What are the positive aspects of civilization

(4) Elias: “On the process of civilization” - By Susanne Weiß

The German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990) deals - mainly within his work , About the process of civilization - with the process of developing and justifying the expression "civilization" that is used today, as Susanne Weiß presents in the fourth part of her blog series.

Norbert Elias ’texts About the process of civilization. Sociogenetic and psychogenetic studies deal with the reasons for the historical development of the typical behavior patterns that are taken for granted for us, people living in a civilized occidental culture. From the Middle Ages to courtly to modern culture, there has been a constant and long-term change in behavior as well as in people's emotional balance. This manifests itself in a changed habitualization of individual actions and in a change in feelings of shame and embarrassment within social life. In addition - as a "core problem of the civilization process" - there is a change in sociogenic human fears. A civilization process that takes place in society as a whole and always also includes an individual civilization process goes hand in hand with a change in "the standards of behavior and the psychological habitus of Western people" (Elias 1997: 79). Elias ’sociogenetic and psychogenetic research is concerned with,the order the historical Changesto uncover their mechanics and their concrete mechanisms ”(ibid .: 81, emphasis in the original). Norbert Elias "Draft for a theory of society" emphasizes the close interlinking of "changes in the structure of a society and changes in the structure of behavior and psychological habitus" "(ibid .: 82).

From a historical perspective, starting with Erasmus in the 15th century, people's feelings of shame or the limits of shame in relation to social issues are changing. People increasingly got into an inner conflict between the choice of restraint, combined with renouncing physical needs (e.g. sneezing), and conscious coping with affect (ibid .: 274f.). This was also accompanied by a progressive feeling of embarrassment and the "process of pushing these activities back from social life" (p. 274) - especially in the company of others. As a result of the continuous harmonization of the bourgeois and the upper classes that took place in the following centuries, the family gradually became the "predominant production site for the renunciation of instincts" and the "intensive source of power for the socially necessary affect regulation and affect modeling" (ibid .: 277). The process of marking the type of restraint according to one's own social position within the social fabric decreases in the course of the division of labor and the increasing interdependence and dependency between people of different social levels. In addition, social commandments and processes that people have habitualized and internalized through parental upbringing, education and socialization take on the character of a matter of course. In this way, actions are passed on intergenerationally without questioning and changed habits are consolidated. The loosening of a changed feeling of shame and embarrassment, which has developed up to the present time, has taken place “within the framework of a standard once achieved” (ibid.). Today, parents generally have the task of the "primary executors of conditioning" for their offspring, who are also under the pressure of society as a whole and its ideas and expectations of appropriate behavior (ibid.).

Thus, civilization today no longer expresses itself exclusively in behavioral demonstrations - according to one's own social position. Rather, civilized behavior is illustrated today by the fact that society's expectations of the behavior of a person who can behave in a civilized manner can be met. Socially desirable behavior should appear in the consciousness of every person as automated and as “behavior that is so willful” (ibid .: 278). In the courtly-aristocratic phase, a restraint of one's own instincts or physical needs is justified with consideration and respect for others and is initiated by people themselves. At present, the process of instinctual regulation or restraint runs increasingly through "impersonal constraints of social interdependence, the division of labor, the market and competition, which force restraint and regulation of affects and instincts" (ibid .: 275). Former external compulsions and external fears within social events have turned into self-compulsions and inner fear of failure due to the changed feeling of shame, the pressure imposed by society on the functioning of every person and the smooth need to integrate into society. At this point, reference should also be made to Durkheim's problematic of “social facts”, which, however, will not be discussed further here.

Critical discussion

Elias opposes the strict separation of the individual and society, which is suggested in modern culture and sometimes also in sociology. According to him, people should be perceived as individuals, but their integration into social interrelationships is of much greater importance for sociological analyzes. Social orders therefore do not result from the actions of individuals or they already exist as structures; rather, the social order is formed by the way in which people are connected to one another. These entanglements - similar to Georg Simmel's concept to be understood as interactions - Elias characterizes as figurations in which individuals are formed and shaped in their personality and their character structures (cf. Rosa / Strecker / Kottmann 2007: 201ff.). The analysis of concrete figurations is accompanied by the elaboration of an independent methodology - the category of the process. According to Elias, sociology has the task of dealing with the development of societies and humanity as a whole. Therefore, the long-term processes of social change require more detailed explanation. In contrast to sociology, which is otherwise mostly ahistorical, which refers exclusively to the analysis of the present, his approach systematically incorporates past social developments using a combination of sociological and historical methods. According to Elias, “social facts” can only be appropriately interpreted from the logic of their historical developments - this is how his approach is called process sociology. Social processes do not arise as the sum of the effects of the actions of individuals, but from the interdependencies between them. Elias ‘Concept starts with these entanglements - the figurations.

The analysis of these figurations makes it possible to explain how people are socially integrated and how they are socially involved. They make it possible to show that individuals arise within societies and can only be understood depending on their specific historical situation and their position in relation to other people. Only living in such figurations, which turn people into socially capable individuals through the conveyance of language and knowledge, can people become people in the true sense of the word. Interestingly, Elias ’concept of figuration and interweaving refers to Simmel’s concept of interactions, while his emphasis on the centrality of power struggles and modern self-discipline points to Michel Foucault. The struggle for power is the driving force both for changing the structure of society and for changing behavioral dispositions. Elias understands modern individualism primarily as an expression of a changed strategy in the social power struggle, which is not won through violence, but from now on through planning and control. Individualization - as a central element of the civilization process - describes on the one hand the change in the human psyche and on the other hand the form of social integration of individuals, i.e. their integration into figurations. Elias understands individualization as synonymous with the release of people from traditional permanent ties and the strengthening of their personal responsibility. Like Simmel, he sees the integration of individuals in larger social circles as the framework for the ongoing process of individualization.

Elias' analysis of the change in the relationship to oneself, on the other hand, is different and so for him human identity is composed of two elements: on the one hand, collective we-elements, i.e. identification cores that refer to a group, and on the other, I-elements, with which the individuality or the ego identity is strengthened. The relationship between these we and I elements is determined by the figurations in which people live. In times of traditional societies, however, we-identities are still of great importance, while I-elements, on the other hand, only play a subordinate role. The diversity of modernity, however, exposes people to the requirement to independently choose identifications from a large number of we elements - resulting from belonging to many heterogeneous social groups - and to develop an individual self-identity. Only a stable ego identity allows them to participate consistently in various social situations. The development of a psychological structure that guarantees such an autonomous self-control - a self-equalization - in changing contexts is not only a necessary prerequisite for Elias, but rather a consequence of the long-term occidental civilization process. It is the interwoven processes of socio- and psychogenesis that produce this special form of individuality and individualization.

While Elias ‘first work is devoted to psychogenesis, sociogenesis is the focus of the second volume About the process of civilization. Elias understands civilization as a long-term process of change in occidental societies, in which human behavior has primarily been civilized (cf. Elias 1997: 75ff.). As a result, action gradually turns out to be controlled and systematic. Civilization therefore means a change in drive and affect controls while at the same time developing far-sighted planning and action. The process of civilization takes place on two different levels - on the one hand in psychogenesis, on the other hand in sociogenesis. In psychogenesis, the psychological structure of people changes in the direction of a growing ability for self-control and self-control. Human behavior is therefore less controlled by passions and spontaneous needs, but more disciplined and rationalized than ever before. Sociogenesis - the change in social structures - makes this change necessary and accompanies it. Due to the development of the modern state with a monopoly of force and the increase in the functional division of labor in the course of the advancing industrialization process, people are integrated into new types of figuration, especially within the structured cooperation and interaction of individuals in social constellations. As a result, there are also new forms of being attuned to and dependent on one another and also of competition, which require these skills of disciplined and forward-looking behavior. Elias understands sociogenesis as the historical change in social figurations and thus as the process of the development of modern society. The emergence of the modern, centralist state is of decisive importance for this. This gradually emerged from the long rivalries between princes and knights - the masters of small territories. The engine and goal of their elimination struggles has been the increase in power and resources and the reduction of dependencies and vulnerabilities. As a result, new territories emerge within which power is concentrated in the hands of one individual. The emerging modern states are thus characterized by the monopoly of force and the associated tax monopoly and thus by a large concentration of power. This centralization process has the consequence that the relationships or chains of dependencies also expand and thus new forms of social control are required that allow the relatively unstable relationships that extend over large social and spatial distances to be organized.

Essential structural innovations of modernity are the development of the modern administrative apparatus and that of the anonymous market. Because this affects many actors and contexts, it is also necessary to set up a formal legal system. The expansion of societies also enables new forms of division of labor to emerge. While previously in smaller, limited societies there was hardly any scope for the development of special functions or skills due to constant external and internal threats from enemies or scarcity of resources, these are necessary and promoted in modern states. As a result, the content and form of social competition and conflict resolution also change. The mutual dependence of people takes the place of direct struggle. Competition no longer means the elimination of opponents, but competition in the sense that one's own actions, in order to achieve a more powerful position within the network of relationships, must be coordinated with that of others. The training of special skills then promises a competitive advantage through which an individual can differentiate himself from others. In this context, the increasing division of labor includes individualization opportunities for individuals. Sociogenetic development requires people to change their psychological structure and their behavioral dispositions. The changed forms of conflict and competition, which are initially apparent among the courtiers at the absolutist rulers, then in the middle classes and in all social classes at the latest in the 20th century, give rise to new forms of perception and thinking, feeling and acting. Behaviors aimed at the short-term regulation of instincts or the fulfillment of needs or the direct exercise of violence are less of use in modern structures than of harm (ibid .: 78ff.). Individuals living in the 20th century must be able to control themselves and plan for the long term. This ability develops in psychogenesis, which runs parallel to sociogenesis. The skills of self-compulsion and foresighted foresight replace compulsion from others as the central authority with which actions are regulated. Self-compulsion means people's ability to control their own affects, to avoid violence and indirect aggression, to adhere to a given code of conduct of politeness and - while remaining true to their habitus - internalize values ​​such as punctuality on their own initiative to have.

The concept of habitus describes learned, incorporated and constantly reproduced patterns of thought, perception and action. From now on, the social position is determined by careful calculation, calculation and planning and no longer by fighting. This regulation of affect and instincts finds its counterpart in the advancement of shame and embarrassment thresholds. The process of modernization is characterized by the fact that there are increasingly diverse behaviors for which we humans are ashamed or which we are embarrassed - such as performing natural needs, such as sneezing or coughing, in public. This means that new forms of desired behavior and more controlled individuals who dominate their own instincts and passions prevail, which also always reflect both their own and other people's behavior. Elias describes this in relation to Sigmund Freud as the process of the development of a controlled authority in the course of the socialization of the individual - a superego. The concept of foresight expresses a changed awareness of time; the competitive struggle inevitably requires the development of long-term power strategies. Careful planning and calculation of future actions, long process chains and, if necessary, your entire life cycle are therefore necessary.Due to the increase in options and consequences that need to be considered, and due to the anticipation of the reactions and actions of other actors, human behavior is increasingly rationalized, reflected and psychologized. “Planning for the future” takes the place of “orientation towards the past” and strict time discipline replaces need-oriented spontaneous action (cf. Rosa / Strecker / Kottmann 2007: 206ff.). In my opinion, this tendency has positive aspects on the one hand, but it must also be viewed critically on the other.

Elias pursues neither an action nor a structure-oriented concept, but in his analysis of the civilization process examines both the long-term changes in the social structure (sociogenesis) and in the psychological apparatus of people (psychogenesis) (cf. Kaesler 2006: 319ff.). He sees a close connection between these two sizes. In his view, the individual and society cannot be viewed as two separate, independent entities, but are constantly being reformatted as a result of ongoing power struggles between social groups. Specific forms of human life - the modern form of individualism ‘should be emphasized - are therefore only possible if there is a corresponding social structure. In analyzing these developmental processes, Elias concentrates on the changes in social figurations, i.e. on the way in which people are connected to one another and how they compete with one another in the process. These change in the process of civilization in such a way that people are forced to individualize themselves more and more. According to Elias, however, different phenomena of alienation represent the downside of the gain in freedom (cf. Sennett 2006: 58ff.). Sociology can explain to what extent a pathological development of the individual and society in modern times is worth considering.


Elias, Norbert (1997): About the process of civilization. Sociogenetic and psychogenetic studies. 2 Vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp - Vol. 1: Changes in behavior in the secular upper classes of the West, from this: "Foreword", pp. 75-85, "Changes in attitudes to natural needs", p. 266-285, "About blowing the nose", pp. 286-299 - Vol. 2: Changes in society. Draft for a theory of civilization, from it: “Shame and Embarrassment”, pp. 408-420.

Kaesler, Dirk (2006): Classics of Sociology 1. From Auguste Comte to Alfred Schütz. Munich: C. H. Beck.

Rosa, Hartmut / Strecker, David / Kottmann, Andrea (2007): Sociological Theories. Stuttgart: UTB.

Sennett, Richard (2006): The flexible person. Berlin: Berliner Taschenbuch Verlag.

About the author:

Susanne Weiß, 25, is studying sociology and philosophy (6th semester) at the TU Darmstadt. Her academic fields of interest include: sociology of education, knowledge and culture.