* Les textes de Jack GOODY et de Johan GOUDSBLOM ont été présentés dans le cadre du Colloque organisé par Bernard LACROIX et Alain GARRIGOU à l’occasion du centenaire de la naissance de Norbert ELIAS en mai 1997. La rédaction de POLIS remercie Alain GARRIGOU et Bernard LACROIX pour l’autorisation de les publier.




par Jack GOODY


Elias starts the preface of his well-known book on The Civilizing Process with the words: 'Central to this study are the modes of behaviour considered typical of Western civilized man’. His problematic is that in the 'medieval-feudal' period, Europe was not civilized. The 1civilizing of the West came later. How did behaviour and 'affective life' change after the Middle Ages? How can we understand 'the psychical process of civilization'? Speciflcally, he claims, there was a shift in 'the feelings of shame and delicacy ; the standard of what society demands and prohibits changes. In conjunction with this, the threshold of socially instilled displeasure and fear moved, and 50 the question of 'sociogenic' fears emerges as one of the central problems of the civilizing process. Some peoples, he suggests, appear more childuke, less grown up than ourselves; they have not reached the same stage in the civilizing process. While Elias does not claim that 'our civilized mode of behaviour is the most advanced of ail humanly possible modes of behaviour, nevertheless the very concept of civilized' expresses the self-consciousness of the West By this term Western society seeks to describe its superiority.

He draws attention to 'the notion that people should seek to harmonize with and show consideration for each other, that the individual may not always give way to his emotions' that crops Up quite frequently in France, especially in the court literature, and in England. Those ideas were not present in feudal society but arose out of the court life of the absolutist monarchies of post-medieval Europe; 'related social situations, life in the monde, led everywhere in Europe to related precepts and modes of behaviour'. In other words the civilizing process is seen as linked to modernisation in Europe. Elias' notion that the rise of the state is connected with the control of feelings has its parallels elsewhere: indeed one suspects it is part of the post-facto justification for the state's very existence. In his commentary on the great eleventh-century Japanese novel, The Tale of the Genji, Bazan writes: 'To express themselves in feelings is the nature of the people; to rest in ritual and righteousness was the beneficent influence of the former kings". There is nothing particularly European about this notion, which in fact neglects the kind of regulation that exists in other societies.

The problems with this thesis are firstly that all social life, everywhere, involves some consideration to other individuals, some taking into account, some measure of restraint on the emotions and on behaviour, even for reciprocity's sake. While he is absolutely right in showing the historical development of table manners, that has little to do with any absolute notion of consideration for others. That we find elsewhere. And indeed lack of consideration in other spheres grows parri passu with developments in table manners; today's violence in family and street is not a mirage and it is incredible that Elias could write in this Whiggish way at the time when Nazis were murdering Jews throughout Europe, with handkerchiefs in their pockets.

In any case the assumption is that this process is happening in Europe. Elias would doubtless admit that it was also happening in China (which is mentioned only four times in the course of this long book on civilization, twice in the notes) but his explanatory scheme leaves little or no room for the inclusion of other 'civilizations', let alone 'other cultures', for it is highly eurocentric.

Elias has had some influence on the development of sociological analysis but always in the European context, as for example in Mennell's excellent book on the development of food in France and England, which is historical in content but has been given a sociological frame. That frame is the 'figurational sociology' of Norbert Elias.

'The word "figuration" is used to denote the patterns in which people are bound together in groups, states, societies - patterns of interdependence which encompasses every form of co-operation and conflict and which are very rarely static or unchanging. Within a developing social figuration, modes of individual behaviour, cultural tastes, intellectual ideas, social stratification, political power and economic organisation are all entangled with one another in complex ways which themselves change over time in ways that need to be investigated. The aim is to provide a "sociogenic" explanation of how figurations change from one type to another… ‘(Mennell 1985: 15 - 16)

Elias, like Mennell, produces some interesting historical 'sociology'. That necessarily involves analysis of events over time, and change and continuity is what he is trying to deal with in introducing the notion of 'figuration'. But what does it in fact do that is not already done by numerous sociological or anthropological concepts? Very little. Moreover there is always the problem with Elias' work that the figurations have little comparative basis. Mennell refers to Elias' suggestion that 'it is one of the peculiarities of Western society that the reduction of contrasts in culture and conduct has been meshed with the co-mingling of traits deriving initially from very different social levels'. I doubt very much that this feature is uniquely Western; certainly no shadow of a proof is offered. Nor do we have any understanding, either in his original work or in his comments on Ghana, of human society, behaviour or figurations as a whole. And while one can certainly do valuable scholarly work without such an understanding, its absence certainly inhibits the analysis of the ‘civilizing process’.

One problem about the thesis is that it is seen as one of unilineal evolution that took off in Europe, at the time of the Renaissance. Such a view ignores the process of civilisation in earlier and other cultures. It is seen as an aspect of modernity which is part of a comprehensive process that includes the socio-economic changes marking the advent of capitalism (in the Weberian account) as well as the developments of knowledge systems. But the kind of restraint and etiquette that is manifested in the manuals Elias examined is a feature of ail major systems of stratification. I mean by major systems those associated with post-Bronze Age societies, which extended from Eastern Asia to Western Europe (omitting for the time being the New World). Indeed beyond that because Muslim missionaries spread forms of restrained behaviour, including certain forms of cleanliness, in other cultures too, as happened in China when educational institutions spread Confucian manners, rites and ideologies throughout that immense land. Perhaps even outside that range, for in the more culturally egalitarian' stratification of Africa where special behaviours of this kind are attached not 50 much to groups ('classes') as to individual office-holders, there is another hierarchy of the kind of restraint Elias observes. That is to point to the weakness of that particular evolutionary view, not of all evolutionary views of course but of those that take as their model relatively short-term developments in Europe and take the emergence of class-differentiated behaviour in a particular cultural situation (a recurrent process) as a unique event.

Some of Elias' problems with other cultures can be seen from his comment s on his experiences in Ghana in Reflection on a Life (Cambridge 1994). There he explains how in 1962 it was suggested that he take up the chair of sociology in Ghana for 2-3 years. He accepted, for though he was over sixty, 'I had an immense curiosity for the unknown'. As a result he developed a 'deep liking for African culture' in a way that strongly resembled the attraction of nineteenth-century writers for the ‘naturvolk’. Even the Greek culture, people had not always realized, was at a different level of development ; they sacrificed bulls to their gods. 'I wanted to see ail that with my own eyes - the entrails spilling out, the blood spurting'. ‘I knew in Ghana that I would see magic arts, that I would be able to see animal sacrifices, in vivo, and I did in fact witness many things experiences which have lost their colour in more developed societies. Naturally, this had to do with my theory of the civilizing processes, the emotions were stronger and more direct'. More natural, less civilized.

How did he learn about 'primitive culture', his interlocutor asks him in this book of interviews. 'I did a lot of fieldwork with my students. I began to collect African art, and some of my students took me to visit their homes. There I learned how formalized and ritualized Ghanaian life is: the student stood behind his father's chair and behaved towards him almost like a servant. The old type of family certainly is still very much in force in Ghana’.

He recalls driving to a village 'deep in the jungle' with his chauffeur (there is a above a picture of the author with his cook and chauffeur). He reached the village and 'I realized for the first time what it means not to have any electric current.' The inhabitants betrayed equal curiosity and surrounded him saying 'a white man bas come', asking about his wife (he was a bachelor). On another occasion he went to the area that was to be flooded by the new Volta dam and was amazed that people worried about what would happen to their local gods when the waters came. This active concern with god s, and there are many of them, he sees as related to people's greater insecurity. He applies this thought to personality structure: ‘one has to conclude that the super-ego is constructed differently from ours, for all these gods and spirits are representations of the super-ego’. Whereas we presumably know only one God and have less segmental superegos. In this way Ghana helped him see (or confirmed his belief that Freud needed to be developed further in a comparative direction and in accordance with his notion of the civilizing process. ‘I thought that super-ego and ego formation in simpler societies would be different from ours, and this expectation was fully confirmed in Ghana’. ‘It is not enough to rely on an inner voice to restrain oneself to achieve restraint 'they have to imagine there are beings outside them which force them to do this or that. You see it everywhere if you go to such a country'. In other words, restraint is there (contrary to other assumptions about the nature of sacrifice) but the policing is different.

However this difference is not because they are more 'childish' as his interlocutor suggests; that Elias understands is a colonialist attitude. Our way of life is only possible because our physical safety is incomparably greater than theirs'. While there are some upper-class Ghanaians who are 'on the same intellectual level we are’... ‘no less educated and self restrained’, the mass of the people erect their little altars and call upon ‘fetishes’. Such religious activity (Elias is an out-and-out humanist) appears to be identified with unrestrained and uneducated behaviour.

The perception of such behaviour lies behind his enjoyment of their artistic manifestations. Their art

‘expresses emotions far more strongly and directly than the traditional art of the nineteenth century or Renaissance. And that fits in very well with my theory of civilizing processes; for in the Renaissance there was an enormous advance of civilization, expressed not least in the attempt to make paintings and sculptures as realistic as possible. In the twentieth century there was a reaction against that. One can also relate it to Freud: what happened in psychoanalysis - that on a new level a higher degree of affect expression could be permitted is also seen in non-naturalistic art, which bas a far greater resemblance to dream. African sculptures have the same quality. There are frightening masks and friendly masks, but they all give stronger expression, if you like, to the unconscious’.

Realism seems to mean restraint, the restraint of objective reality. Freud represents a reversion to the primitive and the lack of restraint, though it is not obvious how his developmental theory encompasses such reversals.

He relies heavily on a popular version of Freud. At one time be proclaims Freud as permitting a higher level of affect expression; in other words of going against the general move towards civilization and restraint. His account is psychological in a vague way. At the same time be sees Freud as needing to be supplemented. The notions of the super-ego would be different in other (simple) societies, which was fully confirmed in Ghana. However the evidence he uses is simply the multiplicity of shrines to which people refer their actions. The superficiality of this observation is what one would expect from someone 50 little acquainted with the societies as Elias.

I met Elias briefly when be was Professor of Sociology at Legon. It must have been in 1964. He had started his art collection (most expatriates did - it was not difficult as Hausa entrepreneurs visited the colonial style bungalows in the campus every evening with their wares; such transactions represented the complete decontextualization and commoditization of African art, but they provided something tangible to take back to suburbia). My impression was of a scholar deeply embedded in the European experience and committed to Weberian categories, at least when we talked about local political systems. He appeared to have read very little about this ‘unknown’ place, which was receiving a great deal of scholarly attention at the time, and gained his knowledge from what he called his 'field trips' driving out to a village with chauffeur and students. It was little informed by scholarly works on ‘other cultures’. I As an anthropologist who bad by then spent several years in Ghanaian villages, I was upset by this notion of fieldwork and by what I saw as the very non-comparative kind of sociology he practised. I described myself as a comparative sociologist, following a model of George Homans or Lloyd Warner who both tried to take into account the full range of human behaviour. Nor was I happy at the collecting and exporting of African objects, about whose use one knew or understood little. It reminded me too strongly of art collectors, grave robbers and of those predatory members of the scholarly tribe who though now justifying themselves on grounds of conservation were more concerned with acquisition and display than with an appreciation of the cultural context and the meaning of such objects to the actors themselves, which I suggest is far from the 'naturvolk' idea that Elias perceives. His parallel attitude to African religion is well expressed in the use of the word .'fetish' and in his anxiety to see a blood sacrifice. That reminded me of the amazement which the Black American writer Richard Wright. Wright expressed when be returned to Ghana, to find his roots and saw the throat of a chicken being cut down some back alley. He recorded it in a way that made me wonder if either of them had seen a kosher or Muslim killing of an animal, or experienced a ‘Christian' slaughterhouse in Chicago or elsewhere.

The problems with Elias' theory of social processes can be seen clearly in the Ghana comments. Everything seems to fit. At one time a student is showing excessive restraint before his father. At another people are slaying chickens to their shrines and indicating greater freedom of emotional expression. We progress towards restraint when Freud lifts off the lid. The two comments seem to run in quite different directions, indicating perhaps that the psychological and sociological interpretations are suspect.

I would find it very difficult to say if the LoDagaa of Northern Ghana, with whom I spent two years, were more or less restrained than the British; any assessment would have to depend on the context of activity, not on an overall categorization. Certainly I did not see African religion as any less restrained than the Pentecostals who were then preaching in the Wa market some 50 miles away (Holy Jo as he was known to ail and sundry). Killing a chicken was carried out to discover the truth about a troubling situation, possibly as an offering to a deity, but it did not display the orgiastic qualities, or the freedom, which Elias attributes to the act. Is his attribution of psychological states and his sociological analysis equally suspect in his European work?

Elias' problem about understanding Ghana touches upon the roots of his theory about the progressive restraint intrinsic to the civilizing process. He sees African art as achieving a more direct expression of feeling. Blood sacrifice again is seen to touch upon the orgiastic, an action that civilization bas taught us to contain. So too the worship of a plurality of ‘fetishes’. All these aspects of Ghanaian society are seen as a closer to uninhibited feelings, the absence of restraint. The contradiction comes when he acknowledges the highly ritualized (and restrained) behaviour of the Ghanaian University student standing rigidly behind his father's chair. The fact of the matter is that ail social life demands restraint, demands a control of behaviour that would otherwise lead to a war of ail against ail. Ritual often does precisely that. So too does language which intervenes between affect and expression.






I was delighted when I heard that Jack Goody was going to write a paper on ‘The "Civilizing Process" in Ghana, and to address the problem of whether and how Norbert Elias's concept of the civilizing process can be applied to societies outside of Europe. I know that Goody bas worked on similar problems as Elias in The Civilizing Process and other writings. An impressive example is The Domestication of the Savage Mind, where Goody bas followed developmental approach to understanding different forms of human thought.

A later book, Cooking - Cuisine and Class, contains a long section in which Goody makes good use of Elias's ideas about the development of table manners. Thus he writes:

‘Etiquette of this kind (not putting half-eaten meat back in the bowl, wiping one's nose on one's sleeve) is not superficial, a matter for the surface rather than the depths; refined ways of acting are 50 internalised an to make alternative behaviour truly disputing, "nauseous", turning them into some of the most highly charged and deeply felt of intra-social differences, so that "rustic" behaviour is not merely quaint but barbarous' (Goody 1982:140)’.

These words resemble Elias's ideas to such an extent that I have once even quoted them in a lecture to make my audience believe for a moment that I was quoting Elias. I also found Goody's comments on the hierarchical differentiation of manners very congenial to my own ideas on the differentiation of behaviour and power in military-agrarian societies (cf. Goudsblom 1992; Goudsblom. Jones and Mennell 1996).

I was therefore looking forward to a most interesting paper when Alain Garrigou told me that Jack Goody bad written a paper on 'The "Civilizing Process" in Ghana', with theoretical comments on the problem of how 'universal' theory of the civilizing process is. Unfortunately the paper did not quite live up to my expectations.

Before entering into wore detailed comments on Goody's paper I should like to say a few words about bow to go about discussing Elias's work in general. i myself have been involved in such discussions for many years - as a participant, and also sometimes as best as I could as a commentator. In these combined roles I wrote a paper on ‘The Theory of the Civilizing Process and its Discontents’ for the World Congress of Sociology in Bielefeld in 1994. In that paper - noted in the opening paragraph:

Since its first publication in 1939, Norbert Elias's theory of the civilizing process bas been both acclaimed and criticized. In the critiques, four inter-related objections stand out. It is said that the theory :

  1. is teleological,
  2. b) reflects a Eurocentric view,
  3. misrepresents the development in Europe itsel1; and
  4. is incompatible with contemporary trends which appear to disprove the very idea of continuing civilization.

The same objections resound in Jack Goody's paper; that is why I have decided to submit my Bielefeld paper to our present conference.

In discussing the ideas of Norbert Elias, or any other sociologist or anthropologist, we run the risk of scholasticism, of lapsing into exegetical disputes, or apologetics. Let me state explicitly that discussions about the proper interpretation of what Elias or any other great thinker really said, and what we think he meant when he said it, are perfectly legitimate, but belong to the history of our disciplines. If, on the other band, we are primarily concerned with the advancement of our disciplines, I think we should focus on what we ourselves consider the best version of the theory under discussion - in this case, the theory of the civilizing process.

Opting for the second alternative does not mean that ~ regard what Elias himself bas said irrelevant. On the contrary; in my own 'best version' I draw heavily on his concepts and ideas. ~ do not intend to engage in an exegesis of Elias's texts, however. I wish to go 'beyond Elias' - in the same way as Elias used to say that we should go 'beyond Marx' and 'beyond Freud'. Goody's paper is flawed from the beginning, I think, because he bas misinterpreted the way in which Elias intended to use the terms civilization and civilizing process. In the opening passage of his book, Elias introduced the term civilization by pointing to its meaning in a particular Western tradition. Anthropologists might say that be started from the 'emic' meaning of the concept of civilization, and then proceeded to try and transform it into a more technical 'etic' concept.

Goody quotes a sentence from the passage in which Elias treats civilization as an 'emic' concept. As a sociologist, Elias inquired into the functions which this concept bad for those who used it: in eighteenth century France, at the time of the First World War, and in his own time - in the 1930s, when he was writing his book.

He concluded that the concept expressed 'the self-consciousness of the West'. It summed Up everything in which Western society of the last two or three centuries believes itself superior to earlier societies or "more primitive" contemporary ones' (1994.4).

Unfortunately, some readers - including Jack Goody - have failed to see that Elias was only saying that ‘the West’ was expressing a sense of superiority - not that the West was superior. It would be interesting to know why Goody and others jump to this conclusion. I leave that question open, however, and suffice by noting that Goody's reading of the opening pages of The Civilizing Process is indiscriminate, not to say sloppy, and that be imputes 'etic' meaning to statements which are quite obviously 'emic'.

Like other readers before him, Goody recognizes in Elias's work a tradition of looking at the history of civilization in a Eurocentric, 'Whiggish' manner. What he fails to see is a) that everything in this tradition must necessarily be complete nonsense, and b) that Elias's own theory starts from making this very tradition problematic, and giving it a now twist.

Instead of being interested in what is novel in Elias's approach, Goody seems to have an eye only for what is already common-place. He notes that the development of table manners bas little to do 'with any absolute notion of consideration for others'. Quite right; but did Elias ever say anything different? A fundamental insight of Elias is that we should cease talking about 'absolutes' in general, and therefore certainly not indulge in speaking about an 'absolute notion of consideration for others'.

Goody projects a simple-mindedness and naivete onto Elias that I find almost unbelievable. Thus, in his next sentence, be insinuates that Elias was unaware of what the Nazis were doing at the time when be was writing The Civiiizing Process. I can only return the compliment. How naive and short-sighted must Goody have been to state that Elias, writing in exile and anxious about his parents' fate, was so naive and short-sighted!

There is no doubt that many of the remarks made by Goody make perfectly good sense. The only trouble in that be makes them sound as if Elias is of another opinion - which is just plainly wrong.

Thus, while Elias emphatically says that the point from which he studies the civilizing process in no way constitutes 'a beginning', Goody says that his view 'ignores the process, of civilization in earlier and other cultures'.

Likewise, Goody points out that the kind of restraint and etiquette Elias examined is 'a feature of all major systems of stratification'. Perfectly true, and Elias would have been the first to agree.

I am willing to accept that as an anthropologist Goody bas acquired a more intimate knowledge of culture and society in Ghana than Elias. It would have been most interesting if be bad made some comments on the problem of whether it is possible to discern a particular direction in the civilizing processes in Ghana over a number of generations.

Elias himself was intrigued by this problem. In his study on time he quoted extensively from a Ghanese source to illustrate 'the time-experience of people at a relatively early agricultural stage' (Elias 1992:51). In the same book be warned emphatically against the tendency to conceive of civilizing processes in purely quantitative terms suggesting that 'that human beings in the early stage s of their social development live together with a small quantity of, if not entirely without, social and individual patterns of self-regulation and self-restraint' (Elias 1992:147-8).

In spite of this clear caveat, Goody thinks fit to quote Elias's comment in an interview that he had often found during his stay in Ghana that 'the emotions were stronger and more direct', and then to add, as if continuing Elias's own train of thought: 'More natural, less civilized.

According to Goody, Elias 'relies heavily on a popular version of Freud'. Why a 'popular version'? Why not say that Elias 'relies heavily on Freud' - as Elias himself would have been the first to admit -, and add that Elias made a great contribution to 'historicizing' and 'sociologizing Freud's ideas?.

And why put forward the silly notion that Elias saw the ritual killing of a chicken as displaying 'orgiastic qualities'? Is not Goody himself here propagating a popular, not to say vulgar, version of Elias?

It is a pity that Goody, like other anthropologists before him, confines himself to a superficial and unsympathetic misrepresentation of Elias's theory. Unfortunately he fails to seize the opportunity to address the problem of whether it is possible to apply Elias's ideas about civilizing processes in an area in which he himself bas such great expertise.

It is in also to be regretted that he does not refer to any literature in which earlier critiques of Elias are discussed (such as Mennell 1989) nor to studies in which Elias's notion of civilizing processes is used to apply to humanity at large (such as Goudsblom 1992).

To conclude, I should like to ask Goody some questions. Does be find the concept of civilizing processes applicable at all to Ghana? In other words, does he think that the behaviour of people in Ghana, like the behaviour of people in Europe, can be interpreted as having been moulded by civilizing processes? If so, is he prepared to acknowledge that differences in behaviour among different social classes and different generations may be attributed to differences in civilizing processes? And again, if 50, does he agree that studying civilizing processes along the lines suggested by Elias may be a fruitful way of combining history, sociology, and psychology?