Figurational Sociology

Figurational sociology research and theory was pioneered by Norbert Elias (1897–1990), a German of Jewish descent who became a naturalized Englishman in 1952. His work is best seen as an attempt to synthesize the central ideas of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud. Other influences were: Georg Simmel, Kurt Lewin, Wolfgang Koehler, J. B. Watson, and W. B. Cannon. Elias studied philosophy and medicine to doctoral level in Breslau before switching to sociology in Heidelberg in 1925. There, he came under the influence of Karl Mannheim, a founder of the sociology of knowledge, and Alfred Weber, brother of the more famous Max and a leading cultural sociologist.


Three aspects of Elias’s life help to explain characteristic features of his sociology. First, his experience of World War I, in which he served in the Kaiser’s army on the eastern and western fronts, and the rise of the Nazis sensitized Elias to the part played by violence and war in human life. Such experiences also intensified his awareness of ‘‘decivilizing’’ as well as ‘‘civilizing’’ processes – he described the rise of the Nazis as a ‘‘breakdown of civilization’’ – and reinforced his view that ‘‘civilizing controls’’ rarely, if ever, amount to more than a relatively thin veneer. Second, the repeated interruption of his career by wider events – World War I, the German hyperinflation of 1923, the Nazi takeover ten years later, exile to France and then to Britain, internment as an ‘‘enemy alien’’ – helped to sensitize Elias to the interdependence and interplay of ‘‘the individual’’ and ‘‘the social,’’ ‘‘the private’’ and ‘‘the public,’’ ‘‘the micro’’ and ‘‘the macro.’’ And third, Elias’s study of medicine and philosophy helped to problematize for him aspects of philosophy, contributing to his move to sociology and his original work in what are now known as the ‘‘sociology of the body’’ and the ‘‘sociology of emotions.’’ That Elias was a pioneer of the sociology of sport is perhaps best understood in that context. He opposed the ‘‘mind–body’’ dichotomy and did not share the common prejudice that sport is a ‘‘physical’’ phenomenon of lower value than phenomena connected with the realm of ‘‘mind.’’ The theory of ‘‘civilizing processes’’ is generally regarded as having been Elias’s major sociological contribution.

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The Theory of Civilizing Processes

Contrary to a widespread misconception, Elias did not use the concept of a ‘‘civilizing process’’ in a morally evaluative way. He also frequently enclosed words such as ‘‘civilization,’’ ‘‘civilized,’’ and ‘‘civilizing’’ in inverted commas in order to signal this. ‘‘Civilizing process’’ was, for him, a technical term and he did not imply by it that people who can be shown to stand at a more advanced level than others, for example ourselves relative to people of the feudal era, are in any sense ‘‘morally superior’’ or ‘‘better.’’ That, of course, is almost invariably how the people who call themselves ‘‘civilized’’ view themselves. But how, Elias used to ask, can people congratulate themselves when they are the chance beneficiaries of a blind process to the course of which they have personally contributed little, if anything at all? To say this, of course, is not to deny that there are victims as well as beneficiaries of ‘‘civilizing’’ processes.

The theory of civilizing processes is based on a substantial body of data, principally on the changing manners of the secular upper classes – knights, kings, queens, court aristocrats, politicians, and business leaders, but not, for the most part, the higher clergy – between the Middle Ages and modern times. These data indicate that, in the major countries of Western Europe, a long term unplanned process took place involving four principal components: the elaboration and refinement of social standards; an increase in the social pressure on people to exercise stricter, more continuous, and more even self control over their feelings and behavior; a shift in the balance between external constraints and self constraints in favor of self constraints; and an increase at the levels of personality and habitus in the importance of ‘‘conscience’’ or ‘‘superego’’ as a regulator of behavior. That is, social standards came to be internalized more deeply and to operate not simply consciously and with an element of choice, but also beneath the levels of rationality and conscious control.

At the risk of oversimplification, one could summarize Elias’s theory by saying that he attributed these European ‘‘civilizing processes’’ to five interlocking part processes, which he also studied in considerable empirical detail. They included: the formation of state monopolies on violence and taxation; internal pacification under state control; growing social differentiation and the lengthening of interdependency chains; growing equality of power chances between social classes, men and women, and the older and younger generations; and growing wealth.

Elias showed how, in the course of a civilizing process, overtly violent struggles tend to be transformed into more peaceful struggles for status, wealth, and power in which, in the most frequent course of events, destructive urges come to be kept for the most part beneath the threshold of consciousness and not translated into overt action. Status struggles of this kind appear to have played a part in the split between the ‘‘soccer’’ and the ‘‘rugby’’ forms of football (Dunning & Sheard 2005 [1979]).

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The “Civilizing” of Modern Sports

An aspect of these overall European ‘‘civilizing processes’’ that is crucial for understanding the development of modern sports has been the increasing control of violence and aggression within societies, though not to anything like the same extent in the relations between them. According to Elias, in ‘‘modern’’ societies in which the dominant groups consider themselves to be ‘‘civilized,’’ belligerence and aggression are socially tolerated in sporting contests, including in ‘‘spectating,’’ that is, in people’s imaginary identification with the direct combatants to whom moderate and precisely regulated scope is granted for the release of such affects. In Elias’s words, ‘‘this transformation of what manifested itself originally as an active, often aggressive expression of pleasure into the passive, more ordered pleasure of spectating (i.e. the mere pleasure of the eye) is already initiated in education, in the conditioning precepts for young people . . . It is highly characteristic of civilized people that they are denied by socially instilled self controls from spontaneously touching what they desire, love or hate’’ (Elias 2000 [1939]: 170).

A taboo on touching for all players except the goalkeeper has, of course, become the major distinguishing characteristic of the ‘‘soccer’’ or ‘‘Association’’ form of football. Data also suggest that sports themselves underwent ‘‘civilizing processes’’ in conjunction with these wider ‘‘civilizing’’ developments. That this is the case is shown by studies of: the antecedents of modern sports in the ancient and medieval European worlds (Elias in Elias & Dunning 1986; Dunning 1999); the initial development of modern sports in eighteenth and nineteenth century England (Elias in Elias & Dunning 1986; Dunning 1999); the long term development of soccer and rugby (Dunning & Sheard 2005 [1979]); and football hooliganism as an English and world phenomenon (Dunning et al. 1988; Dunning 1999; Dunning et al. 2002).

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The Figurational Sociology of Sport and Its Critics

There have so far been six generations of figurational sociologists of sport in the United Kingdom: (1) Norbert Elias; (2) Eric Dunning; (3) Patrick Murphy, Kenneth Sheard (2004), and Ivan Waddington; (4) Grant Jarvie and Joseph Maguire (Jarvie & Maguire 1994); (5) Sharon Colwell (2004), Graham Curry (2001), Dominic Malcolm (2004), Louise Mansfield, and Stuart Smith (2004); and (6) Ken Green (2004), Daniel Bloyce, Katie Liston, and Andrew Smith. To this list must be added the names of Ruud Stokvis and Martin van Bottenberg (2001) in the Netherlands and Michael Krueger (1997) and Bero Rigauer (2000) in Germany. Interestingly, Rigauer has attempted to wed a figurational perspective with a Marxist one.

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Criticizing and Testing Elias

Elias insisted on the testability of his concepts and theories and called for what he described as a ‘‘constant two way traffic’’ between research and theory. One consequence of this is that his concepts and theories are, like those in the natural sciences, permeated to a greater extent by factual observation, and hence are less abstract than has often been the case in sociology.

Elias’s insistence on the testability of his concepts and theories is contradicted by a frequently touted judgment to the contrary. For example, Dennis Smith (1984) argued that the theory of ‘‘civilizing processes’’ is ‘‘irrefutable.’’ Such an argument was echoed two years later by the anthropologist Edmund Leach when he suggested in a review of Elias and Dunning’s Quest for Excitement (1986) that the ‘‘theory is impervious to testing.’’ An example from the sociology of sport is Gary Armstrong, who wrote that Elias’s theory ‘‘is a fusion of untestable and descriptive generalizations’’ (1998: 317). Richard Giulianotti went so far as to claim that Elias introduced the concept of ‘‘decivilizing spurts’’ in order ‘‘to rebut . . . counter evidence’’ (1999: 45).

These kinds of argument are wrong because they involve the false projection into Elias’s work of evaluative notions such as ‘‘progress.’’ Elias’s work was about ‘‘decivilizing’’ as well as ‘‘civilizing processes’’ from the beginning. One of many examples is furnished by his discussion of feudalization (Elias 2000 [1939]: 195–236). Another is provided when he writes of ‘‘the whole many layered fabric of historical development’’ as infinitely complex,’’ and that ‘‘in each phase there are numerous fluctuations, frequent advances or recessions of the internal and external restraints’’ (p. 157).

Aspects of the theory have also been tested by scholars other than Elias and Dunning (see articles in Dunning et al. 2004). The sports on which these tests were carried out were: baseball, boxing, cricket, gymnastics, motor racing, rugby, and shooting. Figurational studies by Maguire and Waddington deal with sport in general, in Maguire’s case with sport and ‘‘globalization’’ and in Waddington’s with sport, health, and drugs.

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  1. Armstrong, G. (1998) Football Hooligans: Knowing the Score. Berg, Oxford.
  2. Bottenberg, M. van (2001) Global Games. University of Illinois Press, Chicago.
  3. Colwell, S. (2004) The History and Sociology of Elite Level Football Refereeing. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leicester.
  4. Curry, G. (2001) Football: A Study in Diffusion. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Leicester.
  5. Dunning, E. (1999) Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sport, Violence, and Civilization. Routledge, London.
  6. Dunning, E. & Sheard, K. (2005 [1979]) Barbarians, Gentlemen, and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football. Martin Robertson, Oxford.
  7. Dunning, E., Murphy, P., & Williams, J. (1988) The Roots of Football Hooliganism. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  8. Dunning, E., Murphy, P., Waddington, I., & Astrinakis, A. (Eds.) (2002) Fighting Fans: Football Hooliganism as a World Phenomenon. University College Dublin Press, Dublin.
  9. Dunning, E., Malcolm, D., & Waddington, I. (Eds.) (2004) Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sports. Routledge, London.
  10. Elias, N. (1996) The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Ed. M. Schroeter. Trans. with a Preface by E. Dunning & S. Mennell. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  11. Elias, N. (2000 [1939]) The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Explorations. Blackwell, Oxford.
  12. Elias, N. & Dunning, E. (1986) Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  13. Giulianotti, R. (1999) Football: A Sociology of the Global Game. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  14. Green, K. (2004) Physical Education Teachers on Physical Education: A Sociological Study of Philosophies and Ideologies. Chester Academic Press, Chester.
  15. Jarvie, G. & Maguire, J. (1994) Sport and Leisure in Social Thought. Routledge, London.
  16. Krueger, M. (1997) Zur Bedeutung der Prozess und Figurationstheorie fur Sport und Sportwissenschaft. Sportwissenschaft 27(2):129-42.
  17. Leach, E. (1986) Violence. London Review of Books 8: 1.
  18. Liston, K. (2005) Playing the ‘‘Masculine Feminine’’ Game: A Sociological Analysis of the Fields of Sport and Gender in the Republic of Ireland. Unpublished PhD thesis, University College Dublin, Dublin.
  19. Malcolm, D. (2004) Cricket: Civilizing and De-Civilizing Processes in the Imperial Game. In: Dunning, E., Malcolm, D., & Waddington, I. (Eds.), Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sports. Routledge, London.
  20. Rigauer, B. (2000) Marxist Theories. In: Coakley, J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Sports Studies. Sage, London.
  21. Sheard, K. (2004) Boxing in the Western Civilizing Process. In: Dunning, E., Malcolm, D., & Waddington, I. (Eds.), Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sports. Routledge, London.
  22. Smith, A. & Waddington, I. (2004) Using ‘‘Sport in the Community’’ Schemes to Tackle Crime and Drug Use Among Young People: Some Policy Issues and Problems. European Physical Education Review 10: 279-97.
  23. Smith, D. (1984) Norbert Elias Established or Outsider. Sociological Review 32(2): 367-89.
  24. Smith, S. (2004) Clay Shooting: Civilization in the Line of Fire. In: Dunning, E., Malcolm, D., & Waddington, I. (Eds.), Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sports. Routledge, London.
  25. Twitchen, A. (2004) The Influence of State Formation Processes on the Early Development of Motor Racing. In: Dunning, E., Malcolm, D., & Waddington, I. (Eds.), Sport Histories: Figurational Studies in the Development of Modern Sports. Routledge, London.

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