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Brett Bowden wins 2011 Norbert Elias Prize

Posted on by Stephen Mennell

The seventh Norbert Elias Prize, for the best book in sociology or a closely cognate field by a first-time author published in the years 2009–10 have been awarded to Brett Bowden for his book The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

The jury consisted of three previous winners of the Norbert Elias Prize: Jason Hughes, Elizabeth Bernstein and Wilbert van Vree (chair).

Brett Bowden is Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the School of Humanities & Languages, and School-based Member of the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy at the University of Western Sydney.

He has previously held appointments at the University of Queensland, Australian National University, and the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He has held visiting positions in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London, and in the Zentrum für Interdiszipläre Forschung at Bielefeld University in Germany.

The jury’s verdict 

Thematically pertinent and theoretically ambitious, Brett Bowden’s The Empire of Civilization is a sweeping history of the present that interrogates the role of civilisational discourses in the making of modern imperial sensibilities. Broad in scope and reach, Bowden engages with the fields of International Relations, intellectual history, and social and political theory, to produce an account that is highly relevant both to the historical and to the contemporary political field. His discussions of ‘revived imperialisms’, including the post-9/11 wars on terror and new forms of humanitarian and economic imperialism are particularly careful and nuanced. Overall, we found this book to be fascinating, insightful, and creative.

Bowden departs from Norbert Elias’s analysis in important respects through a focus on the conscious ‘proselytising crusades’ undertaken in the name of civilisation; we might think of these as akin to Elias’s notion of ‘civilising offensives’. In this respect, Bowden gives much greater prominence to the idea of civilisation as an amulet, a standard, and one that has been mobilised, often in the course of brutal conquest, to legitimise conscious campaigns to ‘civilise’ what were considered to be ‘primitive’ ‘others’. ‘Civilisation’, then, is intimately interrelated to the social conditions within which the idea takes form in a dual manner. Firstly, because (as Elias pointed out) it expresses the self-consciousness of particular Western peoples in particular periods, and secondly, because, according to Bowden, it is in itself ‘performative’ in the sense of being historically ‘implicated’ in Western triumphalism, imperialism and colonialism. For Bowden, a civilising process points less to long-term set of largely blind processes involving, simultaneously, interrelated process of state formation and shifting standards of behaviour, and more to the ‘evolution of an idea’ that has in itself engendered social change. To this end, the book might be considered overly-rationalistic in terms of its overall arguments, but it is nonetheless often rich in terms of its analysis – particularly in its illustration of how standards become enshrined in specific watchwords. This is impressive in scope, wide-ranging.

This socio-historical research into the meaning and use of the concept ‘civilisation’ (and related words such as ‘modernisation’, ‘development’, ‘progress’, ‘democracy’) demonstrates that this word family has represented superiority feelings of Western societies with regard to non-western societies since early-modern times until today.

It is an ambitious, well-written and insightful book. However, Bowden could have made better use the sociological concept of the civilising process developed by Norbert Elias. For instance, his analysis would perhaps have gained in value if he had, in explaining the historical changes in the concept of civilisation, referred to the more all-embracing and ‘blind’ long-term processes of social differentiation and integration and trans-generational behavioural change.

The Prize, consisting of €1,000, will be presented to Brett Bowden on behalf of of the Norbert Elias Foundation by Robert van Krieken, at an event to be organised in Sydney later this year.