Civilising offensives – what I learnt

I had a great day in Sheffield at the  The civilizing offensive (het burgerlijk beschavingsoffensief): prospects for future understanding, or an obsolete concept? symposium hosted by Sheffield Hallam University. I had prepared for this by reading an article by one of the organisers, Ryan Powell, and posted a summary – The Civilising Offensive –  and a few questions that I hoped would be illuminated during the presentations and discussion. This post is a reflection on the day and to what extent my questions were answered. I’ll start by outlining the major conclusion, as I saw it at least. This was clearly stated during the last session presented by Jason Hughes entitled ‘No smoke without fire’? Moral panics, civilising offensives and the long-term development of tobacco use. We must avoid posing the relationship between the long term blind and unintended processes of social change and development and the intended and deliberative steering processes in the here and now or any other delineated historical period as an either/or dichotomy. The plans and intentions of social groups and individuals interlock and interweave in a way that produces outcomes that were not intended by any of them. The overall process in this respect is blind and unintended by any particular agent or group. Presumably no 19th century Victorian industrialist anticipated or intend today’s problems of climate change or environmental degradation. However, this is not to say that this unintended process is understandable without reference to the intentional activities and projects in that, if these had been different, the unintended outcomes would have been different too. If the unintended outcomes would not have been different and the trajectory of development would have been the same anyway, then the overall process would not be blind or at least in any way contingent. Contingency would have been illusionary in the face of necessity. On the other hand the degree of success or otherwise of intentional projects could not be explained without reference to the unplanned aspects of the process that constraint, enable or otherwise impact on them. This also points to the the importance of political and cultural activity – both theoretically and in practice. As Jason said the concept of ‘civilising offensive’ and its focus on intentions and intentional projects is not opposed to or in contradiction to the concept of a blind and unintended process. They are both part of the same process; 2 sides of the same coin. This clearly has consequences for how we understand the micro-sociology of civilising offensives (and indeed any human interactions) and how we explain the broader and longer run ‘blind’ process of historical social development. In fact much of the day was spent directly or indirectly discussing the relationship between relatively short term intentional projects and behaviours and long term developmental processes. I was particularly taken by Jason’s distinction between ‘engines’ and ‘vehicles’.  In the context of the symposium I assume the engine is the long term ‘blind’ developmental process and the vehicles are the specific intentional civilising offensives. Clearly neither the engine of the vehicle get anywhere if not together.

I have been working in a fairly undisciplined and spasmodic way on the topic of how sociology and politics relate to one another. This clearly depends on how each is conceptualised. I want to understand politics (in various senses and at various levels) sociologically but I also want to understand how sociology can inform political programmes and activities. Obviously this depends on how one construes sociology as a form of systematic knowledge, as a ‘science’  (the inverted commas are intended to signify that this term also needs a great deal of thought and elucidation). This symposium has been extremely useful in reintroducing me to some of Elias’s ideas and offering a more structured and possibly fruitful way of thinking about these issues and making progress with some of them. It may even prompt the submission of a paper to next year’s majorElias conference at Leicester From the Past to the Present and Towards Possible Futures: The Collected Works of Norbert Elias. The mention of ‘possible futures’ indicates that different futures are possible and that the civilising process so far is not locked onto any particular future, thus not teleological. There is then the question of what sorts of futures are possible and to what extent sociological knowledge can inform the intra and intergenerational political projects and activities and influence what actually happens. If this is possible and sociology can fulfil this role then sociology itself becomes a political enterprise, even if at some remove from the sturm und drang of day-to-day political struggle, since is or could be political resource in the struggle over teh future. Only a sociologist who is indifferent to the sort of world he or she is bequeathing to their children, grandchildren and beyond can remain indifferent to the uncertain future or not have some view of what a better world could come into being if it were possible. The rest of this post is simply a set of notes on some of the key ideas that I jotted down in my notes. They are not systematic or necessarily attributed to any particular speaker of discussant. At times I have added my own observations, generally in brackets.


Bernard Kruithof: Civilising offensives are characterised as being deliberate attempts by powerful groups, e.g. the bourgeoisie, to change the behaviour and attitudes of a relativity powerless group, e.g the labouring classes so it is in line with the powerful group’s ideas of what is decent, moral, appropriate, rational, civilised behaviour. Typical examples and case studies of this look at periods of early industrialisation and nation building. Civilising offensives are similar to whet van Gent called ‘the forces of organised virtue’ and were often strongly paternalistic and aimed at uplifting the condition of the poor. But the poor were not a blank slate. They had (and have) their own culture. There was much resistance from groups that did not want to be ‘improved’. Often the Improving Societies’ mostly benefited their middle class members.

Ali de Regt: There is a tension between the unplanned civilising process and intentional projects. There is also a distinction between civilising offensives and the ‘disciplining’ and ‘policing’ of subordinate and worrisome groups (Donzelot, Foucault). The appropriate focus and use of the term civilising offensive is where the aim and result (if successful) aids the development of the self-control and self-management of the target groups. This is a key aspect of the civilising process whereby external social controls become internal self-controls. This tends to engage with what the working class, or some sections of it, want and is distinct to what is imposed by disciplinary techniques and policing.

The development of the concept of civilising offensive form sociological from the 1980s until, by the mid 90s (as it happens corresponding with the neo-liberal attack on welfare and the development of a neo-liberal moral individualism) when it began to be seen as a possible solution to moral decline and related social problems, i.e. politicians and the media calling out for civilising offensives against specific target groups and problems, for instance urinating in the streets, drunkenness, behaviour at football matches, rudeness and antisocial behaviour. However, there were left wing progressive calls for civilising offensives too (examples?). This was also in part an attack on the heritage of the 60s which coincided with a cultural turn in public debates on social problems (presumably as opposed to more structural understandings of social problems. This is also a period of increasing individualism and the personalisation of blame). Civilising offensive became a catch phrase that was emotionally charges and self evident. It is applicable to many social problems and gives a rational and recipe for action and policy. So in the 80s the concept had a critical connotation but now it is seen with approval.

Ali claims that the moral discourse that has hijacked the concept of civilising offensive makes it difficult if not impossible to use as a sociological concept. It needs to be save and used in an Eliasian way and civilising offensives can still be objects of study and analysis, but we cannot use the concept as an explanatory concept (so only as a descriptive concept?).  As someone said in discussion, can we be held responsible for the misuse of our sociological concepts, for instance as with the notion of ‘moral panics’  or ‘the law of unintended consequences’? (But this problem, of how sociology’s concepts and language is part of the social realm it studies and there is an inevitable inter-meshing of sociological and common sense, everyday language, is well and long known).

We need to be clear about the distinction between civilising offensives as a theoretical concept and as an historically and politically situated project. Richard Kilminster made the point that there may be an historical and semantic link between civilising offensives ans the so-called ‘charm offensives’ in the cold war period seen as a military strategy in that charm offensives at the level of diplomacy wee usually a front to more aggressive intentions. (There can of course be latent more aggressive functions in the background to improving and seemingly paternalistic civilising offensives as well). ‘Offensive’ has connotations of active policy and is part of its attraction in popular moral and political discourse.

Stephen Mennell: The useful distinction between the ’emic’ and the the ‘etic. Emic is form the perspective of the ehtnograpic group being studied – so their concepts, cultural recipes for action, understandings, etc., while etic is the social science perspective of the group and their world that has a broader sociological understanding that goes beyond that of the situated understandings of the group. ( I assume the point here is that civilising offensives can be understood at the emic level, that of the participants themselves, whereas the sociologist who sees any instance of civilising offensives as part of a longer run and unintentional process are adopting the etic perspectives. I was immediately reminded of the concept of dramatic irony where the characters in a play are unaware of aspects of their situation that the audience knows). Elias used the concept of civilisation’ in both its emic and etic senses and contexts and this has been a source of confusion in readings and critique. (Useful Wikipedia article on emic and etic). The civilising process is long term and unintended but civilising offensives are the product of intentional ‘native’ meanings leading to intended and unintended consequences. Civilising offensives can be seen in terms of an analysis of shifting balances of power within the civilising process.

Stephen raised the possibility that right wing economics (presumably their application in political projects and social policy) can be seen as a ‘de-civilising’ offensive.  Other examples may be the holocaust, Stalin’s programme for instance. The state holds the monopoly of violence and of taxation.  State reduction policies may diminish and undermine  both of these. The project to shrink and defunctionalise the state could have de-civilising results and the weakening of the links of interdependence between the people and the state (the development of which was a crucial aspect of the civilising process). (If the civilising process involves a growing reflexivity due to individuation and an increasing self-control presumable de-civilising process results in a lessening of self control and a lessening of the potential for detachment and a growing emotional involvement. I need to read more on decivilising processes!). I liked Stephen’s tee shirt slogan, ‘so many right wing Christians, so few lions’.  If civilising offensives are ostensibly to improve the behaviour of the ‘lower classes’ in order to integrate them into society and introduce elements of self control, are they still civilising offensives if they produce the opposite effects, i.e. increased marginalisation and exclusion coupled to an increase of ant-social and uncontrolled behaviour? Does the attribution of ‘civilising offensive’ depend upon the intentions of the ‘civilisers’ or the object outcomes of the offensive which may be bad regardless of any good intentions? Emic intentions versus etic outcomes? My contribution to the discussion here was to point out that arguably much policy and political ideological work was in fact objectifying the poor rather than trying to reorganise their subjective understanding and their behaviour, unless it is designed to persuade them of their blame and responsibility for their condition and justify their exclusion in highly policed and surveilled ghettos. The objectification and stigmatisation of the poor serves to legitimate the policies and recruit the middles classes to them.

Matt Clement: Notes will get a bit thinner now as I was running out of steam! Today there seems to be an orchestrated attack on the poor and euphemistically termed ‘troubled’ families. As others have pointed out sometimes ‘barbarism’ can be used in the name of ‘civilisation’. The Ridley Plan was specifically and overtly an attack on the organised working class and the Trade Unions. It was claimed that these had ‘held the country to ransom’ . Can this be seen as an attempt to de-civilise the working class? Can it be construed as a de-civilising offensive?

Rob van Ginkel: Whatever the stated intentions of civilising offensives since the late 19th century, at that time informed by cultural anxiety, moral concerns and nations building, in the 20th century civilising offensives, whatever their stated aims and justifications, have tended in practice to lead to and/or reinforce social exclusion – projects amount to disciplining missions to contain the marginal masses. Since the rise of right wing populist parties this has included ethnic minorities. These moralist actions frequently have negative social consequences – stigmatised, marginalised, banished and outcast second rate citizens. (This fits well with the points made earlier about the later 20th century shift to cultural and individualistic explanations of deviant behaviour. This is also the period of increasing mass incarceration under neoliberal policies).

Gabriel van den Brink: Agrees largely with previous paper. The nature (even the existence) of civilising offensives reflect the values of the society In Holland, starting from 1670 and on to the early 20th century these were often church initiated campaigns for improvement but were also accompanied by harsh policing, literacy education and the inculcation of a work ethic in the work places. Since about 1960 however peoples’ life style has become more assertive, there has been changes in the family with more emancipation and individualism alongside the development of the welfare state. This has led to higher levels of self-esteem and narcissism which can lead to aggression and anti-social behaviour. Since 1970 three has been 100% growth in violent crime (although the status of official statistics was rightly questioned from the floor). For 40 years things have been getting worse. Public opinion now seems to be against liberal and paternalistic civilising offensives aimed at social integration and improvement but in practice the authorities and social professions are still engaged in something like the old civilising offensives.

Stephen Vertigans: Focus on social services care workers and their relative lack of awareness of the broader processes and context that impact on the success or otherwise of their efforts to help their clients and client families. Children in care in the main go on to have highly problematic adult lives. They generally removed from criminal or destitute families. They therefore tend to develop weak social bonds in childhood and these are no longer provided by the world of work. However, they respond and adapt to their circumstances knowledgeably to attains some status and forms of solidarity. There is a willingness on the part of the middle-classes to allow or ignore this as it keeps them at a physical and symbolic distance. This seems to mirror in some respect the point made in the previous presentation that ‘respectable’ public opinion is not in favour of civilising offensives and is therefore, by default, in favour of separation and containment. At the same time the authorities do their best to remain engaged in civilising offensives.

Paddy Dolan: Maps the shift in attitudes and relations between adults and children in Ireland. Historically the emphasis has been upon a fairly rigid socialisation process akin in some respects to a civilising offensive. This has tended to reinforce the notion that children and adults are very different in nature and status. In recent decades however there has been a growing emphasis on similarities and children having rights and individuality.  Paddy explains this as a product of individualism more generally and a questioning of ‘second’ nature. This can be seen as emergence of a third nature perhaps. I need to look more into this notion of ‘second nature’ as conceptualised by Elias before I can say much about the possibility of a ‘third’ nature. It seems to refer to the development of a reflexive critique and questioning of second nature brought about by a heightened reflexive ‘moment’ as an aspect of a spurt of individuation in late modernity.

[24th November. Ran out of steam here a bit and it is now about a month since the event. The following notes have had to rely to some extent on memory!]

Robert van Krieken: There is a return or rebound effect on any group that conducts a civilising offensive on a subordinate group – it also effects the powerful group. This puts civilising offensives in the context of the longer run civilising process. For example aboriginal children taken and given to European families was seen as a good thing to do but in recent times it is now seen as bad and the government has apologised for the mistake. There has been a change in how we think about children etc.  Welfare and violence (including symbolic violence, discipline, etc.) are not mutually exclusive. Two sides of the same coin.

John Connolly: Evidence of a mutual group identification in the peleton worked to resist the ‘civilising offensive’ of anti-doping initiatives. But this began to break down in the 1980s

Jason Hughes: Need to steer between and avoid the dichotomy between blind unintended processes and intended steered processes. Makes a distinction between vertical and horizontal civilising offensives. Intentions of groups and individuals interlace to produce unintended blind processes. Civilising offensives and the civilising process are different aspects of the same thing. Smoking – originally medical and then an aspect of leisure and distinction. Became widespread to all classes and then produced civilising offensives against it. There was a counter blast to tobacco when King James condemned aristocratic and plebeian smoking. But the rise of distinctive smokers, smoking schools, smoking professors. So not eradication as King James wanted, more a civilising of smoking. A shift from smoking to snuffing a la French aristocrats- aristocratic behaviour that was actually disgusting! Smoking reduced in the upper and middle classes through changes of fashion and smoking became associated with the lower classes. Filters and holders for women and the genteel stopped strands of tobacco getting detached and spat out. But in due course social dangers were superseded by medical and health dangers. Moral concerns turned to health; badness became a concern with sickness. Cigarettes got milder, ‘cleaner’ – now the e-cigarette – a keep smoking device providing a chemically synthesised form of tobacco smoke. Mentioned moral panics, as others had before in their presentations but added the aspect of the theory that points to the amplification of deviance and making true what hadn’t been before. (Links to my concern that ‘performativity’ is a key link between the symbolic and the real, between intentional processes and unintended consequences ie. W I Thomas “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”).

Intentional and blind processes. We need to look at the ratio of intended and unintended consequences – actual outcomes versus success. Voluntarism versus blind agent-less change. The ‘vehicles’ of change versus the ‘engines’ of change. (In a tweet to Jason I asked ‘Engine=civilising process: vehicle=civilising offensives? Have I got that? Trying to writing a summary/reflection on the symposium”. He replied ‘sounds close enough’). The relationship between present focussed campaigns and the longer term process. Uses example of people on a plane that crashes – all had their own intentions, reasons to be on it, but none intended the outcome. Even if the plane didn’t crash, none of the passengers intended the flight as such. (Could refer to early industrialists and climate change of course – but in my view we cannot explain and understand the latter without understanding and explaining the agency and objectives of the former). ‘Fashions’ for change, shifting changes in behaviour, often unintended consequences. On mobile phones, stay at home geeks, the embodiment of homo clausus. (Amplified reflexivity, self consciousness and individuation in the development of complex industrial societies becomes the general experience that is normalised and naturalised in philosophical and sociological discourse as homo clausus, ironically at the time when webs of interdependence are at their greatest).

Final note of my own: Civilising process: the extent that external constraints become internal controls due to the changing density and extent of chains of interdependence. Within this process are found power struggles and shifting balances of power. Structural pressures are translated into reflective and reflexive responses (unconscious and self conscious) leading to stratagems and projects designed to produce intended and desire outcomes. These become part of the environment and the symbolic and behaviour context for other groups and individuals. Unconscious and self conscious behaviour and projects inter-mesh to produce outcomes that no groups specifically intended, for themselves, for others or for future generations. Question: what is it that drives the increasing density and extent of chains of interdependency, the process that is made manifest by agency and carried forward and shaped by local and shorter term programmes?


Abstracts. This is a commentable Google document.