inter-related social and psychological processes (which includes but also goes beyond what is normally considered in the study of culture in the anthropological sense). To over-simplify somewhat, Elias’s core work in On the Process of Civilisation explored how long-term shifts in codes of etiquette, manners, and psychic constraints were fundamentally inter-related to the formation of states and the monopolisation of power within Western Europe. In so doing, Elias provided a path-breaking analysis of the co-development of ‘the modern individual’ and ‘modern societies’. His analysis centrally focuses on the processes by which we come to think of ourselves as ‘selves’; how we seemingly become ‘objects’ of our own reflection; how our emotional lives are structured by broader sets of prevailing social conditions; and a range of other ways in which social and psychological processes are fundamentally intertwined.

Changing Behavioural Standards

Elias took as his source material a range of documentary, pictorial, and literature artefacts. One of the key sources he drew upon was etiquette manuals and other forms of treatise on ‘polite and proper behaviour’. A key example in this respect is a short work by the Dutch Humanist scholar Desiderus Erasmus, De Civilitate Morum Puerillium (On Civility in Boys) – a book that first published in the early part of the sixteenth century aimed at the children of the secular upper classes. The book was widely circulated, and was reprinted more than thirty times, with more than 100 subsequent editions running through to as late as the eighteenth century. In it are prescriptive instructions on behaviour – not to masturbate in public; to hide the sound of a flatulence with a cough; to avoid urinating in the presence of others; and so forth. To modern sensitivities, such advice appears humorous, titillating, perhaps a little repulsive and disgusting in terms of the topics that are mentioned. But our possible responses to reading such examples are, for Elias, very much bound up with the processes he sought to examine.

In On the Process of Civilisation, Elias considers the writings of Erasmus and many more sources and examples in time series. A key historical juncture of interest to Elias is that between the medieval and early-modern period. For instance, a text from the fifteenth century advises that before sitting down for dinner, one should ‘make sure your seat has not been fouled’ (cited in Elias 2012: 129). In a similarly inadvertent manner, other treatises from around this period appear to signal as commonplace behaviours that are now largely unthinkable. For instance, from the sixteenth century, ‘Let no one, whoever he may be, before, at or after meals, early or late, foul the staircases, corridors or closets with urine’ (cited in Elias 2012: 131). Elias finds that in later centuries, instructions on propriety become more nuanced and refined. Thus, by the eighteenth century, examples are comparatively exacting and lofty:

It is part of decency and modesty to cover all parts of the body except the head and hands. As far as natural needs are concerned, it is proper (even for children) to satisfy them only where one cannot be seen. It is never proper to speak of the parts of the body that should always be hidden, or of certain bodily necessities to which nature has subjected us, or even to mention them’ (cited in Elias 2012: 133).

As the previous example also serves to demonstrate, the language surrounding such cognitive-behavioural prescriptions becomes increasingly delicate, indirect, making increasing use of circumlocutions and euphemisms to ‘skirt around’, what eventually become, ‘unmentionables’.

Through examining in sequence subsequent editions of the same text, Elias is able to explore how certain topics, certain advisories, come to be erased. He suggests that this relates to the more growing sensitivity to natural and animalic aspects of behaviour, but is also because the authors of such treatises can increasingly take for granted that certain advice no longer needs to be stated: it has become ‘second nature’. In other words, the subsequent omissions serve to document already sedimented behavioural shifts, and as such, not simply shifting ‘standards’. In this way, effectively, certain ‘natural functions’ increasingly come to be pushed behind the scenes of ‘public’ life. Indeed, Elias suggests, the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’ as markedly separate arenas of human existence is itself intimately related to civilising processes. It can be seen, for example, in historical changes in the layout of domestic houses, the spread in the use of private lavatories, separate sleeping quarters, etc. Such changes, then, are at once indicative of, and also a vehicle for, a growing threshold of repugnance and revulsion to certain aspects of human behaviour. This increasing delicacy of feeling is something that emerges historically. Our present day sensitivities about, say, public nudity; the mere mention let alone the sight of human bodily functions; our feelings towards those whose behaviours ‘overstep the mark’ in this regard; are not innate. They have become part of our ‘second nature’ only through social learning, both within our own individual lifetimes – particularly through the guidance of parents and teachers – and across the generations.

The Social Constraint Towards Self-Restraint

Thus, using a multitude of examples, Elias undertakes a meticulous, detailed historical analysis in which he traces an overall direction of change in behavioural standards that, he is subsequently able to show, follows similar (but by no means identical) trajectories in a number of Western societies. But how might we account for this change in manners, this shift in behavioural standards, this transformation in how we feel towards the natural functions of others, and, indeed, towards those belonging to ourselves?

There are many possibilities. For instance, it is tempting to think that growing concern for ‘good manners’ has arisen out of advancing knowledge of hygiene and the spread of diseases. However, historically speaking, this is not the case in any simple sense. For example, owing in part to previously dominant conceptions of health and the human body, it was often the case that good manners ran counter to what was considered to be good health. It was once considered injurious to health to, for example, withhold flatulence, expectoration, the expulsion of mucous, spit, and vomit – even in public. This was partly because ‘good health’ was widely understood as consisting of a kind of balance between a number of core bodily ‘essences’. As such, expelling bodily fluids was a ‘natural’ way of purging excessive ‘humours’ and returning the body to equilibrium. Besides, it is not until relatively recently – the nineteenth century – that knowledge of contagion, and in particular, the spread of disease via bacteria had become anything like as advanced and widespread as it is today. While scientific advances – particularly the work of Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand Cohn, and Robert Koch – and the centralisation of medical consciousness more generally, ultimately came to have a major impact on common behavioural practices, such shifts only partly explain the more general changes that Elias’s observes, which span a considerably longer period of time.

Elias’s analysis of why such shifts has occurred is complex and wide-ranging. In summarising them, particularly as succinctly as I’m attempting to do here, there is a real danger of my over-simplifying his position. With that caveat in place, it is nonetheless possible to draw attention to one of his core lines of argument. Namely, that such long-term transformations in codes of etiquette, and the shifting behavioural standards that they arguably ‘inform upon’, can be understood to be fundamentally inter-related to the formation of states. For Elias, state formation involves the growing monopolisation of violence and taxation by increasingly centralised agencies and authorities: a range of ‘centripedal’ processes in which once powerful sub-state ‘agents’ – local feudal rulers, private armies, competing social units – gradually become eliminated by, or subsumed within, larger units, eventually leading towards the emergence of what we would now recognise as distinctively ‘modern’ ‘centralised’ states.

It is in particular this monopolisation, note not disappearance, of violence that for Elias can be seen to have a profound bearing on patterns of behavioural standards. Put simply, the value of personal violence in resolving individual conflicts begins to diminish somewhat with the increasing monopolisation of violence by the state. Similarly, with the growing structural complexity and what Elias calls the ‘lengthening chains of interdependence’ – the growing number and range of people we depend on, even for the fulfilment of our elementary human needs – that accompany state formation, so there emerges a growing social pressure to exercise foresight and for people to attune their behaviours in complex and differentiated ways towards a greater multitude and range of others. Indeed, with this more general shift arises the notion that social advantage is gained rather less through physical prowess and rather more through ‘mastery of the self’. Social distinction is increasingly determined by how well one ‘handles oneself’: less and less in the sense of being able physically to defend oneself, and more and more in the sense of ‘personal mastery’ and good ‘selfhood’. Accordingly, good manners gradually come to be understood as marker of advantage, cultural value, of ‘good breeding’, of emotional restraint, reflexivity and propriety: of ‘courtesy’, ‘civility’, and ultimately, of ‘civilisation’. Indeed, these latter three terms – courtesy, civility, and civilisation – mark in sequence stages in the development of behavioural standards that go hand-in-hand with the emergence of dominant institutional forms. The court (of courtesy), the town and city (the civic of civility), and the colony (the colonisers who understand themselves as ‘civilising’ their perceived social inferiors, the ‘barbarian’ ‘others’). These processes, in turn, accompany state formation – the ascendancy of the court as a dominant social institution and a model-setting centre; the rise of civil society; and after the comparative resolution of struggles within states, the more general shift to struggles between states: the shifting balance away from solely intra-state conflicts and towards also inter-state conflicts.

Elias nicely summarises the interplay between broad, historical social developments and the structuring of individual psychological development. He refers to the tendency as the growing social constraint towards self-restraint. Such ‘restraints’ are evident to this day in our manners at the table, in how we dress, how we hold ourselves, how we speak, in our art, culture, literature. They are evident both in our adherence towards them and our sometimes conscious, and context-bound, rejection of them: it is no accident that many of our contemporary taboo words involve references to bodily functions. Since the 1960s in particular, there appears to have been an apparent ‘reversal’ of this trend as evident in less formal forms of address, clothing, more permissive standards in relation to language, sexual behaviour, the expression of emotion, and so forth. But whether or not this marks a ‘decline’ in the technical sense of ‘civilising processes’ is very much a moot point. Some suggest it is indeed the mark of ‘decivilising’ processes, others suggest that such processes exemplify a heightened form of civilisation in which, say, the seemingly more relaxed and playful forms of address, standards of dress, involved heightened demands for the conscious and reflexive monitoring of behaviour. In other words, in societies such as ours we have to ‘get it right’. We can seemingly dress as we like, speak how we like, and behave as we like; but we need to know when to ‘let our hair down’; we have to wear clothes that convey the right impression to the right audience; and we can be familiar, jokey and informal, but only at the right times, in the right places, in the right ways, and with the right people. For Elias, such shifts signal in some ways an intensification of demands for people to monitor and manage their behaviour, cognitions and emotions in more complex and nuanced ways. These processes of, what Elias called, ‘informalisation’ mark a continuation of behavioural standards, not their disappearance, albeit that such standards involve ‘increasing varieties’ and ‘diminishing contrasts’.

For Elias, civilising processes are not ‘linear’, they involve multi-directional tendencies, rises and falls, trends and counter-trends which, only over the very long-term, have a clearly definable structure and ‘direction’. Moreover, it is definitely not Elias’s view that ‘civilised’ societies are intrinsically ‘better’, nor are they without their profound ‘discontents’. Indeed, it was ‘civilised’ self-controls, emotional restraint, and self-distancing that underpinned, for example, the chains of authority and command that made possible the attempt to implement the ‘final solution’ in Nazi Germany – a programme of mass murder to which, as mentioned above, Elias lost his mother. Similarly, such ‘civilising processes’ have paradoxically facilitated highly ‘civilised’ forms of violence, torture and killing by nation states today. Consider, for example, the despatch of a smart weapon from a remote-controlled drone, fired at the click of a mouse, and watched on a screen as it reaches its target – a clinical, sanitised, ‘civilised’, form of ‘killing at a technological distance’.

Elias at Leicester and Beyond

The timing of Elias’s magnum opus On the Process of Civilisation could not have been worse. Published in Switzerland on the eve of the Second World War, and largely completed while Elias was in exile – first in Paris, and then subsequently in London, the book dealt with a topic that seemingly could not have been further from the popular imagination during this period. Indeed, the book was very largely unknown, and unread, even among a German speaking public (it was not available in English until the late 1970s) for some thirty years. It was not until 1954, eight years before normal retirement age, that Elias gained his first university post, first as lecturer, later as reader, in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester (then a college of the University of London) under the headship of Ilya Neustadt. With Elias and Neustadt’s dynamic intellectual partnership, Leicester soon became established one of the foremost training grounds for a new generation of sociologists. A number of the faculty who were members of the department around this period went on to become household names in the discipline. They include such figures as: Anthony Giddens, John H. Goldthorpe, and Laurie Taylor.

Elias was central to the formation of (what later became known as) the ‘Leicester School’ of sociology. It is a little misleading to describe the department at this time as comprising a homogeneous ‘school’ – indeed, there were many at Leicester who strongly disagreed with many of Elias’s ideas; this helped the department become a hotbed of lively debate, but also sometimes acrimonious intellectual division. Nonetheless, Elias had a profound influence over many members of the department, even those that opposed his ideas, through in key ways setting the intellectual agenda. One of his staunchest advocates was his student Eric Dunning (now Professor Emeritus). Together with Dunning, Elias developed pioneering work on the sociology of sport, their join work Quest for Excitement (1986) is now regarded as something of a classic in the field. It was this work that in part formed the foundations of the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at Leicester: a centre that Eric Dunning co-founded with John Williams (now Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology) and Patrick Murphy. The work on football, particularly crowd disorder and ‘hooliganism’, of Dunning, Williams, Murphy and also Ivan Waddington is seminal in the field of the sociology of sport. It remains to be widely cited to this day. Also at Leicester, Elias was pivotal in the development of a major piece of government-funded research on young workers. This project subsequently came to form the basis for the Centre for Labour Market Studies (CLMS), established by David Ashton(now Professor Emeritus). Ashton’s work together with a number of other key figures at the CLMS has had major and widespread significance, directly informing policy formation on skills and training both within the UK and further afield, including notably Singapore, plus at the super-state level, for example the International Labour Office.

Elias left Leicester for an appointment as Professor at the University of Ghana, where he taught sociology between 1962–1964. He maintained his connections with the Leicester department for some time after his return to Europe in 1965, but also became a visiting scholar in a number of German and Dutch universities, notably the University of Amsterdam, and later, at the Centre for Disciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld. It was at Amsterdam in particular that his vision of ‘figurational’ or ‘process sociology’ came to find a most enthusiastic reception. There, particularly with the assistance of Professor Johan Goudsblom, Elias began to further consolidate his reputation and further expand the range of his sociological work. The republication of On the Process of Civilisation (again in German) in 1969 greatly enhanced his international standing, and finally his work had come to gain the recognition that it arguably deserved. By this time, Elias was already past retirement age. But his intellectual energies remained at their height throughout his 70s and his 80s.

Subsequent to his work on civilizing processes, Elias research on wrote on a tremendous range of topics and concerns. But a few of the titles of some of his best known works – The Established and the Outsiders; An Essay on Time; The Society of Individuals; The Symbol Theory; The Loneliness of the Dying; Involvement and Detachment – are indicative of the range of his work. Moreover, Elias’s work was prescient in its emphasis upon aspects of the human condition that have subsequently become major specialisms in the social sciences, and yet at the time he was writing were widely neglected concerns. These include: the sociology of the body; the sociology of emotions; visual sociology; relational sociology (including the so called ‘relational turn’); reflexive sociology; documentary and archival research; historical/comparative analysis; the sociology of war and terrorism; the sociology of space; time and diachronic analysis; qualitative longitudinal research; death and dying; culture and leisure; sport; art, literature and the interface between idiographic and nomothetic traditions in social analysis; the sociology of food and table manners; the ‘history’ of private life; networks and network analysis; established–outsider relationships; to name but a few.

Today, Elias is widely regarded as one of the most important sociologists of the twentieth century. In his 2011 bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, the leading Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker described Elias as ‘The greatest social thinker you’ve never heard of’. While Pinker’s work has gone some way to rectifying this situation, his statement is perhaps only true of the audience in the US. In Europe, Elias’s work has been widely discussed particularly since the publication in English of On the Process of Civilisation (first as two volumes in 1978 and 1982 respectively; and then a faulty single volume edition in 1994; and a revised edition in 2000). In Germany and Holland of the 1980s, Elias had risen to something of an intellectual celebrity, with interviews and features on him and his work appearing in major newspapers and magazines. There now exists an extensive international network comprising several hundred scholars who are actively engaged in ‘figurational’ research. The Norbert Elias Foundation is devoted to continuing Elias’s intellectual legacy and promoting further research based upon the foundations of Elias’s work.

A major conference on his work is to be held in Leicester in 2014. It will be opened by Professor Craig Calhoun (director of the London School of Economics), our own Vice Chancellor, Professor Bob Burgess, and Sir Keith Thomas (of the Royal Historical Society and British Academy – its former president, and one of Elias’s students). It is anticipated that the conference will draw a wide international audience, including representatives from groups in The Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Portugal, USA and Canada, Spain, Argentina, Poland, Italy, Austria and Australia (amongst other countries) where there are major concentrations of scholars who are actively engaged in research directly influenced by Elias’s sociological approach. The conference is set to mark the completion of the Collected Works of Elias, published by the University of College Dublin Press. It is also hoped that the conference will further consolidate Elias’s long-standing association with Leicester, and mark an opportunity fully to explore his intellectual legacy.


Elias, N. (2012) On the Process of Civilisation: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Collected Works vol. 3). Edited by Stephen Mennell, Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom and Richard Kilminster. Dublin: UCD Press.

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  1. […] a few paragraphs in such a way as to do it any kind of justice (for more on Elias’s work, see here). That said, his concept of ‘civilising processes’ is indispensible to my present discussion, […]

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