Some Classic Essays

On this page we are making available the texts of some essays which, although well known in a subterranean way among members of the figurational research network, have either not previously been published in English or are difficult to obtain.

Some of these essay are large files and may take a while to open.

 

Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh, 'Attribution of blame as the past and present means of orientation: the social sciences as a potential improvement'

First published in Dutch as 'De schuldvraag als oriëntatiemittel', in De Gids, 141: 9-10 (1978), pp. 638-60, and reprinted in Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh, De staat van geweld en andere essays (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1980), pp. 7-46. A shortened version was published in English as 'The improvement of human means of orientation: toward synthesis in the social sciences', in Raymond Apthorpe and Andras Krahl (eds), Development Studies: Critique and Renewal (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), pp. 109-35. The present text is derived from the typescript of the author's own English translation, 1977. It has in the past been cited under the title 'Attribution of blame as a means of orientation in the social sciences'; the author has given it a new and more accurate title for its publication on the website.

 

Eric Dunning, 'In defence of developmental sociology: a critique of Popper's Poverty of Historicism with special reference to the theory of Auguste Comte', Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 4: 3 (1977), pp. 327-49.

The influence of Sir Karl Popper's philosophy was once very strong within British sociology, including among members of the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester who were opposed to Elias's developmental perspective. Dunning's article was published several years before Elias's own essay 'On the creed of a nominalist: observations on Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery'; see Elias, Essays I: On the Sociology of Knowledge and the Sciences (Dublin: UCD Press, 2009 [Collected Works, vol. 14]), pp. 161-90.

 

Johan Goudsblom, ‘Public Health and the Civilising Process’, Millbank Quarterly 64: 2 (1986), pp. 161–82.

Published in the premier journal of public health – but therefore in a venue not very familiar to most sociologists – this paper discusses, in the light of the theory of civilising processes, the social response to epidemic diseases that have spread fear since the Middle Ages: leprosy, the plague, syphilis, cholera and AIDS.

 

Johan Goudsblom, ‘On High and Low in Society and in Sociology: A Semantic Approach to Social Stratification', Sociologisch Tijdschrift 13: 1 (1986), pp. 3–17.

This essay forces the reader to think more clearly about the spatial metaphor of ‘high’ and ‘low’ that is usually taken for granted in sociological discussions of social stratification. [Note that for a few years in the mid-1980s, the Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift dropped 'Amsterdam' from its title.]


Johan Goudsblom, ‘The humanities and the social sciences’, in E. Zürcher and T. Langendorff (eds), The Humanities in the Nineties: A View from the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1990), pp. 24–41.

The relationships between the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences at the present day are traced back to the structure of early European universities. Since the Middle Ages until the beginning of the nineteenth century, most universities were still composed of four faculties: Theology, Law, Medicine and Philosophy. Over the following century and a half, Philosophy became soplit into the new faculties of Letters (or Humanities), Natural Sciences and Social Sciences. Goudsblom then discusses cognitive and social aspects of the relations between the three new faculties. The essay includes a dissection of Richard Dawkins’s reductionism, some discussion of Bourdieu’s studies of homo academicus and the ‘state nobility’, and concludes with an examination of the relations between the various disciplinary establishments at the end of the twentieth century.


Johan Goudsblom, ‘The Theory of the Civilising Process and Its Discontents’

A review of the reception of and debates about Elias’s theory, prepared for a conference in 1994 and hitherto published only as a working paper of the Amsterdam School for Social Research.


Johan Goudsblom, ‘Norbert Elias and American Sociology’, Sociologia Internationalis 38: 2 (2000), pp. 173–80

In this article, four questions are raised about the relationship between the European sociologist Norbert Elias and American sociology: 1. What did Elias know and think of American sociology?; 2. What did American sociologists know and think of Elias?; 3. Could Elias have profited more from the contributions of American sociology?; 4. Could American sociology have profited more from Elias’s work? The last question also pertains to the present: what makes Elias’s work still interesting and important for (American) sociologists today?

 

Johan Goudsblom, 'The Paradox of Pacification' 

Not previously published in this form. In Dutch, the substance of the argument appeared in the chapter 'De monopolisering van georganiseerd geweld', in Goudsblom's book Stof waar honger uit ontstond: Over evolutie en sociale processen (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2001), pp. 94-111.

 

Johan Goudsblom, ‘Christian religion and the European civilising process: the views of Norbert Elias and Max Weber compared in the context of the Augustinian and Lucretian traditions’, Irish Journal of Sociology 12: 1 (2003), pp. 24–38
 
Both Norbert Elias and Max Weber were concerned with the 'European civilising process', in the sense of the strong shift in socially induced individual self-control observed from the Renaissance onwards. Religion does not play a prominent role in Elias's explanation of these changes. In contrast, it is argued that, despite his disclaimer, Weber in The Protestant Ethic veers towards 'a one-sided spiritualistic interpretation of culture and history'. In that respect he followed the dominant intellectual tradition deriving from St Augustine, which singles out religion as a powerful force in the civilising process. Both Weber and Elias were concerned with the unintended consequences of long-term social processes. Weber, however, while acknowledging the importance of the dynamics generated by social interdependencies, confined his analysis to a religious 'spirit' that supposedly determined the course of human affairs. In so doing, he followed a tenacious tradition which can be traced to Augustine's The City of God. Elias, on the other hand, can be placed within what is here called the Lucretian tradition. Lucretius, in De rerum natura, anticipated the modern theory of evolution, and he attributed religious belief to people's ignorance of principles underlying life on earth. The dominance of the Augustinian tradition has promoted a persistent tendency to conceive of the European civilising process in terms of providence and teleology, and to give pride of place to religious beliefs as the driving force of the entire process.

 

Richard Kilminster, ‘The debate about utopias from a sociological perspective’ (1982) publication in the Human Figurations journal, June 2014.

This paper was a product of Richard Kilminster’s participation in 1981 in the Utopieforschuungsgruppe at the Zentrum für interdisciplinäre Forschung at the University of Bielefeld. It was translated into German as 'Zur Utopiediskussion aus soziologischer Sicht', in Wilhelm Voßkamp (ed.) Utopieforschung: Interdisziplinäre Studien zur neuzeitlichen Utopia, Band 1 (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler Verlag, 1982). The original English text is published here for the first time. Elias’s contribution to the research of the group, ‘Thomas More’s critique of the state: with some thoughts on a definition of the concept of utopia’, translated by Edmund Jephcott, is to be found in Richard Kilminster and Stephen Mennell (eds), Essays I: On the Sociology of Knowledge and the Sciences, (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2009 [Collected Works of Norbert Elias, vol. 14]), pp. 212—57. 

 

Richard Kilminster, ‘Streaking: the naked truth’ (1988)

Richard Kilminster’s essay on streaking has had an almost mythical status since it was written in 1988. Its existence has been known among some members of the figurational research network for a long time, but few if any of them had actually read it – because the typescript remained unpublished. It is published here for the first time. It originated in an interview with Kilminster on the topic by Tim Dower on Radio Leeds on 3 June 1988. It was also broadcast on Radio York. The text was written as a light-hearted piece for publication in the New Statesman and Society, but never appeared. It has not been revised or updated, but some more recent references and explanatory notes have been provided; they are enclosed in square brackets.

 

Richard Kilminster, Image and Conviction in Sociology’ (1988) 

This wry assessment of the plight of academic sociology was written for Footnotes, the newsletter of the American Sociological Association. It was written in the wake of economic retrenchment and the institutional contraction of sociology in Britain in the 1980s during the Thatcher governments. Drawing on his Leeds experience, Kilminster takes a longer, comparative view of the problem of promoting the importance sociology in the face of the historically recurring attacks on the field from Left, Right and Centre of the political spectrum. He also raises the awkward question of the hesitant allegiance to the discipline of many sociologists themselves.

 

Richard Kilminster, ‘Theory’ (1992) 

Originally published in one of the long out-of-print annual updates of the main specialisms in sociology in the UK edited by Mike Haralambos, which appeared in a ring-binder format. They were intended for teachers of 'A'-level Sociology and their more advanced students – that is, for use in secondary or high schools. The Eliasian inspiration is evident in the unadorned language, the developmental approach and the stress on intellectual tendencies as paradigm-communities. The three-phase model was elaborated further with additional evidence in Richard Kilminster’s book Sociological Revolution: From the Enlightenment to the Global Age (London: Routledge 1998 [paperback 2002]), chapter 8.

 

Richard Kilminster, ‘Elias and the neo-Kantians: an alternative view’ (1994) 

This article, written jointly by Richard Kilminster and Cas Wouters, appeared in the January1994 issue of the now discontinued journal Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift. It was a robust response to an article in Dutch in the previous issue by Benjo Maso entitled ‘Elias and the neo-Kantians’, which was highly critical of Elias’s allegedly unacknowledged intellectual debts to Ernst Cassirer and Elias’s latent ‘substantialism’. The exchange was reprised in a slightly revised form in Theory, Culture and Society, 12: 3 (1995). There, the revised version of this piece appeared under the title, ‘From Philosophy to Sociology: Elias and the neo-Kantians’.

 

Robert van Krieken, 'Occidental self-understanding and the Elias–Duerr dispute: "thick" versus "thin" conceptions of human subjectivity and civilisation'Modern Greek Studies 13 (2005), pp. 273–81.

One of Elias's principal critics has been the anthropologist Hans-Peter Duerr. In this paper, first published in Modern Greek Studies despite its lack of apparent connection with modern Greece, Robert van Krieken makes an importnat contribution to the Elias–Dueer controversy. He examines and assesses the argumenmts against seeing the modern, civilised habitus as radically different from that of previous historical epochs and 'non-Western' cultures. In particular, he views the dispute as being between 'thick' and 'thin' conceptions of human habitus and subjectivity.

 

Patrick Murphy, ‘The Medieval Housebook and Elias’s “Scenes from the Life of a Knight”: A case study fit for purpose?’

In 2012 Patrick Murphy co-authored with Stephen Mennell ‘Notes on the plates from Das mittelalterliche Hausbuch’, which was published as Appendix XXX to the Collected Works edition of On the Process of Civilisation (Dublin: UCD Press, 2012 [Collected Works, vol. 3], pp. 613–16). It was Patrick who, through very close reading of the famous section entitled ‘Scenes from the life of a knight’ (ibid., pp. 199–209), ascertained that Norbert Elias had made reference to no fewer than 14 of the drawings in the Mittelalterliches Hausbuch.

Patrick Murphy’s research extended much more broadly, and the text that is made available here has never been published before. In it, he is quite critical of the assumptions made and interpretations drawn by Elias almost 80 years ago, but his text contains a great deal of information that will be of considerable interest to students of Elias.

The PDF made freely available for download here amounts to the first e-book we have offered on the Norbert Elias Foundation website. It runs to 253 pages and includes many other illustrations besides the 14 images to which Elias referred.

 

Other essays of this type will be added from time to time.