Elias and Eurocentricism

Elias and Eurocentricism

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘Elias and Eurocentrism’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Thinking-With-Elias/Elias-and-Eurocentrism/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. This short contribution to ‘Thinking with Elias’ considers the criticism of Eurocentrism which has been made concerning his ideas about the civilising process, and by implication also applied to the rest of his work. That is, this is the contention that because civilising process is fundamental to Elias’s ideas about how societies develop and change, but you seen by a critic as problematic, then the rest of his work must also be characterised by the same perceived problem.

2. Clearly the criticism is potentially an important one for Whites Writing Whiteness, which is concerned with a society in southern Africa and draws on Elias’s ideas in researching and theorising its processes of change. However, this criticism is a problematic way of arguing, and there is no necessary reason why anything else Elias produced should be Eurocentric, even if the criticism of the civilising process were to be accepted. The view taken here is that the argument is not supported by the evidence and the criticism both about the civilising process and his work more widely is not valid.

3. Two initial observations are in order. Firstly, the civilising process is by no means the only important idea that Elias developed and anyway he continued writing about and round it over a very long period, so therefore it is important to consider it in context of his work as an entirety and over time. As such, one cannot just read in On the Process of Civilisation and fully comprehend it. To really understand what the idea of the civilising process is about in terms of what Elias himself was trying to convey, the supporting ideas and conceptual developments have to be recognised, with his 1930s book an early-stage expression rather than a culmination.

4. Secondly and relatedly, Elias’s work and the overall development of his thinking look very different when making use of the Collected Works published under the general editorship of Stephen Mennell. There is no real justification for picking out particular books or small sections and ignoring the rest, and every reason to consider Elias’s work as a whole and trace the lineage of his thinking. It is also important to take on board that he was a smart as the reader, and so the reasons for why he wrote what he did need to be thought about and taken seriously. These considerations are particularly important regarding his thinking about de/civilising processes.

5. Dunning and Hughes (2013: 108-11) make a helpful distinction between Europe-focused and Eurocentric. Elias’s work is certainly Europe-focused. His core examples, both in On the Process of Civilisation and in Studies on the Germans and indeed elsewhere in his publications, are France, Britain and Germany. Nonetheless he recognises a world outside of this and he posits that things may be different or they may be similar in other places and times and that sustained investigations are required to discover this. He also recognises and explores in depth the specific ways in which France, Britain and Germany are dissimilar as much as or more than they are similar. It is also worth adding that Elias’s focus on France, Germany, England was at least in part for practical reasons, that he could obtain sufficient materials about what he was investigating and which was translated into languages he could read well enough, rather than being exclusionary.

6. Elias’s work is equally certainly not Eurocentric. It does not take Europe as a prototype or model for other societies and times. Indeed, if anything it disaggregates Europe, avoiding such generalisations by looking at the links but also the dissimilarities, departures, differences, clashes and warfare that have occurred in inter-society relationships within its western regions. Perhaps his use of the word ’civilising’ has not been the best terminological choice that could have been made, but what is meant by it concerns the dominant view of what is seen, in a particular society at a particular point in time, as being more civilised than what went before. It is not laying claim to any Whiggish notion of progress and betterment, and anyway can be seen as investigating de/civilising and the always interconnected backwards and forwards momentum of social change.

7. A related question to consider is whether Elias sees these European societies as interlocking and with their development over time having common features. The response here is a yes/no one. Yes, his understanding of the importance of the state and its activities to long-term trajectories of change means that he sees these three European countries as each characterised by certain kinds of common processes – the monopolisation of legitimate force, accumulation and distribution among them. But no, he also recognises that these are not entirely dovetailed with each other, and that different national states take on these and other characteristics in different ways because of national history and character, responses to perceptions of external threats, and there are different kinds of changes at different points in times.

8. However, this could still add up to what is a ‘world-system’ in Wallerstein’s terms, that is, as a set of structures that take on a dynamic that eventuates in them coming to dominate the global form that national states take. Thus, does Elias by extension see non-European states as also linked, as part of a dominant state formation? This is an interesting point, although it has not been much considered as a way of thinking about the logic of Elias’s thinking. It also raises a further question, is the state as we presently know across the world a product of Eurocentrism or Eurocentric-ism? The response here is that it depends on how ‘the state’ is conceptualised, and how far imperialism and colonialism can be seen to have shaped societies and states even where these were not colonised. This is another yes/no response.

9. Regarding how the status is conceptualised, Philip Abrams (1988) usefully emphasise that the state should be seen as a process and not as a thing. The corollary is that the state cannot in its entirety be imported even though particular aspects of a state apparatus may be (as the post-1945 history of decolonisation bears out), and also the processes involved are impacted by the specific histories and social structures of the countries concerned, such that the state becomes to a lesser or greater extent ‘localised’. While Elias may not have put it like this in On the Process of Civilisation, still seeing national states in hybridic terms is an implication of his later work, for of course after this 1930s book came a further half century of him thinking and writing and publishing.

10. What do these issues look like in relation to South Africa?

11. Before the Imperial presence followed by colonisation, and indeed during the earliest stages of both, there were strong, independent African polities across the whole of Southern Africa. Over time, a number of colonial states came to be instituted, among them the British colonies of the Cape and Natal and the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal or South African Republic. These were both like and unlike ‘responsible government’ institutions in the European context, and they rapidly and in diverse ways asserted independence from a metropole. As a component within this process, many of the formerly independent African states became dependent and then were ‘absorbed’ by more and less oppressive means. In 1910, South Africa became a unified state composed of the above-mentioned colonies and republics. It subsequently went through many changes which made it more and more specific to its location and less like other African states and also less like European ones. With the move to democracy and majority-rule in 1994, these processes of ‘localisation’ continued but with greater influences coming from African polities and states. What has resulted and is continuing to result is something that needs to be seen as hybridic, for there have been changing ratios and balances of the African, the European, the local settler and other influences on local statecraft and its composing processes and ensuing structural apparatuses.

12. Overall, the result of WWW investigations of changes at the local micro and wider macro levels over the 200 years from the 1770s to the 1970s and after is to propose that there is a distinctive and hybridic South African counterpart to the civilising process. What has been taken to be ‘more civilised’ than what previously existed has changed at over time, in somewhat different ways among different figurations of people in different localities, and race matters and how they have been represented have been at the heart of this. The letters and letter-writing investigated in WWW research show the trajectories of how white way people have seen and represented ’the Other’, changes in this, and how these small circumstances in the everyday quotidian have linked with macro matters including those of the monopolisation of force and the accumulation and distribution of resources. ‘Racialising’ and its categorisation aspects has been essential within this and adds up to ‘the racialising process’ as something distinctively South African.

13. WWW research demonstrates the possibilities and benefits of using Elias’s ideas, and the existence of a broad set of developments and changes to the social order over time in a non-European context. Far from imposing/applying ‘European’ or ‘Eurocentric’ views onto the context under investigation, the use of Eliasian concepts in project work has achieved the opposite result, in continually underscoring the centrality of South Africa’s specific history, present social structure, ratios and trajectories of power, established and outsider relationships, state formation and other situational specifics.

14. These ideas about a distinctive racialising process in South Africa are discussed in detail in other pages on the WWW website. They have also been the topic of a book – The Racialising Process – that presents the research which underpins and substantiates this argument; clicking on its title will provide further information.


Philip Abrams (1988 [1977]) Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State. Journal of Historical Sociology, 1, 1, pp. 58-89.

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

Norbert Elias (various dates) Collected Works. 18 vols. Dublin: University College Dublin Press.

Nicole Peperell (2016) The Unease with Civilization:  Norbert Elias and the Violence of the Civilizing Process. Thesis 11, 137, 1, pp.3-21.

Liz Stanley (2017) The Racialising Process: Whites Writing Whiteness in South Africa 1770s – 1970s. Edinburgh: X Press.

Last updated: 13 May 2021