Norbert Elias has the last laugh

At the recent Complexity and Management Centre conference in Dublin this year, the organisers arranged for Stephen Mennell, a renowned expert on Norbert Elias and somebody who collaborated with him during the last two decades of his life, to speak about the importance of the latter’s work. Mennell’s intervention was both academic and amusing as he outlined Elias’ huge contribution to sociology, at the same time  as describing the various feuds he became engaged in, including with those younger academics who took up his work and tried to promote it. Like the medieval kings, whom Elias described in the Civilising Process, Elias would set one person off against another, constantly changing the balance of his affections and approval. What was striking about Elias, according to Mennell, was that despite being virtually unknown until very late in his life, and despite not having a permanent academic job until he was 57, Elias was in absolutely no doubt about the greatest of his own sociological standing.

When we were drawing the conference to a close, a number of the participants mentioned that they had not enjoyed the Mennell session, feeling exlcuded by the jokey and academic tone of the presentation, and the way that some members of the audience, but not all, were able to share in the jokes and the assessment of his work. Some participants wanted something more, and wanted to go away from the conference feeling uplifted and part of some greater project. For others, of course, the Mennell session was the highlight, since it made one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th C come alive.

What was happening in the room was something that Elias himself drew attention to in The Established and the Outsiders, a book based on a study of three communities that made up a small village in Leicestershire. The fictional Winston Parva comprised three communities: the upper middle class professionals, an older working class community and a newer incomer group who had recently been rehoused from slums in London. Although the second of these groups had not long been established in the village themselves, they nonetheless extrapolated from the behaviour of a few wayward individuals in the third group to characterise the whole third community as ne’er-do-wells. Through gossip and in-group conversations they stigmatised the third group and idealised the first group. Interestingly enough, the third group began to internalise the way they themselves were talked about by regarding themselves as somehow ‘lesser’ than the other two groups. They began to believe in the negative stereotypes to which they were subjected.

Elias concluded that whenever groups of people come together they are subject to processes of inlcusion and exclusion which pivot on relationships of power and that are to a greater or lesser extent rivalrous. There is a tendency for groups to talk up their we-identity and ascribe to themselves heroic and charismatic characteristics, which of course distinguishes them from other groups. Many of the organisations that I work with tell me how special their approach to the work is, and how their partners value working with them above many other organisations.

I wonder if Elias would have been amused by the way in which a discussion of his work had polarised people, leading to the very dynamics that he had described in his work.

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