Thinking with Norbert Elias…

Thinking with Norbert Elias, about ‘race’ and the representational order of letter-writing by white South Africans

Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2014) ‘Thinking with Norbert Elias, about ‘race’ and the representational order of letter-writing by white South Africans’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. What has the work of the sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990) got to do with a project on Whites Writing Whiteness? German by birth, Elias lived in Britain from the 1930s on for many years and then later in Holland; in his British years, he became an increasingly important sociological presence and was based at the University of Leicester. As a social theorist, he is notable for theorising around grounded historically-focused pieces of practical research inquiry, with these concerning such things as the ‘civilizing process’ of how societies change and seemingly diversities such as football, dying and death and community studies, among others. Given these interests, his work might consequently be seen, mistakenly, to be largely irrelevant to the WWW project. In fact it has many helpful synergies, synergies which are brought out well in the three books that this blog comments on.

2. The first is a reader, a collection of Elias’s writings edited by Stephen Mennell and Johan Goudsblom, On Civilization, Power and Knowledge. Its contents cover a broad sweep of Elias’s interests and provide the best introduction to his work in his own words that is currently available.EliasOnCivilisation

3. Stephen Mennell and Johan Goudsblom  (1998) On Civilization, Power and Knowledge Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4. Given the discussion that follows, readers may find the sections on ‘The social constraint towards self-constraint’, ‘Diminishing contrasts, increasing varieties’, ‘On the monopoly mechanism’, ‘The decline of the state monopoly of violence in the Weimar Republic’ and ‘Homo Clausus: the thinking statues’ particularly helpful.

5. There are quite a few interesting textbook-style overviews of Elias’s work by male scholars such as Robert van Krieken (1998, Norbert Elias London: Routledge), Stephen Mennell (1989, Norbert Elias: An Introduction Oxford: Blackwell) and Dennis Smith (2001, Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory London: Sage) among others. There has however been surprisingly little engagement with Elias’s work to date with regard to gender matters or by feminist sociologists, although he was usually enlightened and responsive in such terms. These overviews are helpful and to varying degrees give insight into the project Elias was engaged in, but in my reading at least none of them to date has succeeded in conveying the core of his ideas and approach. That is, until the 2013 publication of a truly excellent exposition of Eliasian thinking by Eric Dunning and Jason Hughes, Norbert Elias and Modern Sociology, which brings home just how fundamental a challenge to mainstream sociological work thinking with Elias makes.

EliasOnModernSociology6. Eric Dunning and Jason Hughes (2013) Norbert Elias and Modern Sociology. London: Bloomsbury.

7. Eric Dunning worked closely with Elias from when they were colleagues at the University of Leicester and he is also an important presence in Eliasian sociology in his own right. Jason Hughes is a younger Leicester colleague with a number of helpful articles and an interesting book on learning to smoke which use Elias’s work. However, it is in depth of their thoughtful intellectual engagement, rather than consanguinity, that gives their book its power and reach. The chapters on the basic concepts of figurational sociology (2), Elias’s central theory (3) and on ‘Elias and ‘the habits of good sociology’ (6) are particularly insightful, although the whole book is important reading and extremely well written to boot. The last mentioned chapter, ‘Elias and “the habits of good sociology”’ among other things provides an in-depth engagement with similarities and differences between the Eliasian project and the oeuvre of Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu.

8. Elias is particularly associated with his early (1930s) work on ‘the civilizing process’, in which he examined the long-term gradual processes of change in Germany, France and Britain, doing so by exploring such things as manners and morals as invoked in etiquette books and manuals. Indeed, he is often misunderstood in relation to this, by readers reacting to their presumption of what ‘civilizing’ means, treating it as though Elias is naive and has a kind of Whig ‘onwards and upwards’ progress view of societal level changes. In fact for Elias the term has an ironic inflection and he fully recognises that violence, force and decivilizing processes are also constitutive. This aspect of his work is acknowledged by Dunning and Hughes and written about interestingly by them across a number of their chapters. However, such matters are the core focus of the third book underpinning discussion in this blog, Jonathan Fletcher’s Violence & Civilization: An Introduction to the Work of Norbert Elias.

9. Jonathan Fletcher (1997) Violence & Civilization: An Introduction to the Work of Norbert Elias Cambridge: Polity Press.FletcherViolence&Civilisation

10. Fletcher’s Violence and Civilization proposes that Elias’s work concerned with violence and the state monopolisation of (deemed to be legitimate) force is fundamental to his sociological thinking. It explores this across a range of Elias’s work but in particular regarding his later The Germans (1989/1996) as well the much earlier The Civilizing Process (1938/2000 edition), and also regarding everyday forms of contained or ritualised violence such as in competitive sport and fox hunting. Fletcher’s approach joins up ideas about de/civilizing processes, state formation, identity and violence with another distinctively Eliasian concept, that of habitus. Although now associated with Bourdieu (who was considerably influenced by Elias), it was in fact used and developed by Elias some decades before and in the context of a more general contemporary engagement with the idea.

11. So what, then, are the connections between Elias’s work and the WWW project research? In fact the relationship is deeper than just ‘connections’, with the approach or framework of WWW being a broadly Eliasian one.

12. The WWW project is concerned more precisely with the detailed ‘how’ of social change, the ‘how’ of its happenings and possible variations in this over time between differently situated people, including the differences of gender, age, place, generation and ‘race’. WWW explores this ‘how’ of social change specifically in South Africa. And given the constitutive character that ‘race’ in the sense of skin colour has taken in its economy and polity over the period of its colonisation, habitation and for a lengthy period its rule by white people, WWW focuses on changes concerning ethnicity and ‘race’ as its means of grappling with change in South Africa more broadly. It investigates whiteness over the time-period from the 1770s (the arrival of missionaries and other Europeans in numbers and the institution of the colonial states) to the 1970s (the aftermaths of Sharpeville followed by Soweto) and changes and possible continuities in how white people in South Africa over this time saw themselves and others in the society around them. It does so by researching letters and correspondences in long-term family letter-writing collections where flows of letters have occurred over two, three and up to seven or eight generations, as truly longitudinal data of the kind essential in order to address ‘how’ questions. It analyses how whiteness and its ‘Others’ is represented in letters over time and regarding how the moral and political order of ‘race’ has been shaped and re-shaped over time in letter-writing practices. In addition, it recognises the representational problematic involved, that there is not a straight-forwardly referential relationship between letters and lives, although there are important points of interconnection, albeit ones which are complex and sometimes tricky in character.

13. For Elias, society is always in media res, always in process, and for every point of apparent beginning to social events and circumstances yet further antecedent ones can be traced. ‘Sociogenesis’ is Elias’s term for this perpetual becoming of the social order, it is fundamental to his entire concept of what society ‘is’ and therefore the core of what sociology as a discipline for him should be concerned with. Social change and changes concerning ‘race’ within this, the central concerns of WWW, are indicative of sociogenesis; social change has no beginning, no end; and while an argument can be made that ‘race’ in its present incarnation is a fairly late-comer, certainly distinguishing and ranking people by constructions of ethnicity and the connotations attributed to skin colour are not, although they have indubitably taken on different meanings and evaluations over time.

14. Relatedly, Elias emphasises that terms like ‘individual’ and ‘society’ and related binaries reify: they solidify and simplify the complex reality of people as social beings through and through and always in relationship with others, with society composed by complicated arrangements of people in relationship with others. A key means of recognising and analytically getting to grips with the intertwined character of individual and society, and consequently agency and structure and related pairings, is provided by Elias’s concept of ‘figuration’. He explains this by drawing an analogy with a dance. A dance can be a tango, a war dance, rock ‘n roll and so on, but remains a dance; individual dancers may join in, sit out, re-engage or leave, while the dance continues; and although ‘a dance’ has a structure-and-process that is independent of any one dancer, it is not independent of there being people as a collectivity engaging in dancing. And here the concept of figuration as thought about through its analogy with a dance captures the essential character of multigenerational family letter collections. These contain flows of letters over very long periods of time (in case of one collection we are currently working on, from the 1790s to the early 1950s) and so constitute a figuration with lasting structural features. However, and as with a dance, none of the original letter-writers from the start of the collection are still writing at the end, with a large number of people (some hundreds, in this collection) joining, participating in and then for a variety of reasons ceasing to contribute letters to it.

15. As noted earlier, the idea with which Elias is most often associated is that of ‘the civilizing process’. In his use of the term, this is no Whig notion of development in the sense of progress or betterment. Instead in a number of important publications and most notably The Civilizing Process (1939/2000 edition) and The Germans (1989/1996), he grapples with the complicated, sometimes backwards and sometimes forwards ‘fits and spurts’ character of change in particular societies. In The Civilizing Process, this concerns France, Germany and Britain over the longue durée from the Middle Ages to the middle 1930s, when it was first published. In The Germans, he is particularly concern with the National Socialist or Nazi state as a marked ‘decivilizing’ period in the history of German society, while also recognising that at different time-periods (after as well as before) it has had different defining characteristics.  Moreover, the operations of power and force are neither tangential to nor necessarily ‘uncivilized’ within Elias’s framework, which recognises states as entities concerned with the monopolization of legitimate force, and also that states can be experienced as illegitimate as well as legitimate.

16. The idea that states and whole societies can have ‘civilizing’ trajectories which may include contrary and very ‘uncivilised’ phases, or go through oscillations in this respect, is helpful in making sense of the overall character in change in South Africa. This includes the role of the four colonial states (Cape, Free State, Natal and Transvaal) and then the Union state from 1910 on, and also the pervading sense from the research data that WWW engages with that in ‘race’ terms what was happening on the ground at different times, in particular areas, involving a range of people of different backgrounds, beliefs and social practices, might to different degrees be variously out of synch with this state level.

17. The three books above between them add up to an excellent introduction to and overview of key themes and concerns in Elias’s work; they provide helpful reading for anyone interested in social theory, the foundations of social science inquiry, and also how social change occurs at macro and micro levels, and Elias’s contributions to all these and more. As Dunning and Hughes’ book in particular points up, Elias’s style of thinking and theorising poses challenges for social scientists reared on a diet of conventional binaries – thinking with Elias, structure v. action, individual v. society, realist v. idealist, and theory conceived in the abstract, all bite the dust. These have to be given up; what is gained in return is more interesting and more exciting – joined up thinking about how societies and peoples live and change over time. Elias’s approach to this is a more discursive one that that adopted in the WWW project, but the lineage is clear and lies in WWW’s use of the broad interconnected sets of Elias’s ideas sketched above concerning sociogenesis, figuration and the de/civilizing process. 18. Given their importance for the WWW project, there will be future blogs on each of them, in order to provide more detail about how and in what ways the project will be operationalising these key ideas.

Last updated: 8 February 2014

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