A colleague asked me for a definition of “sociogenesis”. I don’t do definitions. Can anyone offer anything pithy?

Professor Stephen Mennell
St Catharine’s College
Cambridge, CB2 1RL
United Kingdom

[Visiting Scholar, 2006-7]
Tel. +44 1223 329022

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16 Responses to Sociogenesis

  1. Nico Wilterdink says:

    Dear Bruce Wearne,

    I suppose you are right to say that ‘genesis’ has the historical meaning of something like ‘regular unfolding’ and that Elias must have been aware of that. It is also true that in The Civilizing Process he speaks of ‘a kind of basic “sociogenetic law” and ‘a fundamental law of psychogenesis and sociogenesis’. The English translation of the sentence in which the latter expression appears (p. 54 of the Goudsblom/Mennell reader, p. 109 of The Civilizing Process, edition 2000) is not quite correct. A better translation would be:
    ‘If one wished to express recurrent processes of this kind in the form of laws, one could speak, as a parallel to the fundamental law of biogenesis, of a fundamental law of sociogenesis and psychogenesis’.
    Elias speaks of ‘the’ biogenetic law, not ‘laws’. He obviously refers here to Ernst Haeckel’s ‘law’ which states that ontogenesis, the individual development from fertilized egg to biological maturity, is a short repetition of phylogenesis, the evolution of the species. As a parallel to this law, Elias suggests that the civilizing process over time (sociogenesis) is repeated in the psychogenesis of civilized standards in each individual’s upbringing. However, he hesitates to call this a law, as is obvious from his wording (‘a kind of…’, ‘If one wished…’). And in footnote he warns that one should take this statement too literal: ‘This expression should not be understood to mean that all the individual phases of a society’s history are reproduced in the history of the civilized individual’ (The Civilizing Process, p. XI).
    The assumption that social developments are structured to some extent, that they have observable and explainable regularities, is basic to Elias’ theorizing. But statements on these regularities are not ‘laws’. In later work Elias explicitly rejects the use of this concept for the social sciences, since it would wrongly suggest that social developments are fixed, inevitable and completely predictable.
    I hope this clarifies something.

    Nico Wilterdink

  2. Stephen Mennell says:

    n view of the rich vein of discussion that has ensued (for which I thank all participants), I feel churlish in not having given the name of my colleague whose question initiated the discussion. It was Iarfhlaith Watson. His Christian name could lead into an extensive discussion of the pronunciation of the Irish language. It is roughly Eerla.


  3. Reinhard Blomert says:

    I agree with Nico, that’s indeed the background of both of the terms, Erich Haeckel. He tried to unfold that idea already in the twenties, ten years before the civilizing process, when he wrote a paper for Jaspers (for a habilitation), looking at the stages of conscience as epistemological stages in the unfolding (or development) of mankind. It’s a pity, that this paper is missed,

  4. Dear Stephen & Elias-I,
    Google is a wonderful thing! It appears that it was Vygotsky who spoke of a ‘law of sociogenesis’, as Carl Ratner points out in a chapter titled ‘Child
    Psychology: Vygotsky’s Conception of Psychological Development
    ‘. Vygotsky, Ratner points out, wrote of “the law of sociogenesis of higher forms of behavior: speech, being initially the means of communication, the means of association, the means of organization of group behavior, later becomes the basic means of thinking and of all higher mental functions, the basic means of personality formation” (Vygotsky, Collected Works, p. 169). “Thus, the structures of higher mental functions represent a cast of collective social relations between people” (ibid.). Not sure what this says about the relationship between Vygotsky and Elias….There’s a scholar in NZ, at Massey University, Andy Lock, who point out the similarities in a course on Evolution and Learning; after outlining Elias on the historical development of psychological disposition (Bowen’s point), he says: “[Note that this formulation is very ‘Russian’, and could be put in Vygotskian terminology with minimal difficulty: cf Vygotsky’s distinction between the inter- and intra- psychological planes, and his claim that every element in the child’s development appears twice, first between people and second within the child.]” <>. I suspect there’s a substantial literature in the education, child development, etc, that link Elias and Vygotsky. There’s a recent book by Nick Lee, for example, titled Childhood and Human Value: Development, Separation and Separability, with a section headed “Competence and separability” containing these two chapters:

    Chapter 7: Lev Vygotsky: Thinking for oneself
    Chapter 8: Norbert Elias: Being responsible for oneself

    Google also throws up some definitions in medical dictionaries, viz.: “The origin of social behavior that derives from past interpersonal experiences.”

    I don’t know how long it’s been in use in medicine, but given Elias’s medical training, this raises the question of whether this is where he first encountered it?

    It gets used in sociobiology, too, there’s a piece by EO Wilson, for example, titled The sociogenesis of insect colonies. Science (1985) 228: 1489—1495, with the following abstract:

    Studies on the social insects (ants, bees, wasps, and termites) have focused increasingly on sociogenesis, the process by which colony members undergo changes in caste, behavior, and physical location incident to colonial development. Caste is determined in individuals largely by environmental cues that trigger a sequence of progressive physiological restrictions. Individual determination, which is socially mediated, yields an age-size frequency distribution of the worker population that enhances survival and reproduction of the colony as a whole, typically at the expense of individuals. This “adaptive demography” varies in a predictable manner according to the species and size of the colony. The demography is richly augmented by behavioral pacemaking on the part of certain castes and programmed changes in the physical position of colony members according to age and size. Much of what has been observed in these three colony-level traits (adaptive demography, pacemaking, and positional effects) can be interpreted as the product of ritualization of dominance and other forms of selfish behavior that is still found in the more primitive insect societies. Some of the processes can also be usefully compared with morphogenesis at the levels of cells and tissues.

    So in addition to Elias’s own counterpositioning of socio- to psychogenesis, in these other fields it also appears to get used in opposition to “morphogenesis” and perhaps something like ‘bio-genesis’?

    And, there’s another definition at Answers.Com:

    “The evolution of a particular community or unit of people.”

    That’s all for now….time for breakfast!

  5. Bruce Wearne says:

    Thankyou Mr Wilterink.
    Thus corrected let me add a note to this “Babylonian confusion” …
    The original question that began this process from Mr Mennell was imprecise.
    The question did not have to mean “how did Elias define sociogenesis?” but apparently it did, which then indicates that the colleague was seeking a specifically Eliasian definition (which Stephen does not “do”). In the history of science, philosophy and theology we can note the development of terms that use -genesis as a suffix, and which terms are used to describe law-like regularities unfolding in time. Are we not justified in assuming that Elias was conscious of this historical disclosure of terminology in his use of bio-, socio- and psycho-genesis? An awareness of the linguo-genesis of theoretical terms?
    I can now see that my reply was as ambiguous as the original question but I merely intended to draw attention to Elias’s use of the term “law of …” – and not being in any respect an expert in Elias, I simply drew attention (and as an serious novice should so with the index assistance of the Goudsblom and Mennell reader) to how the term “sociogenetic law” appears in Elias’ text, or at least in the English translation thereof (p.42, 54, 266).
    From those textual instances at least Courtney’s reflections about a journey that appears to be subject to LAW (my term was a “pathway” which might better be stated as a “regular pathway”) with all of its rich metaphoric allusions does not seem to detract from Elias’ historically-focused discussion. If it does I’d be interested to hear why?
    You say categorically that ‘a ‘law of sociogenesis’ does not exist’ – maybe, but now to avoid a dogmatic freezing of the meaning of Elias’ terminology – let alone chiselling inconvenient phrases from his text – you have at least to explain why the term itself is used by Elias, whether he believes LAW exists or not (and I note we have been told to “beware of.intelligent design” which antinomically sounds like an appeal to another kind of law to me). The phrase itself is there requiring explanation and if “law” means the formulation of observed regularities by empirical observation then, and in the terms suggested by Bowen, this would indicate observed regularities on the socio- side of the emergent coin. But even that word “regular” – with allusions to “rule” implies “law-like” which brings us back to Elias’ own phrasing “by a kind of sociogenetic law” … (see p.42 and ftn 266).
    Bruce Wearne

  6. Dear Bowen,

    Hallaluja, brother or sister, and I say Amen. Like Goffman and Sachs, Elias was a real genius. But he was the only one of the three who gave equal time to inner and outer. Sachs tried to abolish the inner, and Goffman postured as if he did. But he was too good a reporter to actually leave it out.

    Durkheim’s Suicide made a good point a hundred years ago. There is a tiny bit of the variance (less than 10%)accounted for by the purely social. But it’s time to move on out of kindergarten into elemementary school. Lets get real!


  7. Joe Maguire says:

    Dear Colleagues,

    I agree with Ruud and Nico – for what its worth I used the term as part of the title and approach to tracing the emergence of Football Hooliganism from the late Victorian period through to the 1980’s. Supervised by Eric Dunning and external examiner Stephen Mennell the thesis has the title ” ‘The Limits of Decent Partisanship’: A Sociogenetic Investigation of the Emergence of Football Spectating as a Social Problem’ – it was a sensitizing concept that attuned the researcher to the need for ‘processual’ thinking and a ‘developmental’ explanation of the phenomena in question.

    best wishes


  8. Nico Wilterdink says:

    No, Mr. Wearne, a (let alone the) ‘law of sociogenesis’ does not exist, and has never been advanced by Elias or anyone else. Elias used the term ‘sociogenesis’ for the first time in the title of part one of The Civilizing Process: ‘On the Sociogenesis of the Concepts of “Civilization” and “Culture”‘. These concepts emerged, as Elias points out, under the impact of specific historical conditions in 18th century France and Germany.
    Ruud Stokvis’ definition of ‘sociogenesis’ is quite correct, I think. It is a sensitizing concept in that it points the way to a historical-sociological or ‘processual’ explanation of social and cultural phenomena.

    Nico Wilterdink

  9. Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh says:

    To whom it may concern: the subtitle of Uber den Prozess is ”sociogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen”. One should thus not ask for a definition, but if Elias terms are not clear, for the meaning of these concepts. They are, of course, interconnected, indicating respectively the social and the individual level of Elias’ research, with genesis added as part of the development language family. Thus: no need for the Babylonian confusion now arising. And beware of intelligent design. Godfried van den Bergh

  10. Bowen Paulle says:

    Dear all,

    Funny how we all have such different takes on these two terms. I read Elias now through the eyes of Bourdieu (and the other way around as well). Sociogen = field dynamics (shifting positions, power ratios that exist ‘out there’). Psychogen = developments in habitus formation (shifts in sets of emotional, cognitive and bodily dispositons, ‘internal’). And these are only analytically seperable ‘sides of the same coin’ – what happens on one side always reverberates on the other. So a question like what is sociogen is rather strange. The question is, what is the RELATIONSHIP between sociogen en psychogen. Cannot understand one without understanding its relationship to the other. They are fundamentally interdependent, mutually constitutive.


  11. Reinhard Blomert says:

    I think, “sociogenesis” and “psychogenesis” are describing methods, that are special for Elias’ way of analysing social phenomena. In the Civilizing process he says, that there is no beginning of a process, no date, we can name, and we must go into it from a voluntarily chosen point. This is what he does, showing the distance between two ages, the roots in the middle ages, and the forming in the state building process of our habits and the constraints, it puts on our animal drives. And he shows the importance of long range processes, as he knew already the discussion on the “longue durée” in the Frensch annales School, So I would say, sociogenesis and psychogenesis are methodological concepts to know more about things. What he especially did show with this method, was the historicity of the psychoanalytical knowledge, that was originally build by Freud in an ahistorical sphere,


  12. Pieter Spierenburg says:

    I think I have used “sociogenesis” just once in print, in a semi-official publication of my department (1984) on the rise of prisons, which occurred in the late 16th century. To me, the word “sociogenesis” highlights the fact that long-term processes never have an absolute beginning or zero-point, but yet you can argue that at specific moments in time something relatively new emerges. Hence we speak of a `genesis in society.’ The mere fact of locking someone up, no doubt, is very old, but prisons were relatively new institutions in the late 16th century. The 1984 publication was based on one of my first conference papers, written in 1980. After the conference a participant told me that, when she saw the word “sociogenesis” in the title, she thought “this is going to be heavy” but concluded afterwards that the rest was in normal language. Since then, I more often use common terms like “rise” or “emergence” and try to make it clear from the context that this is no absolute beginning.

    Pieter Spierenburg

  13. Bruce Wearne says:

    Correct me if I am wrong but with Elias it is a LAW of sociogenesis … to which individual persons and social forms are unavoidably subject on their way (through time?) in the civilizing process. In this sense I would say that Richard Courteney’s definition does not miss the point since such “new” phenomena for all their innovatïon, are yet subject to the LAW of sociogenesis. He seems to have captured Elias’s emphasis on a path, a journey – subject to a LAW.

    Bruce Wearne

  14. Courtney says:

    This is interesting. I think this is a good explanation, however, I’m not too sure whether I would use the word ‘new’. It would seem, that historically different maybe a far more congruent definition next a more general ‘process’ orientated vision, which emphasises the point that the present is never complete and often relies on its outcomes in the future to be given meaning. I would argue then that it seems arbitary to use a term like new as, when does new become old? how can we know something in the present is new and not simply an outcome of public exposure?
    Of course, I don’t expect anyone to agree with this and in a similar vein I am skeptical about the benefits of the practice within the human and social sciences to characterise the Zeitgeist. I am particularly irritated by definitions such as High-Modernity, Late-Modernity, Advanced Capitalism and Bauman’s very own addition: Liquid Modernity. Personally, I am reluctant to offer a catch-all definition of the present and always use the generic term ‘contemporary (insert required geographical entity e.g. Western-Capitalist or, Former Soviet States) society’, as this further suggests the incompleteness of the present.

  15. Stokvis says:

    I think Mr Courtney misses the point that the word ‘genesis’ indicates the emergence of new phenomena. So I would say sociogenesis is ”the emergence of new social phenomena (concepts, personality structures, relations, institutions) within the context of a more general social process”.

    Ruud Stokvis

  16. Courtney says:

    Is it not? in a nut shell: The societal and organisational aspects of the civilising process(es), identified primarily, though not essentially via the development of the modern state.
    Although not necessarily accurate and canon, I always find it helpful to imagine the sociogenesis as the “journey” and the psychogenesis as its “footprints”, made within the human subject. Admittedly, this analogy doesn’t tread very far, but it conjurs in me the feeling of dynamic between the two aspects of the civilising process, which i can then use to assess other aspects of all this process sociology.

    Mr. Richard Courtney
    Dept. of Sociology
    University of Leicester
    University Rd
    LE1 7RH
    tel: (0116) 252 2748
    fax: (0116) 252 5259

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