The Civilising Offensive

I am going to an international symposium at Sheffield Hallam University, October 24, 2013, The civilizing offensive (het burgerlijk beschavingsoffensief): prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept? I had not come across the notion of a civilising offensive before although, after a little research, it seems a variant of fairly well known idea and social phenomenon but placed in the context of Norbert Elias’s work on long run civilising and de-civilising processes. The title of the symposium questions the usefulness of the concept and raises the possibility that it is already obsolete. I am interested in this topic as I am currently writing an extended piece on the relation between sociology as an academic, scientific and professional discipline and politics as an ideological and practical activity. Civilising offensives are clearly political at several levels and the study of them sociologically undoubtedly has political implications.

To get an idea of how the concept of civilising offensive has emerged from Elias’s writing on the civilising process and has subsequently been deployed I have read an article by Ryan Powell The Theoretical Concept of the ‘Civilising Offensive’ (Beschavingsoffensief): Notes on its Origins and Uses published in Human Figurations: Long Term Perspectives on the Human Condition, Vol. 2, Issue 2, July 2013. Ryan Powell is one of the convenors of the symposium and I will take this paper as an authoritative introduction to the concept.  What follows are simply some observations on the paper and questions that arise no doubt some or all of which will be covered during the symposium.

The abstract lays out the scope and objectives of the paper. To some extent the application of the concept of civilising offensive over the last 30 years has lost contact with its theoretical origins in Elias’s work. The use of the concept has been mainly as a tool “for exposing the targeted and stigmatising projects of powerful groups”.  However, this focus on elite projects to ‘civilise’ less powerful groups is unnecessarily narrow and excludes the processes internal to the target group that drive behavioural and attitudinal changes in the same direction – via within group and peer socialisation for instance. The abstract points to the paper’s conclusion that “the theoretical concept of the civilising offensive offers much potential in understanding group conflict and the role of the state in contemporary neoliberal society, as well as historically”.

The introduction describes how the concept and its application arose in Holland in the 1980s where it was identified as het burgerlijkbeschavingsoffensief – the bourgeois civilising offensive. The term and its application have been taken up more recently in the UK but often in inconsistent ways that make a comparative approach difficult. The concept needs to be more systematically connected to its original theoretical context. This will help refine and further develop the concept in a way that would facilitate comparative analysis. The paper also promises to engage (albeit implicitly, which is a shame) with recent debates about the neglect of politics within figurational sociology.

The second section of the paper gives a succinct description of Norbert Elias’s work and the origins of civilising offensives as an aspect of the civilising process. The first studies using the term in Holland look at paternalistic and cultural projects in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries to improve the lot of the working classes, to improve their morals and promote a national identity. There was often a strong religious component in the projects that can be seen as attacks on what was deemed to be irrational, uncivilised, primitive, immoral and otherwise inappropriate behaviours.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given the early industrial context, one thing mentioned repeatedly in these accounts is ‘the lack of work ethic” of the lower classes.

The paper at this point identifies a possible criticism of Elias’s focus on blind, long term unplanned processes. He apparently pays little attention to the agency and intentions of elite groups and even less of that of the lower classes. Powell, in an attempt to be fair to Elias, concedes that historical episodes of civilising offensives may have had little impact on the overall dominant trend of long term development. He returns to this possibility in his conclusion. But, regardless of the relation between instances of civilising offensives and longer term processes (directions and interim outcomes), “such civilising missions do have clear consequences, particularly for those less powerful groups on the receiving end”.

The third section gives examples of some key Dutch studies. One study of a religiously inspired civilising offensive (Verrips) makes use of Elias’s work on established and outsider groups. In this case the ‘civilisers’’ project was as much to do with confirming and reinforcing their own behavioural norms as castigating and modifying those of the target group. The “not very cautious behaviour” of Protestant labourers harmed the Protestant group as a whole. This points to the need to look at relations within groups as well as between groups. In the event this particular civilising offensive was unsuccessful due to the strong class identification of the Protestant labourers and their comparatively weak identification with the Protestant religious authorities.  If anything they had stronger solidarity with their Catholic labourer peers. In this case identification with their socioeconomic location trumped the ‘civilisers’’ attempts to make them see the world and act in it differently. This points to the necessity to look beyond the relations between and within groups to understand why the civilising offensive comes about and its outcome, successful or otherwise. In what does the power of the powerful and the relative powerlessness of the powerless reside? How does this enable and constrain the tactics, strategies and mechanisms of the civilising project and resistance to it? What resources, material, cultural, psychological can be deployed on either side?

The second case study develops some of these questions, that of Van Grinkel. This is an account of a successful civilising offensive. This was because a) the civilising offensive was complemented by the threat of punishment, what he calls a disciplinary offensive; and b) the civilising offensive was not only performed from without, imposed externally by the elite group, but also from within, based upon status competition in the subordinate group in attempts to emulate the standards and behaviours of the dominant group. Clearly some subgroups or elements within the subordinate group, in some circumstances, can internalise an aversion to the standards of their own (objective) group and subjectively identify with the ‘oppressor’. The two case studies both demonstrate the necessity to expand the analysis beyond the narrow idea of powerful groups attempting to change the behaviour (and one might say, attitudes, world view, doxa) of less powerful groups. The powerful groups are also constructing their own identity, legitimation and modus operandi in the face of external uncertainties and perceived threats. It is an internal and reflexive project as well as one targeted on a particular problematic group. The target group itself can internalise the civilising offensive, ending up civilising themselves. So there are different sorts of internal campaigns rather than just a top down civilising offensive. And, although not addressed explicitly in this paper, there needs to be taken into account a wider context that conditions and enables the various opportunities, objectivess and strategies of these complex relations between external and internal civilising projects and resistances to them. In fact, what are the factors that can explain why some civilising offensives are successful and others not? Perhaps some simply go, unknowingly, with the grain of the longer term, blind and unintentional civilising process. Or perhaps the occasional reference to bourgeoisie, work ethic, class, lower classes, labour (and even at the beginning of this paper to neoliberal society) may give a clue to the political economic context that would undoubtedly be a part of a broader explanation and understanding of ‘modern’ and contemporary accounts of civilising offensives?

In answer to the question of why some civilising offensives work and others don’t, Powell suggests it is a matter of to what extent the target group comes to internalise the standards of behaviour that the elite group are trying to inculcate. In the case of Verrips’ study of Protestant labourers, they did not internalise the project’s goals and it failed. In the case of van Grinkel’s study the target group did internalise the goals and it succeeded. What Powell does not comment on with the successful case is that this is the one where the civilising offensive was complemented by a ‘disciplinary’ offensive which rather suggests that the elite group in this case had rather more and different resources available to it than did the religious elite in the unsuccessful case. This in turn suggests a rather more ‘strenuous’ material relationship between the civilising and target group in this case.

In the fourth section Powell turns to the use of the term in the UK. The Dutch development and use of the concept was in critique of the history of Dutch paternalism. The two case studies cited above refer to civilising offensives during an earlier period of industrial development, late 19th to early 20th century. The UK examples deal with contemporary issues the background to which is the ‘criminalising social policy’ of neoliberal governments. The dominant contemporary discourse claims the post-welfare settlement has failed resulting in a culture of worklessness, benefits and welfare dependency and a lack of work ethic in some sections of the community. The example case studies look at civilising offensives with respect to immigrants, gypsies, Scottish football sectarianism and climate change. Rodger (2012*), referring to the work of Wacquant, relates the criminalisation of those precariously on the margins of society to the damaging effects of neoliberal ideologically informed economic development and social policy. The development of specific civilising offensives in response to what Wacquant calls the ‘advanced marginality’ of surplus and excluded groups looks like a fruitful area of research. In addition, theoretical links have been made with processes of ‘moral panics’ in the work of Cohen which seem to share some of the key features of civilising offensives.

Powell concludes this section with the general observation that the UK studies demonstrate how an historical informed analysis of aspects of the civilising process, i.e. civilising offensives that are targeted on outsider and relatively powerless groups by powerful groups and governments, can be brought to bear on contemporary developments.  A general and historically recurring aspect of the civilising process can be analysed and understood in terms of specific contemporary manifestations of the process. This demonstrates the utility and the power of the engagement of figurational sociology with ‘the politics of the present’.

The paper concludes with a discussion of potential areas for inquiry. The first aims to address a perceived weakness in the UK use of the idea of civilising offensive. It tends to assume and critique a top down process expressed through government policy. The Dutch examples point to a more complex and nuanced account that looks at aspects of the process that develop within target groups, how standards are internalised and are passed on through parents, families and peers through processes of socialisation.  Secondly, there is more scope to develop the analyses in ways that facilitate international comparative studies. For example there seems to be a tendency across Europe to focus civilising offensives on immigrant groups rather than the indigenous population (although in political strategic terms stigmatising and controlling immigrant groups still has the indigenous population as a target at one remove, in terms of ideological incorporation for example). In all cases this is linked to reinforcing ‘imagined’ national identities. It would be informative to see what impact difference in national habitus and governmental techniques have on the similarly focussed civilising offensives with similar objectives.  (This could be useful in looking at different ‘local’ responses to more general global developments). The third area of possible development would be to look at the changing targets of the offensives over the centuries –who are the target groups, who are the ‘civilisers’, what is the source of the imbalance of power, what resources are available to each group, etc.? It does seem to be the case that target groups have become more narrowly defined. What can account for this?

Powell’s conclusion is quite clear and brief. The major finding is summarised as follows:

The evidence presented, however, implies the need for a widening of the conceptualisation of civilising offensives, from an overly simplistic notion of the relationship between state and religious authorities and popular mentalities, to one which acknowledges the different levels at which civilising offensives are mediated and enacted; and which accounts for the changing objectives of ‘civilisers’ alongside wider social processes. Central here is the importance of internal pressures and the role of peer and group socialisation in the internalisation (or not) of constraints on conduct, which are less apparent within accounts of UK civilising offensives. There is also significant scope for international comparative analyses within Western Europe and beyond, not only in terms of the behaviours and targets of civilising offensives over the long-term but also the spaces in which they are regulated, both public and private.

However, he finishes on a cautionary note about the ultimate significance of civilising offensives in the longer run process of historical development. He claims there is little evidence of the lasting impact of civilising offensives or that the civilising process can be steered intentionally. Where offensives appear to succeed it is likely that the target groups who modify their behaviour and attitudes are already predisposed to do so because of other developmental/structural factors. The implication is that whether civilising offensives succeed or not depends on whether the door they are pushing at is already being opened by aspects of the wider developmental process or not.

A few observations:

The political, economic and global context are crucial to prevent studies of civilising offensives becoming ‘just so’ stories or exercises in cultural anthropology. The wider context is also necessary if the specific content of the offensives are to be understood, for instance there are aspects of techno-managerialism, quantification and neoliberal moral individualism in current efforts to stigmatise and control marginal and excluded groups. A different set of assumptions and doxa would be in play at different historical periods.

General processes of ideological incorporation, group socialisation, cultural and material forms of social control, etc. are ongoing and ubiquitous. Presumably the mechanisms of civilising offensives are always operating in less overt and ‘offensive’ ways all the time. What is it that marks out an intensification of the process that makes it historically visible? Like moral panics they seem to be the symptoms of some specific acceleration in the pace and quality of change, a response to significant shifts in balances of power, or the emergence of new groups, challenges and contestations.  Civilising offensives may be the reflex of new conditions of uncertainty, disillusionment or alienation. In contemporary conditions the combination of looking for personalised causes of distress and a blame culture may be predisposing factors in the development of civilising offensives.

Finally, if specific instances of civilising offensives are merely illustrative or symptoms of a long run, blind and unintended developmental process, then understanding specific instances adds nothing of significance to our understanding of the overall process. They cease to have any theoretical contribution to make. Perhaps this is why the title of the symposium contains the question “prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept”? It may be that studying civilising offensives has only political significance rather than a continuing contribution to make to the development of core figurational sociology.  But how does this seeming disembodied and unintended view of the civilising process square with the hope that more object adequate sociological knowledge would in principle facilitate the solution of pressing problems to do with poverty, injustice, war etc. My, admittedly ‘engaged’ view is that politics, struggle and resistance, even education, can have an influence on which of many possible futures actually comes about.


* The Rodgers 2012 publication referred to above is a chapter in Rodger, J. J. Loic Wacquant and Norbert Elias: Advanced marginality and the theory of the de-civilising process in Squires, P. and Lea, J. (Eds) Criminalisation and Advanced Marginality: Critically Exploring the Work of Loïc Wacquant, pp.87-106. Bristol: Policy Press. This is of interest as it specifically relates the notion of civilising offensives to the Bourdieuian work of Wacquant, providing the neoliberal context. I cannot get hold of this book as it isn’t in the Leeds University library but most of the relevant chapter is available via Google books.