Norbert Elias on the individual

Norbert Elias opens his 1987 book The Society of Individuals with these words:

The relation of the plurality of people to the single person we call the “individual”, and of the single person to the plurality, is by no means clear at present. But we often fail to realize that it is not clear, and still less why. We have the familiar concepts “individual” and “society”, the first of which refers to the single human being as if he or she were an entity existing in complete isolation, while the second usually oscillates between two opposed but equally misleading ideas. Society is understood either as a mere accumulation, an additive and unstructured collection of many individual people, or as an object existing beyond individuals and incapable of further explanation. In this latter case the words available to us, the concepts which decisively influence the thought and action of people growing up within their sphere, make it appear as if the single human being, labelled the individual, and the plurality of people conceived as society, were two ontologically different entities.

This Preface was written around the time of the publication of the volume in 1987; but the core of the book was originally written in the context of the composition of Elias’s 1939 book, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations.  So the ideas expressed in the primary essay of the book belong to the classic period of the development of his thought.

What is striking about this paragraph is Elias’s insistence, essentially, that we don’t know what we are referring to when we use the terms “individual” and “society.”  He rejects the twin views of “individualism” and “holism”, and he wants to arrive at a conception of “individual/society” that avoids the polarity between the two.

I interpret Elias’s analysis here in a way that roughly parallels the intuition I was grappling with in formulating the idea of “methodological localism” (link).  Fundamentally, the idea is that we can’t take the individual out of society or society out of the individual; instead, we begin with the socialized individual and build up more complex social processes and structures.  Here is a passage from the Preface that anticipates this idea of the socially constructed individual:

The entire stock of social patterns of self-regulation which the individual has to develop within himself or herself in growing up into a unique individual, is generation-specific and thus, in the broader sense, society-specific. My work on the civilizing process therefore showed me very clearly that something which did not arouse shame in an earlier century could be shameful in a later one, and vice versa – I was well aware that movements in the opposite direction were also possible.  But no matter what the direction, the evidence of change made clear to what extent individual people are influenced in their development by the position at which they enter the flow of the social process. (viii)

So individuals are socially and historically constructed; there is no such thing as the “pre-social” or “extra-social” individual.  Here is another statement of this point:

At birth individual people may be very different through their natural constitutions. But it is only in society that the small child with its malleable and relatively undifferentiated mental functions is turned into a more complex being. Only in relation to other human beings does the wild, helpless creature which comes into the world become the psychologically developed person with the character of an individual and deserving the name of an adult human being. (21)

But there are also dynamic and individuating features of societies; societies are distinct in ways that ultimately derive from the characteristics of existing individuals:

Society, as we know, is all of us; it is a lot of people together. But a lot of people together in India and China form a different kind of society than in America or Britain; the society formed by many individual people in Europe in the twelfth century was different from that in the sixteenth or the twentieth century. And although all these societies certainly consisted and consist of nothing other than many individuals, the change from one form of living together to another was clearly unplanned by any of these individuals.  (3)

What we lack – let us freely admit it – are conceptual models and an overall vision by which we can make comprehensible in thought what we experience daily in reality, by which we could understand how a large number of individuals form with each other something that is more and other than a collection of separate individuals – how they form a “society”, and how it comes about that this society can change in specific ways, that it has a history which takes a course which has not been intended or planned by any of the individuals making it up. (7)

And here is how Elias suggests that we commonly think about social reality:

One section of people approaches sociohistorical formations as if they had been designed, planned and created, as they now stand before the retrospective observer, by a number of individuals or bodies. … The opposing camp despises this way of approaching historical and social formations. For them the individual plays no part at all. … A society is conceived, for example, as a supra-individual organic entity which advances ineluctably towards death through stages of youth, maturity and age. (4-5)

It appears that Elias frames a false dichotomy here when he asks how society came about: either specific individuals planned and intended that social institutions should have specific functions, or a society is a whole that possesses its own dynamics of development.  But there is a third possibility: social institutions have their current characteristics because of the actions and choices of countless individuals; but these characteristics are largely the unintended consequence of the strategic interactions among many individuals.  So individual agency lies behind social institutions and structures; but these agents are usually operating within the framework of a limited set of goals and beliefs that have nothing to do with the eventual shape of the social institution.

So we need to follow Elias’s suggestion and look for new metaphors for understanding the relation between “society” and “individual.”  We need metaphors that work better for the third option — society as the unintended assemblage of many strategic activities of individuals.  Here is one: we might think of a social institution as a potlach supper rather than a seven-course meal designed by a chef.  Or, to use a metaphor explored in an earlier posting, we can understand society along the lines of a flea market: a somewhat orderly affair that derives from the separate and sometimes coordinated actions of hundreds of participants (link).  And in fact, Elias actually uses a similar metaphor:

And even in each present moment, people are in more or less perceptible motion. What binds the individuals together is not cement. Think only of the bustle in the streets of a large city: most of the people do not know each other. They have hardly anything to do with each other. They push past each other, each pursuing his or her own goals and plans. They come and go as it suits them. Parts of a whole? The word “whole” is certainly out of place, at least if its meaning is determined solely by a vision of static or spatially closed structures, by experiences like those offered by houses, works of art or organisms. (13)

Here is another interesting metaphor that Elias explores as a way of capturing “the social” — the complex intertwining of behavior in formal dance.

Let us imagine as a symbol of society a group of dancers performing court dances, such as the frangaise or quadrille, or a country round dance. The steps and bows, gestures and movements made by the individual dancer are all entirely meshed and synchronized with those of other dancers. If any of the dancing individuals were contemplated in isolation, the functions of his or her movements could not be understood. The way the individual behaves in this situation is determined by the relations of the dancers to each other. (19)

But within the bustle of the street or the coordination of the dance there is an underlying order (just as we found in thinking about the flea market analogy):

The invisible order of this form of living together, that cannot be directly perceived, offers the individual a more or less restricted range of possible functions and modes of behaviour. By his birth he is inserted into a functional complex with a quite definite structure; he must conform to it, shape himself in accordance with it and perhaps develop further on its basis. (14)

And this order poses a problem for individualism:

This network of functions within a human association, this invisible order into which individual purposes are constantly being introduced, does not owe its origin simply to a summation of wills, a common decision by many individual people. (15)

But here the false dichotomy mentioned above is important.  It doesn’t take an announced master plan to create a peasant militia or an age-specific practice of dating and courtship; rather, a series of opportunistic choices are made over time, by a number of different actors, leading to an institution that has characteristics that were intended by no one (see illustrations in Elizabeth Perry, Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945).

This is an interesting and important contribution to the philosophy of society.  I’m inclined to think, though, that Elias does a better job of situating the “socialized, civilized individual” than he does in conceptualizing the social institution or structure.  There is a persistent structural-functionalism in the language, and a persistent attempt to attribute intentional design to social institutions, that fail to deliver on the promise of arriving at a better way of understanding both aspects of the “individual-society” relationship.

2 Replies to “Norbert Elias on the individual”

  1. The dichotomy is not a false one if we see the mechanistic construction of society through individuals as currently, or even foreseeably, too difficult. In that circumstance, we may posit a society "that possesses its own dynamics of development". Within that, we can agree that these individuals act "within the framework of a limited set of goals and beliefs" but to then say that they have "nothing to do with the eventual shape of the institution" takes it too far.Interestingly, this gets us to the crux of an understanding of modern Chinese society, in which institutions are shaped without any apparent input from individuals. Election votes can be quite some distance from shaping an institution, but alongside other elements (like a free press) they go some way to satisfying some of us who both live within and believe in democracy.


  2. I think it could be important to distinguish the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic dimensions in the evolution of the relationship individuals / society (or institutions). Indeed, the perspective of Elias is avowedly evolutionary, and historical. I am not even sure that he would have chosen as the starting point of his analysis a "socialized" individual, rather than a child (and the socialization process).


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