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Principles of Figurational Sociology

What does ‘Figurational Studies’ Signify?

Figurational Sociology’ or ‘Process Sociology’ are terms which became attached to a research tradition strongly influenced by the work of Norbert Elias (1897–1990), author of the modern classic On the Process of Civilisation or The Civilising Process (originally published in German in 1939) and more than a dozen subsequent books. His ideas have been taken up, developed, and expanded in scope by an extensive international network of scholars who are by no means all sociologists – they are also drawn from history, anthropology, political science, psychology and literary and cultural studies. They tend to share a certain scepticism towards conventional disciplinary boundaries, and for that reason, this website uses the general term ‘Figurational Studies’.

Some Principles and Major Research Themes of ‘Figurational Studies’ and ‘Process Sociology’

The central concerns of ‘figurational studies’ might be succinctly described as the connections between power, behaviour, emotions and knowledge in (to a greater or lesser extent) long-term perspective. This typically involves a bridging of the supposed ‘macro-micro’ divide to an extent that remains unusual in the social sciences today.

Members of the figurational studies network do not see themselves as a ‘theoretical school’, but rather as participants in an open-minded and open-ended research tradition.

Elias himself always denied any wish to lay down a fixed set of doctrines of the type, often based on some philosophical stance, which underlie most theoretical ‘perspectives’. He wanted rather to encourage people to pursue through further research some of the problems of humans’ life together to which he had drawn attention; in this modest ambition of initiating a research tradition he had some belated success.

There are, however, certain characteristic traits which mark the work of members of the network, regardless of what their substantive area of research may be:

(1) Perhaps most fundamentally, they try always to conceptualise research problems in processual terms.

Not too much importance should be attached to the word ‘figuration’ in itself, which is used to mean (in Van Benthem van den Bergh’s phrase) ‘networks of interdependent human beings, with shifting asymmetrical power balances’. Intellectual problems are never solved by the introduction of a single new concept.

At the heart of Elias’s critique of sociological categories and conceptualisation is his notion of ‘process-reduction’, by which he means the pervasive tendency to reduce processes conceptually to states. It is seen as much in everyday language as in the specialised discourses of the sciences. ‘We say, `The wind is blowing’, as if the wind were separate from its blowing, as if a wind could exist which did not blow’ (Elias, What is Sociology? 1978: 112). This tendency is very widespread in the languages Benjamin Lee Whorf called ‘Standard Average European’, and it was already hardening in antiquity.

In sociology, the pressure towards process reduction is seen in taken-for-granted conceptual distinctions between the ‘actor’ and his/her activity, between structures and processes, between agency and structure, between objects and relationships. Above all, at the very centre of problems of sociological thinking, the concepts of the ‘individual’ and of ‘society’ have this same quality of seeming to refer to static and isolated objects. This is a special handicap when studying figurations of interdependent people.

It can be seen that Elias’s critique of sociological conceptualisation goes all the way back to his youthful rejection of neo-Kantian philosophy (see the biographical sketch). Elias’s view is not unlike that of Herbert Blumer, who in a well-known paper argued that concepts were not to be defined as a preliminary to research, but employed as ‘sensitising concepts’ in guiding investigation. This is particularly relevant to the task – more typical of Elias’s work than Blumer’s – of handling historical evidence in building process theories of long-term social development. Goudsblom quotes Nietzsche’s remark to the effect that ‘only that which has no history is definable’. What is signified by the concept ‘bourgeoisie’ changes very markedly with the development of a social stratum over a period of several centuries; what it means in the nineteenth century is something very different from what it means in the eleventh, yet the two meanings are linked by a long continuum of changes and, used with care, the concept has a clear meaning in context throughout the social process of development. Much the same goes for other concepts like ‘sport’, ‘nobility’, or ‘concept’. There is, therefore, a tendency to avoid the use of ideal-types, more value being placed on the detailed investigation of a single ‘real-type’ or case study (such as Elias undertook in The Court Society). A study of that kind does not seek to define the universal features of the concept ‘court’, but is certainly not ‘empty of content’ against the concrete reality of history, and invites further comparative and developmental investigations.

(2) This emphasis on the primacy of process has been summed up by Goudsblom (Sociology in the Balance, 1977: 6, 105) in four deceptively simple principles:

1. that sociology is about people in the plural – human beings who are interdependent with each other in a variety of ways, and whose lives evolve in and are significantly shaped by the social figurations they form together.

2. that these figurations are continually in flux, undergoing changes of many kinds – some rapid and ephemeral, others slower but perhaps more lasting.

3. that the long-term developments taking place in human figurations have been and continue to be largely unplanned and unforeseen.

4. that the development of human knowledge takes place within human figurations, and is one important aspect of their overall development.

(3) Figurationists are well aware of the limitations of programmatic statements in sociology, and a far better impression of what ‘figurational studies’ is about can be gleaned from their actual work, most of which is at once ‘theoretical-empirical’. Their writings abound in ‘theoretical’ and ‘methodological’ comments, but theory and method are almost always developed hand in hand with the investigation of substantive problems of human society.

Stephen Mennell