Figurational Sociology and its Application to Sport

Patrick Murphy & Ken Sheard & Ivan Waddington. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

Figurational sociology or, as it is sometimes called, process sociology, has grown out of the work of Norbert Elias (1897-1990). The central organizing concept of figurational sociology is, unsurprisingly, the concept of ‘figuration’ itself. Elias described a figuration as ‘a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people’ (1978a: 261). He developed the concept as a means of trying to overcome some of the difficulties associated with more conventional sociological terms and theories. In particular, he was critical of what he regarded as misleading and unhelpful dualisms and dichotomies, such as that between the individual and society, and also of the tendency towards what he called process reduction, in which everything that is experienced and observed as dynamic and interdependent is represented in static, isolated categories. Elias explicitly conceptualized figurations as historically produced and reproduced networks of interdependence.

In criticizing what he termed the Homo clausus model of human beings—that is the view of individuals as self-contained and separate from other people—Elias argued that it is not fruitful to view ‘the individual’ and ‘society’ as two independently existing objects (1978b: 119). For Elias, these two concepts refer to inseparable levels of the same human world. The concept of figurations was developed to convey the idea that sociology is concerned not with Homo clausus, but with Homines aperti, with people bonded together in dynamic constellations. As he put it:

The image of man [sic] as a ‘closed personality’ is … replaced by the image of man as an ‘open personality’ who possesses a greater or lesser degree of relative (but never absolute and total) autonomy vis-à-vis other people and who is, in fact, fundamentally oriented toward and dependent on other people throughout his life. The network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together. Such interdependencies are the nexus of … the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people. Since people are more or less dependent on each other first by nature and then through social learning, through education, socialization, and socially generated reciprocal needs, they exist, one might venture to say, only as pluralities, only in figurations. (Elias, 1978a: 261)

Elias argued that in order to understand what sociology is about, one must be aware of oneself as a human being among other human beings, and that one has to recognize that what are often conceptualized as reified ‘social forces’ are in fact nothing other than constraints exerted by people over one another and over themselves. It is mistaken to see ‘social structures’ as existing apart from ourselves or from human beings in general. Moreover, the peculiar constraint which is exerted by ‘social structures’ (figurations) over those who form them—and the fact that social processes, though produced by the interweaving of pluralities of individual acts, are relatively autonomous of particular individual intentions—should not lead us to ascribe to these processes an existence, an objective reality, over and above the groups of people whose actions constitute those processes. However, it is the case that the very complexity and dynamic character of the interweaving of the actions of large numbers of people continuously give rise to outcomes that no one has chosen and no one has designed; unintended and unplanned outcomes of this kind, which Elias stressed were usual aspects of social life, he called ‘blind’ social processes (1987a: 99).

One of the main objectives of figurational sociology as Elias saw it was to encourage sociologists to ‘think processually’ by always studying social relations as emerging and contingent processes. To him it was axiomatic that figurations should be studied as interdependent relations which are continually in flux and that shifts and transformations in patterns of social bonding can be identified in all patterns of development. Moreover, he believed it was possible to discern such shifts because interdependence is neither arbitrary nor random. On the contrary, the individuals and groups that make up a specific figuration are interconnected by a multiplicity of dynamic bonds. Whereas Marxists, for example, have tended to stress the importance of economic relations in social bonding, figurationalists suggest that the importance of economic relations is likely to vary from one situation to another and that in some situations political and emotional (affective) bonds may be equally or more significant. The concept of the social bond is intended to reinforce the two-edged character of figurations which may be both enabling and constraining (Rojek, 1985: 160).

A central dimension of figurations or dynamic interdependency ties is power, conceptualized not as a substance or property possessed by particular individuals and groups but as a characteristic of all human relationships (Elias, 1978b: 74). Power is always a question of relative balances, never of absolute possession or absolute deprivation, for no one is ever absolutely powerful or absolutely powerless. Neither is the balance of power between groups in a society permanent, for power balances are dynamic and continuously in flux.

The Civilizing Process

The work for which Elias is most famous is undoubtedly The Civilizing Process (Volume 1, 1978a, Volume 2, 1982, single volume, 1994). It is important to emphasize that Elias does not use the concept of a civilizing process in an evaluative way, for he does not suggest that people whose behaviour may be considered more ‘civilized’ are in any way morally superior to those whose behaviour is less ‘civilized.’ The theory of civilizing processes is based on the examination of empirical data which indicate that, in the societies of Western Europe between the Middle Ages and the early years of the twentieth century, a long-term process took place generally involving the refinement of manners and social standards and an increase in the social pressure on people to exercise stricter, more continuous and more even self-control over their feelings and behaviour. As part of this unplanned process, there occurred a shift in the balance between external constraints and self-constraints in favour of the latter, and at the level of personality, an increase in the importance of ‘conscience’ as a regulator of behaviour. That is, social standards came to be internalized more deeply and to operate, not only consciously, but also beneath the level of rationality and conscious control, for example by means of the arousal of feelings of shame, guilt and anxiety.

One aspect of this process which is of central relevance to the study of the development of sport has been the increasing social control of violence and aggression, together with a long-term decline in most people’s propensity for obtaining pleasure from directly taking part in and/or witnessing seriously violent acts. Elias refers in this connection to a ‘dampening of Angriffslust,’ literally to a dampening down or curbing of the lust for attacking, that is, a taming of people’s conscious desire and capacity for obtaining pleasure from attacking others. This has entailed at least two things: first, a lowering of what Elias called the ‘threshold of repugnance’ regarding bloodshed and other direct and symbolic manifestations of physical violence. As a result, according to Elias, most people nowadays tend to recoil more readily in the presence of such manifestations than tended to be the case with people in the Middle Ages. Secondly, it has entailed the internalization of a stricter taboo on violence. A consequence of this is that guilt feelings and anxieties are liable to be aroused whenever this taboo is violated. At the same time, said Elias, there has occurred a tendency to push violence behind the scenes and, as part of this, to describe people who openly derive pleasure from violence in terms of the language of psychopathology, with such people being treated and/or punished by means of stigmatization, hospitalization, imprisonment or a combination of these (Dunning, 1990a).

In popular understanding, the terms ‘violence’ and ‘civilization’ are usually taken as antitheses, but the civilizing process in Western Europe may be seen as an unplanned outcome of violent ‘hegemonial’ or ‘elimination’ struggles among monarchs and other feudal lords. These struggles were associated with the development of emergent European nation-states, each of which was characterized by the increasingly stable and effective monopolization of the twin, mutually supportive means of ruling: the use of force and of the imposition of taxes. In other words, far from being simple antitheses, violence and ‘civilization’ are characterized by specific forms of interdependence. More particularly, civilizing processes are related to the establishment of increasingly effective control over the use of violence and an increasingly effective monopoly over taxation, both of which facilitate internal pacification and economic growth. Civilizing processes are also held to be associated with the lengthening of interdependency chains (in more conventional sociological language, the growth in the division of labour); the growing monetization of social relationships; functional democratization (the gradual historical tendency towards more equal—though not wholly equal—power balances between different groups and subgroups in society); and lastly, the decreasing privatization of the force and tax monopolies and their increasing public control.

As we shall see, the theory of civilizing processes has been widely used in the study of modern sports, especially with reference to issues concerning violence in sport.

Involvement and Detachment

Another distinctive characteristic of Elias’s approach is his position on the relationship between human understanding and values, an issue which has usually been discussed in abstract, static, ahistorical and dichotomic terms in which protagonists have argued either for ‘objectivity’ or ‘subjectivity,’ for ‘value freedom’ or the ‘inevitability of bias.’ In contrast, for Elias a balance of emotional involvement and detachment is present in virtually all human behaviour. Similarly, it is not possible to identify an historical moment when wholly ‘objective’ scientific knowledge suddenly emerged, fully formed, out of what had formerly been wholly subjective forms of knowledge. These insights point up the shortcomings of approaching the problem of the growth of human knowledge and its relationship to changing values in terms of dichotomous either/or categories.

Elias (1987a) offers a properly sociological approach to the problem of knowledge. He conceptualizes the problem in terms of degrees of involvement and detachment. This is held to be more adequate than conventional arguments because, first, it does not involve a radical dichotomy between categories such as ‘objective’ and ‘subjective,’ as though these were mutually exclusive categories; and, secondly, it is relational and processual and, as such, provides us with a framework with which we can examine the development, over time, of more object-adequate from less object-adequate knowledge.

One important implication of Elias’s approach is that researchers can realistically only aspire to develop explanations that have a greater degree of adequacy than preceding explanations. Notions such as ‘ultimate truth’ and ‘complete detachment’ have no place in his approach. Yet, strangely, some critics of figurational sociology (such as Hargreaves, 1992; Horne and Jary, 1987) have still concluded that its adherents claim to provide ‘objective’ analyses from a value-neutral stance. It cannot be stressed too strongly that this was not his view and that Elias did not use such terms, preferring to speak in terms of degrees of object-adequacy, or, more latterly, of reality-congruence.

Elias noted that sociologists, like everyone else, are members of many social groups outside of their academic communities and they cannot cease to take part in, or to be affected by, the affairs of these groups. In this sense, they cannot be wholly detached. However, Elias notes that there is at least one sense in which it would not be desirable, in terms of the development of sociology, for them to be wholly detached, even if this were possible. Thus, while one need not know, in order to understand the structure of a molecule, what it ‘feels like’ to be one of its atoms, in order to understand the way in which human groups work one needs to know from ‘inside,’ as it were, how human beings experience their own and other groups, and one cannot know this without active involvement. The problem for sociologists, then, is not how to be completely detached, for that is impossible, but rather how to maintain an appropriate balance between being an everyday participant and a scientific enquirer and, as a professional group, to establish in their work the undisputed dominance of the latter.

While the foregoing explication cannot do justice to the subtlety and complexity of Elias’s general position, we hope that it will serve as an introduction to some of the central aspects of figurational or process-sociology. In the next section, we consider some of the ways in which the figurational perspective has been used in the sociology of sport.

Figurational Sociology and Sport

As we have seen, the basic principles of figurational sociology are potentially applicable to a range of social phenomena, but it is the ways in which they have been applied in the sociology of sport with which we are concerned here. At the risk of considerable over-simplification it might be suggested that this work falls into four main categories: early sportization processes and the control of violence; increasing seriousness of involvement and the growth of ‘professional’ sport; football hooliganism; and the relationship between globalization processes and sport. Of course, these categories are essentially artificial given the stress figurational sociologists place on networks of interdependency.

It is now generally accepted that the word ‘sport’ acquired its modern meaning, and the activities to which it is applied first developed, in eighteenth-century England. Elias attempted to explain why (Elias, 1971: 88-115). An important part of his explanation lay in attempting to demonstrate how what he called the ‘sportization’ process was linked with the process of ‘the parliamentarization of political conflict.’

Elias used the term ‘sportization’ to refer to a process in the course of which the framework of rules applying to sport became stricter, including those rules attempting to provide for fairness and equal chances for all to win. The rules governing sport became more precise, more explicit, written down and more differentiated and supervision of rule-observance became more efficient. Moreover, in the course of the same process, self-control and self-discipline increased, while in the game-contests which became known as sports a balance was established between the possibility of attaining a high level of combat-tension and what was then seen as reasonable protection against injury (Elias and Dunning, 1986: 21-2).

Elias’s explanation as to why the sportization process occurred first in England centres around differences in state formation processes between various European societies and the related differences in balances of power between ruling groups in those societies (1986: 26-40). For example, Germany and Italy remained relatively disunited until well into the nineteenth century, while France and England were both relatively united nationally as early as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. France, though, had become highly centralized and its people subject to a form of ‘absolute’ rule, one aspect of which was that the right of subjects ‘to form associations of their own choosing was usually restricted … if not abolished’ (1986: 38).

In England movement towards a highly centralized state and ‘absolutism’ had been more or less destroyed in the seventeenth century by the Civil War, one consequence of which was the restrictions placed on the powers of the monarch. Moreover, the reliance placed by the English on naval force meant that the large centralized bureaucracy required to coordinate a huge land army did not develop. A variety of processes, then, contributed to the landed ruling classes not only retaining a high degree of autonomy relative to the monarchical state but, via parliament, sharing with the monarch in the tasks of ruling (Dunning, 1992a: 7-18).

Elias argued that there occurred simultaneously with this ‘parliamentarization of political conflict,’ the ‘sportization’ of pastimes. The more civilized habits developed by the aristocracy and gentry for governing also found expression in their organization of less violent, more civilized ways of enjoying themselves. These incipiently modern forms of sport developed through the type of voluntary associations known as ‘clubs’ (Dunning, 1992a: 13; Elias and Dunning, 1986: 38-9).

Figurational sociologists argue that this initial sportization of pastimes occurred in two main waves: an eighteenth-century wave in which the principal pastimes that began to emerge as modern sports were cricket, fox hunting, horse racing and boxing; and a second, nineteenth-century wave in which soccer, rugby, tennis and athletics began to take on modern forms (Dunning, 1992a; Elias and Dunning, 1986). Elias himself contributed to the study of fox hunting and boxing (1971, 1986) while Brookes produced a figurational analysis of the development of cricket (Brookes, 1974, 1978).

In the mid-1960s Elias and Dunning undertook comparative and developmental investigations into early Greek and Roman sports, such as boxing and wrestling, and medieval folk-games, such as ‘football’ (Dunning, 1971). These studies were designed to probe just how different were the sport-like activities of people at relatively early stages in civilizing processes and nation-state formation processes, by comparison with the sports of the modern period. Elias (1971) stressed that Greek combat ‘sports,’ for example, which were often a direct training for warfare, involved much higher levels of violence and open emotionality than those permitted today, and were less highly regulated. This is what Elias’s theory of civilizing processes would lead one to expect. Compared with relatively developed nation-states, levels of physical insecurity in Greek city-states were high and conscience-formation was much less developed than is the case in the West today. Elias suggested that internalized inhibitions against physical violence were also lower and the associated feelings of guilt and shame correspondingly much weaker.

Elias and Dunning’s (1986) work on the folk football ‘games’ of medieval and early modern Britain extended this analysis and demonstrated just how different such activities were from modern football. Such games were less highly regulated than their modern counterparts and were governed primarily by local oral custom. They differed from town to town and region to region and were ‘played’ over open country or through the streets of towns by an indeterminate number of participants. They involved elements of what nowadays we would probably consider different games and, above all, they involved a much higher level of open violence than would be contemplated or permitted today. These activities, although ‘mock-fights,’ bore a greater resemblance to real fighting than their modern-day equivalents.

Dunning and Sheard’s Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players (1979), a sociological study of the development of rugby football, took Elias and Dunning’s earlier work on the development of football much further and provided the template for much of the work of what later became known as the ‘Leicester school’ of figurational sociologists. The book addressed three themes: the development of more ‘civilized’ team games; the growth of increasingly serious, competitive, professionalized games; and the phenomenon of ‘football hooliganism.’ The first two themes were examined in considerable detail while the third, football hooliganism, was merely touched upon. However, it was the work on football hooliganism which was to earn the Leicester school an international reputation in the years that followed (Williams et al., 1984; Dunning et al., 1988; Murphy et al., 1990).

Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players emphasized just how central the English public schools were in the second, nineteenth-century, wave of sportization. These schools operated, in characteristically English fashion, with a high degree of independence from the state. Dunning and Sheard show how this degree of relative autonomy facilitated competition among and innovation within the public schools which was one of the preconditions for the sportization of football and the emergence of soccer and rugby as modern sports. They also show how a civilizing process was involved in this process as the violence of the games was gradually brought under greater control.

Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players also offered a figurational explanation of the trends towards more intense competition, professionalization, greater achievement-orientation, greater rewards and growing seriousness of involvement observed in many, if not most, modern sports. The argument was a complex one but basically involved the suggestion that an increase in seriousness could be attributed in part to what Elias termed ‘functional democratization’ in the modern world. Elias argued that in the course of nation-state formation processes in the West many power balances have become relatively more equal. These processes are interconnected with the lengthening chains of interdependence that increasingly tie people together, both within state societies and throughout the modern world. The reciprocal pressures and controls to which people are subject and which they are able to exert on others within industrial societies inevitably make their presence felt in their sporting activities. Top-level sportspeople in modern, urban-industrial societies, Dunning and Sheard suggested, are not independent and hence are not able to play solely for ‘fun.’ The sheer numbers of people involved in modern sport mean that a well-developed desire to achieve is necessary if one is to stand a realistic chance of getting to the top. If one wants to be recognized as a ‘success’ at sport, one has to play seriously. Moreover, top-level sportspeople can no longer play just for themselves but are representatives of wider communities such as cities, counties and nations. They are, therefore, increasingly constrained to provide the sorts of satisfactions demanded by their supporters; for example, they are expected to provide them with a certain measure of excitement and the satisfaction which comes from supporting a successful team. They have, that is, to validate in competition the community with which the supporters identify (Dunning and Sheard, 1976, 1979; Elias and Dunning, 1986).

Under such circumstances, Dunning and Sheard suggest, it is not surprising that players on occasions resort to the calculated use of illegitimate violence in order to try to achieve victory (1979: 272-89). This would, at first sight, seem to be a contradiction of Elias’s theory of civilizing processes in which he argued that there has been a long-term decline in people’s propensity for obtaining pleasure from directly engaging in and witnessing violent acts, and that the threshold of repugnance regarding violent acts has become lower, with people increasingly feeling guilty when such taboos are broken. However, Dunning has argued that in the course of civilizing processes there occurs in conjunction with an increase in socially generated competitive pressures, an increase in people’s tendency and ability to plan, to use foresight and to use longer-term, more rational means for achieving their goals (Dunning, 1986a: 237). In this context, the deliberate use of violence to achieve advantage or victory in a game is, argues Dunning, consistent with the personality and habitus of people who consider themselves to be highly civilized because it involves a high level of control, relatively little pleasure from directly inflicting pain, and is utilized to achieve specific ends. Dunning, in fact, suggests that in the course of civilizing processes there occurs a change in the balance between ‘expressive’ and ‘instrumental’ violence, in favour of the latter (1986a: 227). He suggests that this distinction, although not one made by Elias, helps make sense of what appears to be an increase in violence on the field of play as sports have become more professionalized, ‘spectacularized’ and internationalized in recent decades.

It was also in Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players that the germ of an explanation for football hooliganism—and the relevance of ‘segmental bonding’ in that explanation—was outlined (Dunning and Sheard, 1979: 282-5). However, it was in The Roots of Football Hooliganism (Dunning et al., 1988), that the Leicester group brought together in one volume the fruits of their own and other people’s work on this contemporary social problem. Before the publication of this study, and the earlier work upon which it was based, it was much less commonly accepted than it is today that violent disorder at football matches has deep historical roots. It tended to be assumed that ‘hooliganism’ was a relatively new phenomenon, a product, among other things, of the ‘permissive’ 1960s. The Leicester sociologists, after tracing the historical flows of the ‘hooligan’ phenomenon and linking it with the civilizing changes in British society over at least a century, attempted to explain why football hooligan gangs, and the rougher sections of society from which they were predominantly drawn, should have remained relatively unincorporated into the more ‘civilized’ society of the late twentieth century. They also addressed some of the implications of this fact. Briefly, the argument advanced was that the ‘rougher’ working-class neighbourhoods from which football hooligans are mainly drawn are characterized more by ‘segmental’ and less by ‘functional’ bonding—that is by bonds of similitude rather than difference—than most other groups in contemporary British society. We have been familiarized with the social attributes of such neighbourhoods through a plethora of sociological studies (Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955; Miller, 1958; Suttles, 1968). The main point for present purposes is that their characteristic patterns—including relative poverty, unemployment, mother-centred families, male-dominance, etc.—mutually reinforce each other to produce, inter alia, norms of aggressive masculinity and intense feelings of attachment to narrowly defined ‘we-groups’ and correspondingly intense feelings of hostility towards ‘outsider’ or ‘they-groups.’ Such groups, of what the Leicester group call ‘segmentally bonded’ young males, tend to find their opponents locally from amongst groups who resemble themselves in many ways. However, just like the segmentary lineages described by Evans-Pritchard (1940) in simpler societies, these ‘segments’ may combine to fight an external enemy, that is, fans from other towns or cities. Not only do these groups find in football an attractive locale for the expression of their rivalries, but the development of transport systems, internationalization and other processes, means that formerly internecine rivalry and conflict become transposed to the national and international levels. Such a pattern of intra-working-class conflict is not easily explained by a Marxist, dichotomous model of class conflict in which the ‘enemy’ is hypothesized as ‘the bourgeoisie’ or the ‘representatives of the state.’

Figurational sociologists have recently turned their attention to the diffusion of modern sporting forms on a global scale, linking this to broader globalization processes. Maguire has attempted to clarify some of the conceptual confusions surrounding the term ‘globalization,’ while extending and refining aspects of the figurational approach, especially as it applies to an understanding of global sport development and the role of the ‘media—sport production complex’ in those developments. He has also attempted to bring out the interconnections between globalization and national identity (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994; Maguire, 1991, 1993a, 1993b, 1994).

The ‘conceptual snares’ which Maguire (1994: 399) believes characterize work on globalization include dichotomous thinking, the use of monocausal explanation and the tendency to view globalization processes as governed by either the intended or the unintended consequences of the actions of groups of people: ‘Globalization processes involve a blend between intended and unintended practices’ (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 147). Maguire also distances himself from the implication that ‘globalization’ implies homogenization (1994: 400). However, on the negative side, Jarvie and Maguire sometimes display a tendency to reify which figurational sociologists would normally try to avoid.

All writers agree that globalization involves processes that transcend the boundaries of nation-states, and that such processes are uneven, long-term and historically rooted. Most also recognize the difficulty of understanding local or national experiences without reference to global developments or what Maguire calls ‘flows’ (1993a). Jarvie and Maguire (1994: 231) also suggest that globalization may be leading ‘to a form of time—space compression’ in which people experience spatial and temporal dimensions differently. There is, they suggest ‘a speeding up of time and a “shrinking” of space. Modern technologies enable people, images, ideas and money to criss-cross the globe with great rapidity. This leads … to a greater degree of interdependence, but also to an increased awareness of the world as a whole.’ At the same time, however, these processes may also be associated with a concomitant resurgence—as the two sides of the same coin—of local/national identifications.

Other ideas developed by figurational sociologists might also be applied to understanding relations between Western and non-Western societies, particularly relating to the development and spread of sport. Attention is directed towards four key insights: the concept of diminishing contrasts and increasing varieties, the idea of the commingling of Western and non-Western cultures, the subsequent emergence of a new amalgam and the ongoing attempts by established groups to integrate outsider people(s) as workers and/or consumers (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 151; Maguire, 1994: 404).

According to Maguire (1993a), aspects of globalization are ‘powered’ by specifically Western notions of ‘civilization’ with various commercial and industrial interest groups active in spreading the cult of consumerism and a staple diet of Western products. This has been associated with diminishing contrasts between nations, as members of the ‘media—sport production complex’ have achieved success in marketing virtually identical sport-forms, products and images. However, the people involved in global marketing also attempt to celebrate difference, with new varieties of ethnic wares sought and targeted at specific market niches leading, sometimes, to the strengthening of ‘local’ ethnic identities. An example of this would be the spread to Britain of Japanese martial arts (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994: 151; Maguire, 1994: 409). The development of sport, then, is seen as being contoured by the interlocking processes of diminishing contrasts and increasing varieties.

Involvement in sports may also provide people with ‘anchors of meaning’ as national cultures and identities are affected by global ‘time—space compression’ (Bale and Maguire, 1994; Jarvie and Maguire, 1994). The development of the British Empire resulted in a diverse commingling of ‘British’ national culture and identity with that of other cultures. It involved the spread of British ‘civilization’ and sport-forms, and hence the diminishing of contrasts, but other sports, such as polo, diffused westwards from the East. The process of cultural interchange, though unequal, is not all oneway. Maguire (1994: 408) suggests that this process continues, with revamped versions of British sport-forms—for example, American football and Australian Rules—re-emerging in the mother country.

Moreover, Jarvie and Maguire argue that the effects of the spread of sport from the British to their colonial subjects have been double-edged. Although originally an indication of the success of British colonizers in spreading their sport-forms to other parts of the world, most former colonial peoples now regularly beat the British at ‘their own games,’ boosting their sense of nationhood and difference in the process. Jarvie and Maguire suggest that, in the context of the loss of the former colonies, British/English sporting success may help restore, however superficially, a symbolic sense of stability, but that losing to former colonies may compound the general sense of dislocation (1994: 152).

The association of particular sports with specific places and seasons, it is suggested, can provide a sense of permanence and belonging—however illusory—which helps counteract the breakdown of identity often thought to accompany globalization processes. Jarvie and Maguire argue, however, that the development of the media—sport production complex may also serve to erode this sense of stability. Satellite broadcasting means that ‘consumers’ of sport can ‘be at’ any sport venue across the globe, while the introduction of novel varieties of sports subcultures to existing national cultures facilitates the forging of new sport and leisure identities. Although they argue that involvement in sport has reinforced and reflected a diminishing of contrasts between nations, they are also aware that the close association of sport with national cultures and identities may mean the undermining of the integration of regions at a political level and conclude, despite recognizing the tentative emergence of a European sports identity, that: ‘As with European integration more generally, the sports process occupies contested terrain in which the defensive response of strengthened ethnic identities may yet win out over broader pluralizing global flows’ (1994: 153).

Critical Evaluation and Overview

In this section, we outline and comment on some of the major criticisms of the figurational perspective. For didactic purposes it may be useful to comment on these criticisms under the following headings:

  • General criticisms of figurational sociology.
  • Criticisms specifically of the theory of civilizing processes.
  • Criticisms of the figurational approach to the sociology of sport.

At the outset, we should note that several critics of figurational sociology have acknowledged the substantial contribution which figurational sociologists have made, both to sociology in general and to the sociology of sport in particular. Curtis (1986: 58), for example, though criticizing Elias’s work on civilizing processes, nevertheless states that The Civilizing Process is ‘macro sociology and social history par excellence … there has been nothing written which even begins to approximate the sweep of history … and the painstaking detail’ of Elias’s work. Horne and Jary, while criticizing figurational sociology mainly from a Gramscian Marxist perspective, nevertheless acknowledge that:

If the objective of a sociology of sport is now widely recognized as the provision of a theoretically adequate and historically grounded analysis of changing patterns of sport, then Figurational Sociology has contributed strongly to this recognition. The study of sport’s role in the long-term transformation of culture and manners, and of the changes in class and power associated with this ‘civilizing process’ marked a major step forward in the sociological analysis of sport and leisure. (Horne and Jary, 1987: 86-7)

Notwithstanding comments such as these, however, it is the case that the debate between figurational sociologists and their critics has not always been as constructive as we would like. Figurational sociologists and their critics have, on occasions, accused each other of caricaturing the others’ work (Dunning, 1992b: 256; Horne and Jary, 1987: 99) and, within the context of what Dunning (1992b: 257) has called ‘a failure of communication of massive proportions,’ Bauman (1979: 125) has expressed the fear that figurational sociology may develop ‘into one more sect on the already sectarian sociological scene.’ Such a development would be unhelpful both to figurational sociology and to sociology more generally and we want to encourage a more constructive dialogue between figurational sociologists and their critics. One step towards rapprochement involves recognizing the substantial amount of common ground between these groups.

General Criticisms of Figurational Sociology

Perhaps the two most general criticisms of figurational sociology are, first, that whatever its contribution to date, it does not represent a distinctive perspective within sociology as claimed by its advocates and, secondly, that figurational sociology is, in effect, a form of functionalism.

The first point has been forcefully argued by Curtis, who, writing of Elias’s What is Sociology? (1978b), states:

I doubt that many sociologists will find this approach and subject matter to be very new or absent from their own thoughts on society. Elias does, however, suggest some new terms for social phenomena and sets of phenomena known previously under other labels. For example, what are figurations except people in structures (or networks or systems) with these structures limited to interdependent relationships? What is Sociology? is often old wine in a new bottle … Much of it is fairly standard fare in sociology … (Curtis, 1986: 59)

Horne and Jary (1987: 87) similarly argue that the contribution which figurational sociologists have made to the sociology of sport has not resulted from any distinctive perspective but ‘simply from the raising of classical sociological questions and from recourse to conventional sociological “best practice” in an area where these had hitherto been conspicuously absent.’ They argue that ‘any thesis of the distinctiveness or the indispensability of the concept of figuration in making Figurational Sociology’s contribution possible must be challenged’ and they assert that there is little difference between the concept of figuration and the more traditional sociological concepts of ‘pattern’ and ‘situation.’

In order to evaluate this criticism, it is necessary to understand why Elias rejected these more conventional sociological concepts. As we saw earlier, a central aspect of Elias’s sociology involved the attempt to conceptualize social processes in a way that did not perpetuate traditional and unhelpful dichotomies such as those between the individual and society, or structure and change. In relation to the latter, Rojek (1992: 15) suggests that the concepts of pattern and situation both have rather static connotations and that neither of them conveys ‘the mobile, unfinished qualities of human relations as unequivocally as the concept of figuration.’ Bauman (1979: 119) similarly concludes:

The ‘figuration’ approach could—and should—incorporate change, open-endedness, multiplicity of chances, essential unpredictability of outcome, fluidity of any current pattern of interdependencies, into the very description of all historically generated social totalities. Figuration cannot help but being at the same time stable … and dynamic …; figurations, as a matter of fact, negate and transcend the very opposition between stability and change.

The concept of figuration also helps us, in similar fashion, to move away from the individual/society dichotomy. Thus, Bauman (1979: 118-19) has pointed out that the concept of figuration is a ‘two-edged sword,’ with one edge aimed effectively against individualistic explanations of social processes, and the other edge aimed at reifying concepts such as ‘social system.’ Turner (1985: 159-60) makes a similar point, noting that the concept of figuration is a means of avoiding both ‘methodological individualism and the reification of sociological categories by concentrating on the webs of interdependence (“figurations”) between people and the power balances which characterise these webs.’

That Elias did offer a more useful conceptualization of the individual—society relationship is suggested by some of the responses to The Civilizing Process. Abrams (1982: 231-2), for example, has written that:

The civilizing process … was … simultaneously and symbiotically a way of life for individuals, a distinctive ‘structure of affects’ … and a social system; it was a unified working-out of meaning-and-structure. [Elias] shows, in a set of very detailed studies … just how impossible it is to split or disentangle the meaning-and-structure pair if one seriously wishes to understand either.

Bauman (1979: 121) similarly argued that, in The Civilizing Process, Elias demonstrated:

with merciless logic and overwhelming empirical evidence, that long term changes in what is normally classified as ‘personality structure’ and in what is normally considered under a separate heading of ‘socio-political structure’ were aspects of the same historical process; not only intertwined, but mutually instrumental in each other’s occurrence.

A second general criticism of the figurational approach relates to its alleged ‘functionalism.’ For example, Horne and Jary (1987: 88-9) suggest that the concept of figurations refers to ‘chains of functions’ and argue that figurational sociology ‘retains roots in functionalist sociology, particularly the functionalism of Durkheim.’ Later they argue that figurational sociology is premised on an explicit or implicit reference to ‘societal needs’ and ‘functional requirements,’ and further suggest that some observers have wanted to locate figurational sociology clearly in the ranks of the ‘social order’ and ‘social control’ sociologies, since leisure is seen as performing ‘compensatory’ functions (1987: 100).

How valid are these criticisms? Elias certainly uses the term ‘function’ in his work, though this hardly indicates that his work is functionalist, for the concept of function has—unfortunately in the view of the present writers—been incorporated into mainstream sociology and is now widely used by sociologists representing a variety of perspectives. We might note here that Horne and Jary themselves called for study of the ‘contested functions of sport’ (1987: 100), though it would be foolish to suggest that they are therefore functionalists. More specifically, in relation to their suggestion that figurational sociology should be located in the ranks of functionalist ‘social order’ and ‘social control’ sociologies, it should be noted that Elias himself criticized precisely this aspect of structural-functionalism. He argued:

the concept of ‘function’ as it has been used … especially by ‘structural-functionalist’ theorists, is not only based on an inadequate analysis of the subject matter to which it relates, but also contains an inappropriate value judgement which, moreover, is made explicit in neither interpretation nor use. The inappropriateness of the evaluation is due to the fact that they tend—unintentionally—to use the terms for those tasks performed by one part of the society which are ‘good’ for the ‘whole,’ because they contribute to the preservation and integrity of the existing social system. Human activities which either fail or appear to fail to do that are therefore branded as ‘dysfunctional.’ It is plain that at this point social beliefs have become mixed up in scientific theory. (1978b: 77)

Rojek points out that figurational sociologists do not, as Horne and Jary suggest, ‘see compensatory functions in sport and leisure everywhere,’ and neither do they, like many functionalists, ‘resolutely ignore conflict and contradiction’; indeed, he suggests that the work of Dunning et al. on football hooliganism in Britain ‘can hardly be taken as a paean to the power of sport to enhance harmony or stability in society’ (Rojek, 1992: 23).

In conclusion, the critics have not effectively sustained their argument that figurational sociology is functionalist, though we might note that the influence of the then popular non-Parsonian functionalism was certainly evident in some very early work by Dunning (for example, Dunning, 1967), though it is much less evident in his later work.

Criticisms of the Theory of Civilizing Processes

The most frequently made criticism of Elias’s The Civilizing Process is that it is a form of ‘latent evolutionism’ (Horne and Jary, 1987: 101). Curtis, for example, writes of Elias’s ‘assumption of more or less unilinear evolution’ and he continues:

Does not the record of aggression and violence in this century put the lie to this linear view, at least with respect to the increased internalization of controls on violence? While reading The Civilizing Process, I could not help thinking of all the contrary evidence … from the past few years: the slaughter of Jews in Nazi Germany; the devastation laid on people in Dresden; the annihilation provided the people of Hiroshima; … to name but a very few. How do we reconcile these events with a notion that people are moving toward a pinnacle in self-restraint of aggression? (Curtis, 1986: 59-60)

Newman (1986: 322) has similarly referred to what he calls ‘Elias’s notion of the ever-civilizing trend of social life’ whilst Taylor (1987: 176) writes of ‘the evolutionary and idealist social theory of Norbert Elias.’

All these criticisms have in common the idea that Elias’s theory of civilizing processes is a theory of a continuous and ‘progressive’ trend towards ever-more civilized standards of conduct in relation to the control of aggression. It is, however, difficult to sustain this criticism by reference to Elias’s work, for Elias indicated many times that European societies have experienced decivilizing phases of varying intensity and varying duration. For example, he wrote (1982: 251) that the civilizing process ‘moves along in a long sequence of spurts and counter spurts’ and pointed out that:

this movement of society and civilization certainly does not follow a straight line. Within the overall movement there are repeatedly greater or lesser counter-movements in which the contrasts in society and the fluctuations in the behaviour of individuals, their affective outbreaks, increase again. (1982: 253)

As Rojek (1992: 21) has noted, one can hardly take statements of this kind ‘as a sign of enthusiasm for evolutionary doctrine.’

Moreover, Elias has written at length on the de-civilizing processes associated with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Elias made a contribution to understanding this phenomenon in his paper ‘Civilization and violence’ (1982/3) and, at considerably greater length, in his Studien über die Deutschen (1989), now made available in English as The Germans (1996). Elias, whose mother died in Auschwitz, says that the book ‘originated in the attempt to make understandable, to myself and anyone who is prepared to listen, how the rise of National Socialism came about, and thus also the war, concentration camps and the breaking apart of the earlier Germany into two states.’ The core of the book was ‘an attempt to tease out developments in the German national habitus which made possible the de-civilizing spurt of the Hitler epoch’ (Elias, 1996: 1). It is all but impossible to imagine how anyone could interpret such a statement as being indicative of a commitment to a theory of unilinear ‘progress.’ We concur with Rojek’s conclusion that, ‘having considered the evidence, the criticism of evolutionism … is not warranted. Demonstrably, the theory of the civilizing process allows for counter-civilizing as well as civilizing movements’ (Rojek, 1992: 22).

Criticisms of the Figurational Sociology of Sport

Writing from a position which is broadly sympathetic to figurational sociology, Stokvis (1992) has offered one specific and one general criticism of the work of Elias and Dunning. The specific criticism relates to Elias’s work on the development of fox hunting in England, while the more general criticism concerns what Stokvis argues is too narrow a concentration on matters of violence and its control in the work of figurational sociologists.

Elias (1986) discussed the development of fox hunting in England in terms of the theory of civilizing processes. He noted that, characteristic of the form of fox hunting that developed from the eighteenth century onwards was a restriction on the use of violence. For example, the hunters were unarmed and were required from the eighteenth century onwards to kill foxes not directly, but ‘by proxy,’ that is, through the hounds. Elias argued that the development of these less violent forms of hunting took place in conjunction with the ‘parliamentarization of political conflict,’ for, as the cycle of violence which had characterized English society in the seventeenth century began to wane, a more civilized ruling class began to emerge which developed less violent ways of behaving in both the political and the leisure spheres. The leisure side of this process, like the political side, involved what Elias called a ‘civilizing spurt,’ one aspect of which involved the development of less violent ways of hunting.

However, Stokvis argues that the more civilized traits in fox hunting to which Elias refers developed first in France during the rise of the absolute monarchy, independently of any form of parliamentarization. He notes that the ‘chasse par force’ which developed in France during the sixteenth century involved a move away from the earlier crude slaughtering of the quarry and that the violence involved in the killing ‘was reduced to a minimum’ (Stokvis, 1992: 123). Stokvis notes that this French style of hunting was diffused to England during the reign of James I (1603-25), this diffusion taking place in much the same way as English sports were diffused to other countries some centuries later. Thus, in the seventeenth century, France became the dominant power in Europe and the manners of the French elite became a prestigious model to be followed by the elites of neighbouring countries.

The interest of the English gentry and aristocracy in the French way of hunting during the reign of James I demonstrates, suggests Stokvis, ‘that they had already acquired a taste for pastimes in which the level of violence was relatively restrained before parliament acquired its leading role in politics,’ and he argues that ‘there is no indication that the experience of non-violent competition between opposing parties in Parliament had anything to do with the development of the typically English way of fox hunting’ (1992: 124-5). He suggests that Elias’s misconception about the origins of English fox hunting arose, in part, from his reliance on a limited number of contemporary sources. Elias certainly bases his study on limited sources and Stokvis offers a clear, cogent and telling critique of Elias’s work.

More generally, Stokvis argues that what he sees as figurational sociologists’ over-concentration on violence and its control has led to the neglect of what he considers to be more important areas for research such as the formal organization and standardization of sport, its diffusion in national societies and throughout the world and its professionalization and commercialization. He suggests that figurational sociologists have focused narrowly on the restriction of the level of tolerated violence with the result that ‘what is only one aspect in the development of some modern sports is considered the defining characteristic of modern sports in general’ (Stokvis, 1992: 131). He adds: ‘the basic distinguishing characteristic of modern sports is their international organization and standardization and not, as Elias suggests, the relatively low level of tolerated violence’ (1992: 134). Stokvis suggests that while one must take account of changes in the levels of socially permitted violence within sport, ‘the rise of modern sports should, however, primarily be interpreted as another manifestation of the increase in the scale and complexity of social life’ (1992: 127).

Stokvis’s criticism implies, quite wrongly in our view, that figurational sociologists have explained changes in socially permitted levels of violence without reference to other aspects of the development of modern sport. For example, in their analysis of the structural properties of folk games and modern sports, Dunning and Sheard (1979: 33-4) list 15 characteristics in terms of which one can differentiate between folk games and modern sports, only one of which relates specifically to levels of socially tolerated violence, with the other characteristics including reference to many aspects of the informal and formal organization of folk games and modern sports. They point out, for example, that folk games were characterized by a diffuse, informal organization which was largely implicit in the local social structure, whereas modern sports are characterized by highly specific, formal organizations which are institutionally differentiated at the local, regional, national and international levels. They also point out that folk games involved regional variations in the rules whereas modern sports are characterized by national and international standardization of rules. If we locate Dunning and Sheard’s analysis of differences in socially tolerated levels of violence within the context of their much broader analysis of modern sports we see that they do indeed address many of the very issues which Stokvis identifies as ‘more important areas’ for research.

The final criticism—that figurational sociologists have neglected gender issues—has been forcefully made by Jennifer Hargreaves (1992). Hargreaves (1992: 163) writes of Elias and Dunning’s Quest for Excitement:

with the exception of a section about fox hunting, in which a limited number of upper-class women would have actively participated, the book is exclusively about male sports and shared traditions. The cover signals its contents: it shows a boxing match with one man knocking another out of the ring, a male referee and an all-male audience. Turn inside and there is an all-male crowd celebrating a football triumph … Elias ignores the traditions of women in sport and also the ways in which women, however unobviously, were integral to dominantly male cultures.

This neglect of gender issues, she argues, is not accidental but grows out of the methodology of figurational sociology. Figurational sociologists’ stress on the need to study phenomena in a relatively detached manner results, she suggests, not in ‘objective’ knowledge, but in an uncritical acceptance of gender inequalities in sport:

it is not an accident that all figurational sports sociology has been written by men about male sports and, in contradiction to Dunning’s claim, such a position represents an alignment with the ‘dominant values and modes of thinking of Western societies.’ Because it claims to be objective and uncritical, in a subtle but fundamental manner it is supporting the popular idea that sport is more suited to men than to women and represents a celebration of male bonding and male sport. (Hargreaves, 1992: 165)

Hargreaves’s charge is thus not merely that figurational sociologists have neglected gender issues, but that their emphasis on detachment leads them to accept prevailing male-dominated ideologies about sport. To what extent are these charges valid?

It is certainly the case that figurational sociologists have, for the most part, neglected gender issues, though they have not ignored them altogether. Elias wrote a book-length manuscript on gender relations which was accidentally destroyed and all that remains is a reconstructed journal article (Elias, 1987b). Other figurational sociologists have also written on aspects of gender relationships within sport (Dunning, 1986b, 1990b; Sheard and Dunning, 1973; Waddington et al., 1998). There have also been two recent and interesting attempts to examine the relationship between figurational sociology and feminist approaches with a view to possible synthesis (Colwell, 1999; Maguire and Mansfield, 1998). Notwithstanding these recent developments, however, there has been a relative neglect of such issues, and to this degree the charge is substantiated; indeed, Dunning has accepted that ‘we have in the past been too silent on questions of gender’ (1992b: 255).

However, we believe that Hargreaves has misunderstood what is involved in the concepts of involvement and detachment, and that there is nothing in the methodology of figurational sociology which militates against the systematic study of gender. The emphasis in figurational sociology on studying phenomena in a relatively detached way does not involve, either explicitly or implicitly, a celebration of male sport but neither does it imply that, as sociologists, we should celebrate female sport; rather, it involves the idea that our primary task is to develop sociologically more adequate explanations of the structure of sport. Figurational sociologists simply claim that, in so far as we are able to examine social processes in a relatively detached way, we are likely to generate more adequate explanations than are those who, for one reason or another, are unable to develop such a degree of detachment. We believe this is a reasonable claim that most sociologists would share. We also believe that relatively adequate explanations of this kind will provide a more secure basis for action designed to overcome existing gender inequalities.