Norbert Elias, the civilizing process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations—an overview and assessment

History and Theory 49 (3):384-411 (2010)
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Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process, which was published in German in 1939 and first translated into English in two volumes in 1978 and 1982, is now widely regarded as one of the great works of twentieth-century sociology. This work attempted to explain how Europeans came to think of themselves as more “civilized” than their forebears and neighboring societies. By analyzing books about manners that had been published between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, Elias observed changing conceptions of shame and embarrassment with respect to, among other things, bodily propriety and violence. To explain those developments, Elias examined the interplay among the rise of state monopolies of power, increasing levels of economic interconnectedness among people, and pressures to become attuned to others over greater distances that led to advances in identifying with others in the same society irrespective of social origins. Elias's analysis of the civilizing process was not confined, however, to explaining changing social bonds within separate societies. The investigation also focused on the division of Europe into sovereign states that were embroiled in struggles for power and security.This article provides an overview and analysis of Elias's principal claims in the light of growing interest in this seminal work in sociology. The analysis shows how Elias defended higher levels of synthesis in the social sciences to explain relations between “domestic” and “international” developments, and changes in social structure and in the emotional lives of modern people. Elias's investigation, which explained long-term processes of development over several centuries, pointed to the limitations of inquiries that concentrate on short-term intervals. Only by placing short-term trends in long-term perspective could sociologists understand contemporary developments. This article maintains that Elias's analysis of the civilizing process remains an exemplary study of long-term developments in Western societies over the last five centuries



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