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 (2014 [1970]), Was ist Soziologie? (What is Sociology?), 12. Auflage, BeltzJuventa Grundfragen der Soziologie

“No man is a beginning; everyone continues. " - p.37

"The static use of terms such as "culture", "civilization" and "tradition" in relation to long streams of figuration [is] often quite problematic." - p. 197


In "Was ist Soziologie?" ("What is Sociology?"), Norbert Elias examines the relationship between individuals and society, and the specific coercion that social structures exert on people. He discusses the reification and dehumanization of social structures, and the tendency for people to explain inevitability in terms of personal character or goals, rather than recognizing their own role in shaping social structures. Elias argues that sociology should not only examine and explain the specific inevitability to which people are exposed, but also develop more autonomous ways of thinking and speaking about social processes that better reflect the peculiarities of human relationships. He suggests that the development of scientific knowledge, including ideas about causality and the law of nature, has involved a process of gradual detachment from anthropomorphic and egocentric ways of thinking. Elias also notes that scientific knowledge is not an "eternally human" form of understanding, but rather reflects the particular level of integration and differentiation of society at a given time. He argues that sociology should aim to deepen and broaden our understanding of social processes and structures, rather than simply seeking to apply existing knowledge to new situations.

Chapter 1

Auguste Comte was a sociologist who emphasized the importance of both observation and theory in scientific work. He attempted to develop a sociological theory of thought and science and to understand the relationships between the physical, biological, and sociological sciences. Comte argued that sociology should be seen as autonomous from physics and biology and should have its own procedures. He believed that people's thinking about the world progresses through three stages: the speculative, metaphysical, and positive (or scientific). In the positive stage, people give up seeking absolute answers and develop theories based on observable relationships. Comte believed that the traditional philosophical approach to knowledge, which focuses on the individual's acquisition of knowledge, is egocentric and hinders the development of sociology. He argued that all scientific ways of thinking must have evolved from pre-scientific ones and that the socialization process influences an individual's thinking and categorization of their perceptions. Comte also believed that the structure of social processes cannot be reduced to biological or psychological structures and that the integration of interdependent individuals creates a level of complexity that cannot be explained by individual behavior alone.

In Chapter 2, Elias discusses the challenges of conducting scientific research and the role of the sociologist as a myth hunter, seeking to replace unverifiable beliefs and speculations with models of relationships that can be tested through observation of facts. Elias argues that scientific theories can sometimes be transformed into belief systems and used in ways that are not supported by further observation, and that the sociological philosophy of science should focus on the investigation of sciences as observable social processes rather than on the pursuit of scientific ideals. Elias also suggests that the sociological theory of knowledge has traditionally focused on ideologies and ideas about societies rather than on the conditions under which non-ideological, scientific knowledge of natural and social contexts can be obtained. Finally, the author argues that people's thinking and language are shaped by their experiences and interactions with others in their social groups and that it takes a long time for people to develop more abstract and impersonal models of understanding the world.

In Chapter 3, Elias is discussing the concept of power in human relationships and the role of game models in understanding these relationships. Elias argues that power is a fundamental part of all human relationships and that it can be understood in terms of relative skill level, or the odds of one player winning over another. Elias also discusses the concept of function, which is a relational concept that refers to the interdependencies between individuals or groups. These functions are subject to a "test of strength" and can be influenced by power dynamics. Elias also discusses the concept of "foreplay," which refers to the process of building up to a conflict or confrontation. Elias suggests that this process can be understood through the lens of game theory and that understanding it can help to prevent escalation to violence or other extreme measures.

Chapter 4 discusses the role of language and thought in understanding human behavior and social interactions. Elias notes that human behavior is more influenced by learning and experience than the behavior of other living beings, and that this makes the study of human societies different from the study of other biological systems. Elias also discusses the limitations of language and thought tools in understanding complex social phenomena, and argues that the complexity of many sociological theories is often due to the use of inadequate or unsuitable terms. Elias suggests that our languages and thought patterns tend to focus on nouns and things in a state of rest, and that this can lead to a reductionist understanding of constantly changing social phenomena. Elias also discusses the role of power and interdependence in social relationships, and argues that these relationships are subject to a "test of strength" that can influence their functions and dynamics. Elias also discusses the role of game theory in understanding these relationships, and suggests that understanding the process of "foreplay" or building up to conflict can help to prevent escalation to violence or other extreme measures.

Chapter 5 discusses the concept of social ties and the role of emotional valences in shaping personal relationships and networks. Elias argues that these emotional ties represent a different level of interdependence that is distinct from individual interactions, and that they play a critical role in the formation of social groups and the protection against physical destruction. Elias also discusses the concept of autonomy, specifically in the context of the "economic" sphere and the demand for freedom from state intervention by bourgeois entrepreneurs. Elias argues that the development of state and professional structures are inseparable aspects of the development of a functional context in society, and that the relationship between economy and state cannot be understood in terms of autonomy or complete independence. Elias also discusses the concept of "free action," and suggests that the idea of complete freedom and autonomy is a myth that obscures the interdependent and relational nature of human behavior. Instead, Elias argues that social ties and interdependencies must be recognized and understood in order to properly understand and analyze social phenomena.

Chapter 6

In this chapter, Elias discusses the concept of "necessity" in understanding social developments and the role of figurations in understanding these developments. Elias argues that traditional concepts of causality, which focus on a single cause or "primal thing," are not suitable for understanding developmental sociological phenomena, which involve changes in figurations and movements resulting from movements. Elias suggests that it may be more accurate to speak in terms of possibilities or probabilities of various degrees, rather than necessity, in understanding these developments. Elias also discusses the concept of centralization and control in social systems, and argues that the view of the relative autonomy and arbitrariness of these systems is only revealed to the people who form them when they become aware of the figuration they create with each other. Elias suggests that this awareness can help to understand the "necessity" of constraints and interdependence in these systems, and can facilitate the development of more effective strategies for addressing social problems.