No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Norbert Elias

(Video by The Norbert Elias Foundation)

Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was a contemporary and friend of Karl Mannheim. Elias became successful only after he reached retirement age. His books were not allowed to be published in Germany and Austria during the war years and he could not find a translator.

Elias is best known for The Civilizing Process, his research into the development of social standards, which showed that the personality structure became more civilized as a result of increasingly complex social interweaving, including the monopoly of violence of new states and an ever-increasing division of labor whereby people increasingly become dependent from each other. This civilizing process is an unplanned result of social interweaving (figuration) processes that cannot simply be adjusted. There is a social pressure (Fremdzwang) to exert self-compulsion (Selbstzwang): emotional self-control, rational planning, being ashamed, or finding certain behaviors painful.

Contrary to popular belief, the civilizing process for Elias is not purely positive; it also creates insincerity, a repression of feelings and a lack of communication options. People steer their "drift lives" with an increasingly keen eye for situational demands. They hold back the venting of their emotions and display rational and disciplined behaviour, because they consider long-term consequences. Whenever the norms are applied more loosely, this is done in a controlled manner: "The controlled discontrolling of controls". Shame-causing acts are handled backstage as much as possible. Further, Elias writes that religion does not drive the civilizing process, but follows it  (Van Heerikhuizen, 2019).

In his Elias biography, Robert van Krieken writes, that, against the tide of sociological thought, Elias insisted on historical analysis and a concern for focused social development. He maintained a link between sociology and psychology and history, while the discipline became increasingly isolated and fragmented. He mounted a powerful argument against individualism, in favor of a self-discipline that resonates with the necessities of life as part of a group, during a period when concepts such as "emancipation" and "freedom" were trending in social science. He argued for the importance of transcending the boundaries of nation-states and thinking about terms of "humanity as a whole" long before social scientists began to use the term "globalization." His conceptualization of history in terms of long-term processes challenges the temporal divisions that plague the social sciences, especially those between 'tradition' and 'modernity', and subjects the self-assessment of 'modern' self to critical analysis. He preferred to describe us today as 'late barbarians' who lived at the end of the Middle Ages and, like Bruno Latour, Elias thought that 'we have never been modern', let alone have become postmodern (Van Krieken,1998).

Van Krieken describes five interrelated principles that underlie Elias's approach to sociology:

1. Although societies are made up of people who act intentionally, the result of the combination of human actions is usually unplanned and unintentional. Sociologists should analyze and explain the mechanics of this transformation of intentional human action into unintended patterns of social life, which necessarily take place over longer or shorter periods of time.

2. Individuals can only be understood in their interdependencies with each other, as part of networks of social relations. We are social to the core, existing only in and through our relationships with others. The study of processes of social development and transformation is necessarily linked to the analysis of processes of psychological development and transformation, the changes in personality structures or habitus that accompany and contribute to social changes.

3. Human social life must be understood in terms of relationships rather than states. For example, balances of power between individuals and social units are ever-changing.

4. Human societies can only be understood as consisting of long-term processes of development and change, rather than as timeless states or conditions. Sociology should deal with long-term social processes in order to understand current social relationships and structures.

5. Sociological thinking is constantly moving between a position of social and emotional engagement with the subjects of study, and a position of detachment from them. Sociologists are part of their object of scientific study (interdependent people), and thus cannot escape involvement in their own research and theory building. Social scientific knowledge develops within the society of which it is a part, and not separately from it. At the same time, however, this involvement is often a barrier to an adequate understanding of social life. Sociologists should be mythbusters, especially when they uncover the complexities of human interrelationships.

From the application of these principles, ideas emerged, like the importance of state building in analyzing social development; a conception of science as a social institution; an emphasis on the relationship between social change and psychological development; an interdisciplinary orientation towards the social sciences, in which sociology, psychology and history are linked; and an understanding of power relations as organized around the distinction between established and outsider groups.


Van Heerikhuizen, B. (2019), Norbert Elias, Sociologische Theorie, Lecture at University of Amsterdam.
Van Krieken, R. (1998), Norbert Elias, London: Routledge.

Below you can see a video, about the importance of Elias for Sociology, from what I think is a great online course from the University of Amsterdam on classical sociology.

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