Notes, References and Table


 The state, mass extermination and the breakdown of civilization’ 

Monopolization of violence (state formation) Decreasing levels of domestic violence ‘Normal’ civilizing processes: [NB externalization of violence: world wars, colonial wars]

Monopolization of violence (state formation) Increasing levels of compartmentalized domestic violence ‘Dyscivilizing’ processes: categorical disidentification; compartmentalization (with encapsulated local decivilizing processes) [NB externalization of violence: idem]

Demonopolization of violence Increasing levels of domestic violence ‘Normal’ decivilizing processes pervasive deinstitutionalization, anomie, regression – ‘breakdown’ [NB external invasions, ‘peace keeping missions’ etc.]

Demonopolization of violence Decreasing levels of internal violence ‘Civilizing’ processes ‘without a state’? low-level, local balances of power [NB external indifference, oblivion]


1. For a combined discussion of Elias’ and Bauman’s views, see Jonathan Fletcher (1997: 148-175), and Watts (1998). 

2. This is a quite literal rendering of the German title of the last part of the original German edition, Elias, 1978-9 (‘Entwurf zu einer Theorie der Zivilisation’, pp. 312-454). It was abandoned for the heading ‘Towards a theory of civilizing processes’ (my emphasis) in the English editions (Elias 1982, 2000). 

3. Quotations are from the English edition (Elias, 1996). 

4. Elias adds that this was not the only regression into barbarism in the civilized societies of the twentieth century. 

5. For a thoughtful account of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia in terms of a ‘fragmentation’ and ‘disintegration’ of the state and a subsequent ‘decivilizing process’, see Zwaan (1996). For a discussion of a variety of 20th century developments in terms of civilization theory see also Mennell (1990). 

6. It is worthwhile to note that to this very day the massacres of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Africans, e.g. in the conquest of the Congo (cf. Hochschild, 1998) merit hardly any mention in the literature on the overall evaluation of the nineteenth century. 

7. This is a variation on the expression ‘regression in service of the ego’, which goes back to Ernst Kris (1959; 312): ’the ego may use the primary process and not only be overwhelmed by it… under certain conditions the ego regulates regression…’ This refers to an ego-controlled regression in order to accomplish certain ego-syntonic tasks, as may occur for example during the creative process or in the course of the patient’s psychoanalysis. In the case of dyscivilization, barbaric episodes occur under conditions of full control by the state apparatus in order better to accomplish certain objectives the regime has set itself. 

8. It would be most worthwhile to pursue the themes in Foucault’s oeuvre that anticipate the present line of argument. 

9. It takes ‘only one wrong turn’ for people to inadvertently become enmeshed in the inferno of decivilization: this is of course what happened to the hero of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the vanities (1987), from the moment he took the wrong highway exit. 

10. Robert van Krieken (1999) describes one step along that road when he relates how the Australian authorities took children of (mixed) aboriginal descent away from their parents, precisely in the name of ‘civilization’. 

11. Cf. Fletcher (1997: 286), who defines civilization a.o. as ‘an expansion in the scope of mutual identification within and between groups’. 

12. Such an effort might find support in the literature that has emerged around the concept of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ states, e.g. Badie and Birnbaum (1983); Migdal (1988). 


Badie, Bertrand and Pierre Birnbaum (1983) The Sociology of the State. Chicago and London: Chicago U.P. 

Bauman, Zygmunt (1989), Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity. 

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) Postmodern Ethics. Oxford etc.: Blackwell. 

Danner, Mark (1997) ‘America and the Bosnia Genocide’ New York Review of Books, December 4. 

De Swaan, Abram (1990) The Management of Normality; Critical Essays in Health and Welfare. London/New York: Routledge. 

De Swaan, Abram (1997) ‘Widening circles of disidentification; On the Psycho- and sociogenesis of the hatred of distant strangers – Reflections on Rwanda’ Theory, Culture and Society, 14. 2, May, pp. 105-122. 

Dunning, Eric and Stephen Mennell (1995) ‘Elias on Germany, Nazism, and the Holocaust: On the Balance Between “Civilising” and “De-civilising” trends in the Social Development of Western Europe’ British Journal of Sociology , 45.3 September, pp. 339-357. 

Elias, Norbert (1982) The Civilizing Process: State Formation and Civilization. [transl. by Edmund Jephcott] Oxford: Blackwell. 

Elias, Norbert (2000) The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. [revised transl.; eds. Eric Dunning and Johan Goudsblom] Oxford: Blackwell. 

Elias, Norbert (1996) The Germans; Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge: Polity Press (edited by Michael Schröter, translated and with a preface by Eric Dunning and Stephen Mennell). 

Elias, Norbert (1978-9) Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation : soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen; 1. Bd.: Wandlungen des Verhaltens in den weltlichen Oberschichten des Abendlandes; 2. Bd.: Wandlungen der Gesellschaft: Entwurf zu einer Theorie der Zivilisation. (1939), (rev. ed.: Bern: Francke, 1969), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (reprint). 

Fletcher, Jonathan (1997) Violence and Civilization; An Introduction to the Work of Norbert Elias. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Freud, Anna (1966) The Ego and the Mechanisms of defense. Rev. edn. New York: International Universities Press (original publ. 1936). 

Goudsblom, Johan (1994), ‘The Theory of the Civilizing Process and its Discontents’, 13th International Sociological Association Congress, [session on figurational sociology], Bielefeld, 18-23 July (Amsterdam School of Social science Research, Papers in Progress). 

Hochschild, Adam (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

Krieken, Robert van (1999) ‘The Barbarism of Civilization: Cultural Genocide and the “Stolen Generations”‘ British Journal of Sociology 50. 2, 297-315. 

Kris, Ernst (1952) Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International Universities Press. 

Mennell, Steven (1990) ‘Decivilising Processes: Theoretical Significance and Some Lines of Research’, International Sociology 5. 2, 205-223. 

Migdal, Joel S. (1988) Strong Societies and Weak States; State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U.P. 

Szakolczai, Arpád (1997) ‘Decivilizing Processes and the Dissolution of Order; with Reference to the Case of East Europe’ paper delivered at the Norbert Elias centenary conference, Bielefeld, 2-22 June. 

Thoden van Velzen, B. (1982) ‘The Djuka Civilization’, The Netherlands Journal of Sociology 20, pp. 85-97. 

Wacqant, Loïc J. D. (1993) ‘Dé-civilisation et Diabolisation: la Mutation du Ghetto Noir Américain’ in: Christine Fauré & Tom Bishop, L’Amérique des Français . Paris: François Bourin, pp. 103-125; 

Wacquant, Loïc J. D. (1999) ‘Elias in the Dark Ghetto’ Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 24.(3&4) December, pp. 340-348. 

Watts, Rob, (1998) ‘Something Happened: An Essay in Genocide, Sociology and Modernity’, paper presented at the 14th Congress of the International Sociology Association, 25 July-1 August, Montreal. 

Wolfe, Tom (1987) The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Wouters, Cas (1986) ‘Formalization and Informalization: Changing Tension and Balances in Civilizing Processes’ Theory, Culture and Society 3, pp. 1-19. 

Zwaan, Ton (1996) ‘Staatsdesintegratie, Geweld en Decivilisering; Joegoslavië in het Perspectief van de Civilisatietheorie’, Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 23.3, pp. 425-453.