Elias, Norbert

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Elias, Norbert (1897–1990) Of German Jewish origin, Elias fled from National Socialism in 1933, becoming a lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester in England in 1954. He retired in 1962, and was Professor of Sociology at the University of Ghana from 1962 to 1964. His work was relatively neglected in his life-time, and he did not create a school of sociology, although there is now a considerable following in Amsterdam, where Elias spent the last years of his life. He was awarded the Theodor W. Adorno Prize in 1977, and the Amalfi Prize for sociology in 1988, for his study The Society of Individuals. From 1979 to 1984, he was a Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld. His major work, The Civilising Process, which was published in 1939 in German, was long neglected until its translation into English in 1978 and 1982.

Two key principles dominated his sociology. First, he was concerned to understand the process of civilization, which he defined as a process whereby external restraints on behaviour are replaced by internal, moral regulation. Second, he criticized functionalism and structuralism for their tendency to reify social processes, and argued instead for figurational or processual sociology; that is, a conceptualization of the constant and endless processual flux of all social relationships. Hence he wrote about ‘civilizing processes’ rather than ‘civilization’. His work has been criticized on two principal counts. First, it is not clear what is the cause or mechanism which produces these civilizing processes. Second, it is objected that his theory is not supported by empirical evidence, since modern societies are very uncivilized in terms of everyday violence and brutality.

Among his numerous other publications are What is Sociology? (1970), The Court Society (1969), The Loneliness of the Dying (1982), Involvement and Detachment (1987), and An Essay on Time (1984).