Human relationships are never simple, and people have to follow a number of rules and regulations. Sociologists and psychologists developed their theories and approaches to demonstrate how to communicate and behave properly. Each sociological theory is an explanation that helps understand the world and accept social reality. In the 1930s, Norbert Elias introduced his idea of civilizing processes and showed how micro-level decisions depended on macro-level sociological change. His argument is based on social control rooted in human interactions and social functions. This paper aims to analyze Elias’s theory, its concepts, mechanisms, and implications and answer the question of why individuals behave as others expect.
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Summary of the Theory
The haziness of the question about the dependence of human actions on social expectations explains the necessity to use a theory of the same ambiguous nature – with many supporters and critics. Elias’s theory of the civilizing process interweaves such concepts as power, change, subjectivity, emotions, violence, and the self (as cited in van Krieken, 2019). Social control turns out to be a critical element in complex and diverse human relationships that promote constantly changing social functions and norms. Elias believed that people act as they are supposed to because of their decision to internalize their beliefs through the socialization of self-restraint (Landini, 2013).
In other words, the existing norms predetermine all steps and thoughts of individuals who treat them like intrinsic voices. Instead of trying to distinguish between what they want and have to do, people continue meeting expectations and following orders accepted as habits.
The main argument in Elias’s theory is the importance of individual transformations in regard to social or institutional change. Some individuals and communities criticize Elias’s approach because of the chosen Eurocentric context (Pepperell, 2016). They believe these stereotypes are based on the habits of primitive people close to nature and simplicity (Pepperell, 2016). To explain the appropriateness of his ideas, Elias used a historical approach with specific examples from the royal court, the Holocaust, warrior society, or colonization where one group of people possessed the power and another group had to obey.
He proved the existence of some form of interdependence when people divide their functions as per the already offered standards (Elias, 2012). His intention to combine rational and irrational or emotional impulses in a friendly or violent way proved the importance of self-expression (Elias, 2000). Therefore, the choice of a simple and subjective background facilitates the analysis of social relationships.
Key Concepts and Theoretical Strategy
One of the distinctive features of Elias’s theory is the impossibility of understanding what level of analysis he prefers. On the one hand, an individual may be the unit of analysis because civilization implies the actions of individual people, which gives rise to social formations and institutions (Elias, 2000). Individuals examine their skills, knowledge, and experiences and use them to meet their needs and goals. Elias’s theoretical foundations are similar to those Weber shared years before to close the gap between macro-sociological issues and micro-sociological concepts. Individual personalities participate in the civilization processes and follow their emotions and interests. Thus, Elias endorsed individualism by developing self-interest and self-control in every activity, decision-making, or critical thinking.
On the other hand, choosing the group as the unit for analysis is correct because all changes and discussions usually happen within a particular rational context. Civilization is one of Elias’s foundations, and this process implies the transition from one state to another. Changes never occur apart, and people need some context or background for control. There is always some association between structural changes in societies and the root of physical force or power promoted intentionally or unintentionally (Bogner, 1986). The monopolization of power, rationalization, and order are the elements of society, meaning that the group level is considered in the chosen theory.
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Causal Relationships and Social Mechanisms
The analysis of Elias’ theory should include the evaluation of causal relationships because these mechanisms illustrate the conditions under which people prefer specific forms of behavior. According to Elias (2000), “people behaved in a socially useful way and took pleasure in doing so” (p. 164). It means they are satisfied with the offered social order but try not to neglect their interests and demands. Thus, there is a causal relationship between what people do and why they do it. It is not enough to understand the essence of human activity but to examine the process from the point of view of its reasons, available resources, and consequences.
There has to be a scheme according to which people investigate their relationships and emotional bonds. Elias identified three different mechanisms: monopolist (increased centralization of violence), royal (power of the crown), and monopolist changes (private-public interrelation) (as cited in Landini, 2013). Thus, Elias’s theory has four critical elements of a causal process: power, violence, change, and self-expression.
Elias offers a clear explanation of the relationship between rational (social expectations) expectations and emotional (personal) decisions. He claimed that self-constraints never stay the same, depending on social changes, power sources, and current regulations (Elias, 2012). Using examples from medieval society, the royal period, and modern times, the theorist examined attitudes toward violence and the promotion of self-constraint concerning this aspect. Today, people want to eliminate violence from their lives by any means as it reminds them of how cruel and uncivilized individuals were one day. The royals used violence to punish and keep order in their settings. The representatives of the medieval era used violence as a means to establish honest relationships and solve their life issues. In all cases, people behave as others expect, believing in the recognition and respect of their personal interests and needs.
The idea of social constraints through the prism of self-constraints may be identified as concrete, generalizable, and falsifiable at the same time. The presence of the causal mechanism between human actions and social norms makes this theory concrete. From the point of view of internal validity, Elias introduced a logical statement that follows reasonably from its precedent, explaining why people behave as others expect. People use civilization as a cause and an outcome of their behaviors, proving the theory’s generalizability. Additional sources like the theories by Weber or Durkheim help understand the social world of violence and power.
Finally, the falsifiability of Elias’s approach lies in its contradiction to historical evidence and the presence of critical arguments and no figuration studies (Landini, 2013; van Krieken, 2019). Although Elias believed that the monopolization of violence could bring the pacification of society and intolerance for violence, each year had multiple examples of how crimes are committed, how violence causes deaths, and how wars solve international conflicts. Violence does not disappear, questioning the idea of self and social constraints in human behaviors.
Taking into consideration the fact that Elias’s theory is falsifiable, some additional evidence could help assess its validity and implication in addressing the offered “why” question. Today, many individuals behave the way they want, neglecting the already implemented principles and social norms. Elias believed in the power of civilizing processes, which made it possible to enforce social norms and social control. At the same time, one could think that the desire to follow personal needs is one of the new social norms that resulted in recent transformations. Therefore, one should find more evidence about current interests, demands, and expectations and compare them with past experiences. The theory is a useful tool to explain human behaviors and their connection to social expectations. Still, many factors (beyond power, emotions, or violence) remain poorly identified, allowing individuals to make their assumptions and rely on personal backgrounds and attitudes.
Millions of people across the globe continue making attempts to understand why they behave as others expect. In the 1930s, Elias offered a theory of civilizing processes to explain this decision and discuss the relationship between social norms and personal interests. As well as any social theory, this approach has certain benefits and drawbacks. The use of power and violence may be a solution to control behaviors in many societies and an explanation of social expectations. However, its specific context and the possibility to add personal interpretations promote generalizability or even falsifiability that requires additional evidence. In general, Elias’s theory helps us understand that even being obsessed with individualism and independence, people cannot avoid societal restrictions and regulations and impose them regularly.
Bogner, A. (1986). The structure of social processes: A commentary on the sociology of Norbert Elias. Sociology, 20(3), 387-411.
Elias, N. (2000). The civilizing process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations (E. Jephcott, Tans.). E. Dunning, J. Goudsblom, & S. Mennell (Eds.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Elias, N. (2012). The social constraint towards self-constraint. In C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, & I. Virk (Eds.), Contemporary sociological theory (3rd ed., pp. 499-509). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Landini, T. S. (2013). Main principles of Elias’s sociology. In F. Depelteau and T. S. Landini (Eds.), Norbert Elias and social theory (pp. 13-30). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pepperell, N. (2016). The unease with civilization: Norbert Elias and the violence of the civilizing process. Thesis Eleven. Web.
van Krieken, R. (2019). Norbert Elias and organizational analysis: Towards process-figurational theory. In S. Clegg & M. P. Cunha (Eds.), Management, organizations and contemporary social theory. Web.