Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998

Norbert Elias

Robert van Krieken
Routledge: London
0 415 10416 5
viii + 214 pp.

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For many years, Norbert Elias was hardly a familiar name in sociology. Indeed, throughout most of his life he was an 'outsider' whose influence was limited to a very small circle of faithful disciples. The publication of Robert van Krieken's book on Elias in the 'Key Sociologists' series of Routledge clearly indicates that this is no longer the case, and that the author of The Civilizing Process, The Court Society, The Society of Individuals, What is Sociology?, and many other important works is finally receiving the widespread attention he deserves. On the whole, as van Krieken points out, responses to Elias have tended to vary between two diametrically opposed poles: either uncritical acceptance from sympathetic followers, or ungenerous rejection from fervent enemies. In this book, a very fair balance is successfully achieved between these two extremes. Van Krieken illuminates the many merits of Elias's sociological approach in a clear and concise manner, while also pointing to the problematic areas in his work which numerous critics have questioned. He is generous both to Elias as well as to his opponents, and the result is a remarkably lucid book which not only leads the reader to gain a firm grasp of 'process-sociology', but also stimulates further research in order to refine, correct, and go beyond Elias's views.

Van Krieken argues that the fundamental achievement of Elias was not so much that he developed entirely novel ideas, but that he created a highly original synthesis of different perspectives and traditions: an innovative fusion which fundamentally combined elements such as Ernst Cassirer's philosophy, the sociological theories of Marx, Simmel, and Weber, and the psychoanalytic studies of Freud. The resultant outcome was a unique approach to the study of human societies which broke down disciplinary boundaries and focused on the interrelations between long-term historical changes in social organization and the personality structure, or emotional 'habitus', of individuals. Van Krieken notes that Elias tended to portray himself as a 'lonely maverick' who had successfully developed a new, revolutionary vision of sociology. To some extent this is undoubtedly true, in the sense that he did have to fight a long, solitary battle to defend his views, at a time when Parsonian structural-functionalism and the 'retreat of sociology into the present' was dominant. Nevertheless, van Krieken rightly questions the accuracy Elias's own self-depictions, and in his book he effectively traces some of the main influences on his writings, by providing many illustrative quotations with a very 'Eliasian' flavour from Marx, Cassirer, Freud, and other authors such as Max Horkheimer, Johan Huizinga, Morris Ginsberg, William Sumner, Charles Judd, and Charles Cooley. This intellectual sketch is interweaved with a moving account of Elias's life experiences, in which van Krieken particularly focuses on the tragic death of his mother in Auschwitz, and his struggle to gain recognition as a sociologist.

Van Krieken's objective is not to provide a full survey of Elias's writings, but rather to present a general account of his approach to sociology, as well as to situate his work within contemporary debates. An excellent chapter, entitled 'Towards a Theory of Human Society', succinctly outlines Elias's vision of sociological theory and practice: his stress on the unplanned and unintended outcome of intentional human actions; his view of human beings as interdependent, forming 'figurations' or networks with each other in which psychological make-up is linked with social relationships; his focus on ratios or balances, rather than isolated substances or states, particularly with regard to his conception of power; his related concern with dynamic processes of development and change, rather than static structures; and finally, his approach to sociology as the collective attempt to gradually develop an 'object-aqequate' or 'reality-congruent' picture of the human world, which offers us the possibility of maximizing control over social life and avoiding the outbreak of destructive conflicts. Van Krieken rightly suggests that the adoption of such an approach can help contemporary sociology to transcend rigid divisions between concepts such as 'agency' and 'structure', or 'micro' and 'macro' levels.

Two further chapters then summarize the main arguments of Elias's most important empirical studies: The Court Society, The Civilizing Process, and The Germans, as well as his contributions to the sociology of knowledge, sports, community relations, and childhood. Throughout the book, van Krieken never limits himself to presenting Elias's views and accepting them uncritically. On the contrary, he highlights some of the weaker and more questionable aspects of his work: the fact that his theory of civilization and state-formation seems to clash with the anthropological evidence about stateless, pre-industrial societies; the unresolved problem of 'civilized barbarism', or 'decivilizing processes'; the possibility that he overemphasized blind, unintended processes over intentional action, or 'civilizing offensives'; the imprecision surrounding his methodological concepts of 'involvement' and 'detachment'; the lack of clarity about what exactly are his epistemological criteria for 'object-adequacy' or 'reality-congruence', as well as the ambiguity surrounding the ethical or political standpoint of his sociology, ie. who gains control over whom through the achievement of 'detached' knowledge?

Van Krieken also suggests that in Elias, one still finds a misguided continuation of the Hobbesian split between 'nature' and 'society', due to his constant stress on the socially acquired 'restraints' which have to tame an 'uncivilized', aggressive nature. With regard to this issue, however, I think van Krieken is wrong, for at least in some of the works which he does not discuss, such as the essay 'On Human Beings and their Emotions', as well as 'The Symbol Theory', Elias specifically argues that the classic dichotomy between 'nature' and 'society', or 'nature' and 'culture', is totally inaccurate, and must be replaced by conceptualizing human life as an ongoing process in which natural capacities continuously interlock with social learning processes. There is, according to Elias, no opposition between 'nature' and 'society', since newborn human beings, due to their very nature, cannot survive outside of social units in which they are fed, protected, loved, and taught how to orientate themselves by others, through the acquisition of symbols.

Van Krieken's fundamental conclusion, in any case, is that Elias's views are by no means settled, but that on the contrary, there is much room for refinement and correction through further research. In the end, this is undoubtedly the best homage one can pay to Elias. After all, it was Elias himself who always stressed that he, like all scientists, was simply one link in a long chain of human generations, who are gradually accumulating and improving their knowledge about themselves and the world through constant investigations and revisions.

Pablo Jáuregui
European University Institute, Florence

Author's Note: See for a Norbert Elias website.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998