Norbert Elias Essay

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Norbert Elias was born in Breslau, Germany in 1897. He was the son of a small manufacturer and was brought up in comfortable surroundings. Elias received his PhD in 1924 and then went to Heidelberg, where he became very actively involved in sociology circles, most notably one headed by Marianne Weber. He also became friend and assistant to Karl Mannheim. This relationship led Elias to follow Mannheim as his official assistant to the University of Frankfurt in 1930.

Elias proposed the concept of figuration as an alternative to thinking of the ”individual” and ”society” as different or antagonistic. Figurations are not static, but instead are social processes. In fact, during the latter part of his career, Elias chose the label process sociology to describe his work (Mennell 1992: 252). Figurations involve the ”interweaving” of people. They describe the relationships between people rather than describing a type of structure which is external to or coercive over people. In other words, individuals are viewed as open and their relationships with one another compose figurations. Figurations are in a state of constant flux because of the changing nature of power, which is central to their understanding. They develop in largely unforeseeable ways.

The idea of a figuration is a broad one in that it can be used to apply to the micro and the macro, and to every social phenomenon in between. This image is best represented by Elias’s notion of ”chains of interdependence,” which constitute the real focus of his work.

In addition to figurations and chains of interdependence, Elias’s work is largely concerned with the ”sociogenesis” of civilization, especially in the Occident (Bogner et al. 1992). In particular, Elias is interested in what he perceives to be the gradual changes that have occurred in the behavioral and psychological makeup of those living in the west. In his study of the history of manners, for example, Elias is concerned with the historical transformation of a wide array of rather mundane behaviors which have culminated in what we would now call civilized behavior. Some of the behaviors which most interest Elias include what embarrasses us, and how we have grown increasingly observant of others.

In Power and Civility (1994b) Elias is concerned with changes in social constraint that are associated with the rise of self-restraint, the real key to the civilizing process. The most important of these social constraints is the macrostructural phenomena of the lengthening of interdependency chains. This also contributes to the corresponding need for individuals to moderate their emotions by developing the ”habit of connecting events in terms of chains of cause and effect” (p. 236). Thus, the ever-increasing differentiation of social functions plays a central role in the process of civilization. In addition and in conjunction with this differentiation is the importance of ”a total reorganization of the social fabric” (p. 231). This is how Elias describes the historical process of the emergence of increasingly stable central organs of society that monopolize the means of physical force and taxation. Central to this development is the emergence of a king with absolute status, as well as of a court society.

The king and his court were of particular importance to Elias because it was here that changes took place that would eventually affect the rest of society. The court noble was forced to be increasingly sensitive to others while simultaneously curbing his own emotions because, unlike the warrior, his dependency chains were relatively long. The nobles play an important role in the civilizing process because they carry the changes from the court to the rest of society. Further, changes in the west are eventually spread to other parts of the world. Despite the importance of the king, the nobles, and the court, the ultimate cause of the most decisive changes is related to the changes in the entire figuration of the time. In other words, the real importance of change is found in the changing relationships between groups, as well as those between individuals in those groups.


  1. Bogner, A., Baker, A., & Kilminster, R. (1992) The theory of the civilizing process: an idiographic theory of modernization. Theory, Culture, and Society 9: 23-52.
  2. Elias, N. (1994b) [1939] The Civilizing Process, Part 2: Power and Civility. Pantheon, New York.
  3. Elias, N. (1994a) [1939] The Civilizing Process. Blackwell, Oxford.
  4. Mennell, S. (1992) Norbert Elias: An Introduction. Blackwell, Oxford.

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