The Civilising Process by Norbert Elias – Summary

Norbert Elias, born on June 22, 1897, in Wroclaw, was a sociologist who defined the emergence of Western culture as a complicated evolutionary process. His most well-known major book, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (1939; The Civilising Process: The History of Manners). Elias studied medicine, philosophy, and sociology. He taught at Heidelberg and Frankfurt universities. With the onset of Nazism, he moved to France before settling in England in 1935, where he lived until 1975. The comprehensive research, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, covers the slow development of a universally recognised code of manners and conducts and the accompanying creation of organised nations in which rulers centralised the legitimate use of violence. When the book was initially published (in Switzerland), it received little notice, and Elias returned to the University of Leicester to teach (1954-62) and to the University of Ghana (1962-64). In 1969, his most incredible opus was effectively reprinted. The Established and the Outsiders (1965), Die Gesellschaft der Individuen (1987; The Society of Individuals), and Studien über die Deutschen (1989; “Studies of the Germans”) are among his other works.

Norbert Elias’s Contribution

“Elias, like Weber before him, tries to bridge the gap between macro and micro sociology by concentrating on how structural and individual characteristics interact in social transformation. Elias’ “civilisation process” shares many similarities with Weber’s idea of rationalisation, both of which have their roots in the changing nature of interactions between social structure and individual psychology. Indeed, the civilisation process is Elias’ attempt to subsume rationalisation in a much broader trend that includes ever stricter control of impulses, drives, and emotions, an increase in personal shame and embarrassment about our animal nature (our bodies, elimination, and sexuality), and the repression of such “animalistic” activities behind the scenes of social life.” (Elwell, 2013)

Background of ‘The civilising process.

Elias’s work aimed to analyse and define how Europeans developed the mentality that they were more civilised than their ancestors and neighbouring societies. Elias noted dynamic conceptions of shame and embarrassment regarding physical property and violence, among other things. To understand these developments, he looked at the give and take between the rise of state monopolies of power, increasing levels of economic interconnectedness among people, and pressures to become aware of others over more considerable distances that led to growth in identifying with others in the same society irrespective of social origins.

What the book aimed to achieve

One of the things Elias aimed to achieve with the publication of this study was the recovery of “long-term horizons”. In his paper from the 1980s, ‘the retreat of sociologists into the present’, Elias claimed that the shortening of horizons was an extensive calamity plaguing the field of social sciences. By this, he felt that many perspectives were only focusing on information that was as recent as ten years old and rarely anything prior to that. Elias grieved the loss of long-term perspectives that could alone deem the short-term perspectives irrelevant. He emphasised that large-scale synthesis cannot develop without progress that has occurred as a result of more specialised in-depth work. The magnitude of Elias’s achievements is better understood by recalling that more recent studies of state creation have focussed on structural changes, notable alterations in coercive power, changing relations, and changes in modalities in governance.

The premise behind Elias’ central concept of “the civilising process” is essentially Weberian. Personality and social structure are inextricably linked—as social structure changes, so does individual personality structure, which drives further change in social structure. Humans are programmed by nature and nurture to exist exclusively in interdependent relationships with others. Individuals define the self and the world, satisfy their wants and guide their thoughts and behaviours through these interdependencies (or figurations). Individual personality structure varies as these figurations alter. Like a dance, the figuration, according to Elias, is independent of the individuals who make it up at any one time; its character and shape mainly orient these individuals to one another.

Summary of the work

The civilising process’s primary purpose was to understand how Europeans had developed their ‘superiority’ complex. Elias was interested in how society’s sociogenetic [structural dimensions of social life] and psychogenetic [associated psychological traits] characteristics evolved in conjugation over extended periods. The notion of examining such interrelations was notably absent from his time- therefore, his statements on the necessity for research in historical psychology or social psychology- the lines of inquiry did not exist at that time. The system was created to detect movements in emotions such as embarrassment and shame in reaction to violent suffering. The focus included the emergence of the need to comprehend, increased shame when confronted with the dying and disgust during public animal slaughter and harsh behaviours such as judicial and lethal punishment. Not only was its interest in deviating attitudes to relations with other members of the same community, but it also concentrated on embracing attitudes towards war, genocide and responses to suffering in more remote parts of the world.

Personal guilt and humiliation over our animal nature (our bodies, waste removal, sleep, and libido) have likewise advanced, and such “animalistic” actions have been pushed behind the scenes (privacy in bedrooms, baths, and kitchens) of social life. He eventually roots these developments in contemporaneous changes in social structure, as well as the enlargement and centralisation of authority structures (the state), with its monopoly on forces and taxation, and the resulting increase in dependency encouraged by the expanding division of labour. It is Elias’ view that forms of socially ingrained behaviour are part of a people’s whole way of life; that mandated behaviour for activities such as eating reflects people’s relationships with one another and with their entire social world. Across behaviours, the structure of the civilising process is comparable. In mediaeval society, habitual behaviours eventually became forbidden, more severely monitored, or taboo. On purely social grounds, the prohibitions were initially forced by appeals not to offend others. As we get closer to modernity, restrictions become a component of children’s socialisation and therefore internalised and operate even when the person is alone. As individuals internalised their society’s social prescriptions, such activities became imbued with acquired sentiments of shame and humiliation.

Elias showed the civilising process by examining etiquette literature on the socially acceptable ways to execute natural functions such as gas, dung, and urine removal. Early etiquette books advised their readers not to welcome someone who was defecating or urinating (1530), not to relieve oneself in front of women like a “rustic” (1570), and not to “foul the staircases, hallways, or closets with urine or other dirt” (1589). When passing gas (either from above or below), early advice was to make as little noise as possible or to cover it up with a cough (1530). Such bans and directives could no longer be freely written about as we approached contemporary times, nor were they required. While sentiments of embarrassment and shame over these concerns did not exist in the Middle Ages, the gradual growth of these attitudes has kept them from being spoken as we approach current times.

Within Elias’ theory, the fundamental engine of change is the “monopoly mechanism,” based on both the expansion and centralisation of administrative structure, which matches Weber’s bureaucratisation process. Finally, like Weber, Elias is an outspoken supporter of value-free sociology. The Civilising Process often criticises numerous nineteenth-century thinkers for failing to keep their ideology, aspirations, and class interests out of their sociology. He also criticises his contemporaries on this point.


The most significant barrier to Elias’ effort in finding an audience for his book was the language in which it was written. Since national socialism had driven away the best of the German elite, their language was quickly abandoned as a method of scholarly communication. Furthermore, the publishing industry was such that just a few scientific publications were translated, which did not even have a high anticipated demand among professionals.

The book failed to fit into any categories of university specialisation criteria. It was far too analytical for “history”, too archival for “political science”, and too sociological for “psychology”. Its method encroached on the disciplinary fields created by intellectual smallholders. The most receptive discipline for it was sociology. Therefore, even though Elias’s English essays and lectures on developmental sociology at the University of Leicester between 1954 and 1962 did gather some interest and attention, the majority of Elias’s work was destined to remain undiscovered by the majority of sociologists.


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