Norbert Elias

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Norbert Elias (1987).

Norbert Leo Elias (born June 22, 1897 in Breslau ; † August 1, 1990 in Amsterdam ) was a German-British sociologist who lived mainly in England and the Netherlands since his emigration in 1933 . He became a naturalized British citizen in 1952. Long ignored, his work has been widely received since the 1970s. The terms " figuration " and "process and figuration sociology" are associated with his name, denoting a methodological re-shaping of sociology in connection with Karl Mannheim . His work On the Process of Civilization from 1939 (new edition: 1969/1976) is one of the most important sociological works of the 20th century.


Childhood, youth, military service

Norbert Elias grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Breslau. He was the only child of the married couple Hermann and Sophie Elias (née Galevski). The wealthy father owned a textile factory that produced suits for wholesale. The successful self-made man retired from professional life before the First World War and became a reindeer . The mother was a housewife and lived a sociable life. Elias said in an interview with Carmen Thomas that the parents were not particularly devout Jews, but the mother kept the household kosher so that his grandparents could eat with them.

Elias, a frail child who was often ill, was raised by governesses and tutored by a tutor during the three years of preschool . His school attendance only began with the sixth of the Johannesgymnasium . In his notes on his curriculum vitae , he emphasized that the time at the Breslau grammar school was a time of great importance for the orientation of his intellectual interests. In addition, for reasons unknown to him, the Johannesgymnasium in Breslau belonged to the minority of the city's high schools, "at which Jewish students hardly felt the pressure of hidden or open anti-Semitic hostility on the part of teachers and classmates." Bourgeoisie determined. The focus was on the classics of Greco-Roman antiquity and those of the Schiller and Goethe times. That is why thirteen-year-old Elias wanted German classics for his bar mitzvah in the edition of the Bibliographical Institute .

On June 8, 1915, he passed the school leaving examination, on June 22, he enrolled at the University of Breslau for the subjects of philosophy and German . On July 1st, like all of his classmates, he volunteered as a war volunteer. He became a telegraph operator , first came to the Eastern Front and then took part in the Battle of the Somme . There he suffered a collapse, was sent back home and no longer fit for field service as a medical soldier in a convalescent battery. At the same time as the medical service, he started studying medicine. On February 4, 1919, he was released from military service. Most of his classmates had died.


In 1918 Elias began to study philosophy and medicine at the University of Breslau , the latter only until the Physikum 1919. He interrupted his studies by studying at the University of Heidelberg in the summer semester of 1919 and the University of Freiburg im Breisgau in the summer semester of 1920 In 1925 Elias was a committed member of the Zionist youth movement “Blue-White”.

Since the beginning of the winter semester 1915/16 he was also a member of the Hasmonaea Breslau in the “ Cartel of Jewish Connections ” (KJV). Even from those days he knew many Jewish German intellectuals of the same age, such as Erich Fromm , Leo Strauss and Leo Löwenthal .

From 1922 Elias worked in a factory for the production of small iron parts as head of the export department in order to finance his studies. In 1924 he received his doctorate as Dr. phil. at the University of Wroclaw. The title of his dissertation is Idea and Individual - A Contribution to the Philosophy of History ; his doctoral supervisor was Richard Hönigswald .

In 1924 Elias moved to Heidelberg and continued his studies in sociology there. He was accepted for a habilitation by Alfred Weber . The work on The Importance of Florentine Society and Culture for the Development of Science was concerned with the development of modern natural sciences . In 1930 Elias broke off his habilitation project and followed Karl Mannheim to Frankfurt am Main . He worked as his assistant at the university there and began his habilitation with the work Der Höfische Mensch .


The habilitation thesis had already been submitted and Mannheim was designated as the reviewer when the Institute of Sociology was closed in March 1933 at the beginning of the National Socialist regime , and Elias' habilitation process was also canceled. The text did not appear until 1969 in a modified form under the title Die Höfische Gesellschaft . Elias went into exile in 1933, first to Paris , then to Great Britain in 1935 . During his eight-month internment as a German on the Isle of Man in the Central Camp ( Douglas ) and in the Hutchinson Internment Camp , Elias performed a self-written drama The Ballade of Poor Jacob in the internment camp in 1940 . Elias was supported during this time by Morris Ginsberg and his friends Evelyn Anderson, who also lived in exile in England, and her sister Ilse Seglow , who had completed her doctorate with Elias, who now tried to get him released and supplied him with groceries and books.

University of Leicester & University of Ghana

From 1954 to 1962 Elias held a teaching position at the newly established Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester (students were among others Martin Albrow and Anthony Giddens ). It was during this time that his first extensive empirical study of the established and the outsider took place . Before that, he worked for a long time in adult education and dealt with group therapy. 1962 to 1964 he was professor of sociology at the University of Ghana in Accra (student was Willie B. Lamousé-Smith ), then he returned to England, where he lived as a private scholar.

Netherlands and visiting professorships in Germany

The 90-year-old Norbert Elias is honored by the Dutch Minister of Science (1987).

Since 1978 he had his permanent residence in Amsterdam and was visiting professor at various German universities (Aachen, Münster, Bielefeld). Only now - and especially with the success of the paperback edition of On the Process of Civilization (1976) - was Elias' work received and recognized in Germany.

Norbert Elias worked for many years at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) in Bielefeld. Among other things, he worked in the ZiF research group “Philosophy and History” under the direction of Reinhart Koselleck .

Approach and services

Norbert Elias developed an independent sociological theory, the principles of which are expressed in the terms figuration sociology and process sociology .

Figuration sociology

In order to be able to depict social processes in realistic theories, theories that think “society” in terms of the individual are insufficient, but so are those theories that disregard the individual and proceed from the “whole”. Rather, all sociological research must focus on people and the dynamic social interrelationships that they form with one another: “ The 'circumstances' that change are not something that comes to people from 'outside', as it were; the 'circumstances' that change are the relationships between people themselves ”(Elias in: On the Process of Civilization , 2nd vol.). Elias understands figuration to be an image of human societies that avoids the one-sidedness of “part” or “whole” by depicting society as a connection between individuals ; H. mutual dependencies. In the course of their development, societies can become more complex and have nested levels. So the same people can form different figurations. For example, on the basis of the mutual dependence between the established and the outsider , he explains a figuration that can be further differentiated into the relationship between natives and foreigners.

Process sociology

According to Elias, sociological theories in which social processes are thought statically, i.e. reduced to states and social change is viewed as a sequence of apparently stable states between which there are phases of change, cannot be realistic. He criticized this, for example, at the school of the sociologist Talcott Parsons . Instead, a realistic basic assumption is that reality (and thus societies) knows no states but is constantly in motion. It is therefore necessary to always describe processes in order to be able to form sociological theories. One of its implications is that no single social phenomenon can be understood or explained without a theory of long-term change. He calls for the development of an empirically founded theory of socio-cultural evolution and sees himself only as a pioneer for this.

A distinction between the two terms is only possible to a limited extent, because figurations are also processes and are characterized by their process character. They are therefore basically designed as "social process models". Shortly before his death, Elias had the impression that the concept of figuration developed too close to the concept of system in use and therefore preferred the term process sociology .

With his theory, Elias breaks with the long tradition of thought, in which “society” was contrasted with “the individual thought of as an independent”. His thoughts on the relationship between “society” and “individual”, which can be found in almost all of his works, ultimately lead to a redefinition of terms such as “ identity ” and “ self-worth ”, which are relatively new in the history of sociology View of people as actors with a certain freedom within the framework of the figurations that they form with one another in social processes. In addition, Elias overcomes the traditional scientific division between psychology , sociology and history .

In his studies, Elias opened up new perspectives in particular in historical studies: the development from feudalism to territorialization in Germany, the development of the royal mechanism , the exploration of mentalities that the French school of history around Georges Duby and the journal Annales have developed, and many other findings thanks to him.

Elias expressly values ​​an understandable scientific language , which he increasingly developed even after completing his doctoral thesis (which he later viewed with skepticism in this regard). His concern was also the creation of terms that can serve the new point of view represented by him as appropriate, i.e. precise, "language tools".

Elias is often referred to as the founder of the theory of civilization. However, this title does not do justice to the achievements of the social scientist. He took a position on very different questions of sociological theory formation and on questions of contemporary societies:

  • on science and the history of science
  • on the specific social situation in which one finds oneself as a sociologist
  • to social change and contradictions
  • to the "structure" of world society that has become historical
  • on the question of which sociological terms and instruments are needed today in order to gain a comprehensive perspective on the development of humanity and man

Norbert Elias Foundation

To further promote the broad process and relationship-based understanding of social science research, Elias founded the Norbert Elias Foundation in 1983 , which became his sole heir after his death.

Norbert Elias Archive

The Norbert Elias archive includes unpublished typescripts and manuscripts (of scientific texts and poems), correspondence and the library of Norbert Elias. It has been in the German Literature Archive (DLA) in Marbach am Neckar since 1994 and is accessible to researchers from the fields of science and literature. Further research into the documents in the Norbert Elias archive is supported by the Norbert Elias grant.

The inventory of the Norbert Elias Archive is available in the German Literature Archive. It consists of three parts:

  • Part 1: Correspondence and manuscripts since 1984
  • Part 2: Library by Norbert Elias (with and without comments by Norbert Elias)
  • Part 3: Correspondence and manuscripts before 1984

One of the most important online catalogs is the HyperElias © World Catalog. It was created by Ingo Mörth and Gerhard Fröhlich (University of Linz), but does not contain a detailed list of Elias' correspondence.

The Norbert Elias Archive contains, among other things, the previously neglected correspondence between Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu (1976 to 1990).


Memorial plaque in Wrocław (Breslau)

Writings and editions of works

  • About the loneliness of the dying in our day. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1982.
  • Elias, Norbert: Collected writings (19 volumes), ed. on behalf of the Norbert-Elias-Stichting Amsterdam by Reinhard Blomert , Heike Hammer, Johan Heilbron, Annette Treibel , Nico Wilterdink. 2002-2010.
    • Volume 1: early writings , edit. by Reinhard Blomert, Amsterdam 2002. ISBN 3-518-58317-4
    • Volume 2: The court society: Studies on the sociology of royalty and the court aristocracy ; with an introduction: Sociology and History, arr. by Claudia Opitz , Amsterdam 2002. ISBN 3-518-58329-8
    • Volume 3: On the Process of Civilization . Sociogenetic and psychogenetic studies. Volume 1: Changes in behavior in the western upper classes of the West. Volume 2: Changes in Society. Draft for a theory of civilization. Edited by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 1997. ISBN 3-518-58244-5 .
    • Volume 4: Established and Outsiders , trans. by Michael Schröter, arr. by Nico Wilterdink. Amsterdam 2002. ISBN 3-518-58318-2
    • Volume 5: What is Sociology? , edit. by Annette Treibel, Amsterdam 2006. ISBN 3-518-58429-4
    • Volume 6: On the loneliness of the dying in our days and Humana Conditio , edit. by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 2002. ISBN 3-518-58351-4
    • Volume 7: Norbert Elias; Eric Dunning: Sport and Tension in the Process of Civilization , trans. by Detlef Bremecke, arr. by Reinhard Blomert, Amsterdam 2002. ISBN 3-518-58363-8
    • Volume 8: Commitment and Distancing , ed. and over. by Michael Schröter, arr. by Johan Heilbron, Amsterdam 2003. ISBN 3-518-58381-6
    • Volume 9: About Time , ed. by Michael Schröter, trans. by Holger Fliessbach and Michael Schröter, arr. by Johan Heilbron, Amsterdam 2004. ISBN 3-518-58421-9
    • Volume 10: The Society of Individuals , arr. by Annette Treibel, ed. by Michael Schröter, Amsterdam 2001. ISBN 3-518-58314-X
    • Volume 11: Studies on the Germans: Power struggles and habitus development in the 19th and 20th centuries , ed. by Michael Schröter, arr. by Nico Wilterdink, Amsterdam 2005. ISBN 3-518-58425-1
    • Volume 12: Mozart: on the sociology of a genius , ed. by Michael Schröter, arr. by Reinard Blomert, Amsterdam 2005. ISBN 3-518-58438-3
    • Volume 13: Symbol Theory , arr. by Helmut Kuzmics, trans. by Reiner Ansén, Amsterdam 2001. ISBN 3-518-58309-3
    • Volume 14: Articles and other writings I , arr. by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 2006. ISBN 3-518-58453-7
    • Volume 15: Articles and other writings II , arr. by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 2006. ISBN 3-518-58454-5
    • Volume 16: Articles and other writings III , arr. by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 2006. ISBN 3-518-58455-3
    • Volume 17: Autobiographical and interviews , with CD, arr. by Heike Hammer, Amsterdam 2005. ISBN 3-518-58422-7
    • Volume 18: Poems and Proverbs , arr. by Sandra Goetz, Amsterdam 2004. ISBN 3-518-58386-7
    • Volume 19: Complete Register , edited. by Jan-Peter Kunze, Amsterdam 2010. ISBN 978-3-518-58525-2

The chronological list of German and English publications with the year of the first publication and other translations can be viewed on the website of the Norbert Elias Foundation.

Literature (selection)

Web links

Commons : Norbert Elias  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Civil registry office Breslau II: Birth register . No. 2707/1897; Elias never used the middle name. He does not mention him in his publications, his résumés or autobiographical statements and all identification documents, as far as they are known, were always made out to Norbert E. Hermann Korte : About Norbert Elias. Becoming a human scientist. 3rd edition, Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013, ISBN 978-3-531-19908-5 , p. 85, note 3.
  2. Catalog entry on the certificate of naturalization in the National Archives
  3. ^ Top 10 Books of the Century. International Sociological Association, archived from the original on July 15, 2007 ; accessed on March 24, 2017 (English).
  4. Biographical information in this section is based, unless otherwise stated, on Hermann Korte: About Norbert Elias. Becoming a human scientist. 3rd edition, Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013, ISBN 978-3-531-19908-5 pp. 83-94.
  5. Mother's maiden name after Hermann Korte, Norbert Elias (1897–1990). In: Dirk Kaesler (Ed.), Classics of Sociology . Volume I: From Auguste Comte to Alfred Schütz . 6th, revised and updated edition, Beck, Munich 2012, ISBN 978-3-406-64297-5 , pp. 335–353, here p. 335.
  6. Carmen Thomas conducted a four-hour radio interview with Elias on May 30, 1985 for the program Hallo OB-Wagen , quoted from: Hermann Korte: About Norbert Elias. Becoming a human scientist. 3rd edition, Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013, p. 85.
  7. Norbert Elias: Notes on the curriculum vitae . In: Norbert Elias About himself . One-time special edition, Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1996, ISBN 3-518-13329-2 , pp. 107–197, here p. 110.
  8. (see Blomert 1999)
  9. ^ H. Korte, About Norbert Elias., P. 177
  10. Cf. Marion Keller: Female Sociologists in Norbert Elias's Circle of Friends, in: Figurations 44. Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation, p. 3
  11. Norbert Elias at the ZiF
  12. Elias, Norbert: Commitment and distancing. Ges. Schriften Vol. 8. Frankfurt / M. 1983/2003, p. 173; ISBN 3-518-58381-6
  13. Treibel, Annette: Figurations- und Prozessstheorie, in: Kneer, Georg / Schroer, Markus (eds.), Handbook of Sociological Theories. Wiesbaden 2009, p. 140; ISBN 978-3-531-15231-8
  14. N. Elias: 'Maybe I said something about what has a future', conversation with Wolfgang Engler. In: Autobiographical and Interviews. Ges. Schriften Vol. 17. Frankfurt / Main 1989/2005, p. 373 f .; ISBN 3-518-58422-7
  15. See also Martin Klüners: The Unconscious in Individuals and Society. On the applicability of psychoanalytic categories in the science of history. In: PSYCHE 70 (7) (2016), pp. 644–673, as well as: Philosophy of history and psychoanalysis. Göttingen 2013, pp. 117–123.
  16. Annete Treibel: Introduction to Sociological Theories of the Present. 5th updated and improved edition. Leske + Budrich, Opladen 2000, p. 183; ISBN 978-3-322-97481-5
  17. ^ The Norbert Elias Archive
  18. ^ Norbert Elias grant
  19. HyperElias © World Catalog
  20. See correspondence from 1976 to 1990 , in: Inken Hasselbusch: Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu in comparison. An investigation into theory development, terminology and reception. Karlsruhe 2014, pp. 249-270.
  21. ^ Chronological list of German publications by Norbert Elias with the year
  22. ^ Chronological list of English publications by Norbert Elias with the year
  23. Overview of all publications by Norbert Elias including translations