My iron law of all online forums is that they first blossom then wither. So be it. This is my attempt to stave off the process on this forum for a while.
Among the many strokes of genius in Elias’s work, there is one that contains the seeds of a revolutionary challenge to the status quo of modern societies: the self is more a social creature than a stand alone individual. Since all modern societies are individualistic, this idea is rank heresy. But it could provide the framework for an extraordinarily useful social science, one that could lead to healing changes vital to human existence. As indicated below, his work shares this challenge with the work of others, such as Cooley and Goffman. Also shared with them, and with early Freud, a central interest in shame (although Goffman usually called it embarrassment).
Everyone in our society thinks of themselves and others as more or less alone in the universe. This idea is demonstrably erroneous and, for that matter, destructive. It is a crucial part of the whole structure of alienation that is dragging us closer and closer to extinction. Traditional societies make the opposite and almost as destructive error: the individual is nothing, the relationship/group everything. This assumption interferes with creativity and with social change, which is generated, for the most part, by gifted individuals.
How can the revolutionary challenge implied in Elias’s work be addressed in research and teaching? Before it can, IMO, a crucial problem must be resolved within the ranks of us insiders. There are many issues that need to be addressed, but this one might come first. The problem is not unique to Elias, but shared with social/behavioral science as a whole: how to balance concreteness and abstractness.
The abstractness of most social psychology makes it completely safe to expound. Abstractions are boring, since they don’t hit one in the gut, challenging the most cherished beliefs. In much of social/behavioral science, theories, methods, and systematic data lack concrete instances; they are highly abstract, and therefore excessively distant from human reality.
Concrete instances, since they tell a story, are alive with meaning, but they also are problematic. Lacking abstract categories, they merely describe a single event. For this reason, they don’t lead to generalization. Both instances and abstractions seem to be needed, if they can be organized with the right balance between them.
The work of the social philosopher Charles H. Cooley explored the social nature of the self with a combination of concreteness and abstraction. Cooley’s first step is based on a single mantra: “We live in the minds of others without knowing it.” This statement contains two heresies in a single sentence. He included concrete observations of his children, and named specific emotions (pride and shame) in testable propositions about what he called the looking-glass self in social interaction. But on the whole, like most philosophy, his work was much too abstract.
The sociologist Erving Goffman brought the idea of the looking glass self to the attention of a very large group of readers in the social/behavioral sciences, the humanities, and even the public at large. Chapter 6 of his best-known book (Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), on impression management, provides concrete instances that bring the idea of the looking glass self to life.
Yet there are some problems with Goffman’s style that also serve to hide the basic challenge. Goffman gave much more emphasis to the concrete than the abstract, as ethnographers do. His particular style, however, was to collect instances from all over the map, rather than focus on a particular group or site. In this way the instances he chose, for the most part, are intriguing. Because his writing is chock full of wonderful moments, it is a pleasure to read. One doesn’t feel lost in abstractions because one can identify with many of actors. Readers say, “I’ve been through that myself.”
The problem with Goffman’s work, however, concerns the relation of the instances he has provided to a necessarily abstract THESIS. What are they instances of? For example, what is the thesis of Chapter 6, Impression Management? He doesn’t say. Goffman’s balancing of the concrete/abstract dilemma is not abstract enough. For that reason his work, in itself, standing alone without further interpretation, doesn’t clearly convey a basic challenge.
In his first book, Studies of Hysteria, Freud offered a captivating array of case studies of his patients (and one of Breuer’s). He also mentions two key emotions in connection with the cases, shame and disgust. But a thesis is only implied. Like most clinical studies, the book is too concrete because it fails to articulate a clearly stated thesis based on observations. In his later work, Freud went the other way, putting entirely too much emphasis on his central thesis, the Oedipal theory.
Elias probably got the idea of using shame and disgust as basic explanations from Freud’s work. But Elias proceeded to use it in a way that was much more balanced than Freud. I contend that the basic thesis of Elias’s brilliant The Civilizing Process is first, that with modernization, shame and disgust were increasingly used as methods of social control. Secondly, that as these emotions became more and more important, they also became less visible, a repression hypothesis. These two propositions are stated explicitly, and are based on an impressive number of instances from manuals of etiquette in four different languages over hundreds of years of European history.
I would like to know if any of you Eliasians disagree with the above paragraph. Don’t be shy. Is there another core thesis that I missed? Its possible. I also have an argument that it is this thesis that blocked interest in Elias’s work in the United States, but less so in Europe.
Of the four authors mentioned, Elias came the closest to achieving balance between concrete and abstract, and also arranged to support his abstract theses with an impressive number of instances gathered in a disciplined way. Even so, his work is not the ideal model for future research.
What is the ideal balance in research and teaching between the concrete and abstract? My next posting proposes my answer to this question. But first, some feedback from the forum?