Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

Understanding Norbert Elias' "The Civilizing Process"

What is "The Civilizing Process"?

The Civilizing Process is a major text in sociology by Norbert Elias, first published in German in 1939 before being translated into English in 1969, whereupon it received a much wider exposure and significant popularity. One of the primary reasons for its importance is the way that it tracks long-term changes in human behaviour, over a period of generations, and attempts to explain these with reference to macro-level changes in social organisation and state-formation.

In this article I'll first give an exposition of the major claims Elias makes in the text, before moving on to examine some of the issues that readers have with the book. In particular, there are criticisms that Elias is Eurocentric and teleological in his approach to history and civilisation which I think can be at the very least mitigated if not shut down.

What is Elias saying?

Fundamentally, Elias is trying to understand three things. First, the relationship between state formation and changing attitudes towards behaviours like sex, nudity, hygiene and violence in Western Europe. Second, he wants to look at changes in division of labour as a result of urbanisation, monetarisation and marketisation. Third, the transformations of personalities as people became more interconnected with one another.

He does this by examining etiquette and manners manuals from 1350 until the 18th century. The focus on these documents in particular comes from a desire to be able to isolate a fragment of history and study it. In biochemistry, we studied E. Coli extremely well and used it to understand the mechanisms by which biology worked, before extrapolating those findings elsewhere. Elias wanted to establish the "E. Coli of humanity", and so decided to focus on the transformation of etiquette in Western Europe because it could be studied in relative isolation, it was far back enough in the past to keep present sensibilities and subjective involvements away, and it was very well documented.

What does this argument look like?

The first contention Elias makes is that there were significant structural changes in Western Europe between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries. This is relatively uncontested, though some critics say that what Elias thinks of as "civilisation" existed in various ways in Medieval Europe.

What this looks like is an increasing centralisation of authority in the state (moving away from a feudal system wherein individual lords and barons would fight over territory within the state), moving conflicts from within states to between states. It looks like a consolidation of power on the part of the state, such that it forms a monopoly on legitimate violence. This essentially means that it became unacceptable for people to use force as a matter of course in their everyday lives, with functions like policing and military action increasingly becoming the exclusive responsibility of specialised agents of the state. In extremely reductive form, if someone nicks your chicken you can't just shiv them now: you have to get the state to do it for you, ideally with some form of judicial process. 

The decline of intra-state violence

Second, Elias says that the rise of this absolutist state set in motion a complete change in how people saw themselves and others, leading to the state of civilisation in which Europeans saw themselves as superior to others.

For example, the monopoly on violence meant that commercial activity no longer had to involve violent coercion (the shopkeeper doesn't need to send someone round to break your kneecaps if you don't pay for the chicken anymore; instead, the state will do it for them). In addition, the newfound freedom from intra-state violence meant that people became increasingly interconnected, relying on one another for trade of goods and services of various kinds.

This chain of mutual dependence meant that people became dependent upon one another in order to perform tasks and achieve goals. The rise of transportation both within and between states meant an increase in human interactions between people who increasingly found themselves dependent on others, even those they had never physically encountered. This reinforced the decline in internal violence within states due to the feeling of common humanity inculcated between people who had never met one another. If you need a chicken, and there's a bloke halfway across the country who has a lot of chickens that you want to buy, then you're more likely to imagine him as a person with feelings than if you never had to interact with him at all.

Essentially, the need arises to coordinate actions between people and establish some set of rules by which interactions happen, and then the ability to conform to those rules requires increasingly complex patterns of self-restraint.

The rise of inter-state violence

Third, Elias accounts for the increase in state-vs-state warfare. You can imagine the process of state-formation as being two sides of a coin. On one side are the processes of internal pacification and stabilisation, as well as the integration of territories with one another. On the other side is an external struggle for territory through warfare and diplomacy. Warfare also became more efficient, as organised violence is more effective than disorganised violence, but this capacity to wage war effectively necessarily required the state to be internally organised and peaceful. Basically, if you want to go and kill a bunch of people to take their chickens, it's easier if you have a well-trained army who've been fed using chickens that the state bought and paid for with taxes, rather than using a rag-tag band of mercenaries who have a tendency to kill farmers and take their chickens without asking.

The "expanding threshold of repugnance"

The fourth argument that Elias makes is that all of the above developments have effects upon the individual psychology and behaviour of people within these states. The idea is that the "external restraints" upon behaviour, maintained by central authorities, were supplemented and augmented by "internal restraints" and patterns of self-regulation which come to feel as though they are second nature.

For example, this "expanding threshold of repugnance" meant changes in feelings of shame and embarrassment with respect to violence. Force was no longer an individual entitlement. This was enforced by the state - as in, they would come and put you in a small box with very little food and light if you hit your neighbour to steal his chickens. But moreover, it became internally enforced: we started to view violence as something uncouth or unseemly. The same went for our standards with respect to eating: knives and forks became used to avoid dirtying the hands. Likewise, public spitting and nose blowing became unacceptable, as new protective barriers were formed between the self and others. Finally, there was a shift in attitudes of shame with regard to the body: people were less comfortable being seen naked, or in sexual acts, or even talking about those acts. 


Clarifying misunderstandings

A few issues arise when you read The Civilizing Process. There are a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings of Elias' views, as well as criticisms of his views that might hold true for Elias but needn't force us to discount his work entirely.

1. Elias is Eurocentric

The fact that Elias' work focussed on Western Europe has led to the charge that his work is Eurocentric - that is, that it excludes other societies and the ways in which they have developed, putting a focus upon European development as the norm.

This criticism only goes through if you think that Elias was attempting to say that his case study ought to be extrapolated to all instances and be understood as an attempt to explain civilisation elsewhere. But Elias wasn't attempting to do that. He does make the broad argument that state-formation and changes in human behaviour over generations are linked. But that doesn't mean that he's saying that Europe is the model.

If that makes the work Eurocentric, then all case studies are by definition Eurocentric, or US-centric, or Asia-centric, and so on.

2. The Civilizing Process is teleological

This criticism comes in two forms. The first says that The Civilizing Process is flawed because it attempts to take what we consider to be a civilised society and then explain how that came to be. This probably isn't the case: rather, Elias is describing a historic process wherein macro-level changes can be used to explain human behavioural changes.

The mistake here is that the term civilisation is loaded. That is, there is an assumption that to civilise is to make better. Rather, we should understand civilisation as a value-neutral process of the centralisation of power in the state, division and specialisation of labour, marketisation of society, and so on. That removes the fangs from this first criticism.

It's worth noting also that Elias didn't necessarily see Western Europe as more civilised or superior. Rather, he wanted to understand how it was that Western Europeans had come to see themselves in that light.

3. Current events disprove the Civilising Process

The second form of this criticism above says that Elias imagines that Western European civilisation has progressed beyond barbarism, and that this hypothesis is simply disproven by events such as the Holocaust, or indeed any other genocide.

I think there are two responses to this. Elias' response is that the Holocaust represents a slip backwards into barbarism, and indeed that the horrified expression of condemnation from the rest of the world when the Holocaust came to light indicates precisely the power of the internalised behaviours and attitudes of the civilising process.

This response is, in my humble estimation, quite weak. It falls prey to the teleological objection in that it says that civilisation is a linear process, and that any change away from what we have now is a lapse back into barbarism.

A better response, I would argue, is that the Holocaust was only possible because of civilisation. This is the argument made by Zygmunt Bauman in Sociology After the Holocaust, and I think it's a powerful one. It essentially says that such an atrocity as the Holocaust was made possible by processes of bureaucratisation and division of labour, as well as the centralisation of power and the monopoly on legitimate violence into the state. This follows our understanding of civilisation as a value-neutral, descriptive term. It also moves us away from the temptation to believe that becoming increasingly taciturn and highly-strung about various behaviours is a marker of progress.

4. This could all be better explained by Foucault

There's some implicit cross-talk between Elias and Foucault. Both of them make arguments that bear upon the broad development of societies and then attempt to localise the causes of individual behavioural changes in larger structural alterations.

Both Elias and Foucault saw modernity as a condition in which people become increasingly self-regulating and self-monitoring. Foucault locates the justifications for this in the way that elites and the state reasoned that power could be most efficiently exercises. That is, he argues in Discipline and Punish that the decline of torture and public executions could be explained by a logic that says that more effective punishment could be meted out through less frequent and less visceral punishment. Elias, on the other hand, locates this change in the way that people in "civilised" societies began to view public punishments with distaste, and as the markers of a lesser people, and so began to do away with them.

Both explanations probably have some merit to them, although some critics would argue that Foucault's argument is ahistorical in that it attempts to localise all of these changes to an abrupt shift, whilst Elias better accounts for gradual change in his work.

I hope you found this explainer helpful. If you did, why not check out my other guides on how to write better essays?

How to Write Better Essays v1

How to Write Better Essays v2

How to Write Better Essays (video edition)

Five Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid

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