Figurations and social change – Thinking with Elias no.2

Figurations and social change – Thinking with Elias no.2

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2016) ‘Figurations and social change’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.


1    The sociologist Norbert Elias is a complex theorist whose considerable body of work ranges over formal and abstract, middle-range and grounded forms of theorising, and consequently there are many ways in which his work and key ideas can be explained. The foundation-stones are encapsulated in two key terms for Elias: ‘sociogenesis’ and ‘figuration’. He discussed these in many writings over his long active career, while here it is mainly his presentation of them in his 1977 (in English) text, What Is Sociology? that is drawn on in what follows.

2    Society is always in process, always in media res. Consequently there are no clear or sharp beginnings and endings to its manifold unfolding processes, something which Elias refers to using the term sociogenesis. These processes always involve people interacting with each other in interdependent sets of relationships, being linked with others both directly and indirectly in webs of connections, which he termed figurations and discusses using the analogy of card-games, football, and most tellingly a dance. A dance lasts over a lengthy period of time; those dancing at its beginning are not likely to still be dancing at its end; the tunes change; the people come and go; but the dance goes on.

3    Sociogenesis, then, forms the platform. It is the natural order of social life, the basic condition of society, and is the foundation of the sociological idea of social order. The concept of ‘order’ here does not mean law and order or being orderly, but rather indicates a process of interdependences and changes which may include disorder and violence and large-scale changes as well as persistence and order in the conventional sense of the word, as he emphasises. The concept of the figuration is equally foundational within Elias’s thinking, for this interweaving of interdependent networks of individuals over time is the fundament social relationships. Consequently as well as being the corner-stone of society, figurations also provide the basis of the relative autonomy of sociology as a discipline, with its study of figurations its core subject-matter. In What Is Sociology? he comments,

“At the core of changing figurations – indeed the very heart of the figuration process – is a fluctuating, tensile equilibrium, a balance of power moving to and fro, and inclining first to one side and then to the other. This kind of fluctuating balance of power is the structural characteristic of the flow of every figuration.” (p.131)

4    So in what respects are these connected concepts relevant to a research project concerned with South Africa, race and racism, and social change?

5    Marks and Atmore (1980:2) have pithily commented that it is important to grasp the processes of change in South Africa as these actually happened, rather than through the lens of how they turned out. There is a complicated ‘one damn thing after another’ sequential process of things happening and changing over time, and after a long duration it may be that these are summarised as constituting such things as industrialisation, globalisation, imperialism, apartheid; but in their slow and multi-locational unfolding, they may seem – and indeed they may have actually been – rather different for those people living them. This is entirely consonant with Elias’s ideas about the workings of figurations and the processes of what he refers to as ‘social development’, aka social change. He points out that the overall process of change in a society is easily comprehensible at an abstract conceptual level, for change is

“…a question of the consequences flowing from the intermeshing of the actions of numerous people, the structural properties of which have already been illustrated by means of gaming models. As the moves of thousands of interdependent players intertwine, no single player nor group of players acting alone can determine the course of the game, no matter how powerful they may be.” (p.147)

6   In exploring the processes of long-term change, sociology should focus its analysis on sequences of action and how it was that these came about. Elias comments that the purpose of sociological analysis of sequences of past events is to diagnose and explain, but that in practice addressing this is more complex, because from the viewpoint of an earlier figuration, a later one which develops is in most if not all cases only one of several possibilities for what change eventuated. One result is that terms like cause and effect are inappropriate because over-simplistic.

7    Figurations, then, are core to society and how it is organised, and their study is the basis of the relative autonomy of sociology as an academic discipline. The figuration is the combined structure-and-process of the organisation of interdependencies of people in webs of connections over time, and Elias points out that,

“There is no one who is not and has never been interwoven into a network of people… [although] The figurations to which they currently refer can change in the course of a lifetime…” (p.127-8)

8    Figurations can be very small and dyadic or triadic in composition; they can also be large, such as a profession or a national organisation; or extremely large like a nation-state or supra-state. It is the interweaving of the interdependent individuals who compose them that provides integration and organisation, although these larger entities differ in that they are autonomous of the control of any one individual or small group of individuals. That is, as the figurational network grows larger, so the power differentials diminish between the interdependent individuals composing it, and also the possibility of members being able to influence the overall course of activity declines.

9    One of the ramifications of Elias’s way of thinking is that neither structure-and-process, nor ‘individual’ and ‘society’, are independently-existing or even binary entities, with the concept of figuration emphasising that at one and the same time at the heart of the figurational process is that people are not individual atoms but best characterised in terms of ‘I-and-we’ in which process produces structural properties.

10    How does Elias see change coming about? For one thing, it is everywhere rather than nowhere and is part of the old order constantly day on day changing and giving way to new over time, and thus the relevance of his metaphor of the dance to signify central aspects of the figuration or concept. For another, he sees it as a question of the consequences following from the interrelationships of activities engaged in by the many people that compose society: the thousands of interdependent figurations and members of them add up to structural changes in the social order over the longue duree. But this is no Whig view of history and change, for Elias is perfectly aware that matters are more complex than any simple unilinear process of development:

“It is perfectly possible that by their own actions, groups of people consciously oriented towards preserving and maintaining the present figuration in fact strengthen its tendency to change. It is equally possible for groups of people consciously oriented towards change just to strengthen the tendency of their figuration to remain as it is.” (p.147)

11    Social order for Elias exists among the flux of social circumstances and events, with the term used by him to express this greater complexity of chains of activities and events that are both orderly and unplanned, structured yet unintentional. As he comments,

“That does not mean that ‘order’ is synonymous with ‘consensus’ or ‘harmony’. ‘Order’ simply denotes that the sequence of change is not ‘disorderly’ or ‘chaotic’. It means that it is possible to discover and explain how later social formations arise out of earlier ones. That is the essential problem for ‘developmental sociology’.” (p.152)

12    Understanding social change for Elias is a matter of finding the connections between particular sequences of social events and how this sequencing can be best explained. At the same time, he also perceives some long-term trends, including the increasing differentiation of social activity and the proliferation of specialisation, the increasing multi-level integration of attack-and-defence units, and increasing control over affect and more ready identification with other people regardless of their origins. But also, for him

“But none of these trends takes a straight course, and all are beset with conflicts, often very severe. Social changes in the opposite direction occur too. It is current practice just to refer to ‘social change’, without any implication that it may be moving in a consistent direction, whether towards greater or lesser differentiation and complexity… The real problem is the structure of these changes… So how are we to interpret the consistency with which human societies develop in the particular direction? … Despite all regressions, societies always regain the course leading to greater functional differentiation, multi-level integration and the formation of larger attack-and-defence organisations?” (p.155)

13    However, these are ideas at a fairly abstract theoretical level; and while they provide a kind of map that shows blank places where connections are unknown, and thus can help direct investigation and analysis, in practice it is never a matter of straightforward unidirectional developmental processes at work. This is because,

“In many if not all cases, the figurations formed by interdependent people are so plastic that the figuration at any later stage of the figurational flow is in fact only one of the many possible transformations of an earlier figuration. But as a particular figuration changes into another, a very wide scatter of possible transformations narrows down to a single outcome. In retrospect it is just as feasible to examine the range of potential outcomes as it is to discover the particular constellation of factors responsible for the emergence of this one figuration rather than any other of the possible alternatives.” (p.161)

14    As well as this backwards and forwards movement of the complexities of change and the consequent difficulties in narrowing down causes and outcomes, Elias also recognises that figurations change sometimes fundamentally over time, for both a figuration’s composition and the flow of participation in it can vary considerably at earlier and at later stages. As a consequence, all comparisons need to consider figurational movements and changes over time rather than simply comparing different configurations.

15    Concepts like industrialisation, globalisation and so on convey a much more static sense and are in fact misleading when referring to long-term figurations and sequences of events and changes. The relative autonomy and imminent dynamics of a figuration always need to be reckoned with, with this at the heart of how Elias conceives of social change and social development. Changes occur in figurations composed of people, and these changes mean changes in the nature and relationship of social positions and the social structures that are the outcomes of these:

“The rise and fall of groups within figurations, and the concomitant structural tensions and conflicts, are central to all developmental processes. They have to be placed at the centre of any sociological theory of development…” (p.174)

16    Returning now to the point made by Marks and Atmore, the ‘one damn thing after another’ character of figurations and their definitional part in sociogenesis provides an interesting and useful way of thinking broadly about the South African past, and then using this as the basis for looking more deeply at aspects of the processes thereby highlighted. The viewpoint taken on this needs to be concerned with the long term, the longue duree, and to recognise that the unfolding of events is often contradictory as well as diverse, and also that in their unfolding there is little certainty as to the direction in which events will eventually develop and take shape. Thus the 200 year period that the WWW research is concerned with.

17    Small figurations of outsiders arrived in southern Africa, in the shape of traders, missionaries, farmers, travellers and so on, and often there were deep divisions and conflicting interests characterising their relationships with each other. They came into increasingly daily contact with larger figurations of African peoples, who were members of sometimes smaller and larger communities, and also sometimes on the move as pastoralists or in response to outbreaks of warfare and violence. Change was happening anyway, for sociogenesis characterises all societies, which are always in flux and development. However, the increasing arrival of outsiders and the increasingly close character of their relationships with established African figurations added another element to the processes and patterns of sociogenesis.

18    The relationship between these difference figurations, those of African communities and of European settlers of different kinds, was complicated and diverse. There were many often contradictory and vascillating moves in the direction of more conflict or more cooperation, or through relationships sometimes characterised by civil inattention to each other. In this process, intermeshing relationships within these figurations was at times as important as the intermeshing or conflicting relationships between members of different figurations, or between different figurations in their entirety.

19    Over time, the balance of power ratios between these now separate, now interconnecting, now clashing, now cooperating, figurations markedly changed. Those composed of white settlers eventually became increasingly more powerful, in some times and places superordinate, and increasingly so. Eventually, the outsiders became the established, the dominant group in many areas and locations. This is to introduce some additional elements from elsewhere in Elias’s theoretical armoury: the relationship between the established and outsiders, and changing ratios of power between such groups. These will be the focus of other short exercises in ‘thinking with Elias’.

20    WWW rises to the challenge of operationalising some of these aspects of Elias’s thinking in a number of ways.

21    Sociogenesis: The fundamentally processual character of the social order and its always in media res character is fundamental to WWW research. It takes as its basis for investigation a 200 year, and within this focuses on a supremely sequential activity, that of letter-writing. This involves an over time set of sequences, which are not causally related to each other but rather representational and expressive of the I-and-we affective and other bonds that existed between people linked in figurational ways.

22    Letter-writing is a deeply social activity and has also been subject to its own civilising process, also discussed in another short exercise in ‘thinking with Elias’, in which the codes and conventions in respect of both the structure and the content of this representational mode have incrementally changed over the longue duree. In both regards, it provides an appropriate mechanism for exploring changes over time. Its representational character – that it is an account of, rather than the thing itself – is an added attraction, thereby giving purchase on the heterotopic world-views of the letter-writers in correspondence with each other. That it also means a focus on the originally outsider set of figurations is a further attraction, for the concern of WWW research is how these erstwhile outsiders of white settlers became the established and abrogated power and resources to themselves, with whites writing whiteness provided an appropriate ingress into investigating this.

23    Figuration: Elias’s approach is sometimes described as figurational sociology, and this is apt. For Elias, figuration is both fundamental to the social order, and also that which makes the subject-matter of sociology relatively autonomous from that of other disciplines. Figurations are the focal points of WWW investigations, with its range of case studies connected with different but at points interweaving figurational formations.

24    The kinds of figurations included and some examples are as follows:

25    A figuration persisting over the long duree: The London Missionary Society presence in southern Africa began in the 1790s and continued through into the 1950s and 60s. Its archive contains a continuous stream of organisational letter-writing over this period, for the missionaries employed by the LMS were expected, as part of their professional duties, to regularly account for their time, states of spiritual mind and activities in extended letters to the Director (a senior official) of the LMS responsible for their particular sphere of operation. The southern African records of the LMS and in particular the letters received from its missionaries are the focus of attention here.

26    A shorter-run figuration with multi-mode sets of activities: The activities and presence of Cecil Rhodes in southern Africa is often glossed under the heading of ‘imperialist’. What was involved was a complicated set of business activities of a venture capitalist kind, with Rhodes’s prime interest being the accrual of power and influence, from the most minute of social interactions to the grandest of accumulating activities in relation to land and mineral wealth. This occurred through agents and underlings and their roles in running if not directing a range of ‘Rhodes empire’ organisations of sometimes longer and sometimes shorter longevity. The Rhodes Papers provide a snapshot of this myriad set of activities which occurred over a relatively short time-period, from the early 1890s to Rhodes’s death in 1902. Many organisations are involved, with their papers having been amalgamated in a rough and ready way following his death.

27    Another smaller-scale example concerns the Cape Colony Letters, her collection composed by letters primarily written to Robert Godlonton, an Eastern Cape politician and businessman of retrograde racial views. These were written by a range of his closest associates over a lengthy period.

28    ‘Family’ figurations: A considerable range of other letter-collections are extant in South African archival locations. Those of long duration are in particular associated with successive generations of family letter-writing networks and have strong figurational characteristics. In many cases, though, seeing these through the lens of ‘family’ over-homogenises their content, for family members are predominantly the recipients, with the letter-writers being many and diverse although figurationally connected with family members. Some such collections have contents spanning the lengthy period from the 1790s to the 1930s and 40s, while others are of shorter durations. However, all are characterised by the wide range of letter-writers involved, and the strong sequential character and over time composition of their contents. There is a core group of such letter-writing family figurations central to the WWW research, including the Forbes, the Findlays, the Schreiner-Hemmings, the Pringles, the Vosses and a number of others.

29    ‘Case study’ figurations: A number of other smaller-scale figurations (in terms of the number of people involved, although sometimes the number of letters involved is large) are also included in WWW research because of particular factors characterising their contents. This includes the letters of Mary Moffat, Bessie Price, Robert White, Oliver Schreiner, James Henderson and a number of others.

30    Event figurations: Figurations are frequently characterised by their longevity. On occasion, however, new figurations can quickly form and may as quickly disband, composed by elements of older figurations coming together around particular events and circumstances. In the South African context, notable examples much written about include the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres (and more recently the Marikana massacre). While these are rightly deemed of great importance, they are by no means the only major ‘public order’ events suggestive of change that have occurred, although other instances have not received the same kind of either popular or scholarly attention, perhaps because the acts of repression associated with them were not so extreme. A number of such event figurations are being explored, in particular earlier post-1945 strikes by school and college students at Lovedale and Fort Hare and which can in a number of ways be seen as precursors to the events of 1960 and 1976.



Last updated: 25 May 2016


Recent Posts