Figurational Sociology Essay

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Stemming from the work of Norbert Elias (1897— 1990), figurational sociology offers a radical way of seeing the social world. Elias’s work was informed by an engagement with Alfred Weber, Karl Mannheim and the Frankfurt School, and entailed a synthesis of elements of Comte, Durkheim, Marx, Simmel, Weber, and Freud. Based on this synthesis, figurational sociology studies how people cope with the problems of interdependence, and rests on several interrelated premises: that human beings are interdependent; that their lives develop in the figurations that they form with each other; that these figurations are continually in flux, undergoing changes of different orders, some quick and superficial, others slower but perhaps more enduring; and that the long-term developments taking place in figurations have been and continue to be largely unplanned and unforeseen. The concept of figuration is used to refer to the webs of interdependence that link individuals, and both constrain and enable their actions. Though produced and reproduced by acting individuals, the long-term structure and dynamics of figurations cannot be explained solely in terms of the properties of individuals. This approach is intended to overcome the dichotomies that characterize sociological research, including individual/ society, agency/structure, freedom/determinism, micro/macro, and synchronic/diachronic.

In order to capture the scale and scope of the interconnections that constitute figurations, one must abandon thinking and language rooted in homo clausus (the individual closed off, or separate from society), and instead view people as homines aperti: ”open human beings” living in interdependence with others. Functionalist models that isolate individuals from society and reduce processes to mono-causal, static and non-relational variables are replaced by an emphasis on probing the emergent and contingent, yet structured and patterned, nature of social relations. Hence, the alternative name of this approach: process sociology. An example par excellence of this approach is Elias’s theory of civilizing processes: an investigation of how struggles for power and status permeate the habitus of the individual and the social structures of societies over the long term of human history.

Figurational sociology offers a non-relativist theory of science, which raises issues of involvement and detachment in the production of reality-congruent knowledge, and a theory of power, which focuses on the relations between established and outsider groups at local, national and global levels of interdependence. Four other key concepts assist in capturing human interdependence: functional democratization (the process, neither planned nor intended, whereby power ratios among people become relatively equal); monopoly mechanism (the structured processes of increasing concentration of power, accompanying social differentiation and integration); and the twin concepts of diminishing contrasts and increasing varieties (the non-dichotomous tendencies towards homogeneity and heterogeneity).

Figurational sociological research has explored such topics as the embodied emotions, sport and gender relations; globalization, civilizing/decivilizing processes and international relations; nations, nationalism and ethnicity and race relations; violence, crime, and punishment; and the nature of sociology as a science. Figurational sociology provides a highly sophisticated theoretical and methodological approach, offering a potential reorientation of the subject, and promise of further rich empirical insight into the human condition.


  1. Elias, N. (2000) [1939] The Civilising Process, rev. edn. Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Goudsblom, J. and Mennell,    (eds) (1998) The Norbert Elias Reader. Blackwell, Oxford.

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