Elias on laughter

Since no objections were raised and I received three expressions of interest, I’ve scanned and attached the splendid Merkur article by Michael Schröter, in a searchable German-language .pdf. All in the spirit of non-commercial sharing of knowledge, since Merkur makes only a few of its articles available online.

Speaking of applications of Elias’ thought to new domains, I just thought I’d mention David Garland’s 1990 book Punishment and Modern Society. In Chapter 10 (‘Punishment and Sensibilities’), Garland draws explicitly on Elias to develop a theory of the ‘civilization’ of criminal punishment in Europe. A few representative quotations are below the signature.

Does anyone happen to know offhand how Garland’s treatment of Elias in this particular area was received within sociological circles?

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Düsseldorf

“[I]t seems perfectly clear that Elias’ analysis of the development and characteristics of modern sensibilities has a profound importance for the study of punishment, which, as I have argued, is a sphere of social life deeply affected by conceptions of what is and is not ‘civilized.’” (216)

“[T]he development of self-controls, internalized restraints, and inhibiting anxieties such as fear, shame, delicacy and embarrassment.…[h]ave important consequences for the ways in which we punish in modern society….” (219)

“Social manners are primarily about the ways in which individuals relate to one another, and so the psychological structures underpinning human relations are also subjected to important changes by the process of civilization. During the course of this long-term change individuals have tended to become more willing—and better able—to adjust their conduct to take into account that of others, and generally more given to identifying other individuals as human beings like themselves who are worthy of respect and consideration. This refinement of manners and sensitivity to the feelings of others is at first a mark of respect for social superiors, and is undertaken consciously and instrumentally as an act of deference to a superior power, in the same way that violence is first renounced by knights in recognition of the prince’s superior force of arms. However, as they are passed from generation to generation, these ways of behaving towards others gradually lose their instrumental aspect and become ways of behaving which individuals feel are right in themselves. Eventually, such manners are adopted towards social equals and even towards social inferiors as expressing the proper way to behave in the company of others.” (220)

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One Response to Elias on laughter

  1. Mennell says:

    Dear Andrew

    I’ve only just seen your recent message.

    My impression is that David Garland’s work has introduced Elias’s work so effectively that it now has something approaching paradigmatic status among criminologists (or at least historical criminologists). This fits with my hypothesis – which I tossed out on the spur of the moment at the Leicester conference a year ago – that for some reason Elias appeals most strongly to people in interstitial or liminal disciplines: on boundaries such as history/sociology, psychology/sociology, or (as in the case of international relations – Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh, and now Andrew Linklater is now prominently using Elias) politics/sociology/history.

    David had been helping me greatly with my book The American Civiliisng Process, of which I am just now correcting the proofs (it will be out in summer or early autumn). He can’t claim to be the first criminologist to pick up Elias: Ted Gurr referred to Elias in the famous 1981 essay, though that was before the second volume of The Civilising Process had appeared in English, so his reference was a bit confused), and of course Pieter Spierenburg has been using Elias since his postgraduate years. David nevertheless passed me along the criminology network to people like Manuel Eisner in Cambridge, who has done remarkable work showing the parallel (mainly downward) long-term trends in homicide both in Western Europe and USA.

    By the way, I’ve offered to give a paper and expressed a wish to organise a session on Elias’s relavance to America at the SSHA meeting in Chicago in November. I hope Cas Wouters, whose own book will also be published about then, will be able to join me. Could you, or any other readers of this list, offer papers there too?

    I’m planning to give a paper at the ASA in NYC in August too. Shall we meet then?



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