The Established-Outsider Figuration, ‘Race’ and Whiteness: Thinking with Elias no. 4

The Figuration, ‘Race’ & Whiteness: Thinking with Elias no. 4

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The Established-Outsider Figuration, Race and Whiteness’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1.     How Is It Done?

1.1   Is ‘race ‘and racism a matter of skin colour or cultural differences or some combination of these? Why should such things result in tensions, prejudice and conflict and how do these pan out over the generations? What about personal prejudice? Sociologist Norbert Elias is not often thought about as a significant contributor to analysing the dynamics of race and racism, although one of his major writings, The Established and the Outsiders, provides a cogent and helpful explanatory framework for understanding such matters around power relations in society. It does so by focusing on the fundamentals of relationships between groups of people in figurational terms, to see the dynamic at work in more complex – and more social – ways than the above questions presume. Its focus is an area that is just outside the city centre of Leicester, referred to as Winston Parva, and the tensions and conflicts existing between old-established residents of one housing area, the Village, and the newer arrivals in another, the Estate and two different areas within this.

1.2   Discussion here is concerned with how and in what ways the ideas explored in The Established and the Outsiders and the theoretical framework Elias derived from it might be helpful in thinking about the changing relationships over time between black, coloured and white people in the country now known as South Africa, earlier a number of separate states. In addition to the main text of the book, two essays that Elias wrote at different points to accompany translations of it are also discussed.

1.3   The Established and the Outsiders was originally published in 1965, under the joint names of Norbert Elias and John Scotson. What has become clear subsequently is that, while the data is from John Scotson’s Masters thesis research, the ideas framework and the structure of the written text were very much the product of Elias. This has emerged from the work involved in publishing the Collected Works edition of 18 volumes of Elias’s writings, with Cas Wouters being the editor of volume 4, in which a somewhat different version of the components of The Established and the Outsiders appears. While in fundamentals this is basically the same as the 1965 book, various amendments and changes have shown Elias’s authorship of different elements more clearly. In particular this concerns two additions. The first is a powerful 1976 essay, ‘Towards a theory of established-outsider relations’, which pushes home his role in theorising what was happening over time in Winston Parva. The second is a 1990 essay, ‘Further aspects of established-outsider relations’, which substantially discusses Elias’s ideas in relation to the changing dynamics of race in the US, and with this essay overall intended to be expanded into an encompassing theory of power relations, prevented by his death later that year (xiv-xv; this and all page references following are to the Collected Works edition). As this indicates, Elias explicitly intended his discussion of established-outsider relations and the figuration that binds these groups together to be applicable to matters of race and racism, and he also notes their relevance to relations between men and women, between caste groups, and to other structural inequalities. That is, to power relations generally.

1.4   As Elias points out, while in a sense ‘everyone knows’ that those groups with more power think of themselves as in all respects superior to those without, the key question here is in fact not well explored although it is crucial:

“How is it done? How do members of the group maintain among themselves the belief that they are not merely more powerful but also better human beings than those of another? What means do they use to impose the belief in their own human superiority upon those who are less powerful?” (2).

1.5   It might seem strange or perhaps even inappropriate that such important matters should be explored using a set of ideas derived from a very small-scale investigation in a small area of an English county. However, Elias is clear that it can only be done by looking at the particularities of time, place, and groups of people. Winston Parva, he comments, acts as an empirical model of an established-outsider relationship: the focus on a limited community so as to detach the details of specific aspects of this figuration is crucial because, if investigating larger figurations, such things would be much harder to pin down (212). He continues,

“Not only small communities, but also relations between men and women, relations within political parties, between political parties or between governments and parties, and a dozen or more relations often classified as ‘ethnic’, can have the characteristics of an established-outsider relation. But in order to perceive and to distinguish between different types of established-outsider relations, and to explain differences and similarities of their structure, one requires more or less standardised empirical models.… The Winston Parva example is well suited to serve as such a model.” (213)

1.6   In what follows, these ideas are explored in relation to Elias’s 1976 essay, followed by a shorter discussion of the somewhat amended 1965 joint Elias and Scotson book, then Elias’s 1990 essay. Some of the key points which it is helpful to consider regarding ‘race’ and racism are then picked up. The final section explicitly turns the discussion towards South Africa and the utility or otherwise of these ideas in exploring and explaining the specificities of change over time in the South African context. In particular, this last section will be concerned with addressing the question of ‘how was it done?’ and pinning down what might be an Eliasian response to this.

2.     Towards a Theory of Established-Outsider Relations (Elias 1976)

2.1   Elias starts from the seemingly simple comment that groups with more power tend to think themselves better than those without. This is the ‘normal’ – in the sense of usual – self-image of more powerful groups, whether feudal lords, whites, Gentiles, men and so on. Relatedly, in all cases ‘superior’ people as a collectivity make the less powerful feel that they lack virtue and are inferior. The small community of Winston Parva acts, he proposes, as a useful empirical paradigm for gauging more complex figurations of established and outsiders with respect to the structural characteristics they have in common with smaller:

“It seemed useful to allow the microcosm of the small community to throw light on the macrocosm of large-scale societies and vice versa. That is the line of thought behind the use of the small setting as an empirical paradigm of established-outsider relationships, which often exist elsewhere on a different scale.” (35)

This is helpful because, in this particular small community, “There were no differences in nationality, in ethnic descent, in ‘colour’ or ‘race’ between the residents of the two areas; nor did they differ in the type of education, their income and educational levels…” (3), although at the same time there were marked tensions and power disparities. So he asks another seemingly simple question: what has brought about this situation and what sources of power have enabled one group to assert their superiority over the other?

2.2   Elias’s broad response is that this is not the ‘usual’ explanations given for power differentials, like force, or occupation, race, religion and so on, but instead the degree of internal cohesion and communal control played a decisive part in the power ratio of one group, the established, in relation to others, the outsiders. It is this that he finds particularly interesting, because such things are more frequently overlaid by other overtly distinguishing characteristics of the groups concerned, like colour or class, which are then taken as the ‘real reason’ (4-5). In discussing established-outsider relations with racial connotations, these are usually seen as resulting from ‘racial ‘problems. That people perceive others as different because the colour of their skin certainly happens. But, Elias firmly reminds his readers, “It would be more to the point if one asked how it came to pass in this world that people have got into the habit of perceiving people with another skin colour as belonging to a different group.” (31).

2.3   The question that needs to be asked is, what are the structural regularities governing the groups concerned which produce internal cohesion within the established group and aid its communal control. His view here is that,

“An established group tends to attribute to its outsider group as a whole the ‘bad’ characteristics of that group’s ‘worst’ section – of its anomic minority. In contrast, the self-image of the established group tends to be modelled on its most exemplary… This … distortion in opposite directions enables an established group to prove their point to themselves as well as to others; there is always some evidence to show that one’s group is ‘good’ and the other is ‘bad’.” (5).

This then has the effect of increasing the cohesion of the established group, and reinforcing the exclusion of the outsiders.

2.4   Elias’s attention is directed towards the figuration that binds together the established and the outsiders and the structural processes and constraints that are produced, with these being group matters rather than individual ones. He comments that sociologists often fail to distinguish between group stigmatisation and individual prejudice. In Winston Parva as a paradigmatic example, members of one group cast slurs on those of the other because they are members of a group considered inferior, not because of their individual qualities. Understanding this requires considering the figuration, the intertwining over time, of the groups concerned and that they are interdependent (6). But this is not simply a matter of interrelationship, for central to the figuration is an uneven balance of power and the tensions arising from this. It is this which enables an established group to effectively stigmatise an outsider one, because it is well-established in positions of power from which the stigmatised are excluded, and Elias mentions castes in India and historically slaves from Africa here (6).

2.5   While ‘snapshot’ approaches to studying this may give the impression of stasis, such disparities can diminish over time; and initially when this happens former outsider groups tend to retaliate with counter-stigmatisation, as black people do in the US and ex-colonised peoples do in Africa (7). Over time, the disparities can also either vanish or be reversed. In this connection, increasing counter-stigmatisation in a balance of power is a sign of change and can occur at the same time as slowly decreasing differentials in power ratios become stronger (7-9).

2.6   In Winston Parva, integration in the established group or its absence was significant in producing power inequalities, rather than being simply a result of this. This was because the older first-arrived community had already established a common mode of living and set of norms and standards, and the influx of newcomers to the neighbourhood was experienced as a threat to an established way of life and resulted in the rigidity of negative attitudes of established group members towards outsiders (7-8).

2.7   For people who are part of the established, the price for membership and belonging is submitting to group-specific norms, and it has to be paid by people individually, by subjecting their behaviour to wider patterns of control. By definition, members of an outsider group are regarded as failing to observe these norms and restraints and so are seen collectively and individually as anomic, disreputable, because apparently endangering the established group’s existence. And as Elias notes, this is a kind of fear of pollution.

2.8   Often the names applied to groups in an outsider situation carry undertones or overtones of inferiority, and stigmatisation has a greater effect in such situations. Most people have available a range of terms to stigmatise other groups which can be expressed in terms of established-outsider relationships. These symbolise the fact that members of outsider groups can be shamed in normative terms and are characteristic of a highly uneven balance of power. Elias comments that this can be summarised as, give a group a bad name and it is likely to live up to it; and this was also one of the ways in which the most ostracised section of the outsider group in Winston Parva surreptitiously hit back, by behaving in ways which lived out its negative image (13).

2.9   When such terms lose their sting, this is a sign that the balance of power is changing (10). This is not just a matter of name-calling, of course. At the same time, the effects of inferiority are also engendered by the very conditions, material and symbolic, of the outsider position and are in some respects the same world-wide. Material factors are important, but there are others, including feelings of humiliation, experiencing oneself as of lesser worth, and feeling emotionally inferior. This impacts on and shapes what Elias refers to as the ‘personality structure’ of outsiders, and in turn this then helps structure the experiential aspects of established-outsider figurations and their interrelationships (11-12).

2.10   While Elias acknowledges that it is conventional to explain group relations like this as the result of racial, ethnic or religious and other differences, he rejects this. This does not really fit the dynamic at work, he states, which is more that these terms are applied later as a rationalisation. Such inequalities and disparities in power ratios are not caused by any actual racial or ethnic differences themselves, but to the fact that an established group with superior power resources closes ranks and finds ‘good reasons’ for this, which involve stigmatising those who are seen to be ‘other’ and perceived as an actual or potential threat (14-15). The case study of Winston Parva throws this into relief, because of the absence of any such overt markers, but nevertheless the presence of marked inequalities in power ratios:

“What are called ‘race relations’, in other words, are simply established-outsider relations of a particular type… Nor is the designation ‘racial prejudice’ particularly apt. The aversion, contempt or hatred felt by members of an established group for those of an outsider group, and the fear that close contact with the latter may pollute them, are no different in cases where the two groups differ distinctly in their physical appearance and in others where they are physically indistinguishable…” (15)

2.11   Elias goes on to suggest that singling out such things as skin colour turns analytic attention away from what is actually going on in the exclusion of members of one group from access to resources of all kinds. For him, what is laid bare as central when instead focusing on the fundamentals of the dynamics at work are differences in power ratios and the exclusion of power-inferior groups from positions with a higher power potential, and the material and the symbolic are both involved in this:

“…even where differences in physical appearance and other biological aspects that we refer to as ‘racial’ exist in these cases, the socio-dynamics of the relationship of groups bonded to each other as established and outsiders are determined by the manner of their bonding, not by any of the characteristics possessed by the groups concerned independently of it.” (16)

2.12   As well as exploring the ‘personality structure’ engendered among members of outsider groups, Elias points out that stigmatisation as an aspect of established-outsider relationships also involves a kind of collective fantasy on the part of members of the established group. This acts to justify the aversion and prejudice felt towards outsider groups as a corresponding ‘personality structure’; and among other things, it involves the gossip tradition of the established group (19).

2.13   But established-outsider figurations are not static regarding the relationship between the groups involved, because the balance of power between them involves changes over time. There is what Elias calls a polyphony of the movements of rising and declining groups over time, with established groups becoming outsiders, or even disappearing altogether (20). The patterns of name-calling and changes in these, and the form that gossip takes, are among the factors indicating change. The very existence of outsider groups, interdependent people belonging together who do not share the memories or norms of the established group, acts as an irritant or is seen as an attack upon their we-image and we-ideal and therefore rejection and stigmatisation are deemed the ‘appropriate’ counter-attack. The flow of blame through gossip impacting on the self-image of the outsiders is a long-standing feature of this kind of figuration (31).

2.14   Different issues and tensions can bring conflicts between established and outsiders into the open, but for Elias at basis they are always balance of power struggles between two groups in a framework of institutionalised inequalities. At the same time, beneath the power distribution problem is another problem, existing because groups are tied together in an established-outsider figuration by the individual people composing them. This problem is:

“… how and why human beings perceive one another as belonging to the same group and include one another within the group boundaries which they establish when saying ‘we’ in their reciprocal communications, while at the same time excluding other human beings whom they perceive as belonging to another group and to whom they collectively refer as ‘they’.” (22)

Elias discusses this in terms of the specific dynamics of established and outside groups in Winston Parva; and by implication, given how he has situated this small community as a paradigmatic model for larger figurations, such things are always bound up in the specificities of particular times and places.

2.15   The bonds that bound people together in Winston Parva’s established group ranged from long-standing friendship to equally long-standing dislike, and were ones which had grown up over long periods of time and also instituted boundaries between the established group and the outsiders. Interesting in itself, for Elias the importance of this is that it comes to exert profound pressures over members:

“The internal opinion of any group with a high degree of cohesion has a profound influence upon its members as a regulating force of their sentiments and their conduct. If it is an established group, monopolistically reserving for its members the rewarding access to power resources and group charisma, this effect is particularly pronounced. This is due partly to the fact that the power ratio of a group member diminishes if his or her behaviour and feeling run counter to group opinion so that this turns against him or her.” (24)

2.16   The impact also goes further, he suggests, because a member’s self-image and self-respect are linked to what other group members think of them and how they behave towards them. If this breaks down, then the relative autonomy and the personality structure of an individual’s belonging come under question. The belief of the group members in the group’s superior virtue produces self-regulation of sentiment and of the conduct of individual members and it shows at a small scale how individual self-control and group opinion are geared to each other, for a person’s we-image is as much a part of their self-image as when they refer to ‘I’ (26-28).

2.17   When the superiority of established groups, including nations, declines over time, their members may suffer problems over some generations because the group we-ideal is modelled on an idealised version of themselves left over from earlier days of greatness, and it can linger on even though the reality has gone and their superiority in relation to other groups has declined or been lost. The former glory is kept alive, Elias suggests, through the construction of what he calls a “fantasy shield of their imagined charisma as a leading, established group” and it is an overdeveloped we-ideal and a kind of collective illness (28).

Elias comments, with understatement, that,

“Much could be gained from a better understanding of the dynamics of established-outsider configurations and thus of the problems involved in the changing position of groups in relation to each other, of the rise of groups into the position of monopolistic establishment in which others are excluded, and the decline or fall from such a position to another where they themselves are, in some respects, among the excluded outsiders.” (29)

And also and relatedly that,

“The example of powerful establishments such as national groups losing their great power status and sinking into the ranks of second or third level establishments shows once more the close connection between the power ratios of groups and the we-images of their members.” (29)

2.18   When the power and position of a former established group markedly declines or goes completely, it takes a long time before the realities involved really sink in. Indeed, it may take generations before members of such a group gain full realisation of the changed position. They may know about the changes as fact, Elias comments, but underneath this their group beliefs persist unchanged as a fantasy shield that prevents them from truly feeling it (30).

2.19   Established groups under strain tighten the restraints imposed on members and which members impose on themselves as well as others in the wider group, for observing these can be used as a sign of group belonging, and thus its members’ difference from outsiders (34). Differences in norms and especially standards of self-restraint play a part in established-outsider relations, with the different ways of behaving of outsiders perceived by the established as an irritant or affront. And so any members of the established group perceived as being lenient about this are also seen as a threat; and often through a core group, the established group hits back against such people or sub-groups because its monopolised power resources are seen as threatened. In Winston Parva,

“Like many other established groups, [they] felt exposed to a three-pronged attack – against their monopolised power resources, against their group charisma and against their group norms. They repelled what they experienced as an attack by closing their ranks against the outsiders, by excluding and humiliating them.” (35-6)

2.20   There are many examples, drawn from Winston Parva and elsewhere, including matters of race, gender and other structured inequalities, that Elias comments on in this essay. However, its point is signalled by its title: it is ‘towards a theory’ and its concerns are primarily theoretical ones, with the examples drawn on in support of specific aspects of his theorising. This is different from the book that Elias produced with Scotson, where the balance is the other way about. The 1965 The Established and the Outsiders provides many more detailed examples of the different groups in Winston Parva that make up the established-outsider figuration that is the subject of attention, making clear that the theoretical pointers derived are firmly grounded in this ‘paradigmatic model’ and the detailed research which underpins it.

2.21   In the discussion of The Established and the Outsiders that follows, rather than attempting to provide an overview of the entire contents, the commentary focuses on things which supplement what is in the 1976 essay. This is in a way to reverse the temporal order in which Elias’s ideas developed and I am aware there are problems in in effect removing chronology. However, the 1976 essay was one Elias chose to stand in front of the book published in 1965 as an updated summary of his theoretical thinking, and certainly it provides the powerful and succinct exposition of his ideas about established-outsider relations.

3.     The Established and the Outsiders (Elias and Scotson 1965)

3.1   The reputation of the established in Winston Parva was enhanced by a small number of ‘socially better’ families, and the reputation of the outsiders was decisively affected by the activities of their ‘lowest’ section. This produced a kind of optical illusion:

“the image which the ‘established’, the powerful ruling sections of a society, have of themselves and communicate to others tends to be modelled on the ‘minority of the best’… The image of ‘outsiders’, groups who in relation to the ‘established’ sections have relatively little power, tends to be modelled on the ‘minority of the worst’…” (49)

3.2   Figurations can be found everywhere and are an integral part of many sociological enquiries, but still remain insufficiently conceptualised “as characteristic procedures of a science whose central task is the study of individuals and groups, of the configurations of individuals as such” (50). However, Elias insists that models of figurations – that is, of social patterns or structures in focused networks over time – can be no less precise and reliable than quantitative measurements and isolated variables. Elias also emphasises that social data can be sociologically significant without having statistical significance, and such data can be statistically significant without having sociological significance (52). Relatedly, sociological problems cannot be adequately framed if only looked out at a given point in time and taking the form of a ‘still’ or snapshot. Instead they need to be “conceived as problems of phenomena which have the form of processes, which participate in a movement in time.” (52).

3.3   The established community of the Village was clear because living in relative isolation and having a fairly high degree of self-sufficiency and cohesion regarding neighbourhood boundaries. The problem arose in the form of an old-new distinction, between the Village and the Estate of new working-class neighbourhoods, and it required investigating the structure of these communities and their relationship with each other. The aim was to examine and explain why one neighbourhood had enough power in relation to the other to successfully claim superiority over it (61-6).

3.4   Elias sees the theorising about community status ranking that was current when he wrote as a problem, because it assumed that each individual or family decided on how it ranked in relation to others and the communal status emerged from this. But the analogy is wrong, he emphasises, not least because it ignores why people ‘allow’ themselves to be ranked below others. In addition, terms like status or ranking are used as though referring to normally harmonious figurations, whereas in fact tensions and conflicts are an intrinsic structural element of all status hierarchies (78-9).

3.5   Elias also emphasises that it is not the case that family characteristics were primary, and neighbourhood (ie. established-outsider) characteristics were derived from these. It was in fact the particular neighbourhoods that shaped how family networks were viewed and how they became shaped as a result. What made for the differences did not lie within the families themselves, but concerned the larger units in which they were situated and the development and structure of the housing areas they lived in and the kind of communities formed within these (87).

3.6   Relatedly, there were structural differences regarding higher and lower levels of organisation between zones one, two and three of the Winston Parva housing areas and which help to explain the power differentials between them. This included informal links, as well as formal organisations (100). Firmly established power elites formed quickly under these conditions, as a kind of local aristocracy. Leading Village families assumed everyone should be conscious of responsibilities towards their community, and that Estate people did not act in accordance with these tenets was one of the reasons why Villagers look down on them and excluded them. In the Village, the self-constraints and the group constraints thereby produced were geared towards:

“A common sense of belongingness, of responsibility and dedication towards their home community, [which] created links between people who had grown up and had probably become fairly prosperous there together. They may not have all liked each other personally, but they shared a strong feeling of their identity as a group.” (100)

3.7   The presence of problem families, a small minority of families in zone three in the Estate, brought into focus the wider problem of minority groups in a community, the image which people had of them and they of others, how these relationships worked to either reinforce or undercut ranking, and the superiority attributed to some people and the notoriety attributed to others. Social theory, comments Elias, has tended to assume that greater numbers go hand-in-hand with greater significance, but this is not borne out by the evidence. Minority groups can have a sociological significance surpassing their quantitative presence, and this was so of the minority of notorious families on the Estate (119).

3.8   The majority of those living in the Estate were to an extent aware that its bad reputation was due to a minority group of families in zone three. But in spite of this, the inhabitants of zone two and the Village did not perceive any distinction between the majority of people there and the minority of problem families (121).

3.9   Gossip played an important role in particular for the Village and regarding the problem families, which things were taken up and used with gusto. Gossip, Elias points out, is not an independent phenomenon, but what gossip ‘is’ depends on communal norms and beliefs and relationships, which then identifies some things as gossip-worthy and others not, so that “The structure of gossip is bound up with that of the community whose members are the gossipers.” (122). And as he also emphasises, the idea that gossip has an integrating function needs to be qualified. This is to see gossip as a characteristic capable of being something in its own right, whereas it is only a figure of speech to cover something that people in groups do. Also the subjects and objects of gossip belong to different groups, and so “the frame of reference is not the group of gossipers but the situation and structure of both groups and their relationship with each other.” In addition, gossip is used as a device for wounding and humiliating members of another group and ensuring ascendancy. And as the example of Winston Parva shows, responding is difficult and retaliation inhibited because the majority of people on the Estate think similarly to the detractors, because they too do not like the behaviour of the small minority that the gossip largely concerns (131-3).

3.10   In addition, the collective disgrace attached to outsider groups usually produces a deep anchorage in the personality structure of their members and becomes part of an individual identity that is not easily shaken off. In Winston Parva, the Village had well-established communal standards and also structures and a network of social controls, while on the Estate it was almost entirely up to individual families to provide standards of conduct and police these, including for their children, so there were fewer shared reinforcements (137). And,

“Thus by casting a group whom one stigmatised as socially inferior and contemptible into the role of the ‘bad example’, one associated the ‘bad urges’ which young people might have with social inferiority. The scene of an individual’s psychological conflicts and tensions was linked to that of social conflicts and tensions.” (154)

3.11   Also although there were tensions and conflict between Winston Parva’s established and outsider groups, they were in fact intertwined in a close relationship such that neither in the sociological sense ‘existed’ without its other, and their relative positions were reproduced over time:

“In many respects the attitude and outlook of the established and the outsiders, locked inescapably in the interdependence of their neighbourhood, were complimentary. They had a tendency to reproduce themselves and each other.” (171)

3.12   As a model, the established-outsider figuration in Winston Parva in miniature shows implications for a wider field of investigation. That is, it helps to explain the interdependence between two groups of people in a figuration that produces specific tensions and conflicts, with these inherent in the structured patterns they form with each other. Elias continues, that,

“One can discover variants of the same basic configuration, encounters between groups of newcomers, immigrants, foreigners and groups of old residents all over the world. The social problems created by these migratory aspects of social mobility, though varying in details, have a certain family similarity.” (181)

3.13   In all the different cases, Elias comments that the newcomers want to improve their position and the established group to maintain theirs, and the sensibilities of the established group are affronted by the newcomers no matter what they do or what they are like. The established are often powerful enough to induce the outsiders to accept the image of themselves modelled on the minority of the worst and themselves as a minority of the best, so that these things become part of a negative self-image which reinforces the superiority and rule of the established group.

3.14   However, Elias is clear that, while individual people may have prejudice and their beliefs can be labelled as such, this cannot be turned into discriminatory action apart from in limited ways, including through gossip. In the sense Elias means it, prejudice is a product of a figuration and so of the groups composing it. (185-6). Consequently once groups have become interdependent within a figuration, studying them separately is of little or no use, for neither could become what they are independently of the other, and so it is the connections between them that have to be focused on (190). At back of this is the fact that for Elias individuals don’t exist separately or independently of others, and so:

“To say that configurations are irreducible means they can neither be explained in terms which imply that they exist in some ways independently of individuals, nor in terms which imply that individuals exist in some way independently of them.” (193)

4.    Further Aspects of Established-Outsider Relations: The Maycomb Model (Elias 1990)

4.1   To a large extent Elias’s discussion in his 1990 essay, ‘Further aspects of established-outsider relations’, covers similar ground as the 1965 book and also the 1976 essay. This results from Elias writing the two essays for different purposes, to appear with translated editions of the book in different languages. The 1990 essay adds to the other discussions in three important ways, regarding race and racism, different stages of sociogenesis or development over time and the monopolisation of violence, and what it might be that produces in humanity a desire not so much for self-enhancement as for looking down on and stigmatising other people.

4.2   Elias’s discussion of Harper Lee’s well-known novel To Kill a Mockingbird is detailed and concerns the dynamic of events regarding the relationship between some white townsmen in relation to a black man accused of rape who they wanted to hang (213-19). As part of his analysis Elias comments that the townsmen were not concerned with ‘the facts’ because they were convinced that the man was a priori guilty, because even the thought of miscegenation was a violation against the norms and standards of the established group and licensed them to act against it. This way of thinking and conceiving ‘the facts’ was built into the existing pattern of relationships in the figuration of black and white (219).

4.3   However, the balance between black and white in the US in 1990 when Elias wrote this had changed noticeably since the first half of the 20th century. The US had earlier had a white male majority in charge of the state monopoly of physical power. It was the monopoly of power and force, rather than what is often presented as a ‘race problem’, that was threatened, and this was an integral part of the distinctive American development of the state monopoly of power (222).

4.4   Elias emphasises that the Winston Parva model of the relation between established and outsider groups occurred at a different stage, as well as at a different scale, in the development, organisation and regulation of the state monopolisation of force and licensed violence. For Winston Parva and UK citizens, the state monopoly of force was firmly established and effectively maintained and violence in general was not a possible means of settling differences. The national state had reached a comparatively high stage when considered in relation to the South in the US (222-3).

4.5   Elias also signals his awareness of a further question concerning the dynamic of established-outsider relations and their ubiquitous character. Thus, he points out, yes,

“Established-outsider relations are a figuration with recurrent regularities and divergences… The essence, as I have said before, is always the exclusion of the group from chances of power and status by another group which is able to monopolise access to these chances of power and status. The degree of exclusion can vary; it can be total or partial. Thus, the exclusion of women from governmental offices, as well as from many other offices and occupations, used to be total. It has now become partial and is slightly diminishing further.” (224-5)

But he is also equally clear that,

“The ubiquity of this kind of relationship draws attention to an aspect of the human personality structure for which in the traditional type of categorisation an appropriate conceptual symbol has not yet been found. One can perhaps speak of the never-saturated human need for enhancing one’s personal self-esteem, adding to the market value of one’s own person or one’s own group.” (226)

4.6   At basis, then, Elias proposes that the stigmatising at the core of the dynamic of established-outsider relations is concerned with self-enhancement and looking down contemptuously on other people. In this process, the outsider group is often connected with (largely fictional) characteristics that lead ‘naturally’ to contempt, such as a purported offensive smell, or blemish, or dirt, or animalism et cetera, with notions of purity and pollution at work here (228-9).

5.     Some Key Points

5.1   In this part of the discussion, some key points that Elias raises are now pulled out regarding their relevance for thinking about changes over time. The focus is on their general relevance, and concerns race matters only at the points at which Elias himself discusses them. However, in the final section of this essay, the relevance to South Africa and its racial order is focused on and some ramifications teased out.

5.2   Established-outsider relations for Elias are ubiquitous in social life, and at the core is self-enhancement achieved by stigmatising others and associating this with self-evident and ‘natural’ differences deemed of negative kinds, such as animalism, smell, blemish and dirt. In essence, pollution. Elias is specifically concerned with the question of ‘how is it done?’ and relatedly with how structured inequalities are produced. He sees it as essential to explore this by looking at the particularities of specific situations and to produce an empirical model of the basic dynamic, because working at large scale would lose the ability to pinpoint the specificities at work. Connected matters of concern for him are what brings a situation of marked power disparities about, and what the sources of power are that have enabled one group to achieve superiority over the other. In addition, investigating inequalities using a snapshot approach, he emphasises, highlights individual characteristics and also gives the impression of stasis, whereas over time things can change and outsider groups retaliate with counter-stigmatisation as disparities decrease.

5.3   Elias’s position is that structured inequalities do not result from such things as force or occupation or skin colour or religion, but concern the degree of internal cohesion and communal control which enables the power ratio of one group, the established, to accumulate and to be successfully asserted in relation to others, outsiders. At basis, ideas about ‘race’ are a rationalisation of extreme disparities in power relations which grow up for complex reasons and which are then reinforced through the control of resources and other mechanisms on the part of an established group. Prejudice is the product of groups within a figuration, and so it is the relation between them and the power differentials involved that need to be focused on, not individuals who may be prejudiced about other individuals. Neither the established nor the outsiders ‘exist’ except in relation to each other and the reproduction of their relative positions over time. So the figuration is what must be focused on, and how the composing groups interrelate over time.

5.4   It is the uneven balance of power that for Elias enables the established to effectively stigmatise outsiders; it is not the interrelationship as such, but the way the figuration works around unequal power ratios. An important aspect of the dynamic here is that an established group assigns to outsiders attributes which are those of the minority of the worst, and to itself attributes which are those of the minority of the best. And it has other resources that enable these sets of the attributes to be made to stick. These attributes are given to people, not on the basis of their individual qualities, but because they are members of the group considered inferior if outsiders, and the one perceived as superior if established.

5.5   By definition, outsiders are seen as failing to observe appropriate norms and restraints and so are collectively and individually ‘by nature’ disreputable, dangerous or threatening, and at basis this is a kind of fear of pollution. When these names lose their sting, this signals that the balance of power is changing. The terms used to name outsider groups carry undertones or overtones of inferiority and are often used in stigmatisation, and these can also be experienced as shameful by members of outsider groups themselves. Also, sometimes rebellious outsiders can live out the negative image of themselves as a surreptitious way of retaliating.

5.6   Established-outsider relationships are often seen in terms of visible characteristics of the people concerned. However, it is not racial, ethnic, religious or other such differences that are the root of the dynamic, and these terms are applied later as a rationalisation. What exists at basis are inequalities and disparities produced by an established group using superior power resources to close ranks, defend its position and stigmatise outsiders. This produces a range of interconnected inequalities. And while there are clearly important material effects of inequality, at the same time the effects of inferiority are also felt in terms of the personality structure of outsiders, including feelings of humiliation, and feeling of lesser worth or inferior.

5.7   As well as having effects on the personality structure of outsiders, stigmatisation by established group members involves them in a kind of collective fantasy that justifies their aversion to outsider groups as well as their own ‘superior’ position. Relatedly, when the disparities between the groups in the established-outsider figuration change, there is usually a time-lag, sometimes lasting over a number of generations, in which there is a gap between the we-image of the former established group and the realities of the changes. This is because the images they have of both groups are rooted in ‘by nature’ beliefs about the characteristics of the people involved.

5.8   Individual self-control and group opinion are geared to each other, and someone’s we-image is as much a part of their self-image as when they refer to ‘I’. ‘We’ implies the existence of ‘they’, and perceptions of there being ‘they’ assigns other people to a ‘we’ group. Characteristics are assigned to people not on the basis of individual things but concerning the larger groups or communities in which they are situated and how these are perceived.

5.9   The established group abrogates resources and positive images to itself, and exerts profound influence of a regulating kind on members as well as monopolising their access to resources. Going against this has profound implications for its members’ sense of self-worth. The price to pay for established group membership is submission to group norms, and has to be paid by individuals subjecting their behaviour both to self-control and also wider patterns of group control. Self-constraint as well as other constraint is involved. In this, established groups tend to have stronger and more cohesive organisational structures, which provide both reinforcement and also internal mechanisms of control over how members conduct themselves.

5.10   Gossip and what is seen as being this is a product of communal norms and beliefs and relationships, and is done by people as members of communities. The frame of reference is the situation and the structure of both groups, the gossipers and those being gossiped about. Humiliation, and power, are connected with contempt.

5.11   Changes to the figurational relations between the established and outsiders occur over time, with changes in name-calling and mechanisms of gossip an indicator of such changes. One of the factors at work in producing such changes is the extension of the state and its monopoly of power and force of different kinds. In the US, the ‘race problem’ signalled something perceived as a threat to the white male control of the state monopoly of power.

5.12   All the above discussion points are relevant, but some are more relevant to thinking about South Africa than others. It is these that are commented on in the following section.

6.     Thinking about South Africa

6.1   The first point to comment on here is that it is notable that, in discussing established-outsider relations and offering a theorisation of how this figuration and its power ratios work, Elias does not in any explicit way explore how changes occur, and just what might be the factors in the dynamic producing this, other than to comment on changes in the state and its monopolisation of legitimate force. The result is an analysis that explains well how things stay as they are, but which leaves the reader wanting to know more about what factors contribute to them changing. He certainly notes at a number of points that disparities can diminish and changes occur, but there is no discussion of just what is involved in the production and unfolding of this. In South Africa, at different historical points in time some crucial changes that occurred are clear. Initially, there were established African polities, versus small disparate groups of white outsiders; later there were established national states (the Cape, Natal, Free State and Transvaal) of whites, versus the African majority as outsiders to these; later still (1994 and after), a new established black national state came into existence, versus the old established of whites but some of whom do not yet ‘know’ that their power and social position are now diminished; and now there is in the making a rather different established-outsider relation coming into being, which involves differentiated black and coloured groups contending for power and resources and forming an emergent figuration in which whites are largely an irrelevance.

6.2   This focuses on the level of the state and state formation and figurations within this, and relatedly on major differences in the character and composition of the state. This is to have one’s eye on the tip of the iceberg, however, while the most interesting events happened between these ‘moments’ and propelled them into existence, and it is these which are now still unfolding and will eventually lead to the rather different established-outsider figuration composed of black groups interrelating with each other.

6.3   The second point is to note that the key concern in The Established and the Outsiders is clear and concerns the analysis of power relations, conceiving of these in figurational terms around the relationship between two interconnected groups with marked disparities in their social standing and their material and symbolic resources. In particular it focuses on ‘how it was done’ and the hows and wherefores of the persistence of these disparities. A way is seeing is also always a way of not seeing, and here what the focus on the two groups in Winston Harbour analytically brackets is the existence of greater complexities in figurational terms. That is, there is a division within the outsider group between the ‘minority of the worst’ and the rest of the people living on the Estate, and within the Village group there is a division between the core or commanding element of the established group and the rest of the Villagers. This raises the question of whether it is the established-outsider relation that is always of prime importance for the members of these two groups, or whether it might sometimes be primarily divisions within-group that have greater importance.

6.4   Thirdly, what this raises in turn are difficulties in pinning down what and who a figuration is composed by, and where the boundaries are between one figuration and another. Experientially, of course there are generally no such sharp boundaries because people live holistic lives; but analytically, deciding where cut-of points are for analysis is important. For Elias, these difficulties can be ignored because Winston Parva is a boundaried community and its established and outsider groups were demarcated because located within specific areas or zones within this. But thinking about this in South African terms, it is obviously not so simple. ‘Society’, the society of South Africa over time, is too large and too complicated for it to form the unit of analysis.

6.5   In the earlier period of the white presence in southern Africa from the 17th century and the arrival of Europeans to approximately the mid 19th century, the established group of African states, polities and peoples were primarily concerned with each other. In fact, both the established and the outsiders were composed by black groups, with the various very small groupings of white people largely peripheral to the power relations and resource distributions then prevailing. However, for the white groupings concerned, their members saw themselves as part of the action albeit in a situation of precarious outsiderness; many of them jockeyed to position themselves within this figurational entity, with their reference groups including the African peoples they were outsiders among, but also various groups of other white people, some in southern Africa and others in Europe.

6.6   Consequently, to treat the figuration here as the unfolding relations between the established group of Africans and an outsider group of whites would oversimplify and diminish. The figuration was of changing relations between groups within African states and peoples across southern Africa, and the presence of white groupings was subsidiary. But when time and the longue duree is taken into consideration, then in some places, for some African peoples, at different points in time, and with different sets of locally-prevailing factors at work, this began to change and eventuated in something very different. ‘How it was done’ has to be explored regarding these local specificities which unfolded over time, so that thinking of the established and outsiders in the general terms is replaced by local contexts, events grounded in longer term processes, specific social and political arrangements, particular distributions of resources, and changing figurational relations between groups of people around all of these factors.

6.7   The exemplar or small-scale model of Winston Parva provided Elias with a ceteris paribus situation, one in which the figuration and the groups that composed it could be more easily discerned. Thinking about this in South African terms, Eliasian investigations of ‘how it was done’ regarding its racial order need to be equally small-scale, local, specific, over time, to focus on the core dynamics at work in relations between different groups in a context over time.

6.8   The fourth point to raise here is to emphasise some of the specifics about relations between groups and in particular where ‘race’ differences exist. Beneath distinguishing characteristics of people, such as religion or skin colour or occupation, is actually the degree of internal cohesion and communal control and command over resources which comes from power differentials between groups. It is less these characteristics and more the power differentials that maintain disparities in power ratios and resources distribution over time. Important in this is that the dynamic at work involves the established attributing characteristics to all outsiders which are those of the minority of the worst, and to itself attributing those which are the minority of the best. A key resource is the way the established collectively and individually assign ‘by nature’ characteristics to outsiders which associate these with dangerous, threatening and disreputable attributes, a kind of fear of pollution. And when a change in power disparities occurs, there can be a lag in self-image and self-evaluation ‘catching up’ with the new power ratios. And while Elias discusses this regarding the former established group members, it is also likely to exist for former outsiders too, although probably the adjustment here occurs quicker.

6.9   What now? In a very real sense, investigations of figurational matters in relation to established and outsider groups in South Africa over the 200 year period that the Whites Writing Whiteness project is concerned gets at the fundements of its racial order. These ideas always have to be used to explore the specifics, in the way indicated above. That is, they cannot be pronounced upon in general terms, but only regarding their utility in making sense of actual established-outsider relations over time, in a particular context, at as specific local level, involving identified groups of people.

Last updated: 13 May 2021