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Elias: Law Versus ‘Structured Change’

Posted on by Bradly Nitins

Hi All,
The issue, recently raised in relation to the debate on sociogenesis, of the notion of ‘law’ in Elias’ thought is an interesting one, and i think it can be usefully clarified by appeal to Elias’ “The Society of Individuals”. In the last essay in this book, “Changes in the I-We Balance” Elias speaks of the incompatiability of the methodology of the physical sciences with that of the social sciences. The former, Elias notes, seeks to elucidate the laws underpinning the inanimate matter of the physical universe. The laws underconvered here are generally supposed to apply to all places and times in exactly the same way. But when it comes to understanding the structure and dynamics of groups formed by human beings, Elias argues, one must abandon the notion of such universal laws as the pace of change is far too dramatic. This accounts for Elias’ antipathy to the static and universalized sociological theories that dominated sociological thought during much of the 20th C. Elias, it hardly needs saying, is a sociologist of development, of change, of processes. But the question that we now see presenting itself is, ‘well are there not social laws underpinning social change’? That such laws existed was generally acknowledged during the 19th C when developmental theories of society were in vouge, but the notion was later abandoned because of its triumphalist character [referring as it did to the inevitable march of reason, progress and civilization, ideals which were exploded during the 20th C]. The answer here is Elias notion of “structured change”, for Elias human socieites are in a state of perpetual flux, but if one steps back one can identify certain patterns and tendencies of development, i believe these are the “structured changes” Elias refers to. To refer to these as ‘laws’, however, is a grave mistake, for the term elicits precisely those connotations of the epistemology and methodology of the physical sceinces that were rejected by Elias.