Elias, Norbert (1897–1990)

views updated

ELIAS, NORBERT (1897–1990)


German sociologist.

Two experiences appear to have been fundamental to the intellectual development of the German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990); each influenced his work in a different way. The first, World War I, was virtually the antithesis of Elias's model of the "process of civilization." The second, his own complex experience of marginalization, Elias explicitly distilled in a book entitled The Established and the Outsiders (1965).

Little is known about Elias's life during World War I; he wrote and said little about this period. But his experience as a telegraph operator on the eastern and western fronts seems to have had a profound effect on him. Suffering from shell shock, he was nearly amnesiac at the end of the war.

Returning to Breslau, Elias, who was from a Jewish bourgeois family, undertook studies in medicine and philosophy. Although Germany's hyperinflation in 1922–1924 forced him to leave school and work in a factory for a time, in 1924 he nevertheless managed to successfully defend his doctoral thesis in philosophy, Idee und Individuum (Idea and individual). Once finances stabilized he went to Heidelberg to study sociology, beginning a Habilitation under the sociologist and economist Alfred Weber (1868–1958). He also became close friends with another early and influential sociologist, Karl Mannheim (1893–1947), serving as his assistant; during this period he also frequented the famous Institute for Social Research directed by Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) in Frankfurt.

When Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 effectively forced Elias into exile, he attempted to find work in Switzerland and in France. He did not succeed, despite two published articles, one on "The Kitsch Style and the Age of Kitsch" (1935) and the other on the "The Expulsion of the Huguenots from France" (1935); and in a sense he found himself more marginalized than ever in terms of a teaching career. He moved to England in 1935 and three years later he saw his parents for the last time. His father died in 1940 and his mother was deported and was probably killed in Auschwitz.

Elias found it difficult to publish his books. His major work Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (The civilizing process), which he started in 1935 with a small grant from a Jewish refugee organization, was published in 1939 by a small Swiss publishing house but it went largely unnoticed, only to be republished to acclaim thirty years later. The work of Habilitation from 1933, Die höfische Gesellschaft, was published only in 1969.

With the beginning of World War II Elias was interned in Britain as an "enemy alien" on the Isle of Man. After the war he worked in London at an adult learning center. Finally, at the age of fifty-seven, he obtained his first real academic post at the University of Leicester. He remained in England until 1975, except for two years, 1962–1964, during which he taught in Ghana. He was a visiting professor at several universities, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands, where he settled definitively in 1984. Enthusiasm for Elias's work came only late in his career.

Elias eventually took up the question of mores and civilization once again when he examined, with Eric Dunning, the nature of sport as "controlled violence" and in his Studien über die Deutschen (1989; The Germans). He there developed the hypothesis of a Habitus or "second nature," a key concept in Eliasian sociology that refers to the psychological structures shaped by social environment, and applied it to the peculiarities of German society. He further developed the concept of "de-civilization" as the mirror-image to reflect the recession of civilization and allow the development of "modern barbarism" as happened during the Nazi era.

Isolated and marginalized most of his life, in the early twenty-first century Elias is one of the most read, studied, debated and controversial of all sociologists. His work is at once processual, collective, and individual; one of his books is entitled The Society of Individuals (1987). His lenses are psychoanalytical, anthropological, and historical, and he focuses on a range of original subjects such as the emotions, the body, sport, death, and socialization. He has recourse to a repertoire of concepts adequate to such a task, including sociogenesis, psychogenesis, self-control, informalization, Habitus, "controlled decontrolling emotions" and others. Elias aspired, as Robert van Krieken has written, to "cut through many of the central dilemmas in sociology, especially the apparent opposition between action and structure, individual and society."

See alsoFrankfurt School; Germany; Holocaust.


Primary Sources

Elias, Norbert. Reflections on a Life. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Cambridge, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

——. The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Translated by Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell. New York, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Mennell, Stephen. Norbert Elias: An Introduction. Oxford, U.K., 1989.

van Kriecken, Robert. Norbert Elias. London and New York, 1998.

Nicolas BeauprÉ