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)


Wouters, C. (1999), Informalisierung - Norbert Elias' Zivilisationstheorie Und Zivilisationsprozesse Im 20. Jahrhundert, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.


Cas Wouters discusses noticeable changes in Western social behavior and emotional expression throughout the 20th century. He describes how attitudes towards emotions and behaviors became more accepting and informal over successive generations, referring to it as a process of informalization. In this book, Wouters explores the increasing openness, even regarding dangerous emotions such as murder, greed, jealousy, lust, and fear, which were previously suppressed by social norms. He draws inspiration from Norbert Elias' theory of civilization and seeks to critically examine and expand upon it. The book highlights the emergence of a network of social scientists and historians in the Netherlands who explore the potential of Elias' theory. Wouters presents the debate surrounding the theory and attempts to systematize its findings.


The book's focus is on the informalization processes in the 20th century, examining changes in social interaction and emotional regulation. It proposes a theory of formalization and informalization as phases in the processes of state formation and civilization. The chapters provide an overview of Elias' civilization theory, the background and emergence of the author's research questions and the informalization thesis, and the results of studies on gender relations, death, and mourning. The book discusses the shift towards formalization in the 1980s and 1990s and explores the continuing informalization in relation to gender relations and the emotional realms of sexuality, death, and grief. Additionally, it compares the author's informalization theory with Arlie Hochschild's sociology of emotions and incorporates Hans-Peter Waldhoff's work on regulating feelings of superiority. The book concludes by examining the conditions under which informalization processes can extend beyond Western societies and discusses the early stages of the industrial and anti-colonial revolutions, contextualizing democratization and informalization within a global framework.


Firstly, Norbert Elias' theory of civilization is discussed. Norbert Elias was a Jewish German who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and formulated the theory of civilization. He developed his ideas from philosophy to sociology while studying in Heidelberg and Frankfurt. Influenced by sociologists like Max Weber, Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim, historians like Johan Huizinga, and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, Elias was prompted by the impending war to question the meaning of civilization.

Elias stumbled upon a collection of etiquette books at the British Museum in London, which sparked his investigation into European etiquette from the 15th to the 19th century. These books revealed changes in behavioral guidelines related to bodily functions and activities such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and fighting. Elias interpreted these changes as transformations in the regulation of instincts and impulses, providing material to investigate how the social and psychological structure of humanity has evolved throughout history.

Etiquette and good manners are viewed as forms of social control that impose self-control through external pressure. They shape the interactions within a society, and individuals are confronted with the demand for emotional control and self-restraint imposed by others. Violations of etiquette are sanctioned in various ways and lead to loss of face, respect, and self-esteem. The dominant rules and etiquette in a society reflect and reinforce power distribution, status, and respect.

Elias argued that people are not naturally civilized, but they have the potential to acquire self-regulation of their instinctual and affect-driven behavior. The intensity and patterns of social pressure for self-restraint can vary, but they are a universal social factor. These social processes are not irreversible. Unlike biological processes, social processes can change direction, as exemplified by the decline of the Roman Empire. Elias suggests that changes in dominant codes of behavior provide insights into both social and psychological processes, including power relations, dependencies, and the self-regulation of individuals.


Elias focused on the development of state formations as a key aspect of changing power relations and the pacification of violence within societies. The monopolization of violence and taxation through state formation increased social pressure for self-restraint. This demonstrates the interconnectedness of changes in social structure, behavior patterns, and the overall structure of personality. Elias combines the key ideas of Marx and Freud by examining not only the production and ownership relations but also the social and psychological structures within society.

Added to this, Elias highlights the significance of family relationships in understanding the broader social relations and the corresponding codes of behavior and emotions. His classic work on European civilization processes is based on his study of etiquette books, showing that the pressure exerted by individuals on themselves and on others has generally moved in a specific direction. Basic animalistic activities like eating, drinking, and sleeping, as well as primary impulses and emotions, have become increasingly regulated and standardized as good manners. The overall trend of behavioral change in civilization is towards self-monitoring, subordination of short-term impulses to long-term considerations, and the development of a more differentiated and stronger superego.


A key driving force of social change according to Norbert Elias's theory of civilization is the increasing differentiation of societal functions, which leads to stronger interdependence and the need for more comprehensive and stable behavior regulation. In less complex societies, individuals directly exerted pressure on each other to coordinate their behavior, but as societies develop, external constraints become internalized, and external constraints transform into self-constraints. This process involves the moderation of spontaneous impulses, greater control of emotions and actions, and increased consideration of the consequences of one's behavior over a longer time frame.


Wouters highlights the example of the monopolization of violence within states as a central aspect of Elias's theory. Initially, smaller rulers competed for power, but over time, larger and wealthier entities gained an advantage and established a monopoly on power. This monopoly mechanism extended beyond violence to include other scarce resources like land, soldiers, and money. The trend toward monopolies, both private and public, is seen as a function of growing interdependencies between classes and states. Elias argues that tensions and conflicts arising from the monopolization of power and resources are the primary driving forces behind social processes. As societies become more specialized, concentrated, and organized through interdependent relationships, those with more sources of power become increasingly dependent on their subordinates. This dependence enhances both mutual competition and the vulnerability of the social order.


With the increasing complexity of societal functions, disruptions pose significant risks to the overall process. Thus, dominant classes must consider the needs of subordinate classes to maintain stability. Consequently, both dominant and subordinate classes experience pressures to develop more self-control. The habit of thinking in longer time frames and regulating behavior and emotions accordingly becomes a source of power and prestige for the dominant groups. As income rises above subsistence levels for larger segments of the population, the desire for prestige and the fear of losing it become strong motivators for action, alongside the need for basic survival. The aspiration to escape the pressure of more powerful groups and the fear of inferiority prompt less powerful groups to adopt the self-control patterns observed in the dominant groups, further fueling the refinement and development of self-regulation. The intensification of the prestige struggle occurs as social mobility increases and power differentials decrease. Individuals who deviate from socially accepted behavior face harsher sanctions that threaten the prestige of their respective groups. The compulsion to conform out of fear of losing prestige or status becomes one of the strongest driving forces behind the transformation of external constraints into self-constraints.


The reduction of power differences in society led to a decrease in contrasts in the behavioral and affective control of individuals. Extremes of behavior and emotion, such as extreme expressions of superiority or inferiority, were avoided. As social differences decreased, individuals still felt the need to differentiate themselves, which led to a greater sensitivity to nuances in behavior and emotion. These changes were forms of thinking in a longer time perspective and resulted in a psychologization and rationalization of people's worldview. Another aspect of this psychological transformation is the increase in feelings of shame and embarrassment. Shame is a fear of being seen as inferior when caught doing something that goes against the prevailing public moral. This fear is a result of the inner conflict between an individual's desire to act and the self-control mechanism represented by their conscience. Embarrassment is a similar feeling that arises when someone else is about to violate these moral standards. Both shame and embarrassment are aspects of the growing divide in the structure of personality between the impulse center and the control apparatus, between the id and the ego, or between the ego and the super-ego.


Wouters addresses two objections raised against Norbert Elias' theory of civilization. The first objection accuses Elias of Eurocentrism and promoting a glorification of European culture. Elias has explicitly avoided to make value judgments in his analysis of European developments and he explicitly rejected the equation of power superiority with human superiority. Power resources, such as the personality structure of the upper class, do not necessarily make individuals morally better. Elias' focus on European civilization does not imply a moral evaluation or superiority compared to other civilizations. The second objection claims that Elias' theory is teleological, suggesting that later events are used to explain earlier ones, portraying the entire process as progressing towards the advancement of civilization. Elias has repeatedly emphasized the blind nature of the civilizing process, with changes in social relations occurring largely unplanned and unforeseen. Elias identifies a direction in these processes but not a predetermined goal. The direction observed in the past is not fixed for the future, as the processes are reversible and not teleological. The identification of a direction in civilization processes does not imply a goal or a value judgment. The question of how to evaluate certain events can be a driving force for investigating the direction of civilization. The formulation of the question itself stems from the experiences and needs of the Western civilization tradition, but Elias' theory goes beyond this tradition and aims to understand civilization processes based on their own development and experiences.