2000 – Definitive edition of The Civilising Process published
Norbert Elias is regarded today as the father of ‘figurational sociology’ and his groundbreaking book The Civilising Process remains as relevant as ever. He was described by Steven Pinker as “the greatest social thinker you’ve never heard of.”
Elias was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1897 and fought in the German army during World War One then read for a degree in philosophy. His fundamental disagreement with then-popular Kantian principles led him to move into sociology, an academic field which was still only 30 years old. He took academic posts at Heidelberg and Frankfurt but when the National Socialists came to power in 1933 he moved to Paris and then to London (though he did not speak English).
During this time he wrote his magnum opus, Über den Prozess der Zivilisation, which was published in Switzerland in 1939 but remained largely unknown for thirty years. This work, which covered European history from 800AD to 1900AD, was published in two volumes: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilisation.
By demonstrating how the formation of states and the monopolisation of power within them changed Western society forever, Elias was able to trace the ‘civilising’ of manners and personality in Western Europe since the late Middle Ages.
In 1954, after years ‘on the fringes of academia’, Elias was finally offered a full-time post – at the University of Leicester – where he spent eight years building up a thriving Department of Sociology before retiring in 1962. During his time at Leicester he refined and developed the ideas first presented in The Civilising Process including his original notion of ‘figurational sociology’, the study of interdependent, constantly shifting groups of people.
The Civilising Process was finally published in English in 1969 (vol.1) and 1982 (vol.2) but it was only in 2000, ten years after Elias’ death, that a single definitive translation appeared, incorporating the updates and revisions from his time at Leicester.