Concrete and Abstract: Elias, Cooley, Freud, and Goffman

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?

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8 Responses to Concrete and Abstract: Elias, Cooley, Freud, and Goffman

  1. tom scheff says:


    I hope you will excuse me for taking six years to reply to your comment. I simply didn’t see it, or any of the other comments. I was asleep at the switch. But in the effort to make tardy amends, I will give your comments some thought before I reply.

    Begging forgiveness,


  2. Tom Scheff says:

    I seem not to have responded to George’s comment. My apologies, George!]

    The term SOCIAL FEAR carries us deep into the problem of emotion terminology
    I treat it as one of hundreds of other ways of hiding the crucial term shame.
    Because of this huge ambiguity, I define fear as an instinctive reaction to PHYSICAL danger, (life and limb) otherwise it pushes the s-word out of sight.

    I claim that shame is the MASTER EMOTION in all societies, ancient and modern.
    Traditional societies, however, over do it, but not as much as modern ones underplay it. I call it that for many reasons. One is that conscience is powered by shame, another is that it is shame that regulates all the other emotions.

    For example, masculinity is powered by shame, in the sense that it causes the repression of grief, fear, shame itself, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, love.

  3. George Cavaletto says:

    I want to return to the issues raised by Thomas Scheff’s message on the List-serve from last weekend.

    Tom argues that Elias came close to achieving the correct balance between the concrete and the abstract and he asks us for comments on what we think might be the ideal balance between the two “in research and teaching.” His question brought to mind my students’ reaction to the opening chapter of The Civilizing Process’s Part IV Synopsis (“The Social Constraint towards Self-Constraint”). In this chapter Elias engages in a very abstract discussion about the connection between social integration (state and capital formation) and psychic integration (internalized, unconscious “automatic” self-controls), and he then illustrates these ideas with a concrete “picture” of traveling on two roads, a road in simple warrior society and another in modern industrial society. I have found in class discussion that it is only with these two images that students come to appreciate Elias’s larger theoretical point, and, more importantly, to actually care about it. (As they do with a number of the other similar “pictures” by which Elias’s theory comes alive for them: for instance, the 16th century schoolbook description of a boy peeing against a courtyard wall; the knight’s wife who had the captured women’s breasts hacked off; the courtier whose dissimulations include the masterly controlled expression of his eyes.)

    Such images (it seems to me) not only function to reveal macro structures through the investigation of micro structures (to paragraph Elias’s note to himself that Stephen mentions), but they also serve as thought-tools in their own right, that is, as a kind of concrete ideal type by which students (and teachers alike) are facilitated in their thinking about the lived reality referenced by Elias’s larger macro-theories.

    Moreover, perhaps we have here one of the reasons that American sociologists have for the most part resisted Elias’s work (the scholarly blockages to which Tom refers). For instance, when the five American editors of the Blackwell Reader Contemporary Sociological Theory (Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, and Virk) decided to include a sample from Elias, they chose the very chapter I mentioned above, including all of it except for one short section: Elias’s images of the two roads (along with several following paragraphs). They must have thought that Elias’s micro-picture was extraneous to the formulation of his theory in a way that the preceding abstract statements were not, thereby displaying a resistance to the unique micro-macro methods by which Elias constitutes much of his theory.

    Tom also seeks a response to his contention that “the basic thesis” of Elias’ masterwork has to do with the way modernization utilized shame and disgust as “methods of social control” and how psychic repression of shame expanded its range of operation (“a repression hypothesis”). But as Stephen’s comments point out, Elias’s basic thesis, while incorporating notions of shame, is actually broader and has to do with the social formations by which contests for power are structured. Shame serves as one bridge (or “channel” as Elias’s text calls it) between broader macro figurations of these contests and the psychological functions of individual agents who exist within these contests.

    Moreover, shame is but one historical variant of Elias’s more expansive psychological conception of fear (or “social fear” as he sometimes calls it) and of the historically differing ways fear serves as the psychological counterpart of various social figurations of power competition: direct or physical fear (warrior society), delicacy, disgust and status-variant shame (court society), and an increasingly unconscious, invariant shame and embarrassment (modern bourgeois society). In addition, I would think one should be careful about adopting the paradigm of “social control” in explaining Elias’s notion of the historical role of shame or any of these other variants of social fear. Perhaps in some very abstract way, these social fears can be seen as the psychological means by which some sort of broader societal “control” or “order” is maintained, but this is not (as far as I can tell) Elias’s view of them or his view of the nature of social figurations.

    George Cavalletto

  4. Johan Goudsblom says:

    Dear Tom,

    Many years ago, in 1995, I have published an article on ‘Shame as social pain’, in Dutch. As Alvin Gouldner once said to me in one of his caustic moments, publishing in Dutch is equivalent to not publishing at all, and from an American point of view he was of course almost right. For a long time I have left my article in its Dutch cage, but then when I was invited to give the opening lecture at a conference in Brazil earlier this year on emotions and the civilizing process, I decided to present an abbreviated version in English of my original piece about shame, mixed with some personal recollections. Since this piece was written as a lecture, and not in the format required by ‘scientific’ journals, I have chosen rather informal channels for its publication, and sent it to the Newsletter editors of two ASA Sections. One, the editor of the Sociology of Emotions Newsletter, immediately responded with enthusiasm, the other, the editor of the Social Psychology Newsletter, has not yet acknowledged receiving my message.

    Your appeal to the Elias forum has prompted me to also submit the piece there. But before doing so I send you a copy personally.

    Best wishes,


  5. Tom Scheff says:


    You are right, of course. I have still not recovered from first reading TCP in the l978 translation, in two volumes. The shame/disgust propositions are central to the first volume, power to the second.

    And you are also right in the sense that Elias seemed to think that power relationships are closer to the causal core than emotions. I beg to differ with Elias on this point. Early Marx managed not to make that judgment. He seemed to give social integration, in the sense of alienation/solidarity, as great a causal force as power relationships.
    Early Marx even spoke of shame as a causal force.

    But later Marx got caught up in power relationships of the political economy. He was followed in this direction by most social science up to this day. My sense is that this error is part of the problem, not the solution.

    The violent conflicts we are witness to today are just as much products of hidden emotional/relational dynamics as power and property. Since the former is hidden and the latter highly visible, identification and analysis of the e/r dynamics seems to me the first order of the day for social science. More anon.

  6. Stephen Mennell says:

    I’m not sure whether I am responding to Tom or merely experimenting with the challenging new technology that Robert has set up for us. Since I don’t seem to have been asked for a password, I’m inclined to think that this posting won’t work. So I’ll keep my substantive comment short:

    Steve Loyal and Steve Quilley provocatively wrote that Elias was “profoundly unoriginal”; but they didn’t really mean that as a negative comment – they meant that his enormous intellectual strength was for synthesis, for making connections between many fairly familiar ideas that had hitherto been seen as separate. And I think the note to himself that René Moelker recently unearthed is very important. Elias summed up “the Eliasian method” as “to reveal macro structures by investigating micro structures”. Much as I admire Goffman, I never have the feeling that it is even part of his project to try to say much about the macrosociological level within which his microsocial interactions are taking place. Shame was one of the concepts through which Elias effected the bridge between the (relatively) micro and the macro, but not the only one. And not the most basic one either: the idea of power, or rather of power ratios, is all-pervasive in Elias’s work, and it is linked to the mechanisms of shaming. I’ve never thought power played much part in Goffman’s thinking, though as always I am prepared to be convinced otherwise by Tom.

    Now let’s see if this newfangled blog thingy works …


  7. Barbara Walters says:

    Tom — Maybe another iron rule of all online forums is that new blossoms come from people who missed the first ones — I have been overwhelmed with work and your fascinating posting is the first which I have had a chance to read and to which I can actually respond. I would like to introduce a line questioning about Elias’s reception of Habermas — based on Stephen Mennells’s book — and then pose a question about how this may or may not have changed in the new technological world with list-serves, e-mails, websites, and Blackberries.

    Here’s your query:
    “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.”

    Your query prompted me to reflect on the differences between Freud and Habermas and then to see if and where Elias might have encountered them. The theoretical concepts of Freud, it seems to me, are much more closely bound to what Simone de Beauvoir would call the species-being, whereas the work of Haermas, while cognizant of Freud, was much more deeply rooted in Idealism, and an Idealism carried forward into post-modernity as an expression of faith in rational communication. Habermas would square with your thesis, I think, in a general non-deterministic cultural evolutionary model in which the fundamental orientation and direction is toward “rationalization” or rational communication.

    Stephen Mennell takes up this topic briefly in Norbert Elias: An Introduction (p. 277) citing Richard Kilminster’s introduction to The Symbol Theory. Kilminster draws attention to Elias’s denunciation of the Cartesian/Kantian tradition shortly after reading recent writers, including Jurgen Habermas, that Kilminster and Mennell (and probably Elias) regarded as Kantian. (Robert Wuthnow views Habermas slightly differently, as do I, but there must be some Habermas experts out there to comment.)

    “What I think galvanized Elias was the realisation that the transcendental dimension of Kantian thinking is defeatist. It assumes that people cannon adapt themselves to different situations and develop new ways of thinking from the nature of the emerging new objects they confront: they are forever shackled by fixed categories” (Kilminster’s Introduction, p. xxi — quoted by Mennell as cited above).

    Tom, according to your logic, they would have to break out of their social circle to break through the fixed categories of local customs. I view Habermas a little differently and would see his work much more closely related, if parallel, to Elias’s — and probably adaptable to Mead (not mentioned in your comments) and Cooley. There are many reasons, I think, why the kind of abstract theory embodied in both him and Elias has never appealed so much to Americans — self-control has never been lionized as a virtue in American and we have never had anything even approximating cultural unity in America, whereas especially the Catholic tradition of medieval Europe had this as its foundations. They thought Madonna was the Mother of God — her picture is everywhere — whereas we think of her as a rock star — her picture is everywhere. What is modern in Europe, perhaps, is the increasing democratization of the self-control ideal with the emergence of the middle classes and the t!
    mation from externalizing to internalizing means (shame and disgust) to bring it about.

    My question back to you is this: have the social parameters within which the self is defined changed with electronic communication and social circles in which the participants are never face-to-face?

    Barbara R. Walters
    Associate Professor of Sociology
    City University of New York — Kingsborough
    Consortial Faculty for the CUNY Online Baccalaureate

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