Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology

Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology

Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology

Norbert Elias: Post-Philosophical Sociology

Synopsis

Few sociologists of the first rank have scandalized the academic world to the extent that Elias did. Developed out of the German sociology of knowledge in the 1920s, Elias’s sociology contains a sweeping radicalism which declares an academic ‘war on all your houses’. His sociology of the ‘human condition’ sweeps aside the contemporary focus on ‘modernity’ and rejects most of the paradigms of sociology as one-sided, economistic, teleological, individualistic and/or rationalistic. As sociologists, Elias also asks us to distance ourselves from mainstream psychology, history and above all, philosophy, which is summarily abandoned, although carried forward on a higher level. This enlightening book written by a close friend and pupil of Elias, is the first book to explain the refractory, uncomfortable, side of Elias’s sociological radicalism and to brace us for its implications. It is also the first in-depth analysis of Elias’s last work The Symbol Theory in the light of selected contemporary developments in archaeology, anthropology and evolutionary theory.

Excerpt

This book traces the origins, reception and significance of the sociological tradition founded by Norbert Elias (1897–1990). His distinctive writings have inspired many researchers and continue to do so. New generations of social scientists are discovering the fertility of Elias’s ‘figurational’ or ‘process’ sociology in diverse fields (see summaries in Kilminster and Mennell 2002:624 and Dunning and Mennell 2003a:xxxi). The quarterly newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation in Amsterdam, Figurations, reports regularly on the steady flow from all over the world of published research inspired by his ideas and upon newly emerging groups of scholars who are discovering his approach.

How successfully these small research groups can achieve a level of stable, cumulative research over time, informed by one or more of Elias’s theories, remains to be seen. Apart from these developments, Elias’s work generally tends to be absorbed into sociology today in a fairly random fashion as a source of useful explanatory tools for the individual sociologist. It has, nevertheless, proved fruitful empirically and led to genuine insights. And Elias’s ideas have been disseminated as a result. But this process has effectively transformed Elias into one of the many gurus of ‘social theory’ of our time. He takes his place, on seemingly equal terms, with many others in edited volumes (useful though these books are) introducing us to their lives and works. The specificity of his work, as an empirically workable synthesis, unfortunately easily gets lost.

Taking Elias’s concepts ‘off the shelf’ is a hazardous pursuit in another, related, sense. They become severed from the broader significance of the sociological framework from which they have been derived and which breathes life and significance into them. Considered as a whole, Elias’s research programme tacitly contains a sweeping radicalism that has far-reaching implications that have not been fully understood. It embraces scientific attitudes and obligations which, taken to their furthest conclusions, represent considerable challenges for sociologists. And these challenges are not solely of an intellectual or rational kind. (See Kilminster 1998 and Chapter 7 of this book.) Without an awareness of this dimension, there is a danger that the conceptual borrowings – however well-meaning and even fruitful – may draw the teeth of Elias.

In relation to the mainstream disciplines of philosophy, psychology and history, the factions and schools within professional sociology, as well as towards Marxism . . .

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