Civilizing Process Essay

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The concept of “the civilizing process” rests on a conception of “civilization” as a verb, aiming at understanding those social and political conditions, practices, and strategies which have produced changing conceptions of civility. There is a concern to link analysis of social, cultural, political and economic structures, processes, and lines of development to analysis of changing forms of subjective and intersubjective forms and relationships.

The concept is used in the greatest depth by the German sociologist Norbert Elias and his followers, but it also usefully captures a cluster of developments examined by a variety of other social theorists who have also observed and analyzed the emergence of a specifically modern disciplined character, mode of conduct, or habitus. Elias s approach shows: (1) that what is experienced as ”civilization is founded on a psychic structure or habitus which had changed over time, and (2) that it can only be understood in connection with changes in broader social relationships.

The concept is an important element of research and theory in social and historical studies of the self, identity, emotions and the body, the sociology of sport, social histories of crime and punishment, studies of genocide and the conduct of war, the sociology of organizations, and discussions of international relations and globalization. A central methodological problem concerns whether there has been too much emphasis placed on it as an unplanned process, and not enough attention paid to it as a civilizing mission or offensive. Anthropologists have also drawn attention to the continuities in human behavior across all cultural and historical contexts.

The themes which will dominate future discussion of the civilizing process include extending the analysis of civilizing processes beyond advanced industrial societies, the regulation of crime and corruption, the application of the concept to international relations, and the analysis of globalization.


  • Elias, N. (2000) The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, rev. edn. Blackwell, Oxford.

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