Figuration (sociology)

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Figuration or interdependence is a term used in process sociology by Norbert Elias . It emphasizes the mutual dependencies of individuals .

Elias was also interested in an alternative to basic sociological approaches in the 20th century. They viewed social realities in isolation (especially individuals) and in a state of calm. In terms of figuration, however, individuals are not in (autonomous) opposition to society . Instead , society is the interdependence network formed by individuals that is constantly in motion.


Norbert Elias did not yet use the term figuration in his early basic works ( Die Höfische Gesellschaft , On the Process of Civilization ), but only later introduced it as a process-sociological tool .

Elias understands figuration to be a dynamic social network or network of relationships of interdependent individuals. According to Elias, these relationships between people are the essence of every social community . The sociology therefore has the task to investigate these networks of relationships between social actors.

The term is used to combine sociological studies of group structures or constellations with those of individual behavioral structures and to examine the change in such structures. Individuals exist, like groups, in changing contexts of other individuals and groups, which can only be thought of as a network and as interdependent .

All human relationships can be seen and examined as figurations. The smallest possible figuration is a two-way relationship , the largest possible humanity . The larger a figuration, the longer and more differentiated the chains of interdependence between the associated people.

One of the earliest and best-known studies by Norbert Elias on the basis of the concept of figuration is the study “ Established and Outsiders ” published in 1965 , in which the groupings of a workers' settlement are examined as “Established-Outsider-Figurations”.

Elias developed the concept of figuration as a process-sociological tool to counter common misunderstandings:

  • Avoiding the misunderstanding of the individual as we-less self and of individuality as social independence

Elias noticed that with the development of individuality, the concept of the individual was often misunderstood and led to misleading self-images, images of people and images of society. Because the individual mostly appears as the "always the same figure of the isolated human being, in the form of the homo clausus or the unconscious ego, in his wanted or unwanted isolation". It appears as a “thinking statue” or “a kind of a-social machine”. The concept of figuration promotes understanding people as fundamentally social relational beings.

Since the concept of the individual is already permeated by the fundamental misunderstandings described above, this is also carried over to the more abstract phenomenon of individuality, which is often misunderstood as social independence.

  • Avoidance of the conceptual separation of society and the individual and the resulting misunderstandings

For Elias the term functions as a process-sociological tool , "with the help of which one can loosen the social compulsion to speak and think as if 'individual' and ' society ' were two different and also antagonistic figures." The term is intended to remove the contrast between such speech and such thinking:

“The network of dependencies between people, their interdependencies, are what binds them together. They are the core of what is referred to here as figuration, the figuration of aligned, interdependent people. [...] The concept of figuration was introduced precisely because it expresses more clearly and unambiguously than the existing conceptual tools of sociology that what we call 'society' is neither an abstraction of the peculiarities of socially existing individuals, is still a 'system' or a 'wholeness' beyond the individuals, but rather the interdependence network itself formed by individuals. "

  • Avoidance of a static understanding of relationships

Elias understands figurations as social processes that are subject to a fundamental dynamic of change. The procedural concept of figuration is intended to facilitate the understanding of ongoing social change in networked relationships.

“At present there is a type of abstraction in sociology that seems to refer to isolated objects in a state of rest. Even the term 'social change' is often used as if it were a condition. In a sense, one thinks from the state of rest to the movement as a special state. "

Name of the associated research approach: process sociology instead of figurative sociology

Although the term figuration is just one of many process-sociological terms that Elias developed and used, the term became increasingly prominent over time. As a result, Elijah's entire approach was often referred to as "figurative sociology". In the process, the understanding of the concept of figuration changed increasingly and in many cases began to create precisely those misunderstandings that were actually intended to be reduced. Elias noticed and criticized this and himself stopped using the term:

"I believe that the concept of figuration has been brought far too close to the old concept of system in conversation and discussion, and if you are looking for a label for my work, I prefer ' process sociology '."

Research based on the concept of figuration

Since the introduction by Norbert Elias, a large number of research projects in different scientific disciplines have used the concept of figuration.


  • Janne Arp: The necropolis as a figuration. On the methodology of the social interpretation of the rock-fronted tombs of Amarna . Wiesbaden 2012.
  • Anke Barzantny: Mentoring programs for women. Measures for structural changes in science? ; a figuration-sociological study of academic medicine. Wiesbaden 2008.
  • Karin Gschwandtner: Charisma concept and figuration analysis. A comparison of two theoretical approaches to the social power formation around Adolf Hitler. Passau 2015.
  • Jörg Hüttermann: Inflammable Conflict Constellations. Escalation and integration potential in small towns of the immigration society. Weinheim 2010.
  • Anne Juhasz, Eva Mey: The second generation of established people or outsiders? Biographies of young people of foreign origin. Wiesbaden 2003.
  • Mi-ae Pak: Patriarchy through Confucian norms of propriety. An analysis of traditional Korean society based on Norbert Elias' theory of civilization. Marburg 2000.
  • Gerhard Reinecke: Thailand's way to social security. Decision-making processes between democratization and military coup; an analysis of the figuration of strategic groups. Saarbrücken 1993.
  • Georg von Willich: Restructuring and Power. Case study of a corporate reorganization. Mering 2010.

See also


  • Norbert Elias: What is sociology? , Weinheim: Juventa, 2004, pp. 139-145. ISBN 3779901021 .
  • Norbert Elias: Figuration. In: Bernhard Schäfers (ed.): "Basic concepts of sociology." Stuttgart: Leske + Budrich (Utb), 2003, pp. 88-91. ISBN 3825214168 .
  • Norbert Elias: About the process of civilization. Volume 1 , Amsterdam: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1997, pp. 46-73, ISBN 3518277596 .
  • Detlef Weinich: Systems Biology - Dynamics and Interrelations as Research Subject . Roots and meaning of network thinking in the more recent understanding of science. In: Würzburger medical history reports 21, 2002, pp. 473–489, here: pp. 477–482.

Web links


  1. Norbert Elias, John L. Scotson: Established and Outsiders. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt / M. 2002, p. 12.
  2. Norbert Elias: Changes in the we-me balance. in: The Society of Individuals. Ges. Schriften Vol. 10. Frankfurt / M. 1987/2001, pp. 265f.
  3. Norbert Elias: Investigations into the genesis of the marine profession. in: Essays and other writings I. Ges. Schriften Vol. 14. Frankfurt / M. 1950/2001, p. 130.
  4. Norbert Elias, Eric Dunning: Sport and tension in the process of civilization. Ges. Schriften Vol. 7. Frankfurt / M. 1986/2003, p. 208.
  5. Norbert Elias: What is sociology? , Weinheim, 1970, p. 141.
  6. Norbert Elias: About the process of civilization. Volume 1 , Amsterdam 1997: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, pp. 70–71
  7. Norbert Elias: What is sociology? Ges. Schriften Vol. 5. Frankfurt / M. 1970/2006, p. 151.
  8. Norbert Elias: 'Maybe I said something about what has a future', conversation with Wolfgang Engler. in: Autobiographical and interviews, m. Audio CD. Ges. Schriften Vol. 17. Frankfurt / M. 1989/2005, p. 373f.