The Civilizing Process  

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"Children like to touch clothes and other things that please them with their hands."--Les Règles de la bienséance et de la civilité chrétienne (1702) by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Civilizing Process (1939) is a book by German sociologist Norbert Elias. It is an influential work in sociology and Elias' most important work. It was first published in two volumes in 1939 in German as Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation. Because of World War II it was virtually ignored, but gained popularity when it was republished in 1969 and translated into English. Covering European history from roughly 800 AD to 1900 AD, it is the first formal analysis and theory of civilization.

The Civilizing Process is today regarded as the founding work of Figurational Sociology. In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed the work as the seventh most important sociological book of the 20th century.



The first volume, The History of Manners, traces the historical developments of the European habitus, or "second nature", the particular individual psychic structures molded by social attitudes. Elias traced how post-medieval European standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance, working outward from a nucleus in court etiquette. The internalized "self-restraint" imposed by increasingly complex networks of social connections developed the "psychological" self-perceptions that Freud recognized as the "super-ego".

The second volume, State Formation and Civilization, looks into the causes of these processes and finds them in the increasingly centralized Early Modern state and the increasingly differentiated and interconnected web of society.


When Elias' work found a larger audience in the 1960s, at first his analysis of the process was misunderstood as an extension of discredited "social Darwinism", the idea of upward "progress" was dismissed by reading it as consecutive history rather than a metaphor for a social process. It soon became obvious that Elias had intended no moral "superiority". Instead he describes the increasing structuring and restraining of human behavior in European history, a process termed as "civilization" by its own protagonists. Elias had merely intended to analyze this concept and process dubbed civilization, and researched into its origins, patterns, and methods.

A particular criticism of The Civilizing Process was formulated by German ethnologist and cultural anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr in his 5-volume Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß (1988–2002), pointing out there existed plenty of social restrictions and regulations in Western culture and elsewhere since long before the Medieval period. Elias and his supporters responded that he had never intended to claim that social regulations or self-restraining psychological agents would be institutions singular to Western modernity, it is just that Western culture developed particularly sophisticated, concise, comprehensive, and rigid institutions apparent for instance in its decisive technological advances when compared to other cultures.

English editions

  • The Civilizing Process, Vol.I. The History of Manners, Oxford: Blackwell, 1969
  • The Civilizing Process, Vol.II. State Formation and Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell, 1982
  • The Civilizing Process. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994
  • The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Revised edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000

See also

European etiquette

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