Norbert Elias (1897-1990)

A Biographical Sketch

'It is as if Norbert Elias has always been an old man', observed a Dutch newspaper in 1984. Elias, a German sociologist who was a refugee from Hitler and lived the best part of forty years in England, had to wait a long time for recognition. When it came, it was in his native land and particularly the Netherlands not in his adopted country of citizenship that he found himself an intellectual celebrity. By then he was in his late seventies and his eighties. In a notably vigorous old age, Elias came at last to be regarded by many social scientists as having – in Bryan Wilson’s words – ‘one of the world’s most original and penetrating sociological minds’. His writings, moreover, address issues of concern and fascination to people well beyond the narrow world of professional social science.

Paris 1930s
Paris 1930s
Photograph by Gisele Freund

What so long delayed Elias’s impact was the disruption of his career at its very beginning by the National Socialists’ accession to power in 1933 when Elias, as a Jew, went into exile first in Paris and then in London. Elias was born in Breslau (now the Polish city of Wrocław) on 22 June 1897, the only son of Hermann Elias – a businessman in the textile trade – and Sophie Elias. At the distinguished Johannesgymnasium in Breslau he received a first-class education in science, mathematics, classics, languages and literature. On leaving school in 1916 he served in the German forces, mainly on the Western Front, in the First World War. On demobilization he enrolled at Breslau University both in philosophy and medicine – completing the pre-clinical part of medical training before concentrating on philosophy for his doctorate. He wrote his Dr phil. thesis (Idee und Individuum: Ein Beitrag zur Philosophie der Geschichte [‘Idea and individual: a contribution to the philosophy of history’]) in Breslau under the direction of the neo-Kantian philosopher Richard Hönigswald (1875–1947).

The degree was conferred in 1924 only after a major disagreement between Elias and Hönigswald that went to the heart of the whole Kantian tradition. Elias’s objection concerned Kant’s contention that certain categories of thought – Newtonian space, time, causality, and some fundamental moral principles – are not derived from experience but are inherent, eternal and universal in the human mind. His rejection of that assumption is fundamental to all his subsequent work. Its immediate effect was to lead Elias out of the discipline of philosophy into that of sociology, particularly the historically orientated sociology then dominant in Heidelberg, where Elias went in 1925 to pursue his further studies.

At Heidelberg, Elias was accepted as a candidate for Habilitation by Alfred Weber (1868–1958), Max Weber’s younger brother. He became good friends with Karl Mannheim (1893–1947), only four years older than Elias and then already a Privatdozent. When Mannheim was offered the chair of Sociology at Frankfurt in 1929, Elias went with him as an academic Assistant. Their university department was housed in basement rooms rented in the wealthy Institut für Sozialforschung, the subsequently famous ‘Frankfurt School’ directed by Max Horkheimer. When the National Socialists came to power early in 1933, Elias barely had his foot on the first rung of the German academic career ladder. His Habilitation was rushed through – the thesis was an early version of Die höfische Gesellschaft [The Court Society], which was not published until 36 years later.
 
USA 1977
Lecturing in Amsterdam, 1981
Photograph by Bart Jonker
After spending nearly two years in Paris, where he began to write the first volume of Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, later known in English as The Civilizing Process, he found himself in London, not even at first speaking English, and with few prospects. On a minimal grant from a Jewish refugee organization, he worked for three years to complete the two volumes of this, his magnum opus. It was published in Switzerland in 1939. It remained largely unknown and unread among both the German and English speaking publics for thirty years. Elias’s parents died during the war, his mother in Auschwitz – the major trauma of Elias’s life. Elias himself remained in England, briefly interned like all other Germans as an ‘enemy alien’, then leading an insecure existence on the fringes of academic life and, after the Second World War, helping (with his old friend Siegmund H. Foulkes [né Fuchs]) to lay the foundations of Group Analysis, now one of the most influential modes of psychotherapy, and establishing the Group Analytic Society
 
Only in 1954, a mere eight years before reaching retirement age, did he obtain a university post, at Leicester. There, with Ilya Neustadt, he built up a large and successful Department of Sociology, in which many subsequently famous British sociologists were either junior colleagues (like Anthony Giddens and John H. Goldthorpe) or students. In 1962–4, following his formal retirement from Leicester, Elias served as Professor of Sociology in the University of Ghana. During this time he developed a great liking for, and a great collection of, African art; some of the best can be seen in photographs by his friend Gerard Holzmann.
 
During these years he published little, but he continued to write, research and think. With great determination and inner sense of purpose he developed, extended and refined the ideas presented in The Civilizing Process. That huge work was ambitious enough, tracing as it did the ‘civilising’ of manners and personality in Western Europe since the late Middle Ages, and showing how that was related to the formation of states and monopolisation of power within them. But Elias always saw it as more than a single thesis: it was also a paradigm to be developed as a model of a sociology which represents a radical rejection of many of the basic assumptions of the conventional sociology of today (see concepts and principles).
 
Bourdieu 1987
Elias with Pierre Bourdieu,
1987
Photograph by
Stephen Mennell
Yet the scale of Elias’s undertaking was revealed only in the years following his retirement. The Established and the Outsiders appeared, in English, in 1965. The decisive event, however, was the republication in 1969, when Elias was already over 70 years old, of the original German text of Über den Prozess der Zivilisation. Elias was more and more sought after as a visiting teacher in German and Dutch universities (including Konstanz, Bielefeld and Amsterdam), and eventually left England to live in Amsterdam. Most of his later books and essays therefore appeared first in German: the books include (under their English titles) The Court Society, What is Sociology?, The Loneliness of the Dying, Involvement and Detachment (collected essays on the sociology of knowledge and the sciences), An Essay on Time, Quest for Excitement (co-authored with Eric Dunning – collected essays, originating from English, on the sociology of sport), Humana Conditio (subtitled ‘Observations on the Development of Mankind in the Forty Years since the Second World War’), and The Society of Individuals (containing three essays ranging in date from 1939 to 1987).
 
A selection of his poems, entitled Los der Menschen, were also published on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in 1987. The last book to be published in Elias’s lifetime was Studien über den Deutschen, issued in English under the title The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries; this is especially important because it develops an often-overlooked theme in The Civilizing Process, the fragility of civilising process and the ever-present counterpoint of decivilising processes. 
 
Elias died, still working, in Amsterdam on 1 August 1990. Five further books have been published posthumously: The Symbol Theory, concerned with the very long-term processes of human development which preoccupied Elias especially in his last years; Reflections on a Life – containing an autobiographical essay and interview; Mozart: Sociology of a Genius, and, recently, The Genesis of the Naval Profession. (See published works for a full bibliography of Elias’s works)
 
Three papers presented on 6 April 2011 at the sixtieth anniversary conference of the British Sociological Association throw further light on Elias's life in Britain.
 
Stephen Mennell