About the process of civilization

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

About the process of civilization (1939) is the first major scientific work by the German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990) and founded his theory of civilization. In this work he describes the long-term change in personality structures in Western Europe between around 800 and 1900 AD, the direction of which he describes with the term civilization . This initially sounding term is meant by Elias as a process term, in the sense of “civilization”, as he himself formulated it in later years. The work is divided into two volumes: the first volume deals with the psychogenesis of the modern personality structure, which he divides into three stages: medieval courtoisie , court civilité and modern civilization . In the second volume, Elias describes sociogenesis in parallel, which he divides into three process stages: feudalization , monopoly of means of power and the socialization of these monopolies. Elias added a detailed introduction and a final chapter to the new edition in 1969.

After the author's emigration, the work was initially written in England and published in 1939 in Basel , Switzerland , with the help of a committee for the support of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.


Norbert Elias describes “civilization” as a long-term change in personality structures , which he attributes to a change in social structures. It is important to note that he initially formulated his development model for Western Europe in the phase from approx. 800 to 1900 AD. Factors of social change are the continuous technical progress and the differentiation of societies on the one hand and the constant competition and elimination battle between people and groups of people on the other. These lead to a centralization of the societies (establishment of state power and tax monopolies) as well as to the money economy . The link between these socio-structural changes and the changes in personality structure is the fact that the mutual dependencies grow, the “ chains of interdependence ” in which (more and more) people are integrated. This forces increasing self-control (also: affect control, self-discipline), that is, between the spontaneous emotional impulse and actual action , there is more and more retention of this impulse and a rethinking of the (re) effects of one's own actions. This attitude is internalized and solidified by strengthening the “ super-ego ”, that is, the centralization within society is followed with a certain delay by a “centralization” within the personality. This leads to four closely related consequences:

  • Advancing the “ thresholds of shame ”, that is, more of one's own actions are fraught with fear;
  • Advancing the “embarrassment thresholds”, that is, more actions of others are fraught with fear;
  • "Psychologization" , that means increasing the ability to understand the processes within other people;
  • " Rationalization ", that means increasing the "long-term view", ie the ability to "calculate in advance" the consequences of one's own actions over more and more links in the causal chain.

These changes are reflected in all areas of behavior, for example:

Like all social processes, the process of civilization is directed, but not planned, and also not irreversible. There are “waves of decivilization”, for example German National Socialism, which Elias later emerged in his work Studien über die Deutschen. Power struggles and habitus development in the 19th and 20th centuries analyzed.

In addition to historical works and historical biographies, a large number of manners books from different parts of Western Europe and from different times (from the 13th century to the 18th century) serve as an empirical basis for this model . In these books, the current requirements for behavior in the respective epoch are formulated, for example when eating or blowing your nose. Elias compares the manners books with regard to the requirements and notices that these are getting higher and higher over time. In contrast, earlier requirements are no longer mentioned, from which Elias concludes, a) that these have already been internalized and followed, i.e. no longer need to be formulated; b) that even the mere mention of previous requirements is felt to be embarrassing after a few centuries (there are sources from the 19th century).


Norbert Elias sees changes in human behavior , affects and sensations as part of the process of civilization.

So he sees a correspondence between social and personality types. A central question for Elias is how individuals meet the demands that society places on them. In the period he examined, the "chains of interdependence" (the mutual dependencies) between people increase and at the same time the planning pressure for individuals increases, since more and more stations have to be taken into account in the actions they perform. Fluctuations in affects and drives cannot simply be indulged and emotions must be tamed so that the image that is represented in public is not damaged. In the process of civilization, there is a transformation of external constraints (external control) into internal constraints (self-control):

In this way the historical-social process of centuries, in the course of which the standard of feelings of shame and embarrassment slowly advances, takes place anew in the individual person in an abbreviated form. If one were interested in expressing recurring processes as a law, one could speak of a sociogenetic and psychogenetic basic law in parallel to the biogenetic ” (Elias 1969/1976 , Vol. I, 174).

Thus Elias describes civilization with the “ process-like development of individual self-regulation of instinctual and affect-related behavioral impulses. It is not civilization that is actually firmly established, but the changing compulsion towards self-compulsion and the learning of individual self-regulation in coexistence with other people ” (Korte 2004, p. 126).


Sociogenesis, which can also be referred to as the state formation process, encompasses processes of integration and differentiation on a demographic, political, social and economic level. Modernization is primarily characterized by a monopoly of power. Already in the Middle Ages, during the rule of the aristocrats, there was enormous competitive pressure due to the scarcity of land. This early phase of development is primarily determined by the dominance of natural economy , the low level of money use, poorly developed trade relations and division of labor and a low level of state formation and pacification. According to Elias, the low degree of pacification can mainly be explained by the negligibly small extent of the monopoly of violence. The individual lives in constant fear and insecurity, as there is a threat of physical violence at all times. At the time, this constant uncertainty prevented people from planning their lives in a long-term perspective. The interdependence of people leads to a development dynamic that is characteristic of this competitive situation. Thus the process of state formation initially leads to a reduction in the number of competitors, then to a monopoly of individual princes and ultimately to the formation of an absolutist state in which physical violence is monopolized by institutions , initially institutions of royalty. This process is intertwined with the increasing division of socio-economic functions. The state's monopoly on the use of force now allows people to plan for the long term, as the fight is no longer necessary and also no longer legitimate. In the course of sociogenesis, an even distribution of power leads to a “power expropriation” of the individual. The own use of force is no longer legitimate and competes with the use of force by the state. The unjustified appropriation of violence will from now on be sanctioned.

Other important aspects

Elias' first study is based on his habilitation thesis Die Höfische Gesellschaft . He examines the process of civilization on the basis of manners books of the time. Elias began his investigation from the 10th century, earlier than Max Weber , who began his investigation shortly before the Reformation in his work The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism . “ Here [with Elias], for the sake of contrast, certain rationalization processes in the camp of the nobility have been described. “(Elias, Vol. II, p. 394).

Elias claims that the process of civilization has a specific direction and order inherent in it. He shows “ how, for example, foreign compulsions turn into self- compulsions from different sides , how human activities are pushed back in ever more differentiated form behind the scenes of social life and filled with feelings of shame, how the regulation of the entire instinctual and emotional life is always regulated by constant self-control becomes more all-round, more even and more stable. “(Vol. II, p. 313). None of this is based on a rational idea, but it is still not a structureless process. According to Elias, " just like" rationalization "," civilization "is not a product of human" ratio "and the result of a long-term calculated planning. “(Vol. II, p. 312).

For Elias, a fundamental dynamic interweaving order (“ figuration ”) determines the course of historical change; “ It is what underlies the process of civilization. “(Vol. II, p. 314). This interwoven order is quite simple: “ Plans and actions, emotional and rational impulses of the individual people are constantly intertwined in a friendly or hostile manner. “(Ibid). But he also points out “ that from all human planning and action there results much that no one actually intended in their actions. “(Ibid). This interwoven order has its own laws, is not structurally; but it is neither rational nor irrational.

This civilization process “ is set in motion blindly and kept going by the dynamics of a network of relationships… ” (Vol. II, p. 317) - the fundamental interwoven order. Now Elias does not claim that everything is predetermined and that people have to surrender to fate or some power , but that this civilization process can be intervened “ on the basis of the knowledge of its unplanned regularity. “(Vol. II, p. 316).

In the development of occidental society “ the social functions differentiate themselves more and more under strong competitive pressure. “(Ibid). The differentiation of social functions determines the direction of the “ change in behavior in the sense of an ever more differentiated regulation of the entire psychic apparatus. “(Vol. II, p. 322). And this more differentiated and more stable regulation is cultivated for the individual from an early age, more and more, as an automatism, “ as self-compulsion, which he cannot defend himself, even if he wants to in his consciousness. “(Ibid).

The progressive differentiation of social functions is only the first, the most general of the social transformations. ... With it, ... a total reorganization of the social fabric goes hand in hand. “(Vol. II, p. 320). “ The peculiar stability of the psychological self-compulsion apparatus, ..., is closely related to the development of monopoly institutions for physical violence and the growing stability of the central social organs. “(Ibid). Monopolization and stabilization lead to " pacified areas ". Within this, the person has to force himself more and more - whether consciously or unconsciously - to put a stop to his drives and affects. In earlier societies, the individual lived more vulnerable. On the one hand, he was freer to indulge in lust, on the other hand, he was more endangered by enemies or natural phenomena. It was a life between extremes. The present was experienced more directly, and the future was not calculated in advance. The “ constant uncertainty into which the structure of this human network places the individual corresponds to the structure of individual behavior and the individual soul balance. “(Vol. II, p. 324).

The “ pacified spaces ” created by “ monopolization ” and “ stabilization ” create a “ peculiar form of security ”. A constant pressure emanates from them, which " accustoms the individual from an early age to a constant and precisely regulated adherence to himself ... " (Vol. II, p. 320). Elias does not claim that there were no forms of self-compulsion before, but “it is a different type of self-control or self-compulsion. “(Vol. II, p. 327). The new type is no longer so exuberant, no longer so extreme in the fluctuations - between pleasure and displeasure, joy and suffering - but moves on a middle line.

Elias also gives indications that the process of civilization has a logic in the sense of capital - similar to how Max Weber put it. The larger and denser the human space, the more stable the monopoly of violence , the more differentiated the social functions, “ the more the individual is threatened in his social existence, who gives in to spontaneous surges and passions; the more socially the one who is able to dampen his affects is at an advantage, and the more each individual is urged, even from an early age, to consider the effect of his actions or the effect of the actions of others across a number of links in the chain. “(Vol. II, pp. 322, 383, 404).

Controversy with Hans Peter Duerr

The ethnologist Hans Peter Duerr endeavored to empirically refute Norbert Elias in a monumental five-volume main work entitled The Myth of the Civilization Process on more than 3500 pages. According to Duerr, Elias evaluated the sources too positively . According to Duerr, the Middle Ages had strong embarrassment and shame thresholds. In particular, Elias misunderstood the culture of indigenous peoples who themselves also know strong cultural boundaries. Indigenous peoples are also indirectly portrayed by Elias as uncivilized.

Under the title Elias Duerr Controversy, the controversy gave rise to studies in the sociology of science. Duerr was accused of acting against Elias with hostility, hatred and will to destroy. Elias had taken the position that every human society is based on cooperation and therefore requires self-control from its members. What changes in the course of the development of societies is the extent and form of self-control. Conversely, Der Spiegel held Norbert Elias, who wrote to Duerr personally with appreciation and at the same time complained to Suhrkamp Verlag that its propaganda was published by the same publisher as his works, himself accused of one or the other lack of civilized behavior .

Work editions

  • About the process of civilization. Sociogenetic and psychogenetic studies. Volume 1: Changes in behavior in the secular upper classes of the West (LXXXI, 333 pages) / Volume 2: Changes in society: Draft for a theory of civilization (491 pages), Basel: Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939.
    • Second edition with an introduction. Two volumes, Bern / Munich: Francke, 1969.
    • Paperback edition of the 1969 edition: Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft. Volume 158/159), 1976.
    • Collected Writings. Volume 3.1 and 3.2. Edited on behalf of the Norbert-Elias-Stichting Amsterdam. Edited by Heike Hammer, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1997.
  • Materials on Norbert Elias' theory of civilization. Edited by Peter Gleichmann , Johan Goudsblom and Hermann Korte (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft. Vol. 233), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1979.
  • Power and civilization. Materials on Norbert Elias' theory of civilization. Edited by Peter Gleichmann, Johan Goudsblom and Hermann Korte. Volume 2 (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft. Vol. 418), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1984.

Literature (selection)

  • Helmut Kuzmics: The Infinite Process of Civilization. On the cultural sociology of modernity according to Norbert Elias , Frankfurt am Main [u. a.]: Campus, 1991.
  • Reinhard Blomert : Psyche and civilization: on theoretical construction by Norbert Elias , 2nd edition, Münster: Lit, 1991, ISBN 3-88660-431-4
  • Bernd Braeuer: Law, Validity and the Great Evolution , in: Legal Theory. Journal of Logic, Methodology, Cybernetics and Sociology of Law, Vol. 24. (1993), pp. 493-512.
  • Hans Peter Duerr : The myth of the civilization process. Five volumes, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1988/1990/1993/1997/2002.
  • Markus Lilienthal: Interpretation. Norbert Elias: About the process of civilization , in: Gerhard Gamm u. a. (Ed.): Interpretations. Main works of social philosophy, Stuttgart: Reclam, 2001, pp. 134–147.
  • Michael Hinz: The process of civilization: myth or reality? Studies in the sociology of science on the Elias Duerr controversy, Opladen: Leske + Budrich, 2002.
  • Peter Imbusch : Modernity and Violence. Civilization-theoretical perspectives on the 20th century. Wiesbaden: VS, Verl. Für Sozialwissenschaften, 2005.
  • Hermann Korte: Sociology , 2004, UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Konstanz.
  • Teresa Koloma Beck: More than the myth of the civilization process. Why it is worth rereading Norbert Elias' best-known work , in: Zeithistorische Forschungen 15 (2018), pp. 383-390.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Ralf Baumgart / Volker Eichener: Norbert Elias for an introduction . Hamburg 1997, p. 22 .
  2. see also feeling of shame
  3. DENKER: Unmasking letters DER SPIEGEL 40/2002 of September 30, 2002.