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Norbert Elias would have probably loathed the very title of this chapter. Referring to bodies, emotions, or social relationships as a discrete or singular entity would have been unthinkable. Any neophyte figurationalist is well aware of Elias’ disdain for analytic dualisms, reductions and static descriptions, and at the top of his list would be the separation between body and self (and I might add, society). Even the rise in prominence of the sociology of ‘the body’ or the academic study of embodiment as a specialist field might have seemed as bizarre to Elias as it might have to Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman, Max Weber, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Mary Douglas; or, any theorist of embodiment interested in how socio-historical processes and cultural relationships are inscribed on/in/through bodies. And indeed, Elias clearly had larger theoretical fish to fry than ‘the body’ per se. Like many other socio-cultural researchers attentive to matters corporeal, Elias viewed the body as a barometer of social relationships and long-term historical processes. To this end, his work is peppered with rather mainstream sociological concerns regarding power, identity, agency, collective behaviour, emotions and knowledge. But Norbert Elias’s precise contribution to the contemporary study of bodies and embodiment is debated considerably to this day.

Elias’s work pertaining to embodiment rests between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Elias’ work was not discovered en masse by European and North American sociologists until the 1970s. Elias completed the main structure of The Civilising Process in 1939 (a book setting the tone for his take on body research within the social sciences), but it would not be widely received until its (re)print in English in 1978 – problematically, a time when a range of action, process-oriented, macro/micro synthesizing, interpretive, network, phenomenological, interactionist/constructionist, feminist and other theories had claimed the body as an important subject of inquiry. At an historical moment when sociologists were turning toward variants of social constructionism, post-structuralism, or theories attempting to reconcile false heuristic gaps between bodies, individuals and societies, the discovery of Elias in the final quarter of the twentieth century could not have been more poorly timed (Quilley and Loyal, 2004). Elias’s work became much overlooked during the 1980s and 1990s renaissance in body research as it offered, according to a swathe of critics, very little innovative thought on matters corporeal (van Krieken, 1998). Additionally, sociologists occasionally dismiss Elias’s work as research that kicks at already opened theoretical doors (i.e. themes of power as analysed by Karl Marx and Max Weber, interdependence as articulated by Émile Durkheim, embodied social performance as documented by Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault, and emotions as analysed by Herbert Blumer, Arlie Hochschild or E. O. Wilson). Further still, among many who dabble with Eliasian theory, his statements on civilising processes, power, and bodies are regularly misread, caricatured or dismissed as neo-Darwinist, social evolutionist and regressively functionalist.

The reception of Elias’s theoretical concepts and constructs is further complicated by the twists, turns and peculiarities of his own career. Elias was born in Breslau on 22 June 1897, the only son of Hermann and Sophie Elias. At the distinguished Johannes gymnasium in Breslau he received a first-class education in science, mathematics, classics, languages and literature. On leaving school in 1916 he served in the German military, mainly on the Western Front, during in the First World War. He later enrolled at Breslau University in both philosophy and medicine; completing the pre-clinical part of his medical training before concentrating on philosophy for his doctorate. He wrote his DPhil thesis (Idee und Individuum: Ein Beitrag zur Philozophie der Geschichte [‘Idea and Individual: A Contribution to the Philosophy of History’]) in Breslau under the direction of the neo-Kantian philosopher Richard Hönigswald.

Elias received his degree in 1924, then worked with Alfred Weber in Heidleberg in 1925 and eventually travelled with Karl Mannheim to Frankfurt as an academic assistant in Sociology. There, he worked on Die Höfische Gesellschaft [The Court Society] until fleeing Germany 1933 following the National Socialists’ accession to power. Elias, as a Jew, went into exile in Paris for two years, eventually moving to London in 1935. In both Paris and London, Elias worked on Über den Prosess der Zivilisation [The Civilising Process], completing it in 1939 (it was published in Switzerland). Without an academic position (he would not obtain his first university post in Sociology until 1954, at the University of Leicester) and therefore academic audience for his work, his thoughts regarding bodies, societies and historical processes remained in relative obscurity. Without a formal, permanent position in a university, Elias wrote little but continued to ponder the sociological lines of analysis he laid down in Über den Prosess der Zivilisation.

While Elias eventually published over a dozen books including The Established and the Outsiders (with John Scotson; Elias and Scotson, 1965), What is Sociology? (Elias, 1978b), The Loneliness of the Dying (Elias, 1985), Involvement and Detachment (Elias, 1987a), and The Society of Individuals (Elias, 1991), dozens of original articles and a litany of chapters, his thought remains, to this day, almost exclusively referenced for his insight on manners, emotional restraints and the social control of violence (qua the civilising process). Although Elias’ thoughts about bodies in The Civilising Process – and those across the full spectrum of his work – are applicable to the widest range of sociological sub-disciplines, figurational theory is perhaps most consistently applied and debated within the sociology of sport (Dunning, 1999). While Elias is often lauded for his penetrating insight on how bodies reveal civilising trends across geographic contexts by sociologists of sport and others, the depth or full thrust of his work on embodiment is yet to be explored. The categorisation of Elias as a theorist of the civilising process and his long-term association with a relatively marginalised sociological sub-discipline like sport and leisure has done little to engender academic curiosity about his theories and concepts. To date, then, figurational concepts and lines of analysis have yet to make their distinctive or indelible mark on body theory.

Process, Figurations and Civilising Trends

In searching for a representative summation of Elias’s work on bodies (a tough task to say the least), we might first commence with his core interest in processes. In arguing against the process-reductionist and static way of envisioning entities in social theory, Elias prefers to examine bodies, relationships and lived experiences as wholly processual. Long before Shilling’s (1993) lauded description of bodies as constantly becoming in social life, Elias (1978a, 1978b) argued the body must be understood as open and malleable; or in other words, we must study people as homines aperti rather than homo clausus. Elias’s emphasis on the primacy of process in sociological analysis is appropriately summed by Goudsblom (Sociology in the Balance; Goudsblom, 1977: 105):

  1. That sociology is about people in the plural – human beings who are interdependent with each other in a variety of ways, and whose lives [including their bodies] evolve in and are significantly shaped by the social figurations they form together;
  2. That these figurations [like bodies] are continually in flux, undergoing changes of many kinds – some rapid and ephemeral, others slower but perhaps more lasting;
  3. That the long-term developments taking place in human figurations [and bodies] have been and continue to be largely unplanned and unforeseen; and,
  4. That the development of human knowledge [including embodied knowledge] takes place within human figurations, and is one important aspect of their overall development.

Let us extend the above emphasis on embodied processes by further considering two of Elias’s core concepts: figurations and civilising processes. In the first instance, Elias’s concept of a figuration has impacted global sociological thinking and theorising rather moderately. In the second instance, Elias’s (1978a) articulation of the civilising process receives as much praise as it does criticism. A detailed analysis of the subtle essences and nuances of Eliasian theory is beyond the scope of this chapter, but suffice to say both concepts are perhaps more relevant today then they have ever been in avant garde thought pertaining on embodiment in late modern societies.

Elias describes a figuration as a complex web of social relationships based on individual and group interdependencies, such as a family, a school, a workplace, a community, an economy or a political sphere. He uses the term in lieu of traditional concepts such as society, institution, subculture and other terms connoting human action as statically structured rather than processual. Elias (1978a) suggests that individuals’ activities (including any of those pertaining to corporeality) are best understood as products of mutual (but not necessarily equal) relationships:

The above description of a figuration is well worn within Eliasian-inspired research; and indeed, this small excerpt contains several meta-narrative concepts underpinning his thinking about bodies and society such as interdependence, mutual orientation, and I-WE relationships (or pronoun-based modes of identification more broadly).

Elias’ analytic construction of the civilising process is relatively straightforward, but complex and brilliant along many lines. Over the course of history, Elias documents, Western nations like France, Germany, and England became increasingly dense in terms of their respective social divisions of labour and corresponding interdependencies shared by people therein. These demographic shifts occurred and were arguably facilitated within emerging nations headed by central ruling authorities that ‘owned’ the legitimate means of violence and economic taxation. Elias (1978a) describes these structural and social transformations, combined with the parliamentarisation of conflict, as unintended sociogenic changes. Here is where Elias’ interest in many of the classic sociological questions (such as the nature of social organisation, the relationship between the individual and society, and how social change occurs) is revealed. Elias studies the body as a marker of social processes: namely, process of social and then internal, personal self-regulation reflective of shifting social relationships (interdependencies) between people.

As history unfolds in increasingly pacified and deeply interdependent (functionally democratic and differentiated) social spaces, people become more attuned to the needs and thoughts of others. As heightened emotional control and impression management become practised over time as matter of public ritual, collective psychologies are affected such that self-restraint crystallised as established cultural norm. The embedding of (or perhaps more accurately, the switching on of the human capacity for) an impetus toward self-restraint in the collective cultural psyche is described by Elias (1978a) as a central psychogenic change.

Elias’ (1978a) study of long-term civilising processes, then, consists of an extended exposition of sociogenesis and broad-scale figurational dynamics. If sociogenesis refers to the ongoing and fluid structuring of relationships of interdependence among/across groups of people and how social structuring processes are the organisational patterns of social life, figurational sociologists commence research on forms of body behaviour, movement, ritual, treatment, modification, and representation by analysing how corporeal ideologies are formed and transformed through ongoing sociogenic processes (Mennell, 1989, 2007; Salumets, 2001). Elias’ (1978a, 1985, 1991, 1996) own analyses of the body as a text of sociogenic and psychogenic change articulates how shifts in cultural orientations toward the body and its display are largely, but not exclusively, contoured by prevailing social interdependencies between people (Kemple, 2001). For figurationalists, integrated analyses of sociogenesis, pyschogenesis, and social interdependence lead to nuanced understandings of how social, cultural and biological factors interweave. Elias argues that ‘the structures of the body and human psyche, the structures of human society, and the structures of human history are indissolubly complementary and can only be studied in conjunction with each other. They do not exist and move in reality with the degree of isolation assumed by current body research. They form, with other structures, the subject matter of a single human science’ (Elias, 1991: 36). As a result, social scientists must analyse the tissues of interdependency connecting individuals in social figurations (e.g. family, school, peers, leisure, and work relations) and the anticipated or unanticipated impact of these connections on personality structures.

Van Krieken further captures the importance of simultaneously studying interdependency, figurations, sociogenesis, and psychogenesis:

Through his study of sociogenesis and psychogenesis, Elias ultimately describes personality structures as socially learned second natures or habituses, and suggests that through ongoing socialisation processes individuals learn seemingly taken-for-granted ways (i.e. habits) of experiencing, utilising and interpreting bodies. Elias’ (1978a, 1987b, 1991) exposition on the habitus formation process outlines how one’s conceptions of corporeality are incorporated into everyday physical habits such as wearing clothing, eating behaviours, sexual displays, the expression of emotion and body modification:

Few sociologists of the body might quarrel with Eliasian connections between body dispositions, tastes, preferences and performances with both historical change and present conditions of social existence. Indeed, Bourdieu’s (1984) much later expositions of habitus – strikingly similar to Elias’s – would help him to become an influential sociologist of embodiment during the late 1980s.

For me, what is especially frustrating, disappointing and curious about Elias’s reception and use in Western sociological circles is the collective over-emphasis on matters civilising in his work. The Eliasian conceptualisation of the civilising process is regularly conflated with figurational theory or figurationalist approaches in total. The Civilising Process (Elias, 1978a) is but one case study Elias documents in his illustration of how bodies, emotions, groups, cultures and nation-states develop interdependently over time (Quilley and Loyal, 2004). Rather than categorising Elias as a theorist of the civilising process (and therefore reading Elias’s understanding of bodies as highly contained (rationalised) entitites, it is more accurate to represent his earliest tome in the figurationalist library as a first step in articulating the importance of thinking processually about life (including, of course, bodies) in social figurations. Again, such thinking underscores the importance of viewing bodies in ‘open’ terms. While Elias’s classification as a theorist of the socially civilised, restrained, rational and instrumental body is tempting (Shilling, 2003), an innovative and productive use of figurational theory might commence with a full analysis of what Elias ‘really’ introduces and unpacks regarding bodies in The Civilising Process: the hinge.

The Hinge

What makes Elias’s approach to the study of bodies distinct from many others’ in the sociology of the body pantheon is neither its emphasis on the historically contextual nor socially constructed body, but rather its coupling of the culturally contoured and intextuated body with the so-called ‘natural’ body (Elias, 1987b; Maguire, 1993). Sociologists frequently struggle with the place of biology, human instincts, drives, or genotypic and phenotypic natures in social theory on embodiment. Perhaps this is an enduring ideological hangover produced from Herbert Spencer’s nineteenth-century attempts to write and portray sociology as a form of social Darwinsim, or the program of post-functionalist (and post-positivist) sociology more broadly. Elias, by contrast, initiated a program of inquiry and stream of theory starting in The Civilising Process that envisions how the physical body and its potentialities are interwoven into social history (and, indeed, vice versa) in learned, unlearned, and predominantly unplanned manners.

To grasp Elias’s notion of the hinge, we might first examine how his conception of power as it stands as the basis of his introduction to study of bodies and embodiment in society. When I first read The Civilising Process as a graduate student of sociology, I understood it as a text centrally concerned with social processes of power and control; and how bodies are framed by and partially frame social realities of power. As someone studying the upsurge in radical (aesthetic) body modification practices in Canada, I appreciated Elias’s keen understanding of how bodies may be read as empirical indicators of shifting conditions of social control, order and power. I then read What is Sociology? (Elias, 1978b), delving deeper into his thoughts on how the regulation of ‘bodies’ illustrates something important about the essence of human figurations (i.e. the complex interplay between raw physical bodies, sociogenesis and psychogenesis). In What is Sociology?, Elias outlines three basic social controls that are interwoven into figurational power dynamics – an analysis of the final of these three controls would be a major focus in Elias’s early, and later, work on embodiment. For Elias (1978b), members of social figurations enact power and control:

  1. over nature through technological advancements;
  2. over groups of individuals through institutional processes; and,
  3. over drives and desires through learned mechanisms of self-restraint.

Elias argues in The Civilising Process that the collective history of Western nations reveals a common tendency for complex groups of densely interdependent agents to rely upon the third source of social control over the long term. That is, while Court-centred monarchies and then nation-states relied upon the threat of physical force as a main tool of control over citizenries (an explicit form of governmental bio-power), the course of civilising processes paves the way (unintentionally) for the development of self-restraint as the dominant social control mechanism (that is, discipline via self-surveillance). Long before Foucault (1977) ostensibly altered the course of social scientific thinking on the regulation of bodies and subjectivities and societies via mechanisms of social power and discourse, Elias charted much of the terrain.

Indeed, the history of social power, discipline and punishment illustrates how aggressiveness and psychological/affective orientations were transformed as complex social institutions took form. In such a theoretical meta-narrative, struggles for power and control in figurational life progress from hand-to-hand combat to symbolic power plays between people for knowledge, authority and physical distinction enacted across institutional fields (Elias, 1978a, 1996). Elias illustrates, for example, in The Germans (Elias, 1996) that as physical violence becomes less pervasive in social life and inner restraint increases in importance as a means of revealing one’s distinction (qua power) to others, the institutional control of productive forces and knowledge dissemination becomes critical.

Elias’s construction of the hinge is buried somewhat deep in his analysis of power, interdependence and emotions. Those who reference The Civilising Process as his definitive analysis of power-bodies-emotions as interwoven processes, frequently overlook Elias’s more mature and reflexive statements on the trinity; or in other words, we routinely miss Elias’s developed conceptualisation of the hinge first outlined in The Civilising Process. Elias’s fullest statement on the hinge is found in his essay, ‘On Human Beings and Their Emotions: A Process-Sociological Analysis’ (Elias, 1987b).

My understanding of embodiment shifted markedly following my first reading of Elias’ (1987b) lengthy analysis. At its core, his discussion of the hinge presents an entwined relationship between learned and unlearned human knowledge, habits, behaviours, emotions and modalities of embodiment. Elias (1987b) points out that what distinguishes human beings from other animals is not our complex cultures, scaffolding of social structures or the advanced modes of technologisation framing our lives. Nor is it our ability to speak using diverse symbolism. All of these are indeed markers of human life and passed on as learned knowledge across generations. These elements of life are the social soil out of which selves grow. But what is especially unique about humans is that we possess the genetic and corporeal soil, if you will, that allows us to relate cognitively and emotionally with one another. Our learned knowledge is only made possible by unlearned human traits, characteristics or biological hardware (The Symbol Theory; Elias, 1989). The symbol emancipation Elias (1989) describes as a vital part of the steering of human behaviour and thought by learned knowledge (Elias notes as a distinctive feature of human group life the triumph of learned over unlearned knowledge) is a product of our innate, unlearned structures of the mouth, vocal chamber and lungs. Yet further still, humans still carry other unlearned dispositions and instincts that partly inform our social behaviours; these are, if you will, forms of pre-conscious body knowledge. Over the course of many, many centuries, human behaviour became steer behaviours less on unlearned knowledge and more by learned knowledge. Elias writes:The linchpin of Elias’s argument is that as social life becomes more populous, interdependent, patterned, organised and predictable, the contexts of our knowledge accumulation and deployment change. Unlearned human knowledge and realities influence how we organise our social lives, and the social organisation of life awakens human potentialities for learning. There is, then, a recursive relationship between the physical, psychological/cognitive/affective and the social. The need to protect the human body, to nourish it, to reproduce, to defend and protect it from others (biological realities and body knowledge perpetuating action) certainly motivated the formation of our earliest figurations and shifted our earliest personality structures. But with the widening of social groups and the need to communicate and align collective behaviour (and cultures) stimulates the human’s natural abilities for speech and brain-enabled creativity for speech.

The Civilising Process is a treatise on the hinge, a case study illustrating how self-restraint is partially an unlearned human drive or possibility, but also forged in relation to and in the context of a changing, more interdependent, pacified, centralised, and functionally democratic environments. Each of the two processes emerges out of and in relation to previous collective habituses and forms of social organisation. To this end, the book is the first of Elias’s descriptions of the complex interplay between the unlearned and learned aspects of human emotions and behaviours. Over the course of the past 40 years, sociologists in particular have frequently reduced Elias’s (1978a) analysis to its socio-historical aspects, allowing for a continued undervaluing of his emphasis on biology and psychology in The Civilising Process and elsewhere.

A final word about Elias’s construction of the hinge and (em)bodied agency is worthwhile. Critics of Eliasian theory, including Lyon and Barbalet (2003), maintain the highly civilised and rationalised body Elias illustrates is one exclusively written or tamed by the social. Drives are muted or trumped by culture and self-restraint is the ultimate reflection of a body shackled by interdependency chains. There are, of course, alternative readings of Eliasian thought on embodied agency or, the body’s ‘resiliency’ in the face of long-term socialising trends and symbol emancipation processes. A radical view of figurational theory sees the hinge as an expression of the possibility of bodies directing the course of social change; or, at least partly charting the course (albeit in unplanned and unintended ways) of human history. Here, and many figurationalists may disagree, Elias’s thinking is similar to Latour’s (1993, 2005) portrayal of body agency in actor-networks; specifically Latour’s principle of generalised symmetry between actants. Whereas theoretically lazy readings of the civilising process of the hinge produce understandings of bodies as overly socialised, a closer inspection of figurational theory reveals Elias’s firm grasp on bodies as actant – an understanding outlined in The Civilising Process but perhaps most poignantly illustrated in The Loneliness of the Dying. The social conditions of late modernity may produce isolation and alienation for the dying person and one’s cultural location provides one with a set of habituated emotional matrices for feeling and knowing the dying process, but one can hardly discount the degree to which the unlearned, unreflexive biological body is an actant in the performance of death.

Applications of ‘Embodied’ Figurational Theory

The under-appreciation of Elias as a complex, multi-disciplinary theorist of embodiment is perhaps no better illustrated than through a brief review of the mainstay subjects to which figurational theory is applied. Even in figurational studies of the body, the tendency is to lean heavily toward the sociological and historical aspects of Elias’s work. One might argue, as Shilling (1993) and Williams and Bendelow (1999) contend, that even Elias himself did not fully explore the biological-psychological aspects of embodiment as exposed in his writing on the hinge. Yet, as Quilley (2010) points out, this is only a surface level understanding of Elias’s interest in evolutionary biology and matters biophysical, as evidenced in The Symbol Theory and other texts. As Elias (1987a, 1987b) clearly wrote, because social life is so complexly organised through and by interwoven physical, psychological and socio-cultural processes, scientific knowledge of the social must be as equally multidisciplinary and conceptually dense.

i.  Civilising and Decivilising Processes

Without reiterating the above discussions regarding the civilising process, the lion’s share of extant research on embodiment from a figurational perspective revolves around civilising or decivilising themes. Here, the bulk of the research is located in Western Europe (Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and France remain the figurational strongholds), with applications of civilising/decivilising themes now cropping up with increased frequency in the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, China, and Brazil. Indeed, it seems as if research on the civilised body has never been as alive and well. Morrow (2009) describes the reinvigorated sociological interest in Elias’s construction of the civilising process as the (theoretical) ‘comeback of the century’.

Innovative analyses of civilising and decivilising processes abound. Stephen Mennell (2001, 2007), perhaps the most known contemporary figurationalist (alongside Eric Dunning), has produced most widely acclaimed extensions of the original civilising process model. While long criticised as an esoteric theory of European social development, Mennell (2007) illustrates how Elias’s work provides a central theoretical framework for unpacking long-term sociogenic and psychogenic development cross-contextually. In addition to Mennell’s work, a growing body of literature has, quite predictably after the onset of two globally connected wars in the early 2000s (one frontlined in Afghanistan and the other, Iraq), inspected the dynamics and embodiments of terrorism. Such work represents, in a microcosmic manner, a concerted effort among figurationalists to analyse global detours into decivilising processes. Amongst analyses into the link between terrorism and decivilising processes are Vertigan’s (2010) inspection of anti-Muslim sentiment and terrorist discourses in the United Kingdom, the impact of terrorism and global war campaigns on human rights (Woodiwiss, 2005), and the study of genocide in Rwanda (Brannigan and Jones, 2009). Turner’s (2003) analysis of the link between spirituality and violence codes attends to a neglected line of inquiry between faith/ideology and embodiment in figurationalist research.

Existing recent research on civilising and decivilising trends (those listed above and others) contains insightful connections between Elias’s early work and his later thoughts on power, especially established and outsider relationships. Atkinson and Young (2003), for example, link ongoing civilising processes with the collective embodiment of established-outsider relationships through sports-mega events; specifically, the Olympic Games. Naftali (2010) addresses the established-outsider power relationships enacted through embodied control of Chinese children in family homes. Rohloff and Wright (2010) have recently breathed long overdue theoretical life into moral panic theory, and the embodiment of collective fear whipped up through media campaigns. The role of gossip in organisations and its relationship with informal mechanisms of shaming and embarrassment has also been well documented by Michelson, van Iterson and Waddington (2010).

Figurational theory has been launched into even newer ‘embodied’ terrain of late. Algazi’s (2008) historical research on representations of the body gestures in film, and Binkley’s (2009) analysis of the ways in which commercials employ shaming mechanisms as a means of producing brand loyalty equally attest to the saliency of Eliasian concepts in the study of representational practices. While interests in the mediated body (televisual, cinematic, print, and virtual) abound within sociology, cultural studies, media and communication studies and other disciplines, only recently has figurational theory attracted the attention of those in the ‘mainstream’. Equally burgeoning are research efforts on the social politics and policy practices that help shape perceptions of public health and physical activity (Thing and Ottensen, 2010). More traditionally oriented, but yet innovative, uses of Eliasian theory to study public/private representations of the body include Bradshaw and Canniford’s (2010) analysis of human excrement and the manner by which ‘vile’ bodily performances are pushed behind the scenes of everyday life.

ii.  Flesh, Emotions and Performative Bodies

The word performativity is rarely uttered in the same sentence with the term figurational theory. Once firmly linked with Goffman’s dramaturgy (1959), then Butler’s (1990) gender theory and now more recently non-representational theory (Thrift, 2007) and human geographical studies, performativity is however a thematic staple across Elias’s writing and theory. Analyses of emotion performances by Joseph Maguire, Johan Goudsblom, Thomas Scheff, Cas Wouters, Eric Dunning, Dennis Smith and others are well known in figurational circles, the systematic analysis of embodied emotions and their phenomenological experience is being extended into new terrain. Experiencing pleasurable forms of physical suffering (Atkinson, 2008) is, for instance, being contrasted against the body as it performs through the processes of AIDS, cancer and other illnesses (McInerey, 2007). To be sure, the use of Elias’s conceptualisation of human emotions and dying processes is de rigueur within the sociology of health and medicine. Here, The Loneliness of the Dying is becoming canonised as essential reading for its clear articulation of the physical, emotional, cognitive and socio-cultural experience of the death ‘performance’.

The embodied performance of violence (not necessarily decoded as emblematic of civilising or decivilsing processes) continues as a staple in figurational research. Studies of violence as it is enacted against the body in the suicide process (Whitt, 2010), against others in the context of mixed martial arts (Sanchez and Malcolm, 2010), or in the act of filicide (Websdale, 2010) attest to the enduring significance of Elias’s work for deconstructing how violence, anger and aggression have interlaced biological, psychological and socio-cultural dimensions. A minor trend within Eliasian-inspired work on violence of late is the analysis of urban unrest and civic violence (Jacobs and Wright, 2010) and gang violence (Clement, 2010). With overt and subtle ties to the library of existing figurational research on football hooliganism and patterned fan violence, the analysis of collectively embodied violence shows considerable promise.

If Eliasian theory, and figurationalists employing and extending Elias’s ideas, have under-studied the embodied performance of gender, an even more glaring omission has been the relative lack of attention on the performance of sexual identities. Despite Elias’s clear interest in the embodied performance of sex, his musings on matters sexual contained in The Civilising Process are overshadowed by feminist, post-structural, queer (and especially) Foucauldian theoretical positions rising to sociological prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, Moore’s (2010) analysis of the interdependent nature of gay/lesbian bodies offers a compelling case for the exploration of pronoun-based models of identification in research on sexed identities.

No discussion of figurational sociology and embodiment would be complete, or responsible, without brief mention of centrality of Elias (and his work with Eric Dunning) on sporting bodies. Themes of civilisation and sportisation, figurations and interdependency, emotional restraint, shame, repugnance thresholds, mimesis, exciting significance, established-outsider relations and power, pronoun-based modes of collective identification, sociogenesis/psychogenesis abound in the sport literature. There is no sub-discipline, one might argue on the basis of numbers alone, as influenced by Eliasian theory than the sociology of sport. Eric Dunning, Joe Maguire, Ivan Waddington, Dominic Malcolm, Katie Liston, Andy Smith, Ken Green, Daniel Bloyce, Louise Mansfield, Ruud Stokvis, Maarten van Bottenburg, Kenneth Sheard, Mark Falcous, Grant Jarvie, Patrick Murphy and Elizabeth Pike have made (and, in most cases, continue to make) foundational contributions to the study of sport and physical culture through a figurational lens.

Finally, the study of aesthetically modified and performed body is a rich and fertile area for the application of figurational principles. Modifying the natural body in radical ways to ostensibly alleviate the shame and embarrassment associated with culturally ascribed pathologies (e.g. ugliness, fatness, slimness, slowness, blandness, ordinariness, etc.) is an increasingly popular cultural practice of self-expression in hyper-consumeristic, style-oriented, reflexively individualistic and self-obsessed societies. With the diffuse medicalisation of everyday life, and sociogenic movement toward hyper-individualistic and risk obsessed cultures (each watershed social turns of the twentieth century), the door has been opened for a full gamut of body modifications to be explored in everyday life. Forms of body modification including cosmetic surgery, self-cutting, self/sexual asphyxiation, scarring and burning, sub-dermal implanting, weight-loss surgeries, branding, self-trepanning, amputation and maiming, piercing, flesh hook hanging and suspensions, gender reassignment, tattooing, weightlifting/muscle-building and genetic manipulation are now being re-examined along figurational lines (Atkinson, 2003, 2007, 2008).

Future directions: Physical cultural studies as a case example

In a comprehensive review of Eliasian thought, Quilley and Loyal (2005: 825) write, ‘The relationship between social and biological (neuropsychological, medico-physiological, ecological, evolutionary) processes is central to an expanding range of contemporary intellectual and policy problems – from global warming to aggression and the regulation of violence. For this reason there is a pressing need for a more coherent, interdisciplinary human science.’ Interdisciplinary models of human science are often difficult to achieve in practice as people across disciplines often find considerable difficult in sharing languages and modalities of knowing. For example, despite the range of Eliasian-inspired research on embodiment covered in this chapter, rarely do these accounts adopt an interdisciplinary tone or ontological flavour, or explore the interdisciplinary implications (and perhaps necessities) of the hinge. In short, there are often scarce grounds for interdisciplinary teams to conceptually meet and research on the same theoretical (even theoretical) playing field. What is needed are truly interdisciplinary theories with interdisciplinary implications and policy foci. As researchers of embodiment are progressively asking interdisciplinary questions and seeking the advice of specialists in fields beyond their own knowledge boundaries, the time is beyond right to pursue existing theoretical scaffolding already buttressed by cross-disciplinary sensitivities.

I draw the ‘field’ of inquiry in which I situate my research, physical cultural studies, as a means of illustration. Physical cultural studies (PCS) is an emerging sub-disciplinary space, defined as an inter- and trans-disciplinary approach to the analysis of human movement, embodiment and corporeal representation within and across social institutions and cultural groups (Andrews, 2008; Atkinson, 2011). PCS research is theoretically driven, empirically grounded and sensitive to the prospects of working with diverse community partners to improve the social organisation, cultural prominence, impact, and collective experience of sport, exercise, play and physical activity and education in the round. PCS researchers produce local, national and cross-national analyses of how sport, exercise and physical activity may be contexts where social inclusion, health, safety, human rights promotion is evident and human physical, intellectual, artistic and moral potentials are supported without fear or prejudice. PCS research recognises that existing social problems in sport and physical activity zones are materially based and culturally mediated; strives to produce theoretically informed and empirically verified suggestions for policy change; and promotes models of sport, physical activity and human movement as contexts of social integration that celebrate diversity (Atkinson, 2011). A practical and radical PCS involves the deconstruction and destabilisation of identities, practices, logics, institutions, and images of power in sports and health worlds, suggesting concrete policy amendments, rule changes or progressive cultural adaptations to foster more equitable and pleasurable sport, health and physical activity environments for all.

The brand of PCS outlined above emerges from sociologies of sport, cultural studies, the body and gender studies more broadly, and is ostensibly socio-cultural in its orientation. But a keen appreciation of its contents reveals how it squarely focuses on matters of embodiment from a trans-disciplinary perspective on physical cultures. How does one, for example, truly know the ‘pleasures’ of human movement in sport settings or elsewhere from a strictly socio-cultural orientation? By contrast, can the exploitation and abuse of children in global football cultures be understood only along psychological lines? A PCS future forward is established through the exploration of meta-synthesising theories and ideas in trans-disciplinary research. The PCS oeuvre has been, in no small part, informed by a reinvigorated interest in the intersection between biology, psychology and socio-cultural studies of human (population) health, the influence on epidemiology in the analysis of embodied practice, and a post-Foucauldian boom in the analysis of institutional biopedagogies (Rail, Holmes and Murray, 2010; Rich and Evans, 2005). Yet while PCS researchers collectively appreciate the benefit of synthesising and integrating theoretical ideas from a range of fields in the pursuit of solutions to health, wellness and physical activity problems for people, rarely are boundary lines crossed in everyday research practice.

As a PCS researcher, I am concerned with matters of sport and physical activity for/as social development, movement cultures as potential solutions to broad gauge social problems, human rights in sport and leisure contexts, visions of democratic humanism across physical cultures, physical cultural ‘pastimes’, postsport physical cultures, issues in bioethics and technology, youth development through mainstream and non-mainstream biopedagogies, the pleasures of dance and aesthetic movement practices, experiences of health, wellness, varied (dis)abilities, and illness as/in physical culture, global sport, leisure and recreation management, and the sensual aspects of physical culture. In each and all of these respective areas, there are scarce empirical grounds to argue that any disciplinary is sufficient to address the matters with the complexity required to capture their embodied realities and experiences. As a starting point in PCS and other (sub)disciplinary streams of inquiry, an analytic toolkit provided by Eliasian notions of the hinge is perhaps one (of potentially many) points of departure for encouraging the sort of interdisciplinary work required to conceptualise human physical cultural problems, experiences and expression in truly object-adequate and reality congruent manners.

Final Thoughts

In an interview on Dutch television on April 23, 1975, Elias’s closing remarks to his interviewer were, ‘I wish you all the pleasurable excitement one can have without hurting others and one’s own dignity.’ Captured in one brief statement were the stereotypical themes associated with his sociology over the course of the twentieth century: emotions, self-restraint, repugnance thresholds and civilising tendencies. The future of figurational sociology within the academy, and its potential for informing lines of research on embodiment, may very well depend on a divergence from stereotypes about and traditional treatments of Elias’s thought. As I argue in this chapter, a deeper and richer exploration of the hinge can provide a fruitful avenue of exploration. In closing, let us consider an example from the world of research begging for a hinge-based analysis.

Gabor Maté is a Hungarian-born medical doctor living in Vancouver, Canada. He conducts research on drug addiction, mental illness, attention deficit disorder and other conditions often attributed to strictly genetic or physiologically pathogenic causes. He is the staff physician at the Portland Hotel in downtown Vancouver, a residence and resource centre for the people suffering from addiction and mental disorders in the city’s core. Many of his patients suffer from mental illness, drug addiction and HIV, or all three. Among his internationally best-selling books is Shattered Minds: A New Look at the Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder (Maté, 2000). In the book, Maté argues it is impossible that a complex condition of the brain such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) could be a simple matter of biological heredity. For the true etiology of ADD clinicians need to probe the social and psychological conditions that shape the brains of children in early twenty-first century Western societies. Maté contends that most human brain development occurs outside the safety of the uterus, in the first years of life, when highly vulnerable to environmental circumstances (neurologists refer to this as the neuroplasticity of the brain). Nerve cells and neurological circuits compete for survival during early childhood in a process called neural Darwinism: those receiving the necessary stimulation are strengthened and become ‘wired in’, while those that do not, fail to develop and die.

In attention deficit disorder the chief physiological problem appears to be located in the frontal lobe of the brain, in the area of the cortex (or gray matter) where attention is allocated and emotions and impulses are regulated. Just as the visual circuits need the stimulation of light, the circuits of attention and emotion control also need the appropriate input: a calm, non-stressed connection with non-stressed and non-distracted primary caregivers. Stresses on caregiving adults predispose children to ADD because they directly affect the developing electrical circuits of the infant’s brain. Thus, Maté asserts, although there is in ADD an inherited or biological predisposition in some cases, the condition itself is rooted in social-cultural and historical factors that have placed nearly intolerable, fragmented burdens on the parenting environment that do not facilitate the development of self-control in children. Why the sudden boom in ADD diagnoses globally over the past decade and a half? Is this merely an artifact of medical identification and diagnosis? Not really. The erosion of community, the breakdown of the extended family, the pressures on marriage relationships, the harried lives of nuclear families still intact and the growing sense of insecurity even in the midst of relative wealth have all combined to create an emotional milieu in which calm, attuned parenting is becoming alarmingly difficult. As the human brain is both biologically and socially constituted, so then is attention deficit disorder. If I did not know better, I would assume Maté read Elias at some point in his training. If he has not, he probably should.


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Abstract: Many significant advances in the sciences depended upon a shift away from viewing their respective subject matter as static and independent toward seeing relations and processes among them. Within sociology, efforts in that direction are apparent, but have not yet effected widespread disciplinary change. I contend that Elias’ figurational approach offers the potential to advance sociology in this way and suggests an effective means for studying dynamic social relations of interdependence and their socio-environmental implications. Integrating Elias’ figurational approach, Bourdieu’s explication of habitus, and relevant scientific knowledge, I codify a general figurational theory and propose a model to help convey it and guide its use.

Keywords: figuration, Elias, habitus, Bourdieu, theory, socio-environmental

fig•ur•a•tionn. 1. the act of shaping into a particular figure. 2. the resulting figure or shape...

— Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1983

Over the past century and a half, a number of sciences have undergone transformative paradigm shifts. The static universe of classical physics gave way to one that is dynamic and fundamentally unpredictable. Geology’s view of the earth’s land masses as stable until altered by catastrophe has been supplanted by one that sees ongoing change via ceaseless activity within the earth. In biology, species once believed to be immutable came to be understood in a wholly different way in the context of an increasingly nuanced grasp of the mechanisms of evolution. And qualities of the mind that used to be considered innate, or at least relatively fixed upon formation, are now understood within psychology and related neurosciences to be extraordinarily plastic due to the ongoing reconfiguration of neural networks. The advances made in these sciences, and subsequently in social thought, share a common thread: the transition from seeing their subject matter as a collection of separate and static entities to recognising the interdependent relations and ongoing processes at work in them. While such a shift has been underway in sociology, its progress has been slow and remains somewhat hidden.

Given the co-dependence of different levels of scientific knowledge, some delay in sociology’s transition is to be expected. There are, however, other reasons for sociology’s failure to advance despite requisite progress in other sciences. Among them are assumptions of disciplinary autonomy and concepts that are inadequate for communicating effectively about human social relations. Together, and in the context of other challenges, these conditions contribute to the incoherence so often observed in sociological theory, especially in the absence of common theoretical ground for understanding and investigating human social life. Given the increasing and urgent demand for a more comprehensive theory of social processes, especially from those who study large-scale socio-ecological problems, this is an enormous void. Fortunately, we already have much of what we need to fill it.

In what follows, I review Elias’s model of relations among the sciences as a basis for understanding sociology’s relative disciplinary autonomy. From that emerge some foundational premises, which affirm the need for alternative concepts to more adequately represent social reality. I discuss two such alternatives already at our disposal: figurations and habitus. Synthesizing Elias’ figurational approach, Bourdieu’s explication of habitus, and relevant knowledge from other sciences, I derive a general theoretical framework that can facilitate the conveyance and use of sociological theory, while also providing common ground from which inquiries into complex interdisciplinary questions can more effectively proceed.

Advancement and Obstacles

There has been a fair amount of activity geared toward a better accounting of relations and process in sociology. There are, for example, attempts to generate new social ontologies capable of explaining the mutually influential relationship between individuals and society (and their conceptual analogs), and genres like ‘relational sociology,’ which intends to shift the focus of sociological thinking from substance to relations, and social network analysis, meant to help conceptualise social life in terms of structures of relationships.

Despite these efforts, a manner of thinking and conducting research conducive to the examination of dynamic social relations has not taken hold in sociology and is not discernible in wider circles of social thought. Grand ontological projects tend to be unwieldy, characterised by unique and extensive vocabularies and convoluted prose. A relational paradigm ‘remains largely unknown and generally misconstrued, if not totally rejected’ (Donati 2011: 25), with sociology continuing to focus on either individuals or some version of social ‘wholes’ (Crossley 2011). And social network analysis exhibits problems familiar in sociological theory. Seeking the origins of causation in social structures and not individuals (Marin and Wellman 2011: 13), it retains the dualism that has long plagued sociological thought. Moreover, it has proven difficult to incorporate agency into the network model (Snijders 2011: 505) and the concept is limited in its ability to explain change.

There are, however, deeper problems hindering a relational-process shift in sociology. Accompanying the correct observation that human social phenomena occupy a distinct level of reality, is often the incorrect conclusion that one need look no further than the level of ‘social facts’ to understand and explain them. Many of sociology’s difficulties, Norbert Elias argues, derive from the failure to fully situate itself among the sciences on whose knowledge it depends. This leaves sociology’s subject matter ‘without ontological status, without anchorage in the observable world...left hanging in the air’ (Elias 1991a: 43). With this as a starting point, attempts to comprehend and explain the basics of human social life are bound for a dead end, from which one must place one’s bets on either ‘the individual’ or some imagined supra-individual entity as causal agent. ‘Although overtly dualistic,’ Anthony King observes, contemporary social theory ‘immanently operates with a social ontology in which society consists of social relations between humans’ (2004:84).

Without firm footing in the common ground of empirical knowledge about people and the world, however, theory has spun off in a multitude of seemingly disparate directions, creating a vicious cycle in which ever-expanding pluralism makes it increasingly difficult to see, much less get beyond, the supposed impasse. ‘In order to set sociology on its feet,’ King argues, ‘it is necessary to elucidate and illuminate this social ontology [of relations]’ (2004: 84), a difficult task armed with inappropriate concepts.

Some of sociology’s greatest challenges are related to ongoing efforts to understand the relationship between ‘individual and society’ and its correlates — identified as the driving question of contemporary sociology (Calhoun 2007: 4; Elliott 1999: 7; Elliot and Ray 2003: xiii-xiv; Ritzer 2008: 500). The failure to satisfactorily resolve this question reflects the difficulties sociologists have had grasping the nature of people and the societies they form together, conceptualising relationships among different levels of analysis, and understanding the mechanisms of social change. The trouble lies, in part, with inherited structures of speech and thought that emphasise substantives appearing to be in a state of rest, with action being indicated by the verbs which follow, as Elias explains in What is Sociology? He argues that the conceptual distinctions drawn (even if involuntarily) between actor and activity, structures and processes, and especially between objects and relationships are ‘extremely restricting when we are trying to understand human networks’ (1978: 113).

Despite some efforts to exorcise qualities of independence and stasis from sociological concepts (as in Bourdieu’s efforts to portray ‘classes’ as relations rather than groups), it remains the case that relations and process are not yet implicit in them. This is understandable, Bourdieu acknowledges, because ‘the substantialist mode of thinking is easier to adopt and flows more “naturally”’ (1989: 16). More adequate concepts, however, are necessary for understanding and communicating about social phenomena, and such concepts cannot be developed or understood without a firm grasp of how social phenomena fit in the real world. A vicious cycle involving the relationship between how we think and the concepts we think with is at work here. We have the crucial ingredients to build a better framework and thus to break this cycle; we need only put them together in a more useful way. The first step is to situate sociology and its subject matter among other sciences and theirs.

Sociology’s Relative Autonomy

In considering the stuff of the universe, Elias works out the implications of its arrangement at physical, biological, and social levels. Of primary importance are the facts that phenomena at different levels exhibit distinct forms of integration and disintegration (e.g., the concepts of life and death apply to biological phenomena but not to purely physical processes), and they display different patterns of order and disorder, kinds of connectedness, and types of structure and function. Consequently, investigating phenomena at one level requires a somewhat different approach than investigating phenomena at another level. The failure to fully acknowledge and incorporate this basic reality into disciplinary pursuits, Elias argues, is at the core of sociology’s difficulties. Among them, is ‘the uncritical and often dogmatic application of categories and concepts highly adequate in relation to problems on the level of matter and energy to other levels of experience and among them to that of social phenomena’ (Elias 1956: 238 ). Lieberson and Lynn observe this problem still, arguing that an exceptionally inappropriate model of natural science, derived from classical physics, is ‘deeply ingrained in sociology and other social sciences’ (2002: 2). Granting that this approach (what they call ‘social physics’)can be a useful part of social scientific inquiry, Clark and York are concerned about the failure of practitioners to at least acknowledge its limitations (2007).

A related consequence of failing to consult and take seriously scientific knowledge as it relates to humans is the ongoing compulsion to speculate about the human condition. The difficulties in sociological theorising can, in large part, be attributed to the diverse assumptions at play in sociology about human nature (Allan 2011). While there remain numerous questions to explore and debate, the fact is that we know a great deal about universal human physiological, psychological and social needs and traits. A more thorough integration of that knowledge into sociological thinking could not but contribute to a firmer theoretical foundation.

Elias offers a model depicting relations among the sciences and their subject matter(see 1987: 151). Ordered according to the degree of ‘structuredness’ (i.e., the balance between the relative independence and interdependence of the constituent parts under investigation), it depicts highly structured systems and processes, which include components with their own subordinate systems and processes. With this, Elias shows that the sciences do not ‘simply exist side-by-side without any order,’ which is the impression given by the terms ‘natural sciences’ and ‘social sciences’ (2009: 196). Rather, acknowledging the interrelated parts and processes — the various levels of which comprise the subject matter of different sciences — reminds us that knowledge about phenomena at ‘lower’ levels of structuredness is indispensable for understanding subject matter at ‘higher’ levels, and also that the latter cannot be reduced to or explained in the same terms used to explain the former.[1] Such a model makes clear that ‘society’ is neither a kind of superorganism nor does it occupy a separate and wholly autonomous sphere — facts that, even if known, are difficult to articulate without explicit recognition of certain knowledge about what underlies human society.

Social phenomena and the sciences that study it are relatively autonomous. While it is clear that sociology’s subject matter is distinct, it is related to (and thus its theories must account for and be commensurate with) scientific knowledge about humans. From sociological observation supported by that knowledge, we can derive some fundamental premises, long absent in sociology.

Sociology’s Premises

The following premises express verifiable facts about humans and human social life:

  • Humans are biological organisms, dependent on and interacting with the biophysical contexts within which they develop.
  • Humans are social organisms, embedded and developing within patterns of relations of interdependence.
  • Human brains are exceptionally dynamic, having evolved to rely more on social learning than on inherited instincts. People not only can learn, but must learn from others in order to survive and develop normally. Beyond certain universal tendencies, their neural networks are being constantly configured and re-configured in the contexts of varying experiences and circumstances.
  • Human persons are dynamic. While they exhibit apparent stability at some levels, their lifelong capacity for learning and responding to experiences in novel ways renders them always open to change.
  • Patterns of humans’ interdependent relations are dynamic. While they exhibit apparent stability at some levels, their characteristics vary according to the people that comprise them and the conditions within which they operate and thus remain always open to change.

While these premises may seem so obvious as to not require statement, they are made neither explicit nor implicit in the discipline. If they (and their implications) were widely appreciated, one might expect to see adjacent areas of inquiry integrated into sociological training, much like chemistry students can expect to learn some physics and biology students can expect to learn chemistry. As it stands, there is no comparable expectation apparent in sociology. A survey of undergraduate and graduate sociology programs reveals that students are typically not required to study human evolution, human-environment relations, or anything about the brain. Nor is minimal exposure to the fundamentals of these the norm, as evidenced in introductory texts, the most common form of encountering the discipline. In twelve popular texts I recently had cause to examine, sociology is portrayed in isolation from other human sciences.[2] The word ‘biology’ appears in the indices of five of the texts. Four of those mentions are solely to differentiate biological from sociological explanations of social phenomena while one discussed their ‘interaction’. ‘Psychology’ appears in the indices of four books, in all cases only to distinguish psychological from sociological explanations of deviance and gender. None of the books include index entries for ‘neuro-’ or even ‘brain’.

Without exposure to some of the crucial processes that underlie it, one cannot expect to develop a clear understanding of human social life. While some sociologists engage seriously with knowledge from adjacent human sciences, (e.g., Lenski: ecology and genotype; Turner and Maryanski: biological evolution; Massey: cognitive neuroscience), it is by no means the norm. Environmental sociologist, John Bellamy Foster, observes that avoidance of the concept of nature remains not only a general tendency in sociology, but one of its defining features, mostly ‘out of fear of sociobiology’(2002: 56–57). The emergence of environmental sociology itself (a response to the perceived absence of systematic attention to the biophysical contexts within which humans and their societies develop) is a manifestation of the absence of clear premises like those outlined above.

Despite a great deal of growth and vibrant research activity over the past thirty years, environmental sociology remains marginal in the discipline and has not yet ‘arrived’ (Buttel 2002), especially as measured by its original goal of fundamentally reorienting the discipline and its theory toward recognising the centrality of the biophysical (Pellow and Brehm 2013). The obstacles that environmental sociology’s founders faced in confronting the human exemptionalist paradigm, he concludes, are still with us, and have hardly decreased over 25 years. The real tragedy, though, in making relationships between humans and non-human nature peripheral rather than central, is sociology’s compromised capacity ‘to explain many things that will happen in and to human societies’ (Catton 1994:86). Desperately needed insights into many pressing issues depend on improving this capacity.

Making sociology’s premises more explicit would go a long way toward redressing some of its problems, especially accounting for biophysical contexts and mechanisms of social change. As Elias reminds us, the ‘complexity of many modern sociological theories is due not to the complexity of the field of investigation which they seek to elucidate, but to the kind of concepts employed’ (1978: 111).

More Adequate Concepts

In acknowledging humans’ inherent sociality and the foundations of people’s simultaneous stability and dynamism, the need for more satisfactory concepts rises to the fore. More than that, though, sociology’s premises help us make better sense of the alternatives we already have at our disposal: habitus and figurations. More suitable than ‘individual’, habitus refers to one’s socially-conditioned, and thus shared, ‘second nature’. It has a long history, but Elias and Bourdieu similarly employ the term to avoid the implication of static, independent, closed individuals. Figuration, introduced by Elias, refers to empirically observable relations of functional interdependence among people and comprises an important part of the conditions within which habitus develops. I discuss them below in the effort to clarify the terms and how they fit within a general theoretical framework of human social processes.


As biologically social organisms who rely on learning meanings and skills from others to survive, mature and make our way in the world, we develop a system of schemas that organises our perceptions and generates (in Bourdieu’s words) classifiable practices and products — that is, that which we produce and do, including thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions and ways of doing, perceiving, and classifying. Although expressed uniquely by unique persons, habitus refers to the social (and thus shared) level of this system of schemas.

The capacity of habitus to engender such ‘products’ is endless, but limited in that it reflects the historical and social conditions in which it develops. The concept, Bourdieu argues, helpfully dispels the illusion of the spontaneous generation of people’s dispositions — revealing how those dispositions ‘vary in a necessary way according to their...conditions of production’ (Bourdieu 1984: 99–101) — but also accounts for our capacity for novelty and for changes in those conditions. As embodied history, habitus is conditioned by the circumstances within which we develop and live and is the source of our infinite, albeit limited, creative capacity. Despite this allowance, Bourdieu’s treatment of habitus has evoked criticism of determinism and fatalistic social reproduction (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 79; Crossley 2001; King 2000; Sewell 1992). While their vigilance is commendable, the problem with this criticism is that it implies an overly simplistic understanding of ‘reproduction’ as a kind of static replication. In fact, certain societal patterns do get reproduced, making for a certain degree of social stability, but reproduction does not preclude change.

Sexual reproduction allows for the continuation of a species and is also the primary source of diversity and innovation. Likewise, ‘social reproduction’ need not connote a deterministic duplication of the same conditions and people. While ways of being in the world are passed on and in some ways durable, individuals’ capacity for novelty and other fluctuating conditions ensure not only that things are never reproduced in exactly the same way, but also that societal patterns change (albeit at highly variable rates).

[Habitus’] infinite yet strictly limited generative capacity is difficult to understand only so long as one remains locked in the usual antinomies [...] Because the habitus is an infinite capacity for generating products — thoughts, perceptions, expressions and actions — whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its production, the conditioned and conditional freedom it provides is as remote from creation of an unpredictable novelty as it is from simple mechanical reproduction of the original conditioning’ (Bourdieu 1990: 55).

In a scientifically-grounded sociology, this is not at all paradoxical.

Recent advances in our understanding of the mechanisms for social learning and cultural development provide an empirical basis for, and enrich our understanding of, habitus. Accumulating evidence in research on brain plasticity and mirror neurons, for example, suggests answers to questions about which an isolated sociology can only speculate. We know, for example, that human brains, and thus human learning, are malleable to an extraordinary degree. Ironically, this plasticity is implicated in the creation of stable and sometimes rigid patterns, but what manifests as relative stability at one level involves constant change at another.

Some confusion is understandable, given the challenging prose of the concept’s main proponent[3] and the consequent diversity of interpretations and uses of the term. The main source of the difficulty, though, is that the concept has not traditionally been understood in the context of a relatively autonomous sociology. In the context of supporting scientific knowledge, this is much less of a problem. The habitus process is not reducible to chemical, biological, or neurological processes, but understanding the interactions in and among them greatly enhances our ability to grasp the nature of habitus: ‘an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 132–133). While countless processes underlie habitus, it is a (relatively autonomous) system operating at the social level.

Rather than the ‘black box’ that some have accused habitus of being (see Jenkins 1991), it is merely a useful referent for the system of mechanisms and processes (via subordinate systems of mechanisms and processes) through which social learning orients our perceptions, thoughts and practices. In short, developing and expressing a habitus is what human social organisms do, much like the mind is, in Steven Pinker’s words, ‘what the brain does’ (1997: 24). A habitus is no more an independent entity than the mind is a thing independent of the brain and its processes. And its development is shaped by, among other things, the nature of the patterns of relations of interdependence, or figurations.


Elias chose the term figuration to loosen the constraints that coerce us into thinking about individuals and societies as different and antagonistic. Given the fact that humans are social organisms with needs that universally involve the fulfillment of certain functions (the dynamic multi-perspectival purposes people serve for, and have the ability to withhold from, one another) via relations with others. As such, we naturally have valencies — points of openness for connecting with others. Acknowledging these valencies, the concept of figuration conveys the inherent relationality of human life, and refers simultaneously to the patterns of relations of functional interdependence and the patterning itself.

Figurational patterns vary widely, but there are universal human needs in response to which certain bonds of functional interdependence form. Elias identifies three categories of functions aimed at meeting these general needs (1978). Survival and development functions involve, for example, resource procurement, protection, learning and communication (language, knowledge, skills and so on), and more. Sexual functions involve the expression and management of sexual activities and reproduction. And bonds serving our emotional functions derive from the other-directedness we retain and express, albeit not bound by the rigid models of other-directed behaviour apparent in non-human societies. Forms of emotional bonds vary with the size of figurations. It is important to note that symbols can also be a medium to and through which humans bond, and emotional attachments to larger social units via symbols can be just as intense as direct interpersonal bonds.

The term brings dynamic interdependent relations to the forefront, thereby avoiding the need to ‘add them’. Beyond the conceptual advantages, figurational thinking illuminates avenues for empirical research. As the patterns of functional bonds between people at a given time, figurations are observable. Those of small groups are more directly comprehensible, whereas larger figurations — with longer and more differentiated chains of interdependence — must be perceived more indirectly, through an analysis of their characteristics. Especially important are differentiation (the numbers and range of functions represented); degree of integration (the number of levels through which functions are coordinated and distributed); power ratios among the bonds (the degrees to which parties are capable of exercising constraint over each other, sometimes by withholding that which others need or want); and rates of change in all of these (Elias 1978: 128–145).

Supported by empirical knowledge about humans and human needs, figurations can be understood as natural products of human social processes. As the ongoing products of decisions and actions people make in relation to the decisions and actions of others, they cannot be controlled by any one individual nor understood via the examination of individual behaviours alone. They can, however, be better understood to help people more effectively orient themselves in the world and understand processes of social change and stability in useful ways. Because the conditions at any given moment are chronologically and otherwise dependent on the accumulated circumstances of past moments, change does exhibit a kind of order discernible in long-term trends. It is the overall direction of these trends — comprised by pockets of activity both in and counter to that direction — which is important to perceive and which a figurational analysis can help explain.[4]

The concept of figuration represents significant advancement in sociology. A growing secondary literature indicates an increasingly widespread recognition of the importance of Elias and figurational sociology (Morrow 2009). Quilley and Loyal have proposed that Elias’s figurational approach ‘provides a compelling framework for a “central theory” in sociology’ (2005: 810). Advocacy of Elias’ work is characterised by a sense that it ‘has the capacity to re-orientate the discipline’ and is a ‘first step in achieving a genuine “empirical-theoretical” understanding of society’ (Rojek 2012: 383, 384).

Despite the strength of these convictions, at present the promise of the concept of figurations goes mostly unfulfilled. It has not been taken up in any significant way in common parlance, in general sociological circles, nor even among sociological theorists (at least not in the United States). In the fourteen contemporary theory texts I could locate, only four mention Elias; of those only two contain the word ‘figuration’. Rojek suggests that, despite the many good ideas figurational sociology presents, ‘it lacks an effective marketing department that can communicate effectively with doubting Thomases, not only in the discipline of Sociology, but in society at large’ (2012: 385). Despite the value of the concept that ‘puts the problem of human interdependencies into the very heart of sociological theory’ (Elias 1978: 134), there has not been a practical way to package and deliver it widely. Given the rapid increase in global human interdependence and the emerging consequences of that for our collective fate, figurational thinking is more necessary than ever.

The Package: A General Model for (Figurational) Sociology

Attempting to create a general theoretical framework to guide the study of human societies is no small task, but is, as Lenski notes, ‘essential, both as a guide to research and as an aid in the interpretation of our otherwise fragmented store of information’ (2005:76). Lenski’s model (2005: 76), along with Massey’s (2005:7), are among the efforts that stand out as exemplary in this regard. They attune our attention to: genetic properties of human populations, characteristics of the biophysical environment, population, technology, ideology, social organisation, and more, while also including change over time and system feedbacks. These and other attempts to draw a more comprehensive picture have greatly enhanced my own (ever-developing) understanding of human social processes. Given the endless possibilities for significant ‘factors’ that might be added to such a model, however, my approach is to zoom out further to derive a maximally parsimonious framework capable of encompassing the endless variety of relevant phenomena. Supported by a figurational approach, the highly general model discussed below (see Figure 1) portrays the fundamental patterns of social life as they can be understood according to the evidence at hand.

In brief, biophysical conditions underlie all human activity. It is within these conditions that people develop certain kinds of figurations, the patterns of bonds of functional interdependence through which they seek to meet their needs and wants. Developing within particular figurational circumstances, people form a certain kind of habitus — a society-specific ‘second nature’ — the natural products of which (perceptions, practices, works and the overall systems of these that make up a lifestyle) are oriented by it in particular ways. These products exert impacts on people and the world, thereby influencing the conditions within which figurational patterns continue to develop, and so on.

Figure 1. General figurational model of human social processes

Note: This model was originally inspired by Bourdieu’s model of habitus (see Kasper 2013), but has been substantially modified over time in response to my developing understanding of figurations, habitus, and the scientific evidence that elucidates them

The model is intended to sensitise us to and help us visualise relationships among the various ‘parts’ of the process and the respective parts and processes underlying them. Although the components are arranged in a certain sequence according to the contingencies of the conditions that necessarily precede them, there is a great deal going on simultaneously (as perceived within increments of time meaningful to humans) with each layer of the spiral representing an undefined ‘moment’ in time. At a high level of synthesis, this model of social life represents enormous complexity — with each element, and the layers that underlie them, comprised of countless interdependent relations and processes. The basic pattern is easy to grasp, but the components within it warrant further elaboration.

Biophysical Conditions

This category comprises the substrate in which all social activity necessarily occurs. Biophysical conditions are reflected by the spiraling line underlying all other parts and processes in the model. These include a wide range of interrelated conditions, from those that are fixed (e.g., the laws of physics, chemical processes) to those that are relatively fixed over time periods meaningful to humans (e.g., atmospheric composition, species characteristics) to those that are more open to change, to varying degrees (e.g., species population, the built environment, available resources, tools and technologies). Biophysical conditions influence and (many of them) are influenced by human activities, though at varying scales of space and time. Some of the effects occur locally and/or are manifest in the short term, while others do not become apparent in immediate locales and/or for longer periods of time. Writ large, these are the conditions within which humans form, exercise and re-form certain patterns of bonds of functional interdependence, that is, figurations.


Figurations are the ongoing result of humans’ reliance on others to provide what they need (whether in visible material form, or in the form of information and meanings) to survive and develop. In modern societies they are far-reaching and highly complex, so much so that investigations of them tend to specialise in particular kinds of bonds (e.g., economic, political, familial and so on). Although we have come to see these as separate realms of activity, rather than different kinds of function in the web of human interdependence, the concept of figuration applies to the study of any of these. Figurational patterns are modified (whether consciously or not) in response to changes in: biophysical conditions; perceptions, knowledge, and other ‘products’; and habitus. Whatever the topic under investigation, the concept encourages the awareness that changes in relations of interdependence imply changes for actual people and the kinds of habitus they develop.

Habitus Formation

Within similar figurational circumstances, people develop a socially conditioned way of being in the world, or habitus, that is recognisably similar to those developing within like conditions. The concept of habitus makes clear that individuality and social relatedness are not only not antithetical, but that it is only possible for one to achieve individuality growing up within a social group. What Elias says about self-control is true for self-development, in general, that ‘the whole structure [...] both conscious and unconscious, is a network product formed in a continuous interplay of relationships to other people, and that the individual form of the adult is a society-specific form’ (Elias 1991b: 26–27). The mechanisms of a person’s habitus formation are not necessarily within the purview of sociology, but they are important to understand and include here. Elias reminds us that while we can ‘distinguish between research into [interdependent] people in the singular and research into [interdependent] people in the plural,’ in other words, between psychology and sociology, it is ‘impossible to separate them’ (1978: 125). One of sociology’s tasks is to characterise habitus through observation of the ‘products’ it generates.

Habitus Products

Simply put, this broad category involves that which we make and do relevant to the expression of a particular habitus, including the organisation of all that into an overall lifestyle. Bourdieu mentions thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions and works as the ‘products’ of human life that are oriented by habitus. With reference to ‘action theories’, and their bias toward directly visible physical activities, Elias argues for an emphasis on actions which, though not directly observable, are nevertheless accessible to human observation. A figurational sociology, he maintains, would pay attention to the ‘“experiential”, thinking, feeling, drive aspects of humans’ (1987: 115–116). At multiple levels, the products of human activities have consequences for other people and for biophysical conditions (which may also mediate subsequent impacts).


Impacts of sociological interest may occur in a wide range of distances and time scales. Wherever and whenever they manifest, they shape the conditions within which humans continue to form and exercise figurational patterns — ultimately contributing to their reinforcement and change. Although a full demonstration of the framework’s application is beyond the scope of this paper, below I summarise its advantages and briefly discuss an example that illustrates its utility and value.

Putting this Theoretical-Empirical Framework to Use

For all of the valuable insights provided by Elias, Bourdieu, and other relational-process oriented theorists, one is hard-pressed to know what to do with them. Recalling his own first encounter with What is Sociology?, Stephen Mennell acknowledges that ‘the models were not exactly a “theory” as conventional sociologists would understand the term but [...] they served as “aids to a sluggish imagination”’(Mennell 2006: 76). Such stimulants are wonderful, but the idiosyncratic nature of students’ exposure to and interpretations of them are part of what has made for persistent incoherence in sociological theory.

Striving to be faithful to Elias’ figurational insights and to make them more widely accessible and useable, I offer the model above to symbolically represent ‘the dynamic of every social present as it extends beyond itself and thus becomes the past’ (Elias 1997: 371), but also to facilitate comprehension and explanation of societal development (and the ongoing exchange between unplanned and planned processes). This framework brings several benefits.

First, it is a vehicle for organising and conveying sociological theory. Rather than conventional designation by classical/contemporary, major ‘perspective’, or authors’ name, works of theory (and particular aspects of them) can be usefully organised according to their concern with: relations of interdependence (e.g., division of labor, relations of production); habitus formation (e.g., the ‘I’ and the ‘me’, phenomenology); the products of habitus (e.g., the Protestant ethic, blasé attitude); the impacts of those products (e.g., suicide, land use) and/or their effects on figurational development and change (e.g., mechanical and organic solidarity, globalisation). Also, with reference to established knowledge, it precludes the need for a new and complicated ontology to explain the role of ‘the environment’ to account for agency, or to reflect the simultaneous reality of social stability and change. Ideas put forth, however, must be commensurate with them. In this way, compatibility with underlying knowledge serves a kind of first test of a theory. Finally, a broader view of things and the general categories of questions it highlights reveals meaningful connections among seemingly disparate inquiries and findings, and can guide inquiry and hypothesis-formation at widely varying levels of analysis.

  • What are the characteristics of the figurations in question?
  • How does habitus form differently in different kinds of figurations?
  • What sorts of products do certain types of habitus generate?
  • What impacts do those products have on people and the world?
  • How do/could those impacts affect subsequent development of the figurations in question?

These are especially important for the exploration of big, complex issues that span multiple disciplines.

Climate Change, For Example

Urgent calls for innovative and actionable social science are steadily being issued from within climate change research, an area that spans a wide range of disciplines. We already know a great deal about the relevant biophysical conditions and impacts (e.g., fossil fuel use, greenhouse gases, rising average temperatures, moister air, rising sea levels, increases in vector-borne illness and so on). We also understand the origins of many of these impacts in the ‘products’ of certain kinds of habitus and figurations (e.g., affluent lifestyles, particular consumption and production practices, worldview, the organisation of human settlements and more). Based on the evidence, one thing is clear. Significant changes in societal organisation are likely imminent. Whether they be thoughtful and proactive (as in concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) or reactive and out of necessity (as in responding to abrupt changes in conditions created by a shifting global climate), the recognition that changing circumstances require major transitions is fuelling the demand for a better understanding of social change processes. Sociologists, themselves, are making the same plea.

In November 2012, a listserv sponsored by the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association was host to a spirited conversation about dangerous levels of anthropogenic climate interference — how to understand it and what to do about it. At its conclusion was the observation that there is, as yet, no viable theory of social change. Sociologist Robert Brulle declared that ‘it is incumbent on sociologist[s] to help identify the opportunities for a real theory of transformation. ’ A means for understanding social change is requisite to comprehending the world and our own lives in it, but also for effecting and steering particular kinds of transitions and navigating changing conditions.

In a recent review of the literature, Shove points out that sociology’s engagement with climate change tends to be preoccupied with nature, culture, and capitalism, which reflects more about itself and internal debates than about the subject. Climate change is, she observes, a problem:

the scale and character of which calls for really new ways of thinking. Meanwhile, climate change policy proceeds on the basis of an extraordinarily limited understanding of the social world’, with social science inquiry dominated by green consumerism and the relations between environmental beliefs and action (Shove 2010a: 278).

The kinds of questions we need to answer require a more accurate sense of the relationship between social practices and societal transitions, and call for new ways of integrating micro, meso, and macro levels of inquiry, an agenda with enormous potential. The real challenge for social scientists, says Shove, ‘is to contain and handle the many tracks of enquiry that spin out from this approach’ (2010a: 283). The figurational theory proposed is well-suited to help.

Although the problem is well-understood and, in principle, we already know what to do about it, we do not yet understand how to mobilise the social mechanisms to do what it appears we must to preserve a familiar and livable planet. Most encouraging is that there are so many capable people on the job. The literature is bursting with efforts to understand these problems and to answer the challenges they pose. Unfortunately, excessive specialisation within and between disciplines — especially in theories, terminology and methods — has created barriers to communication and collaboration. The result is a sprawling selection of approaches for conceptualising the social side of climate change, with no clear means for them to inform one another.

On the one hand is an emphasis on individual behaviour, with the number of models intended to explain and predict it proliferating to such a degree that environmental behaviour researchers have no way of knowing which model to choose (Bamberg and Schmidt 2003). Moreover, behaviour research has diverse and disparate theoretical underpinnings, and overviews of them,[5] however useful, offer no indication of how or whether the theories connect or how to choose from among them. On the other hand, there is a comparable focus on top-down fixes via technology and policy, with ongoing tension between the two approaches (Shwom and Lorenzen 2012). The oft-made recommendation that policymakers should consider all perspectives has limited practical value.

In the face of the now constant and overwhelming flow of highly diverse and often specialised information, the radically simplified figurational framework proposed is an appropriate response and useful tool for organising and making optimal use of climate-relevant research questions, approaches and findings from across the disciplinary spectrum. Attending to their emphases on figurational patterns, habitus formation processes, the products of habitus expression, their impacts, and real or likely changes in figurational patterns, the proposed model helps to contextualise — and thus sensibly connect — these works and/or various aspects of a single project. Below are the results of a small and initial test of this assertion.

Examining the results of a database search of recently published climate change research, I check whether the projects (titles paraphrased) can be usefully situated within the model (see Figure 2, words and phrases indicating the paper’s primary focus, and relation to a particular aspect of the model, are in bold).My initial finding is that the model functions as a tool to organise the incredibly diverse research relevant to climate change.

Figure 2. Examples of current climate change-related research situated in the proposed framework

While very preliminary, this test offers some sense of the potential of relating otherwise seemingly unconnected research within a wholly different kind of framework, that is, one not organised explicitly by discipline. The sense it provides of the relations among the basic aspects of the flow of social processes allows researchers to identify the aspects with which their work is most concerned. This, in turn, usefully illuminates (in ways that disciplinary parameters cannot) some of the ways their research is informed by or informs work concerned with other aspects of that flow. In this sense, it can help redress the difficulties faced by social scientists ‘who are keen to contribute to climate-change policy but who do not fit the [attitude, behaviour, choice] mould’ and ‘at the same time make better use of a much wider range of intellectual resources’(Shove 2010b: 1281).

More thorough applications of the figurational theory codified here remain to be explored and tested. There is, no doubt, ample room for critique and refinement, but this effort is meant to be a practical step toward ‘figuring out how to collaborate across disciplines that use very different methods’ (Palmer 2012: 5) and engaging ‘all of the social sciences in multidisciplinary research — with each other and biophysical sciences’ (Moran 2010: 22).


The interest in developing a central theory that can facilitate communication and research about human social processes is important for sociology’s advancement, but is not merely academic. Patterns of human social relations have become increasingly complicated and difficult to see, let alone understand the consequences of, in our contemporary highly differentiated and globalised systems.

The task of sociological research is to make these blind, uncontrolled processes more accessible to human understanding by explaining them, and to enable people to orientate themselves within the interwoven social web—which, though created by their own needs and actions, is still opaque to them—and so better to control it (Elias, 1978: 153-154, italics original).

Echoing Elias, Chomsky observes that ‘the need for adequate orientation in the social world is great’, and notes the lack of accomplishments among the social sciences in this regard (in Goudsblom1977: 202–03). This failure is not due to their being too deep and complicated, he adds, but to a lack of synthesis among the writings intended to contribute to a greater orientation.

Our general failure to recognise the ways in which we are engaged in relations of functional interdependence with others has resulted in some highly destructive behaviours, creating problems at a global scale. Meaningfully dealing with them will require prudent actions informed by careful investigation and a hard-won understanding of the problems and their origins from all angles. Increasing recognition of this has catalyzed a call for greater cooperation among disciplines (Fischer et al 2012; Moran 2010; Palmer 2012) and the more explicit involvement of social scientists (Smith 2009; Tahir 2009; Zax 2009). ‘The work on human dimensions,’ Moran says, ‘links the biological, physical, and social sciences, thereby making social sciences centrally important’ (Moran 2010: 21). Indispensable for this kind of cross-fertilisation and cooperation, Elias instructs, is ‘an integrating central theory of society’ (2009: 67). A figurational approach, supported by scientific knowledge and complemented by the concept of habitus are a huge step forward in that regard.

Entering the online discussion with a different perspective, one environmental advocate asks:

What would you [sociologists] do if you knew your work was essential for helping us address climate change and other huge environmental issues?[...] The sociological questions embedded in that are daunting. Consider this a plea for help for those of us dancing furiously on the precipice of the future (Raffensperger 2012).

And dance we do. ‘[B]ut no one will imagine a dance as a structure outside the individual or as a mere abstraction [...] without a plurality of reciprocally orientated and dependent individuals, there is no dance’ (Elias 2000: 482). Embracing a figurational sociology — and the concepts and knowledge on which it rests — would help us develop a more accurate sense of who we are and what we are doing together. With that, perhaps we can sustain a greater awareness of our collective dance and more intentionally lead the direction of its movement, rather than mindlessly letting it carry us over the cliff.


Debbie Kasper is a sociologist in the interdisciplinary Environmental Studies department at Hiram College in Ohio, USA. There, she teaches and does sociological theory and environmental sociology, among other things. Her teaching and scholarship generally aim to foster a clearer sense of humans’ place in the world and an understanding of the formation and consequences of social practices. She is particularly interested in the development of ‘normal’, especially the perceptions and practices that characterise everyday life, their socio-environmental impacts, and the processes by which they change.


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  1. Using DNA as an example, Elias illustrates how advances in one science are contingent upon those in the sciences “below” it. One could not, he says, work out a model of a DNA molecule without information about what it contains, what its parts do, what their properties are, and how they behave. Knowledge about the parts gained through chemical analysis was indispensable but auxiliary to the main task of building an integrated model (Elias 2009a: 81). Recognising the contingency of scientific discovery within the context of relations among the sciences provides valuable insight into delays in sociology’s advancement. An empirically verifiable understanding of humans’ inherent sociality, for instance, depended on the development of biological knowledge about social organisms and the roles genetics and evolution play in that. Also crucial have been developments in neuroscience and psychology that help us understand humans’ unique capacities for non-evolutionary change. It is equally true, however, that knowledge about genetics, evolutionary mechanisms, and the human brain is insufficient to explain social phenomena.

  2. These are from a non-random sample of texts published in the past 10 years. Wanting an even mix of well-established standards (i.e., dubbed “best-selling” or “very successful”) and of books marketed as “innovative,” “unique,” or explicit deviations from the norm, I examined six in each category.

  3. Comprehending the meaning of a given passage often requires multiple readings. This is asking a lot when Bourdieu’s longer sentences run to 17 lines (as one does in Outline, page 83) and 27 lines (as in Logic, page 17)!

  4. A prominent example is Elias’ use of it to explain certain features of cultural development in western Europe through the development of a habitus that is increasingly inclined toward self-monitoring and self-control, in The Civilizing Process.

  5. The European Commission’s ‘Future Brief: Green Behaviour’ and Kollmus and Agyeman (2002) are two examples.

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