Andrew Linklater is Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, having previously taught at Keele University, and the University of Tasmania and Monash University in Australia. He has published on various aspects of international relations theory, his books including Men and Citizens in the Theory of International Relations, The Transformation of Political Community and a recent collection of papers on community, citizenship and harm in world politics, Critical Theory and World Politics: Citizenship, Sovereignty and Humanity. Andrew is currently working on a projected three-volume study on the problem of harm in world politics, a project that analyses civilizing processes in different periods of international history. Here he discusses Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process.
Andrew Linklater on The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations by Norbert Elias
In the late 1980s, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) wrote a largely overlooked paper on 'the retreat of sociologists into the present'. An important claim was that the shortening of horizons was a widespread affliction amongst social scientists, some focusing on developments over as little as a 10-year period. Enlightening though such work might be, there was a loss of the longer-term horizons that alone could make such periods intelligible. Intellectual fragmentation and 'over-specialization' often proceeded with little concern for synthetic projects, some of which risked incurring contempt. Politically, there were costs because the tendency for synthesis to lag behind analysis obstructed the task of increasing human control over largely unmastered social processes. It is important to add that Elias recognized that the large scale synthesis could not progress without the advances that have occurred as a result of ever more specialized work. The issue was one of balance, and of restoring the grand narratives that had been advanced by such thinkers as Comte and Marx.
In his later writings, Elias focused on very long-term processes of change that had led to the triumph of the human over non-human species, to the pacification of nature, to the development of ever longer chains of interconnectedness that signified the species's domination of the earth. Such themes were major extensions of the thesis of arguably his most important work, The Civilizing Process, first published by an obscure Swiss publisher in the inauspicious year 1939. Its main purpose was to understand how modern Europeans came over roughly five centuries of development to the view that they were civilized while others were barbaric or languishing in their savage past. The analysis is remarkable both in its breadth and depth, encompassing such apparently disparate phenomena as state-building and domestic pacification, the growth of commerce and urban centres, and the increased need for self-restraint in response to the everyday challenges of increasing human interconnectedness. Amongst the latter Elias included dimensions of human life that have only become central to social inquiry in very recent times - they include controls over the body and the management of human emotions. Of particular importance, they included changing notions of shame and disgust, as well as changing attitudes to violence, cruelty and suffering. Unlike much work on those areas, Elias always stressed that they needed to be understood in conjunction with large-scale structural changes, including state-formation, the emergence of court society, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the changing practices of warfare and so on.
The sub-title of The Civilizing Process underlines the point that the sociogenetic and psychogenetic dimensions of human existence interact to shape long-term developments – or conversely, that the latter are always reflected in changes in social and political organization and also in the basic emotional lives of those that are caught up in them. The process that has led to stable monopolies of power and psychological transformations was not, in Elias's view, complete or immune from reversal. His major work was published at a time when the civilizing process was most clearly endangered. Indeed, Elias would later argue that civilizing and decivilizing processes invariably develop in tandem, but that one may have the upper hand at any moment. Perhaps there is a parallel with Thucydides's remarkable study of the Peloponnesian War that showed how the long process of Hellenic civilization was suddenly thrown into reverse by the war between Athens and Sparta. And rather like Thucydides, Elias may have doubted that humans will ever control the appetite for violence and revenge, and the motivating power of fear and anger, when they face major threats to their security and survival. He not only makes it clear that the effort to pacify all social relations is one that is worth making; he suggests, more optimistically, that major advances may yet take place during the millions of years in which the species may continue to survive on this planet.
There are various points that can be drawn from Elias's work:
- the stress on the processual (that is, on the developments that societies, their main institutions, codes of behaviour and so forth, undergo over long-term horizons, whether decades or centuries);
- the emphasis on the need to understand the complex interactions between social-structural changes, the everyday world of norms and emotions (the habitus as Elias called it), and personality systems;
- the advice to beware of false dichotomies (individual and society, agent and structure, the ideational and the material, the domestic and the international) that are responsible for so much 'wasted effort' in the social sciences.
Those themes amount to an attempt to recover the more holistic conceptions of social science which had been defended by the founding figures in the 19th century - a recovery that does not remain tied to the innocence of so much thinking in that period, one that distances itself from commitments to progress, teleology and the rest, which rightly brought the grand meta-narratives into disrepute.
They are themes that also remain faithful to the ethical convictions running through those narratives, and specifically to the belief that one of the main purposes of the social sciences is to promote understanding of how humans might live together amicably. Although Elias eschewed partisan inquiry, his discussion remains faithful to the moral commitments contained in those narratives, and specifically to the belief that one of the main purposes of the social sciences is to understand how humans might live together in relations of mutual respect and support.
These points were advanced by him in the belief that human interconnectedness may still be in its infancy, that humans remain tied to national and state horizons which impede their capacity to understand the processes affecting them all, and that the growing challenge which faces them is how to promote a global civilizing process in the absence of a higher monopoly power and without advanced 'steering mechanisms'. They were connected with the belief that sociology in particular had to shift its field of vision from developments within supposedly independent societies to processes that are increasingly played out at the global level, influencing the fate of humanity as a whole. One will struggle to find a deeper and more inspiring vision of what the social sciences can be and might yet become - a vision that is applicable, in general outline, to many of its sub-divisions, and one that reveals how they might be drawn together in more complex wholes rather than left to develop in separate and unrelated rivulets.