chapter  3
13 Pages

Norbert Elias and the Body

ByMike Atkinson

Norbert Elias would have probably loathed the very title of this chapter. Referring to bodies, emotions, or social relationships as a discrete or singular entity would have been unthinkable. Any neophyte figurationalist is well aware of Elias’ disdain for analytic dualisms, reductions and static descriptions, and at the top of his list would be the separation between body and self (and I might add, society). Even the rise in prominence of the sociology of ‘the body’ or the academic study of embodiment as a specialist field might have seemed as bizarre to Elias as it might have to Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman, Max Weber, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Mary Douglas; or, any theorist of embodiment interested in how socio-historical processes and cultural relationships are inscribed on/in/through bodies. And indeed, Elias clearly had larger theoretical fish to fry than ‘the body’ per se. Like many other socio-cultural researchers attentive to matters corporeal, Elias viewed the body as a barometer of social relationships and long-term historical processes. To this end, his work is peppered with rather mainstream sociological concerns regarding power, identity, agency, collective behaviour, emotions and knowledge. But Norbert Elias’s precise contribution to the contemporary study of bodies and embodiment is debated considerably to this day. Elias’s work pertaining to embodiment rests between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Elias’ work

was not discovered en masse by European and North American sociologists until the 1970s. Elias completed the main structure of The Civilising Process in 1939 (a book setting the tone for his take on body research within the social sciences), but it would not be widely received until its (re)print in English in 1978 – problematically, a time when a range of action, process-oriented, macro/micro synthesizing, interpretive, network, phenomenological, interactionist/constructionist, feminist and other theories had claimed the body as an important subject of inquiry. At an historical moment when sociologists were turning toward variants of social constructionism, post-structuralism, or theories attempting to reconcile false heuristic gaps between bodies, individuals and societies, the discovery of Elias in the final quarter of the twentieth century could not have been more poorly timed (Quilley and Loyal, 2004). Elias’s work became much overlooked during the 1980s and 1990s renaissance in body research as it offered, according to a swathe of critics, very little innovative thought on matters corporeal (van Krieken, 1998). Additionally, sociologists occasionally dismiss Elias’s work as research that kicks at already opened theoretical doors (i.e. themes of power as analysed by Karl Marx and Max Weber, interdependence as articulated by Émile Durkheim, embodied social performance as documented by Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault,

and emotions as analysed by Herbert Blumer, Arlie Hochschild or E. O. Wilson). Further still, among many who dabble with Eliasian theory, his statements on civilising processes, power, and bodies are regularly misread, caricatured or dismissed as neo-Darwinist, social evolutionist and regressively functionalist. The reception of Elias’s theoretical concepts and constructs is further complicated by the twists, turns

and peculiarities of his own career. Elias was born in Breslau on 22 June 1897, the only son of Hermann and Sophie Elias. At the distinguished Johannes gymnasium in Breslau he received a first-class education in science, mathematics, classics, languages and literature. On leaving school in 1916 he served in the German military, mainly on the Western Front, during in the First World War. He later enrolled at Breslau University in both philosophy and medicine; completing the pre-clinical part of his medical training before concentrating on philosophy for his doctorate. He wrote his DPhil thesis (Idee und Individuum: Ein Beitrag zur Philozophie der Geschichte [‘Idea and Individual: A Contribution to the Philosophy of History’]) in Breslau under the direction of the neo-Kantian philosopher Richard Hönigswald. Elias received his degree in 1924, then worked with Alfred Weber in Heidleberg in 1925 and eventually

travelled with Karl Mannheim to Frankfurt as an academic assistant in Sociology. There, he worked on Die Höfische Gesellschaft [The Court Society] until fleeing Germany 1933 following the National Socialists’ accession to power. Elias, as a Jew, went into exile in Paris for two years, eventually moving to London in 1935. In both Paris and London, Elias worked on Über den Prosess der Zivilisation [The Civilising Process], completing it in 1939 (it was published in Switzerland). Without an academic position (he would not obtain his first university post in Sociology until 1954, at the University of Leicester) and therefore academic audience for his work, his thoughts regarding bodies, societies and historical processes remained in relative obscurity. Without a formal, permanent position in a university, Elias wrote little but continued to ponder the sociological lines of analysis he laid down in Über den Prosess der Zivilisation. While Elias eventually published over a dozen books including The Established and the Outsiders (with

John Scotson; Elias and Scotson, 1965), What is Sociology? (Elias, 1978b), The Loneliness of the Dying (Elias, 1985), Involvement and Detachment (Elias, 1987a), and The Society of Individuals (Elias, 1991), dozens of original articles and a litany of chapters, his thought remains, to this day, almost exclusively referenced for his insight on manners, emotional restraints and the social control of violence (qua the civilising process). Although Elias’ thoughts about bodies in The Civilising Process – and those across the full spectrum of his work – are applicable to the widest range of sociological sub-disciplines, figurational theory is perhaps most consistently applied and debated within the sociology of sport (Dunning, 1999). While Elias is often lauded for his penetrating insight on how bodies reveal civilising trends across geographic contexts by sociologists of sport and others, the depth or full thrust of his work on embodiment is yet to be explored. The categorisation of Elias as a theorist of the civilising process and his long-term association with a relatively marginalised sociological sub-discipline like sport and leisure has done little to engender academic curiosity about his theories and concepts. To date, then, figurational concepts and lines of analysis have yet to make their distinctive or indelible mark on body theory.