Robert van Krieken. Norbert Elias. London and New York: Routledge. 1998. 212 pp. $16.95 paper.

The recent resurgence of interest in the work of Norbert Elias is part of the rediscovery of a relatively neglected period of social theory, from approximately the 1920s through the 1950s. Though some figures tend increasingly to be forgotten, such as Parsons and Lukacs, Marcuse and the first generation of the Frankfurt School, others, such as Bakhtin and Mauss, Bataille and the Collège de Sociologie, are being revived. Robert van Krieken's brief introduction to Elias' work does not explicitly consider this broader theoretical context, but it shows very nicely how Elias' enormous body of writings spanning almost sixty years challenges us to redraw the conceptual and historical boundaries between "classical" and "contemporary" theory, and between "canonical" and "noncanonical" writers, if not to rethink the misleading labels we use to designate complex theoretical "paradigms" (including "process sociology" itself, which van Krieken employs despite Elias' misgivings).

The case of Elias is especially interesting in this regard, particularly in view of how the historical vicissitudes of publication and translation have delayed and distorted his reception: his masterpiece, The Civilizing Process, only reached wide circulation some 30 years after it was first published in 1939, and its reception in English was hampered by being first published in two volumes separated by four years. As van Krieken demonstrates, a clear picture of Elias has yet to be fully recognized in part because Elias developed a unique and challenging synthesis of his predecessors (especially Weber and Freud), while at the same time marking out his own path by broadly criticizing or remaining aloof from his contemporaries (interestingly, he was a colleague of Mannheim in Frankfurt in the same building that housed the Institute for Social Research). Likewise, his impact on successors has only belatedly or hardly been noticed: on Giddens, who studied with him at the University of Leicester, on Goffman, who cited him briefly though approvingly, on Foucault, who produced an early (though unpublished) translation of The Lonely and the Dying, and on Bourdieu, whose recent work has increasingly taken on Elias' conceptual framework and vocabulary.

To be sure, van Krieken's book is no substitute for Stephen Mennel's more extensive and in depth introduction to Elias. (On the back cover, Mennel himself endorses the book as "an indispensable concise guide," while George Ritzer characterizes it as "an excellent entrée," as if to advance his own McDonaldization of theory). Rather, the merit of his overview is to identify a few key principles of research that to varying degrees guided the whole of Elias' magnificent corpus, but which were most explicitly formulated in the collections What is Sociology? (1978), The Society of Individuals (1991), and The Symbol Theory (1991): namely, the interdependent, (un)intentional, relational, processual, and positional dimensions of social life. This more theoretical argument could only have been worked out through elaborately detailed empirical investigations into the emergence of informal and formal techniques of discipline and (de)civilization at the levels of psychical and institutional organization: in The Court Society (first drafted in 1933), The Civilizing Process (first published in 1939), and The Germans (a 1989 collection spanning almost the whole of his career), as well as in fascinating shorter studies of sport, music, science, death, and time. A weakness of van Krieken's approach -- induced in part by the "Key Sociologists" series in which it appears, and even by Elias' own disciplinary self-definition -- is that Elias' core concept of "figurations" which embraces these principles is given a rather narrow "sociological" cast at the expense of its more multidimensional inspiration from and implication for a wide variety other scientific and aesthetic fields.

Van Krieken's book succeeds in providing an avowedly sympathetic though conscientiously critical assessment of Elias through what he calls "a principle of generosity" which does not presume upon the unity or consistency of the work but which tests it against Elias' own standards of "object-adequacy" and theory formation. In part this is achieved against a tendency in much of the growing critical literature on Elias which treats his general hypotheses (such as "the civilizing process" itself) as timeless conceptual formulations rather than within specific historical and cultural contexts. In part, this critical dimension is also opened up by presenting the biography of the work as an indispensable point of access into the writer's sociological imagination. What emerges from this is a paradoxical portrait of Elias: if not as a "homo clausus" who cultivated the isolationist and lonely posture he relentlessly criticized as our prevailing social habitus, then at least as a detached outsider in his own field, who hardly applied the "principle of generosity" when reading his contemporaries as he expected others to do when reading him. But this irony too must be considered within the complex figuration that constitues the very life of theory.

Thomas Kemple
Anthropology and Sociology
University of British Columbia

November 1999
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