The Temporal Order, Events and Social Change: Thinking with Elias no. 6

The temporal order, events and social change: Thinking with Elias no. 6

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The temporal order, events and social change: Thinking with Elias no. 6′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1 Introduction
1.1 A new edition of Garth Massey’s (2016) Ways of Social Change sets out what are seen as “the major drivers of social change” as technology, science and innovation; social movements and social contention; war, revolution and political violence; corporations and the commercial transformation of material life; and the state and its use of public resources (Massey 2016: 101 and chapters 4 to 9). On one level these are not contentious, for under some circumstances and in some contexts all of them could propel changes of different kinds and degrees. At the same time, important questions are relegated. In particular, the key question of exactly what is meant by ‘social change’ – how much is enough to constitute social change at a general level – needs to be considered, while in Massey’s discussion it remains largely implicit. Also related questions such as whether change has to occur in a number of these spheres or whether one of them might be sufficiently crucial for transformation in it to have a domino effect on the others and achieve ‘social change’ generally, are also passed over. There is additionally the question of the ‘how’ of social change – how does change in technology, politics, war and so on come about at a micro-level? Why these spheres matter and the impact of changes in them are usefully considered, but not why changes in them happen in the first place. In addition, the question of why just these spheres are involved and why, for example, religion and political ideology, and cultural and communication systems, is also not discussed.

1.2. Raising these issues of coverage indicates the vast complexities involved in pinning down exactly what ‘social change’ is and how it happens in a way that fully links structural levels and the minutiae of the quotidian, rather than being deficiencies of authorial kind. Few if any have achieved a framework which satisfactorily includes all of these elements. The work of Elias comes close, but this too has its gaps and silences, as does work by other important figures, as discussed in what follows.

1.3. The baseline questions are, then, what is social change, how should it be measured, in what areas of social life and to what extent does it have to occur to be seen as ‘change’, how and why does it happen at the micro-level, and in what particular contexts or circumstances, and are there  different kinds of transitions involved at different time-periods  as well as in different locations? These questions are fundamental because a programmatic response to them is necessary for any workable theory of social change. They are also key matters for WWW research, which it explores through the prism of the representational order of letter-writing over the longue durée of the white presence in South Africa: how, where and when did its racial order eventuate, in what shapes, and with what contextual and temporal variations? They are considered here in relation to a number of important discussions, including by Elias.

2 Braudel and the structures of time
2.1 One of the best-known formulations of how to think about the temporal order in relation to patterns of stasis and social change is provided by Fernand Braudel ([1949] 1996, 1980), in particular in his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and On History. His eye is on medium-term occurrences and particularly the longue duree rather than on events, which he sees as short term distractions from key structural aspects. As Richard Lee notes, although Braudel emphasises his conception of time “as duree, duration, and his differentiation of a plurality of social times – the short term of events or episodic history… the medium term of conjunctures… (such as, among others, economic cycles), and the long term, the longue durée, of structures (the regularities of social life whose change is almost imperceptible)…. [in addition] he notes a fourth time, that of the very long term… he thus insists that the longue durée is not eternal” (Lee 2012: 3).

2.2 Braudel’s approach has been interpreted by Sewell (2005) among others as valorising a dichotomous view of events and these more structural aspects. However, while Braudel distinguishes three different forms of times – events, conjunctures, the longue duree – he also comments that “these levels are intended only as a means of exposition” (Braudel 1980: 4) and that they actually ‘intermingle’. Relatedly, while he distinguishes the history of events from longer-term occurrences, there are defensible reasons for this. This is because the event for Braudel is limited and contained within a short time span, for although it is explosive it does not last and as time passes its effects can scarcely be discerned. He is well aware that others think this is emptying ‘event’ of meaning in relation to more profound changes, but he disagrees because such a view can only be sustained “…on condition of adding to that fragment whatever it did not at first sight appear to contain, which in turn entails knowing what is appropriate – or not appropriate – to add” (Braudel 1980: 27-28). That is, it requires hindsight knowledge that an event had such longer-term effects produced consequently and which can only later be seen as connected with it.

2.3 It seems less a matter of Braudel treating event and structure as binaries, then, and more a matter of him perceiving crucial issues in how the idea of events is defined and operationalised, something that will be returned to later in discussing Sewell on the event framework. At the same time, although Braudel states that these three understandings of time ‘intermingle’ and that portraying them as ‘levels’ is “only a means of exposition”, in his more detailed discussions they are in fact examined fairly separately, although ‘interminglings’ are noted.

2.4 Dale Tomich’s discussion of the relationship between these ideas and micro-history picks up on this latter point in his observation that Braudel “sees the longue duree as a real historical structure formed at the interface of human activity with geography and nature in their broadest sense” (Tomich 2012: 11) and that it is in fact the central concept for Braudel because it provides the methodological basis for his goal of producing histoire totale (15). Tomich’s emphasis is both different and has points of similarity. His micro-history focus is on the particular and local, as a form of microanalysis which “gives access to the highly particular and local conditions and environment in which agencies are formed and strategies for social action are deployed…. Within the methodological assumptions of world historical social science… We gain knowledge by the continuing movement back and forth between the general and the specific, macro and micro, repetition and difference” (Tomich 2012: 29). But in its aim, there are considerable similarities between this view of micro-history and Braudel’s histoire totale project because micro-histories, Tomich proposes, “allow us to specify particular historical relations and processes in time and space as we reconstitute the spatial temporal complexity of the world historical whole” (31).

2.5  Braudel helpfully places emphasis on the long-term transitions that occur rather than short run matters with limited consequence. In doing so he may, or he may not, do you ‘the event’ in a way that is too constrained away.  However, his is not the only framework for thinking about the longue duree  and more seismic shifts in the social order. The work of Norbert Elias has his thinking about change at the core.

3 Elias, timing and sequence
3.1 So what might Elias make of these ideas  about events and the longue duree? It is likely Elias would have found considerable irony in a historian or sociologist dividing up types or kinds of time in order then to comment on their ‘interminglings’. For Elias, time as it is lived out and as its sequences and occurrences unfold is not divided in any such way as ‘time this’ and ‘time that’, but is in his terms to be seen as a sociogenesis, a continual unfolding which is always in media res. His own work on social change is notable for its encompassing approach, in using longer term cultural matters such as changing manners and morals (rather than events) and the reshaping of the state to explore developments over long time-periods. Such works as The Court Society, On the Process of Civilisation and Studies on the Germans provide detailed exemplifications of his analysis of shifts and changes over time in different arenas of social life (Elias, [1969] 2006, [1939] 1997, [1989] 2013). However, rather than addressing time and social change around Elias’s substantive/theoretical investigations (as other ‘thinking with Elias’ essays have), the following discussion draws on An Essay on Time (Elias [1992] 2007), with page references to the Collected Works edition.

3.2 In An Essay on Time, Elias immediately places on the agenda that what is conventionally referred to as time is actually a product of the measurement of sequences of events of different kinds so as to compare them: “time represents common features of observable sequences which people wish to grasp by referring them to a standard sequence” (Elias 2007: 4). In earlier times, questions about sequence and duration with regard to the succession of events were considered around natural processes such as seasons and so on. The development of measurements of time is the product of a later stage in development, but what remains is a two-fold understanding, that time exists objectively as part of the natural world and its processes, and that the human mind or reason invented time as a way of measuring sequence. The next step in Elias’s discussion sees him considering why it is that sequence and time should be measured, why it is important to people or a society to do so. He proposes that “The expression ‘time’ … refers to this relating together of positions or segments within two or more continuously moving sequences of events. The sequences themselves are perceptible. The relation between them results from the elaboration of perceptions by human beings possessing knowledge. It finds expression in a communicable social symbol, the concept of ‘time’, which within a certain society can transmit from one person to a memory picture that can be experienced, but not perceived through the senses.” (10).

3.3 For Elias this is not an individual matter, but a kind of social institution which varies with the stage of social development and through which individuals learn to self-regulate their behaviour. As he comments, thinking about temporality in this way changes how the relation between individual, society and nature is seen, in recognising that these are embedded in each other and are interdependent. Calendar time is a good example, embedding both natural and social processes and events, and also taking on institutional form in people regulating their behaviours, with these being completely intertangled (14-23). Elias also points out that his studies on the civilising process, involvement and detachment, and time, address the same problem from different angles (28). As with the essay on time, these discussions too are concerned with the connections between external and internal constraints in the making of society and the behaviours of people within this, with time another structural mechanisms for the largely self-regulation of social behaviour and feeling.

3.4 For Elias, the experience of what is called ‘time’ continues to change and does so in structured and directional ways, because it is not a thing in itself but a product of grounded understandings and contexts. At basis, time reckoning concerns sequences of occurrences. Time seems an abstraction, but it regulates or self-regulates at macro as well as micro levels and in very material ways. This is because it is the symbol of synthesis between two or more sets of changes occurring in relation to each other (38-9). Timing is about change, which can be recurrent or non-recurrent, and is concerned with what happens before, after, or simultaneously with something else (40). Time also has a coordinating and integrating function, although for Elias it is mainly concerned with social regulation and ordering. He proposes that there is no end and no beginning to the development of timing because it is completely anchored in the different stages of social development and social organisation of society (49). In situations or societies where there are no time scales, date scales or other devices for timing events, the character of how people experience themselves and others would radically differ, he comments.

3.5 All ‘when’ questions are about timing and duration, about things happening one after another around sequences of changes that are never present together (59). On this, Elias proposes that, “Timing is thus based on people’s capacity for connecting with each other two or more different sequences of continuous changes, one of which serves as a timing standard for the other (or others)”. He continues that, “What we call ‘time’ is therefore, to begin with, a frame of reference used by people of a particular group, and finally by humankind, to set up milestones recognised by the group within a continuous sequence of changes, or to compare one phase in such a sequence with phases of another, and in a variety of other ways.” (60). He also sees it as having fetish-like aspects, because properties are assigned to ‘time in itself’, while these are actually changes to the concept which it symbolically represents.

3.6 Ideas about past, present and future are also tricky because it is not possible to clearly distinguish between them and relate them to each other. This is because they do not refer to standard measures like a year or month, but to sequential flows and the relationship between them, where the thing being referred to constantly changes, and therefore so does the connection between them (62-3). But at the same time he observes a paradox, which is that the relationship between what happened before one thing and after another still stays the same (64). Terms like now, and present, past and future are consequently a characteristic of what Elias calls a fifth dimension, that of consciousness or experience (67).

3.7 Returning to his starting point, Elias criticises dividing time between nature and society as insufficient because this encourages treating social time and physical time as if they really existed and could be explored independently of each other, but this is not so (73). The problem of time at basis cannot be addressed properly without reference to the developmental trajectory of timing (76); and although time and space are often treated as different, every change in space is a change in time and vice versa (82). Another tricky aspect is that time is used in part to describe a continuous sequence of unrepeatable changes, such as minutes and hours, which never return, and partly to repeatable sequences of changes (83).

3.8 The emergence of the concept of physical time from the matrix of social time is crucial and occurred in relation to the production of human-made time pieces, resulting in a growing dualism in the concept of time (95) and also process-reduction by reducing complexities to current short sequences in clock-terms. The time-centredness of members of complex urbanised societies becomes part and parcel of social codes, habitus, social personality structures and particularly regulation and self- regulation (131). These ideas connect with Elias’s comments on the difference between a developmental and an historical approach to the problem of time, that is, between his approach and how he sees the discipline of history. The basis of the historian’s claim to scholarship is the reliability of the narratives produced from a variety of sources which are detailed residues of the past, with historians attending to the detail and fitting this together and into a picture through an overarching narrative structure (152). For Elias, this is both more rigorous than before, but also entails the intrusion of personal beliefs into the narrative because the criteria used for assembling this is necessarily of the present-time. Narrative history is insufficient because based in a lower level of detachment, or an increased level of involvement, on the part of the historian. In producing narratives of the past out of their own understandings, there is necessarily a recourse to present-time evaluations and therefore personal involvements. But rather than the mastery of more and more detail, a higher level of synthesis is needed (155). An important difference with sociology for Elias is that personal involvement is reduced through the sociological use of models or theories, a topic he deals with in detail in the introduction to The Court Society ([1969] 2006: 3-38).

3.9 The main components of Elias’s understanding of time are now apparent. What time and timing are understood to ‘be’ in fact changes over time, along with all the changes occurring in the processes of social development. This is because time is not a separate ‘thing’, but part of broad understandings and ways of behaving and self-regulating. Time and timing are ways of thinking about sequences of occurrences of particular durations so as to be able to make comparisons using them. The measures of time, however, in fact measure conceptual ideas rather than ‘real ‘matters, using sequence and duration as proxies for these conceptual understandings. The measures of time also come to take on institutional characteristics and are key elements in social regulation and also and particularly in self-regulation. However, dividing up time as belonging to different kinds or types is to treat these ways of thinking as if they ‘really’ existed, while for Elias this is something to be rejected.

3.10 There are no references to Braudel’s work across Elias’s publications. This should not be taken to mean that Elias might not have read it, for notoriously he references the work of other people only sparely while he certainly read omnivorously. However, thinking about the argument developed in An Essay on Time, some ideas about how he might have responded to Braudel’s approach can be inferred. Firstly, for Elias time is not a ‘thing’ but the product of conceptual understandings which change across the processes of social development, and so dividing up ‘types’ or ‘kinds’ of time would be subject to the same criticisms that Elias makes of other ways of dividing up time, which is that this is problematic. Secondly, he finds the narrative approach to time produced by tracing detail as also problematic, encouraging over-involvement on the part of an historian (or sociologist) because requiring evaluations and categorisations which are those of the present moment, but concerned with the past, which had very different understandings of time and timing in the different contexts involved. Therefore in respect of Braudel’s work, while Elias would likely have appreciated an approach focused on the structural aspects of long-term changes over time, any idea that different types of time ‘exist’ would most likely be rejected in its own terms and also because part of an over-involvement in presentist ways of thinking. Where this takes Elias is:

(a) to see understandings of time and timing as historically-located and changing ways of conceptualising sequence, duration and occurrence but which come to have wider ramifications within the social order;

(b) to treat the focus of sociological investigations in the round and not think in categorical ways that divide them up into ‘time this’ and ‘time that’, and to do this contextually, in recognising that one context may well be different from others contiguous to it; and

(c) to think holistically and synthetically about the processes of long-term social development, around the idea of sociogenesis and the unfolding in media res character of social life and that there is an overall trajectory to this, in particular around changes in the state and also self-regulation.

3.11 Elias’s ideas about social change in An Essay on Time dovetail with his analysis in Studies on the Germans ( Three broad elements are involved.

3.12 Elias uses the terms development and the civilising process to characterise this, with de/civilising processes being uneven, the content of ‘civilising’ contested, and with differences and hiererchises existing between different groups or figurations or nations. In addition, the past in all its contextual specificities reverberates in the present and the weight of what happened before continues to have consequence and impact, although it does not determine the present or the future course of things.

3.13 Over time, there are also changes in the relationship between and the power ratios of different established and outsider groups. This includes those groups involved in processes of state formation, with marked changes over time occurring to the parameters, activities and powers of the state, around the accumulation of control, the disposition of resources, and the monopolisation of legitimate force and violence. However, states and state formation processes are not all the same, and states may be at very different points in stages of development compared with others, with an impact internally on emotional bonds and perceptions of the nation and nationalism. External matters including wars and other forms of conflict between states also occur in this context, although not necessarily in a causal way.

3.14 Related to this in complex ways is the development of increasing modes of self-regulation in identity formation and personality structures, as compared with earlier external impositions of this. Changes in manners and morals are part of the overall processes of development over time, providing a way of seeing how the social habitus of groups and figurations and also the personality structures of individual people are marked and changed by the same sets of factors. It also points up that personality structures, habitus, figuration and the social order are all interdependent and in analytic terms cannot be sensibly treated separately.

3.15 These are broad ideas within Elias’s overall approach, and as noted earlier his work explores them in grounded/theoretical ways and recognises the existence and consequences of different circumstances and contexts. The best-known examples concern his discussions of Germany, France and Britain in On the Civilising Process, in which the differences between them over time take on great significance. However there are other examples in his work, with an overarching emphasis being on recognising that ideas and events will pan out differently in different circumstances.

3.16 Some procedural or methodological precepts follow. One is that Elias engages with social change and over time developments in ways that are by and large different from focusing on events, and for reasons similar to Braudel’s. That is, he is more concerned with happenings in terms of longer-run changes in patterns of behaviour and social organisation. This is not to suggest that he is unaware of sometimes major events that can have short-term explosive impact, with eventful occurrences in different European societies mentioned in various of his writings. However, it is the long-term playing out of things and the possibly cumulative effects on the social order generally that is his focus. A second is that built into Elias’s approach at a fundamental level is the importance of context and specific history. This also encompasses the accumulations from the past that continue to reverberate in the present and which take different forms in different contexts, whether these involve groups or figurations or nations. And a third is that Elias’s goal is to understand differences as well as similarities in development processes, with both pointed up by his broad comparative approach, such as in On the Civilising Process. This is by implication to work retrospectively, in an engagement with what was and what happened, the interconnections between things and the unpredictability of how changes play out over time.

3.17  Elias’s ideas about timing, sequence and duration and the social construction of how time and the temperature order are seen and experienced are immensely helpful. Joining these with other elements in his analytical framework, including the de/civilising process, established and outsider relations, changing ratios of power and the formation and re-formation of figurations,  provides a  productive set of ideas for thinking about social change in different societies. But of course, no body of ideas is perfect, not least because of something Elias himself insisted upon, which is the importance of context and  specific circumstances. Events are part of such circumstances and the currents needs to be taken into account, together with the more quotidian ways in which ‘ordinary transitions’ occur.

4 Sewell and the event
4.1 As noted earlier, William Sewell (2005) has proposed that Braudel treats events and structures in a dichotomous way rather than perceiving the relationship between them as one of interdependence and thereby over-stresses the short-run aspect of events. Sewell however conceptualises events in a way that considers more than ‘the event’ itself, with his approach helpful in thinking about the gap in Elias’s analytical armory concerning what the precise dynamics are that propel change. In particular, Sewell tries to get away from the short term-ism of the event by constructing a temporally-ordered narrative account of all the interconnections and reverberations occurring as an event unfolds over time. Borrowing from the work of Marshall Sahlins (1991), Sewell suggests that the resultant framework adds up to “a powerful, generalisable, fruitful, and open-ended theory of historical change” (Sewell 2005: 224).

4.2 Sewell starts by emphasising that events are recognisable as such only within the prevailing terms of society and can be said to exist “only to the extent that they violate the expectations generated by cultural structures” (Sewell 2005: 199). Events are happenings that Sewell sees transforming structures because constituting turning points that change the structures governing social organisation and social conduct (218). Relatedly, he points out that the recognition of an event being such presupposes structure as a basis. How an event plays out will always depend on how it is placed and implicated in the prevailing social structure and so for him events and structure are always in a relationship of interdependence. He sees events a priori as occurrences with momentous consequences that in some cases can change the course of history, with this being the definition that runs through his discussion (226).

4.3 For Sewell, structure can be captured through constructing a detailed narration from happenings in time; but also and in a rather Eliasian way, he emphasises that analysis must also break from narration in order to construct a conceptual account of relationships and changes. He emphasises that breaks or transitions are always involved, for ‘an event’ by definition fails to follow the existing cultural categories, so that all the parties involved have to rearrange what they do and the ways they do it in what is a volatile dynamic of unfolding events without prior known patterns (Sewell 2005: 221). Within this, pre-existing tensions become exacerbated; and in the structured improvisations that result from people reorienting themselves, the nature of the unfolding structure that is accomplished will differ given different contexts and events and persons.

4.4 Sewell relatedly argues that events transform structures and do so in unanticipated ways, because producing a sequence of occurrences that constitute some kind of a break which is not neutralised and reabsorbed, but which rather sets off other and unanticipatable changes: “whatever the nature of the initial rupture, an occurrence only becomes a historical event… when it touches off a chain of occurrences that durably transforms previous structures and practices and this happens above all when a rupture in one particular structural and spatial location also produces reinforcing ruptures in other locations” (Sewell 2005: 227). As a consequence, among other things events have to be investigated around the internal dynamics or mechanisms of what happens, because it is this that results in or does not result in a durable transformation of structures. And at the basis of this is the activity of reconstructing the sequences of actions that lead from the original initial rupture to the new articulations of structures. Around this Sewell elaborates a set of theoretical implications (224-262), as follows:

4.5 Historical events rearticulate structures, are cultural transformations, are shaped by particular conditions, are characterised by heightened emotion, are acts of collective creativity, are punctuated by ritual, and produce more events, so to become definitive the rearticulation of structures must gain authoritative sanction, there are spatial as well as temporal processes involved, and defining the boundaries of an historical event (a cut-off point) requires an act of judgement.

4.6 Sewell discusses these in some detail by explaining how an events theory framework enables tracing the trajectory of changes that are now termed the French Revolution of 1789. This use of the framework throws light on the unfolding over time occurrences involved and the unanticipatable knock-on effects that frequently resulted from these, as well as the increasing magnitude of the changes occurring. At the same time, his analysis depends upon an a priori acceptance that the French Revolution is ‘an event’ and had wider reverberations over a longer time period and wider reach than the specifics that Sewell’s account discusses. As a consequence, and in the way that Braudel intimates, attached to the ‘fragments’ of the initiating event are other activities and occurrences which would not at the time have been seen as linked and which can only be seen such with hindsight knowledge that all of these things added up to ‘the event’ known now as the French Revolution. Also at issue here is that Sewell does not entirely get away from the short-termism that Braudel identifies as a problem, for although he is concerned with much more than the fall of the Bastille, his analysis is still focused on a fairly limited time-period, and consequently hindsight knowledge that there were continuing reverberations over the longue duree is still needed for the analysis to work.

4.7 The analysis of the short-run provided by the events theory framework as Sewell presents is helpful in getting to grips with the detailed trajectory of occurrences so as to tease out their interconnections and consequences over a period of time. It results in a kind of micro-history of the event, rather than an overarching theoretical framework for understanding history and the past in the more sweeping way Sewell claims. Hovever, thought of in this more focused way, it provides a helpful route into thinking about the processes of change in everyday life with its mixtures of the routine and quotidian, ordinary occurrences, and also the punctuation of events that are usually limited rather than long-term in character. Tomich’s (2012) discussion of the relationship between micro-history and the longue duree noted earlier provides an important reminder here that the short run and everyday and the long-term are not ‘really’ poles apart but ways of thinking about what is referred to by Elias as sociogenesis, the continued unfolding of social life and its sequences of activities and occurrences.

4.8  Does this set of ideas and up to the general framework for explaining everything about social change that Sewell proposes? This is far too global a claim, for most changes and transitions are not of the cataclysmic kind that he indicates occurred with the French Revolution (and has also occurred with other revolutions in, for instance, Russia and China). To be the generalisable theory of historical change that Sewell strives for, a framework needs to be able to encompass not only ‘the event’ in the ‘big’ sense he discusses this, but ordinary shifts and ‘small’ changes in social life, that is, the more quotidian and incremental aspects of how change occurs.

5.  Shove et al on social practices and ordinary transitions
5.1 Although concerned primarily with innovation and technology, the discussion of social change provided by Shove, Panzar and Watson (2012) offers a way of combining aspects of these different ideas about change from Braudel, Sewell and Elias and how best to think about the processes involved. The subtitle of Shove et al’s book is ‘everyday life and how it changes’ and it delivers an interesting account of this through the lens of social practices regarding science and technology matters. ‘How societies change’ for them involves processes of both transformation and stability occurring within and between social practices of different kinds, with it being the emergence, persistence and disappearance of social practices over time that is their focus. However, change is not just the accumulation of individual choices, nor is it the outcome of external forces driven by technological innovation or social structure.

5.2 Practices for Shove et al are structurational entities, with both structure and agency at their core. Consequently their attention is on how practices emerge, evolve and disappear, with social practices being the primary unit of analysis. In addition, they fully recognise that social practices and connections between bundles of practices “are rooted in past inequalities and constitutive of similar patterns in the future” and from this comes the approach in “locating sources of power not (only) in the resources and capacities of individual actors but in the circuits of reproduction through which elements of practices are brought together and by means of which they are pulled apart” (Shove et al 2012: 138).

5.3 Following other contributors to the ‘practice turn’ in contemporary theory, they see social practices as routinised behaviours of recursive kind in which the key aspects are the conjunction of elements (materials, competences and meanings); the combination of these so that a practice can be spoken of as entity or thing in itself; performances of practices; and people as carriers or hosts of practices (Shove et al 2012: 1-8). However, these aspects are not absolutely enduring and processes of transition occur around a changed relationship between these different aspects of practices, and therefore the need analytically to understand the changing material configurations of these key aspects. They also point out that things are involved, as well as behaviours and people, and it is the changing relationship between these that effects transition through innovations in practice as an ongoing rather than a one-off process (Shove et al 2012: 11). They set out a number of key questions about this: how do social practices emerge and change over time, what are the elements that practices are made of, how do practices attract practitioners, how are bundles or complexes practices formed and renewed (Shove et al 2012: 21-41).

5.4 People as practitioners actively combine the practice elements involved, of materials, competences and meanings, and it is they who provide the connections between these and whether the connections are made or broken (Shove et al 2012: 63-79). Some important points here concern how and in what ways practices recruit or attract practitioners, for it is this which produces the essential recursive aspects of social practices, by showing how the connections between bundles of practices form, persist or disappear as people take them up, engage in or abandon them (Shove et al 2012: 81-96). Sequence is involved in this process and there are different ways in which the temporal aspects of practices are important too. Timing, and not just time, is important in the relative dominance of some social practices and performances over others and which are consequential for what happens next and whether things continue or change, for new practices have to be fitted in to the existing structures of the temporal order, recurrence needs also to include periods of non-performance, and there may be in-built sequences for particular kinds of practices (Shove et al 2012: 127-30).

5.5 Where social practices happen or could happen and the spaces and places of their occurrence are also important in thinking about how they occur and diffuse (Shove et al 2012: 130-34). Space can be a location, a resource, a receptor, an outcome, and some of these space-related aspects will often be up for grabs in the sense that they might be any of these because they can be modulated in the performance of the practices concerned, and so cannot be seen as either essential or tangential by definition. There are in addition some important observations about space and practices that Shove et al make that are helpful. There are likely to be limits, sometimes severe limits, to where practices can be enacted, for there is an ‘uneven landscapes of possibilities’; when practices travel and occur in new locations, the combinations of elements change and take different forms; spaces can be re-made by the co-location of bundles of practices within them; and different enactments accumulate and can change the thing itself rather than co-existing as variations.

5.6 Some overarching points to take from Shove et al’s discussion are that the everyday quotidian is defined by the performance of social practices that conjoin agency and structure and the mechanics of both stability and change are embedded in these; that such practices are performances by people as social agents and also materially-rooted; that some social practices increase and persist while others decline or never become wide-spread; that material and technological aspects, and also matters of time and space, are as much part of social practices as their performance elements; and that context and circumstance including regarding power and inequalities need also to be attended to. These points are expressed here abstractly, although Shove et al’s discussion explores them around a number of grounded examples. Put into practice in this way their approach offers a productive toolkit for examining in some detail the specific social practices and transitions involved in how some things change and other things remain the same. It thereby adds to the analytical armory for considering the processes by which social change eventuates,  not least because it provides a means of focusing on how and why the dynamic that underpins transition comes about, that ‘pebble thrown in the water and ripples spreading outwards’ aspect  that is largely absent from Elias’s ideas apart from in an in passing way.

6.  Fitting it all together
6.1 A short summary of how these ideas about time and social change can be fitted together is in order. Elias’s theoretical apparatus, including the civilising process, changing configurations of the state, ratios of power and the relationship between established and outsider groups, the formation and reformation of figurations, provides the backcloth. In the foreground are his ideas about timing, sequence and duration and refusal to see different ‘kinds’ or forms of time, instead insisting on the unfolding character of sociogenesis and that even large-scale developments can be helpfully analysed in small-scale sociogenetic terms. They are joined by Braudel’s emphasis on the importance of the longue duree and the epiphenomenal character of most events, Sewell’s re-definition of ‘the event’ away from the specifically short-term and concern to trace the over time reverberations of major eventful changes, and Shove et al’s attention to the specific details of how developments and transitions in social practices occur in the grounded quotidian circumstances in which most changes occur, which brings the analytical ideas here full circle by providing the substantive detail of how sociogenesis with respect to stability and transition occurs.

6.2 There is obviously a great deal more that might be said on this topic, for as noted that the start of this discussion, a workable and properly articulated theory of social change with an attendant set of methodological precepts for operationalising it analytically is of fundamental importance to the sociology project. It is the locus around which sociology as a discipline came into existence, and even if it remains largely implicit in most current sociological work, it is there nonetheless and deeply embedded in such concepts as modernity, postmodernity, globalisation and so forth. It is also of great import for WWW research, which has taken as its call concern the how rather than the why of the racial order that emerged and eventuated in South Africa over the period from the 1770s to the 1970s.

Fernand Braudel [1949] 1996. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. New York: Harper & Row.
Fernand Braudel 1980. On History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Norbert Elias [1969] 2006. The Court Society. Collected Works, Dublin: UCD Press.
— [1999] 2006. ‘Introduction’ in The Court Society. Collected Works, Dublin: UCD Press, 1-38.
— [1939] 1997. On the Process of Civilisation Collected Works, Dublin: UCD Press.
— [1989] 2013) Studies on the Germans Collected Works, Dublin: UCD Press.
Richard Lee 2012. ‘Introduction’ in ed. Richard Lee The Longue Duree and World-Systems Analysis New York, SUNY Press, 1-7.
Garth Massey 2016, 2nd edition. Ways of Social Change: Making Sense of Modern Times. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Marshall Sahlins 1991. ‘The return of the event, again’ in ed. Aletta Biersack Clio in Oceana. Washington: Smithsonial Institute Press, 37-100.
William H Sewell 2005. Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Elizabeth Shove, Mika Pantzar and Matt Watson 2012 The Dynamics of Social Practice. London: Sage.
Liz Stanley 2016 ‘De/civilising processes, state formation, habitus and personality structures: thinking with Elias no. 4’.
Dale Tomich 2012 ‘The order of historical time: the longue duree and micro-history’, in ed. Richard Lee The Longue Duree and World-Systems Analysis New York, SUNY Press, 9-33.

Last updated: 13 May 2021