Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory


Dennis Smith

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  • Part 1: Modernity and Elias

    Part 2: The Wider Debate

    Part 3: Towards Global Modernity

  • Theory, Culture & Society

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    Intellectual exploration is a ‘serious game’. A game is most exciting when there is something at stake. What should be at stake is ‘getting things right’ which is different from ‘making other people see the world as you do’. The game of intellectual exploration is most productive when the personal honour of the players is not tied to the particular model of reality they bring to the game. When honour is tied to defending a particular model, then learning new things is very difficult. Some may win and others lose but the game itself will be intrinsically worthless.

    We should all be prepared to revise any aspect of our thinking at any time if this is demanded by new evidence or new ways of seeing existing evidence. That means keeping our minds receptive and the ‘game’ open. Thinking about the world should be an adventure, a continuing search for clues about how things work and what can be done to make them better or at least more bearable.

    In this game the ultimate enemy is any obstacle to clear thought that exists inside oneself. The part played by a thinker's distinctive ‘vision’ is important. A vision can impel a writer in a particular direction, possibly leading him or her to look in new areas and have original thoughts. But if the thinker loses detachment from the vision, becomes the servant of the vision, then this vision becomes a form of blindness. At worst, it may become an obstacle to clear thought. In practice, this possibility is even more likely to arise among the followers or disciples of a thinker, be they Parsonians, Marxians, Durkheimians, Freudians, Eliasians or whatever.

    Norbert Elias was a very creative player in the serious game of intellectual exploration. He was engaged in it for a very long time. He was gripped by a very strong vision of how the world worked from an early stage in a career that endured for most of the last century. For Elias, I believe, this vision was, in part, a way of restoring unity to his fractured experience as a German Jew. At its best – in The Court Society (Elias 1983), The Civilizing Process (Elias 1994a) and The Germans (Elias 1996) – Elias's writing has an excitement that comes, in large part, from his struggle to cope with the tension between his Jewish identity and his German identity.

    Elias is the most Jewish of names, inherited by the son of a textile manufacturer in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). By contrast, Norbert is a name that is strongly associated with the propagation of the Catholic faith among the Poles in the twelfth century. The most famous Norbert in the German branch of Christendom is St Norbert. He was originally from an aristocratic family in North Germany. St Norbert became Archbishop of Magdeburg, a major headquarters for stamping out heresy among the Slavs.

    Elias – Jewish, German, European and global – devoted a lot of time and energy to exploring the connections between two things: our complex sense of identity and broader social processes. Those social processes shape that identity and they are, in turn, influenced by the ways we act out that identity. The key word is ‘exploring.’ Elias was an explorer. It is the sense of it being an unfinished search that is the most attractive aspect of Elias's work. It gives it an openness, a feeling that it is part of a larger adventure that others can join in on equal terms.

    This book is not just about Elias. It is also about Talcott Parsons, Michel Foucault, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt. All of these writers are most interesting when they are in ‘search mode,’ when they are becoming gripped by a strong sense of what matters in the world or how the world ‘is’, but have not resolved matters to their own satisfaction or become the agents for a formula. In truth, it is usually some of their followers who make this last move rather than the thinkers themselves.

    Foucault was searching all his life, constantly reinventing himself. That makes him fascinating. The same is true for Zygmunt Bauman whose metamorphoses continue. Parsons never again wrote a book as exciting as The Structure of Social Action which ends with his ‘discovery’ of the voluntary theory of action. After that he was busy assaying his treasure and the excitement goes out of the project. Hannah Arendt's book The Origins of Totalitarianism has a wonderful ‘unfinished’ character. In it she is still reaching towards the more polished philosophy of The Human Condition.

    Perhaps it is time to rescue some of these writers from some of their followers. There is a perpetual danger that ‘social theory’ may become an accumulation of closed ‘approaches’ – Parsonian, Foucauldian, Eliasian and so on – whose disciples talk past each other. What I have tried to do here is to open up these approaches so that they may, so to speak, spill into each other.

    I have not attempted to integrate the results into a ‘big theory’. It was, briefly, a temptation and, indeed, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with big theories, especially when they are grounded in real-world research and lead back towards it. Big theories are good to have around, especially when no single theory dominates in an unchallenged way. It is also important to have a strong culture of open-minded empirical enquiry that is always ready to doubt received wisdom.

    However, I decided to resist the temptation to ‘tidy up’ the outcomes of the four comparative chapters in this book that juxtapose Elias with, in turn, Arendt, Parsons, Foucault and Bauman. To use a metaphor from the game of pool or snooker, I have left the balls on the green baize table where they came to rest after my shots had been played. There is a certain pattern in the way they lie which I sketch out in the final chapter but that is not an attempt to ‘integrate’ my ‘findings’. Instead, I have drawn on the insights produced to explore two questions: what is the sociological significance of the European movement? And what is the nature of humiliation and shame?

    These questions and these comparisons feed into a larger enquiry which is to investigate the character of the developing global society. This agenda can only be stated here, and then only in a very preliminary way, in the opening and closing chapters of the book. It will be taken further in other work.

    I am grateful to many colleagues who have commented on various aspects of the argument. I do not think of myself as an ‘Eliasian.’ However, I have benefited from the warmth and friendliness of ‘Eliasians’ including Johan Goudsblom, Richard Kilminster, Cas Wouters, Stephen Mennell, Willem Mastenbroek, and Ad van Iterson. Elizabeth Foulkes was kind enough to share her memories of Elias with me.

    My thinking has been helped by the astute comments of Tim Newton, Marja Gastelaars, Teresa Whitaker, Sue Wright and Tanya Smith. In this and other work, my approach has been greatly influenced by the insights of Evelin Lindner. Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues at the Department of Social Sciences of Loughborough University.

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