Elias on culture – the struggle over collective emotional bonds

It has become axiomatic that organizations need to change their cultures in order to reform or modernise, or to adapt to a changing world, or to bring about some kind of improvement in performance. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in this kind of thinking is the idea that certain organizational cultures are more conducive to success than others, and that adopting a particular culture is likely to lead to organizational improvement. It has become a way of talking as though organizations can ‘have’ a culture which can be identified and changed from one state to another. Culture becomes reified, or ‘thing-like’, and is capable of being shaped and manipulated. Usually there is a close link in the discourse to values which are thought to relate causally and directly to behaviour. Restating the values required of staff, usually ones chosen by the Chief Executive or the senior team, is supposed to lead to improvements in the workplace.

As a counter to this idea of culture existing in one organisation as an object of intervention by senior staff, and as something manipulable over the short term, I would like in this post to think about culture evolving over the longer term in society at large with the sociologist Norbert Elias. In doing so we come to notice some of the paradoxical qualities of culture, how it both includes and excludes, and how it involves values as voluntary compulsions, which can take on the qualities of the sacred.

As we have explored elsewhere, Norbert Elias takes a highly social view of human beings. We are who we are because we are members of specific groups and live at a particular moment in history where social relations have evolved in particular ways. To a degree we take on national characteristics as well as personal ones according to our position in the social networks of the country, time and place in which we live. We participate in the habitus, the habituated life process of our society, which is both firm and elastic at the same time: we form it just as it is forming us. Elias studied the habitus of particular societies, especially Britain, France and Germany, as a form of enquiry into how specific national characteristics evolved as a consequence of longer term historical processes, how cultures emerged. For Elias these broader social processes were contributory factors in helping to explain how certain historical conditions, for example the rise of fascism in German, became possible. The evolution of highly interdependent societies also forms us psychologically: we develop a sense of self, with both an ‘I’ layer and a ‘we’ layer. However, in contemporary life, he argues, there have been significant changes in the I/we balance with the we-layer of our personalities has been pushed markedly to the background. We have become convinced that we are autonomous, separated individuals cut off from other, similar individuals. Our sense of we-ness is most likely to come to the foreground at times of national crisis or celebration.

In contemporary Britain the elections for the European parliament currently involve a great deal of debate about what it means to be British and how best to enhance a sense of Britishness, whether within or outside the European union. And similar arguments are currently taking place over the border in Scotland about what it means to be Scottish. Debates involve discussions of law and policy, but much more importantly they involve much trickier and inchoate deliberations about collective identity, which are much less easier to pin down.

In a book tracing the historical development of Nazi Germany, Norbert Elias (1997), himself a German Jew, reflects upon how nationalism came to take such a strong hold on the German bourgeoisie throughout the 19th C leading up to WWI and WWII. What interests Elias, and is key to our argument here, is how concepts evolve and change over many decades, becoming part of the competition and co-operation between different groups in society, and then, as some come to dominate, they come to be taken for granted as natural and given national or class characteristics. They become a way of thinking which is unquestioned because it is part of the group and/or national identity: certain notions become part of a society’s ‘we-identity’, the self-beliefs and values of a whole group of people. A good example of this is the way in the which the National Health Service has come to be seen as the embodiment of Britishness to the extent that it became part of the UK Olympic ceremony. This is not to suggest that these ideas, even when they become embodied in institutions, are uncontested, (as we can see from the current privatisation of the NHS) or experienced everywhere the same, but what is intriguing for Elias is to see the:

persistence with which certain patterns of thinking, acting and feeling recur, with characteristic adaptations to new developments, in one and the same society over many generations. It is almost certain that the meaning of certain key-words and particular undertones embedded in them, which are handed from one generation to another unexamined and unchanged, plays a part in the flexible continuity of what one otherwise conceptualises as ‘national character’. (1997: 127)

I want to draw attention to two aspects of Elias’ argument. One is that ‘patterns of thinking, feeling and acting’ arise in the co-operative/competitive relationship between groups in particular societies although some may come to dominate. And secondly, he regards national character, or culture, as both flexible and continuous. In other words, it arises as the consequence of struggle between groups which calls out both regularities and differences. It plays out in the politics of every day life both local and global and so is constantly fluctuating and changing. 

To continue, Elias comments on what he considers the barely understood processes of mutual identification which take place in highly developed mass societies. When people live together in large, highly differentiated populations, overseen by the same framework of governmental and administrative organizations, the links between them are much more complex than in simpler societies. Instead, he argues, they are woven together with symbolic emotional ties:

So, the emotional bonds of individuals within the collectivity which they form with each other crystallize and organize themselves around common symbols which do not require any factual explanations, which can and must be regarded as absolute values which are not to be questioned and which form focal points of a common belief system. To call them into question – to cast doubt on the common belief on ones own sovereign collectivity as a high, if not the highest possible value – means deviancy, a breach of trust; it can lead one to become an ostracized outsider, if nothing worse. (1997: 146)

This is Elias’ particular formulation of what Griffin (2002) has written about elsewhere drawing on Mead’s idea of ‘cult values’: collectively held ideals the conformity with which decides whether one will be included or excluded from a group. Here idealised symbols of social solidarity, such as nationalist language and symbolism, act as norms of inclusion and exclusion. It seems to me that it is precisely this that the more orthodox writers on organizational culture want to stake a claim to: they would like managers to set and be in control of what Bourdieu (1986) refers to as symbolic capital as a form of disciplinary control in organizations.

If one really could command it, it would be a big prize, because the symbols around which we identify provoke very strong feelings in us:

These symbols and the collectivity for which they stand attract to themselves strong positive emotions of the type usually called love. The collectivity is experienced and the symbols are represented as something apart from, something holier and higher than, the individuals concerned…whatever else it may be, it is also a form of self-love. (Ibid: 151)

If appeals to collective identity, in nations and in organisations, call out love as a form of self-love, then they are equally likely to provoke hate towards those who appear to be violating the symbol of love. This is a phenomenon we are currently experiencing in Britain in the run up to the elections, where strong feelings are being provoked towards non-British citizens in the belief that they are the prime cause of Britain’s problems.  In popular management literature such as Collins and Porras’ Built to Last there is an explicit intention to provoke such a collective identification, to develop a ‘cult-like culture’ in their own words. It is not hard to detect some of the totalitarian undertones of this kind of thinking, both in encouraging cult-like identification and in the divisiveness to which it leads. At the end of 1984 by George Orwell, and after a long period of incarceration and torture the hero Winston Smith realises that he ‘loves Big Brother’.

However, for Elias there are two principal difficulties related to the control of shared symbolic affiliation. Firstly, if the numbers of people caught up in the phenomenon are large, it can take on a self-amplifying momentum all of its own, which goes beyond the ability of any individual, or group of individuals to influence it. Self-amplifcation can produce both extreme and unpredictable social effects. As an example, there have been a number of high profile cases of ‘rogue traders’ in investment banks who over- interpreted their employer’s buccaneering attitude to trading by gambling illicitly with the bank’s money. Equally, stigmatising Romanians in political debates may be an expression of well-founded concerns about the influx of European workers into Britain, but it may also trigger much nastier xenophobia. This leads into Elias’ second point, that when symbols get taken up as group norms, disciplining individual members of the group as well as acting as a form of self-discipline through guilt, they can have contradictory effects: they can bind people to each other as well as uniting them against others, depending on the degree to which the norms are shared. In this sense they have both integrating and disintegrating effects, uniting some and dividing others. Nor is it always the case that shared symbolic values experienced as norms are all of a piece: they may well be contradictory and pull people in opposing ways.

Elias recognises, as does the orthodox management literature, the importance of mediating symbols in social life, symbols which can also be represented in particular people (for example, the Queen of the UK, the NHS, or perhaps the CEO of a company). They contribute to our sense of individual and collective identity. However, for Elias they can have paradoxical effects: they both include and exclude, unite and divide. These symbols and the collective ideals and values they call out, and which provoke strong feelings in people, cannot be controlled by anyone, since they can take on a dynamic of their own ‘through a self-escalating dynamic of mutual reinforcement (Ibid: 150)’. In this way I think Elias’s descriptions of the processual and evolutionary nature of culture undermines the orthodox management idea that it exists in some kind of equilibrium state, or that it is always integrating, or that it can be controlled in any way (although it may be mobilised in political arguments as we can see in the UK at the moment). It seems to me that he argues that it is constantly evolving and that the evolution is driven by the constant flux of integration/division co-operation and competition between groups. Cultures change as much by conflict as by convergence.

Already, then we can see some of the difficulties arising for organizational scholars who claim that culture, whatever they understand by it, can be harnessed and manipulated for the good of the company. First in Elias’s terms it is a kind of voluntary and collective identification involving affect: since it is freely given, identification is a hard phenomenon to oblige someone to give. And second it both integrates and divides at the same time. Even if leaders and managers were able to manipulate culture it would still play out in contradictory and unpredictable ways.


Bourdieu, P (1977) Outline of A Theory Of Practice: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Collins, J. and Porras, J. (2005) Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, New York: Random House.

Elias, N. (1997) The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Griffin, D. (2002) The Emergence of Leadership: Linking Self-Organization and Ethics, London: Routledge.


6 thoughts on “Elias on culture – the struggle over collective emotional bonds

  1. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    As you might imagine, I agree wholeheartedly with your central proposition that “culture” cannot be manipulated in the ways suggested by mainstream management practice – using the “design, build, and communicate” school of management, as I call it. As you suggest, the tendency for people to think and act in characteristic ways is a continuously emerging condition of the process of their everyday, local interactions. I also agree that the integrating tendency of the cultural dynamics of organisation (that is, people’s participation in the ongoing patterning process of shared sense-making) co-exists with the splitting-apart tendency of the political dynamics of difference and contention arising from their differing and potentially competing interests, ideologies, and identities, etc. (both individual and collective).

    At the same time, I have some difficulty with Elias’s notion of “self-amplification” – at least as regards the suggestion that a particular phenomenon “can take on a momentum all of its own, which goes beyond the ability of any individual, or group of individuals to influence it”. This would imply that he sees some ‘thing’ existing in some way ‘outside’ people’s ongoing interactions, which can act independently of them. Whilst it makes sense to say that an individual or group of individuals cannot control the emerging patterning and content of their own and others’ interactions, or the feelings that these invoke in themselves and others, it seems to me that whatever does emerge cannot be anything but influenced by what people think, feel, say and do.

    More than that, I would suggest that the sort of phenomena to which Elias is referring (such as the rise of fascism) emerge solely from the widespread interplay of themes arising in people’s everyday interactions (both intentionally and habitually). And that these come to be recognised as such, sustained, and potentially shifted through this same interactional process. Also, since those interactions are inherently power-laden and political, the process is unavoidably one in which the patterning is influenced by people’s actions (and inactions) – albeit not those of autonomous individuals, but rather of people co-operating and competing with everyone else who is similarly engaged in co-creating the future through their present (inter)actions.

    I would make a similar point about Elias’s comment on the effect that symbols and group norms have on what happens, and his contention that these, too, operate “through a self-escalating dynamic of mutual reinforcement”. As before, I would argue that these only have any meaning to the extent – and in the ways – that these are made sense of, related to, and taken up by, people in their ongoing interactions with others. And that, within this, the more that people make sense of things and relate to them in particular ways the more likely they are to continue to make similar sense, and relate to them in similar ways, going forward. In that sense, this dynamic is indeed mutually reinforcing and self-escalating. But it is a natural dynamic of interdependent people interacting together, not one of symbols taking on a ‘life of their own’. Symbols don’t do things: People do.

    Cheers, Chris.

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Chris, a thoughtful intervention as usual.

    Your reaction may be more to do with the way I have worked with Elias’ ideas rather than what Elias was trying to get at.

    I am not sure that Elias is necessarily pointing to any ‘thingness’ about self-amplifying processes, rather to the fact that certain trends can call out subconscious responses in us, and sometimes appeal to collective subconscious responses, which are beyond our ability to control. He referred to these as as semi-automatic responses brought about by the bruising and imperfect process of being socialised. Anxiety-driven behaviour is a classic example of this. He was an advocate of therapy and thought that we could only become wiser about ourselves as social beings if we had deeper insight into how we act and react in groups: I guess this explains his involvement with Foulkes and the Institute of Group Analysis.

    We act and interact, particularly in connection with potent symbols like the Queen, the NHS, or the notion of ‘Britishness’ in ways which co-create the power of the symbol, but at the same time our mutual symbolic identification acts back on us in ways which we cannot control. That might explain why I became emotional watching Andy Murray win Wimbledon for the first time last year, and it may help explain the success of UKIP and other right wing groups in the recent EU elections. In other words we may find ourselves acting in response to some social stimulus before we are even aware of what we are doing: and these actions and reactions may be unhelpful in the circumstances or may make them worse. In this sense they are self-amplifying – they still appeal to what is human and social, but that doesn’t mean we are not bounced into behaving even unlike ourselves.

    Look forward to discussing this further at the conference.

  3. Chris Rodgers

    Thanks, Chris. I’m very much looking forward to the conference, too.

    As regards your response, it might simply be a matter of language, and my interpretation of what you’ve written, but I’m still concerned that there might be a suggestion that something outside people’s ongoing interactions is “acting back” or doing the “bouncing”.

    As I see it, your reaction to Andy Murray’s win, although uncharacteristic and without deliberate intent, was ‘triggered’ by your personal, ‘feeling-full’ perception of what was going on for you in the moment of his victory – both consciously and unconsciously. And this emotional, intellectual, and behavioural patterning of your embodied response, even if mimicked outwardly by very many others and repeated on other occasions, was unique to you and particular to that moment. At the same time, your response was wholly social, whether you were watching the match alone or in the middle of the crowd on Centre Court. That is, it emerged from your involvement with many actual and imagined others in the immediacy of that particular occasion, and in your interactions with other enthusiasts, agnostics, and dissenters in the days that led up to it. It also expressed your in-the-moment euphoric escape from the established patterning of your experience in relation to ‘Brits at Wimbledon’, which itself had become taken for granted over years of your previous participation as viewer, listener, reader, fan, pundit(?), patriot, etc.

    Similar patterning of thoughts, feelings, and actions would constitute the experience of millions of others on that day – each reflecting their own history of participation in innumerable interactions that related directly and indirectly, intentionally and incidentally, consciously and unconsciously, to Murray’s Wimbledon exploits. In that sense, the response might be described as collective – albeit in terms of an aggregate of interdependent individuals rather than an integrated group. And any such sense that people had of participating in a collective response would, at the same time, have increased yet further this ‘collective’ tendency for them to respond in ways that resonated more widely – even if without the conscious intention of doing so.

    Nevertheless, I would suggest that each person’s response would still have been uniquely their own. Although not that of an autonomous individual but rather of one who was both enabled and constrained in their thoughts, feelings, and actions by their current and past interactions with other people – including the characteristic patterning of sense-making-cum-action-taking that had emerged and become taken for granted through this same self-organizing process of ongoing interaction. We should also not forget that there would be many others who were indifferent to, dismissive of, or even hostile to, Murray’s win – emergent responses arising from their own history of participation in the complex social (responsive) process of everyday life.

    Or something like that!

  4. Chris Mowles Post author

    Yes, the responses are individual and yes there will have been contrary responses too, but Elias also talks about the ‘we layer’ of the personality which is an idea with some resonance for me. So I know of friends who have absolutely no interest in tennis but nonetheless felt themselves welling up about the victory in a similar way. It is exactly this ‘we layer’ that UKIP is appealing to, the ‘we British’, partly fictional, partly symbolic, partly emotional, but with some degree of shared resonance, which has temporarily made them a force to be reckoned with. I would not go as far as Jung with his idea of a collective unconscious, but nor would i be as individualised as you seem to be suggesting. It is this sense of the self-amplifying nature of some group processes which seems to me to have legs, which is more than the aggregate of individual responses which you seem to be advocating. I know from my own experience of working in groups that anxiety, say, can appear to have exactly that ‘acting back’ effect which you say you doubt.

    Much more to discuss, clearly!

  5. Chris Rodgers

    Indeed so. I look forward to the discussions. In the meantime, I just want to correct any impression that I might have left that I’m putting forward an individualised view of these dynamics.

    I guess I’m railing against the notion of a “collective unconscious” (whether Jungian or in some other sense), as something that is thought to act separately from people’s ongoing interactions with each other. I fully accept the sense of ‘we-ness’ that I think you, after Elias, are talking about; although I wouldn’t if it were meant to convey the idea of an identikit view of a collective state. “We British,” for example, might be a theme that resonates with a large number of the British public. And it might do so sufficiently in certain of its aspects for a significant proportion of them to decide to vote UKIP in the recent elections. But their motives for doing so are likely to have varied widely – including, no doubt, doing it simply because others with whom they identified were voting that way (another example of we-ness). And most people who would be happy to refer to themselves as “we British” voted for other parties or not at all. It all depends, in my view, on how these themes, symbols, and so on are taken up in people’s ongoing interactions.

    Like everyone else, I’m steeped in we-ness (although, put that way, it doesn’t sound very appealing!). So I’m definitely not trying to disconnect the individual from the social. Quite the contrary. I’m arguing neither for a ‘first-person’ (autonomous individual/independent) view of these dynamics, nor a ‘third-person’ (collective ‘it’/dependent) view, but rather a ‘second-person’ (you and I interacting together/interdependent) view. And, it’s through the widespread interplay of our interactions with each other that we co-create whatever emerges – including forming and being formed by the characteristic patterning of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that become taken for granted ways of thinking, feeling and acting. It is this patterning that we might come to think of as the essence of Britishness; or organizational culture; or whatever. And such tendencies, I suggest, are embodied in individuals.

    See you on Friday.


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