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Elias and Weber: Synthesis?

Elias and Weber: Synthesis?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Eoghan McMahon. Originally submitted for Social Theory at University College Cork, with lecturer Arpad\tSzakolczai in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Eoghan McMahon. Originally submitted for Social Theory at University College Cork, with lecturer Arpad\tSzakolczai in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Elias and Weber: Synthesis?The work of Max Weber on rationalization and Norbert Elias on the civilising process can be shownto be quite complementary to each other despite some divergences. The primary theme of thisessay is the recognition that at base, both authors were seeking to answer essentially the sameproblem. That is, how can one explain the contemporary
shaping of the individual conduct of life
 (p.103; Szakolczai, 2000) in modern society. Through the explication of these similarities anddifferences I will show how they in fact can be read as complementary of each other. Firstly, asummary of both of these theories is presented, with an emphasis on the most important elementsfor the purposes of this essay; namely those elements specifically related to their sharedproblematic. This is required to contextualise and adequately illustrate the comparisons betweenthe two authors work on this issue despite the inevitable reductionism which any summaryengenders. After this I will attempt to show how they can be read, overall, as quite complementaryto one another.Reconstruction of Elias
‘civilising process’ thesis
:
Elias’s theory of the civilising process is
grounded in the idea that the base psychological make-up of the individual, (their Habitus
1
), is dependent to the larger degree on the particular social structure of that society. T
o understand Elias’ project
, one must understand his conceptualisation of theindividual, and the characteristics of his/her psychogenesis. Elias views individuals as becoming fullydeveloped only through a socialisation process which occurs through the relations the individualbecomes part of throughout their life. These patterns of relations are for Elias social institutions,which Elias describes as being
nothing but the way people are bonded to each
other’ (
in Goudsblomand Mennell, 1998: p.55). The manner in which these social institutions themselves are formed ishighly contingent upon the personality structures of the individuals which make up the particularstructure of rela
tions (or in Elias’ terminology:
figuration) in this social institution. Thus for Eliassocial institutions are significantly dependent upon the personality structures of individuals, whichare dependent upon these social institutions for their formation. This understanding of theformation of any figuration which we choose to analyse means that at no point can we saydefinitively what is a
year zero
for the processes which have led up to that particular figuration of individual bonds; which means that any characteristic which one may wish to make an object of investigation, must be done in a socio-historical manner. To understand the psychogenesis of thecontemporary modality of the conduct of life then one must understand the sociogenesis of Western Society in terms of its institutional makeup as well.Elias saw that society since the middle ages society has engaged in a proc
ess of ‘civilising’ itself. This
process can be most clearly seen in how the manners of people have changed in the conduct of theirrelationships, their eating habits, and in how they deal with their natural bodily functions from whatmay termed animalistic behaviours to, using the colloquial understanding of the term, more
‘civilised’ behaviours
. Throughout this process, which was largely a response to changes in the
1
 
Camic (1986, quoted in Van Krieken, 1998; p.47), following Elias, defined habitus as ‘the durable andgeneralized disposition that suffuses a person’s action throughout an entire domain of life or, in th
e extremeinstance, throughout all of life
 –
in which case the term comes to mean the whole manner, turn, cast or mold
of the personality’.
Elias referred to it as
the individuals ‘second nature’ (ibid.). Weber defined it as ‘a
psychological vehicle that t
ended to create a typical conduct’ (Weber, 1978
; p.1113).
 
overall structure of society such as the monopolization of violence and taxation powers in the(absolutist) state, certain socio-spatial developments necessitated the repression of natural instinctsand behaviours. Originally, this type of repression required self-restraint and self-control, but overtime this led to an internalisation of the modes of action which were becoming necessitated by thechanges in society
2
. This idea can be summarised as follows:
 –
 
“In the course of *the civilising process+, to put it briefly and all too simply, ‘consciousness’
becomes less permeable by drives and drives become
less permeable by ‘consciousness’. In
simpler societies ... [natural drives] have an easier access to
men’s
reflections. In the courseof the civilising process the compartmentalization of these self-steering functions, though in
no way absolute, becomes more pronounced.”
 
(p64, Elias in Goudsblom and Mennell, 1998)
This compartmentalized
‘social habitus .
.. of more uniform, more universal and more stable patternsof self-
control’ was
typical of the 20th century individual in the time Elias was writing, and is more orless so today (Elias, 2008; p.7). This closed or compartmentalized mindset is the object o
f Elias’study, which he saw as being typified through the ‘civility’ of modern mannerisms.Reconstruction of Weber’s rationalization thesis:
 The paralleling line of thought in Max
Weber’s
work was his investigations into his study of the links
between ‘
inner-worldly
asceticism’ and ‘rationalization’
, in contemporary Western culture. He
identifies in the introduction to ‘The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism’
(1950) howvarious areas of human social life such as art, architecture, music, and administration have taken ona very peculiar and uniquely Western form of rationalisation. For such calculability to becomeaccepted and so widespread across the economic, social and political spheres Weber argues that avery distinct attitude is required of the individual (Kim, 2008), one which Weber claims is rooted inthe Protestant Reformation and its links with economic success. He takes as his object of study to
discover the root of this ‘Habitus’, the ratio
nalisation of the acquisition of economic wealth.In his two main essays which deal with the modern ethic of capitalism
3
and its links with religion heargues that
the current idea that ‘time is money’, and the relentless pursuit of money as
a virtuousend in itself is not an ahistorical given, in the general conduct of life. His investigation into this
particular aspect of the modern conduct of life is this particular aspect, which he termed the ‘spirit’
of capitalism. His investigation begins with the note that this economic ethic is most clearly seen inthe lifestyles of Protestants rather than Catholics in Europe, and indeed in the position of Protestants in relation to Catholics in the economic hierarchy. After investigating and refuting anumber of theses as to why Protestants should have been historically more business minded than
2
This found its apex in the French Courts of Louis XIV, where virtually all action was performed in a ritualisedmanner. This manner of interaction gradually filtered down through to the Bourgeois strata and beyond as theCourt began to decline (Elias, 1969; pp.78-79).
3
 
‘The Problem’ and ‘The Practical Ethics of the Ascetic Branches of Protestantism’ (see Weber, 1950
) are thetwo main essays of Weber which deal with this idea, however there are a number of other essays which are
important in reading in order to fully appreciate his argument, such as the ‘Anticritical essays’, and those onthe ‘Protestant Sects’ and the ‘Economic Ethic’ (
Szakolczai, 2000).
 
Catholics, he comes to the conclusion that there must be a link to the very content of the religiousideals themselves which have led to the current situation (1950). Through a genealogical analysis of the history of ideas in Protestantism he identifies in the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination the rootcause of the links between Protestantism and the economic ethic of Capitalism. Predestination was aconcept which stated that no matter what an individual does in this world, it will not affect the willof God in his decision as to whether you will be saved (Elect/reach a state of Grace (Weber, 1950)),or not. This was a concept which entirely robbed individuals of their agency in affecting the Will of God and their chances of going to heaven. This led to intense psychological strains on individuals,
what Weber terms ‘psychological sanctions’,
(p.97; 1950). Individuals also
began to suffer ‘a feelingof unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual’,
as a result of their essentialpowerlessness against the world (Weber in Szakolczai, 2000). However, to deal with this crisis theidea of asceticism, which had through Predestination been abandoned by Protestantism, came backinto religious experience through the backdoor as it were. Individuals desperately in search of surety
as to their ‘electedness’, used the calculable precision of economic wealth to
help them discover, orprove, if they were saved or not. As a result of this, every aspect of every action of every day becamea matter in which one must act piously and consciously if one was to be able to prove to themselvesor others that they were in fact saved. In the words of Sebastian Frank, a 16th Century Lutheranminister
“the significance of the Reformation was in the fact that now every Christian had to be amonk all his life”
(Weber; in Szakolczai, 2000). Asceticism had now gone from outer-worldlyorientation, in affecting the will of God, to an inner-worldly orientation, in proving to oneself and
one’s
peers that one has been chosen to be saved. Over time, the link between the concern forsalvation and the ascetic pursuit of economic gain began to break down. However, the rationalitywhich emerged to deal with this requirement via the economic sphere gradually began to spread toall aspects of social interaction and the co-ordination of that action.Comparisons, parallels and contrasts:As stated in the introduction of this piece, the connection first and foremost between the work of Elias and Weber lies in their shared search for an explanation as to why individuals conduct theirlives in the way they do, and by extension why their personalities are structured in a certain way toallow for this; Weber sought this out through investigating the rationalised pursuit of money as itsown end, whereas Elias sought this ought through investigating the emergence of civility as a centralaspect of the modern condition (Szakolczai, 2000).The other major comparison between the two theorists is in their methodology, in terms of thehistorical grounding of their research, which was also bound up in their views of the individual as asocio-historically conditioned subject. The
‘genealogical’ method
used by both is taken from thewritings of Nietzsche, who was an influence on both writers (p.109, p.137; Szakolczai 2000).Furthermore, the two would also be in agreement as to the conceptual relationship between
structures and individuals via the concept of ‘stamping’, which appears in both authors work
(Szakolczai, 2000). While Elias (1970) criticised Weber for having a closed view of the individual
4
, hehas been shown to have been incorrect in his interpretation and that Weber did hold the view that
4
As in the individual being at some level existing in a space within themselves as outside of interdependentrelations, closed off from society; á la Descartes, Durkheim and numerous other theorists in the history of Western Philosophy. This
mistake is encapsulated in Elias’ term of ‘Homo Clausus’ (1970).
 

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