|Origins of a research group|
|Sociologists||Sociologists in social media|
of Figurational Sociology in the Netherlands (up to 1989).
Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Studies. 
In October 1976 thirteen sociologists and anthropologists met at the Sociological Institute of the Universtity of Amsterdam to found a research group for Figurational Sociology. As the proposed name indicated, they shared an interest in the work of Norbert Elias who had introduced the concept figuration as a generic concept in sociology [Elias 1969a, 1969b, 1970; cf. Mennell 1989]. According to the minutes of the first meeting, they also found common inspiration in Johan Goudsbloms Sociology in the Balance . An inventory was made of the research projects in which those present were currently involved and names were suggested of other participants to be invited. The group decided to stage monthly or bi-monthly meetings in which members would discuss informally their own work in progress.
Within a few months after its founding, the group was accepted as a section of the Netherlands Sociological and Anthropological Association. Membership grew rapidly, reaching more than fifty within a year, and well over eighty a few years later. In accordance with the initial programme, meetings were held at approximately two months intervals, with attendance varying between fifteen and thirty participants. From the beginning, the majority of the members consisted of junior staff and graduates of the Sociological Institute of the University of Amsterdam. This also continued to be the location where the group convened. Members came from other universities as well, however, most notably from the Department of Anthropology of the University of Nijmegen at which one of the group's founders, Anton Blok, held a chair.
Although the founders never intended this, the group soon came to be perceived as a distinct school or theory group. Its own activities no doubt helped to create this impression, but it was reinforced by other events highlighting the work of Norbert Elias. Since Eliass writings provided the common perspective of the Figurational Sociology Research Group, the images and self-images of the group were directly connected with the vicissitudes of the reception of Elias's work in the Netherlands.
When the first German edition of Norbert Eliass book The Civilizing Process was published in Switzerland in 1939, the author was living as a refugee in England. Several highly favourable reviews appeared, but because of the adverse time of publication these were never followed up by a sustained discussion. As a result, the book virtually fell into oblivion - except in the Netherlands, where it continued to attract comment and readers [Goudsblom 1977]. It was on the basis of Eliass reputation as a notable scholar that after his retirement as a Reader at the University of Leicester and his two years position as Professor of Sociology at the University of Ghana he was invited to the Netherlands as a Visiting Professor for three consecutive autumn terms: in 1969 at the Department of History of the University of Amsterdam, in 1970 at the Department of Sociology of the same University, and in 1971 at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
These visits followed closely upon the publication after a long period of almost unbroken silence of three important books in German: a re-issue of The Civilizing Process with a new introduction, The Court Society, and What is Sociology? The availability of these books, in combination with Elias's prolonged personal presence, made a strong impact in the Netherlands, not only in the academic world but among a wider audience of educated readers as well. Both in scholarly journals and in more general weekly and monthly periodicals, critiques of Elias's theory of the civilising process appeared, raising issues that were later reiterated in other countries. It was typical of the Dutch situation that, from the start, Elias was recognized as a sociologist rather than a historian and that What is Sociology?  which was translated as early as 1971 played an important part in the reception of his work. More attention was given here than elsewhere to Eliass contributions to sociological theory.
After his three terms of teaching at Dutch institutes of higher learning, Elias was repeatedly invited back to this country for lectures and conferences. Several more of his books were translated into Dutch, including a collection of essays published under the title Sociology and History (1971); The Established and the Outsiders for which he wrote a new introduction (1976); and The Civilizing Process (1982) which went through several printings and of which more than 14,000 copies were sold. After spending a few years in Germany, at the Universities of Konstanz, Aachen, Bochum, Frankfurt and Bielefeld, Elias eventually settled in Amsterdam, where he is still actively writing, giving interviews, and receiving visitors.
This is not the place to attempt summarising the debate about the nature and meaning of Eliass work. Suffice it to say that when the second edition of The Civilizing Process appeared I myself was among those who considered this book as being of paradigmatic significance. In a lengthy review I quoted Thomas Kuhn to the effect that a scientific paradigm (1) offers a solution to some fundamental problems, (2) leaves a number of specific problems unsolved, and (3) provides guidelines for solving these specific problems [Goudsblom 1970].
In my review I elaborated mainly the first point, claiming that Eliass work pointed the way out of some basic theoretical dilemmas in sociology. It provided elegant and consistent solutions to some persistent problems of conceptualisation: how to come to grips with the relationships between society and individual, between change and structure, and between purposeful action and unintended consequences.
As I later pointed out, discussions about paradigms in sociology were in the air at the time [Goudsblom 1977: 63-64]. There was mounting dissatisfaction with the dominant trends in the field, represented by the theoretical approach of structural functionalism and the methods and techniques of survey research. Critical students discovered the Frankfurt school and other varieties of Marxism; junior staff members were drawn toward symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology; several older sociologists felt urged to re-examine their own position.
In this turbulent situation Elias became a pivotal figure. In his books and lectures he dealt with problems of which many people were now keenly aware: changing codes of behaviour and morality and their connection with shifts in power balances. Moreover, he did so in a way that was characterised neither by a positivism tending to reduce all really significant problems to triviality, nor by a self-styled critical stance in which moral critique and scholarly analysis were deliberately confounded.
In the Dutch edition of Sociology in the Balance , and even more explicitly in the English edition  I tried to substantiate these programmatic statements by comparing the theoretical orientation implied in a number of well known sociological studies to the perspective unfolded in Eliass work. Meanwhile others used this perspective in studies with a more empirical orientation [Mennell 1989: 24].
It should be noted, however, that while we treated figuration as a central generic concept none of us felt strongly inclined to label our work as figurational sociology. We regarded the methodological principles to be found in the writings of Elias as valid for sociology at large, and in a sense even for the human sciences in general. Our aim was certainly not to create a particular parochial branch of sociology named figurational sociology.
Within the field as a whole, however, the idea that paradigmatic importance might be attributed to Elias's work was inevitably interpreted as the claim of just one more school. The tendency to identify the figurationists or the Eliasians (as they were variously called) as a specific paradigm community was reinforced by the appearance of another group upon the Dutch sociological scene. This group, which proudly designated its own work as explanatory sociology [Wippler 1978), was more inclined to think in terms of theory groups and research programmes.
From this point of view two of its members one of whom (Kuiper) had also joined the Figurational Sociology Research Group wrote an article on the research programme of figurational sociology [Flap and Kuiper 1981]. Although, owing to an overly scientistic bias, the authors were not entirely successful in conveying the spirit of the work they tried to typify, their article did a great deal to contribute to the image of figurational sociology as a distinct approach. Its influence extended to Germany, where it was published in one of the leading professional journals.
Later research and publications on developments in Dutch sociology reinforced the image of competing schools: Maso and Godschalk 1980; Hagendijk and Prins 1984; Vansuyt and Roorda 1987; Rijnen and Rijnders 1990.
The Figurational Sociology Research Group has been active on various fronts. During the first years after its founding, it held about six meetings a year. Sometimes a guest speaker was invited, including Norbert Elias himself and visiting colleagues from England and Germany such as Eric Dunning, Stephen Mennell, Hermann Korte, Peter Gleichmann, Volker Krumrey and Michael Schröter. Usually, however, a member of the group itself presented a paper about his or her current research. Many articles that were subsequently published in journals and many chapters in PhD theses received their first public discussion in meetings of the group.
Members of the group also played a prominent part in other events celebrating Eliass work. One such occasion was Eliass eightieth birthday in 1977. The recently founded Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift (Amsterdam Journal of Sociology) published a festschrift, Human Figurations, with contributions in English and German, directed at an international audience. It was later to be followed by two German volumes prepared by the same team of editors [Gleichmann e.a. 1979; 1984]. In a brief foreword the editors of the festschrift noted that the sociology of Norbert Elias was gaining increasing recognition. They found it in accord with the perspective of figurational sociology transcending disciplinary boundaries that the volume contained articles covering a broad spectrum of inquiry in the human sciences [Gleichmann e.a. 1977:5].
Also on the occasion of Eliass eightieth birthday the literary review De Gids - which counted two prominent members of the Research Group, Godfried van Benthem van den Bergh and Abram de Swaan, among its editors - organized a large conference in Amsterdam on Marxism, psychoanalysis and the sociology of Norbert Elias. The implied juxtaposition of his name with those of Marx and Freud expressed an unmistakable tribute to the octogenerian.
Members of the Research Group were also invited to attend meetings on Figurational Sociology and the Theory of the Civilising Process arranged by the Theory Groups of the British and the German Sociological Associations. Thus they presented papers at a conference at Balliol College in Oxford in January 1980 [Bruin & Brinkgreve 1980], at Bremen in 1980, and at Bamberg in 1982. The presence of small Dutch delegations at these conferences added to the groups visibility and strengthened the internal cohesion of its core group. It also added to the prestige of such British and German advocates of Elias's work as Dunning, Mennell, Korte, and Gleichmann who at the time found little collegial rapport in their own countries.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands itself the activities of the Research Group were concentrated on an event that was to be its first large-scale public manifestation. Early in 1980 the Dutch Sociological and Anthropological Association asked its Figurational Sociology section to organise the Associations annual congress in December 1981. The organising committee decided to stage the meetings around the theme Civilising processes and theories of civilisation, with the focus on Eliass theory. Sociologists, historians and anthropologists were invited to apply this theory to a variety of cases and, possibly, to compare it with other theories and test its validity. The invited speakers included both members and non-members of the Figurational Sociology group [Goudsblom 1981].
The conference was held at the University of Amsterdam. Elias himself delivered the keynote address with a lecture on very long-term processes of civilisation and pacification. The papers that followed brought a great deal of new empirical material to bear on his theory material based on historical, sociological and anthropological research of civilising processes in various settings. Most of these papers were subsequently published in various journals and books. The actual proceedings have been described and commented upon by several persons; the fullest and most balanced account was given by Nico Wilterdink .
As his report clearly brings out, on the second day the conference evolved into a bitter confrontation, culminating in Anton Bloks insinuation that Eliass theory had racist undertones. One of the reasons for this unexpected outbreak was, so it seems, the urge among some of the participants to make it abundantly clear that they did not wish to be regarded as the obedient disciples of a dogmatic school, spinning to use Bloks phrase the prayer wheels of an established orthodoxy.
The startlingly hostile stance taken by Blok and others had a demotivating effect upon the Figurational Sociology Research Group. Some of its members now evidently wished to dissociate themselves from it. Most of the others were badly stung by the allegation of orthodoxy, which ran very much counter to the spirit in which they themselves conducted their research. Since, by then, many members held university positions which enabled them to discuss their work with congenial colleagues independently of the Research Group, the frequency and attendance of the groups meetings dropped. However, on the iniative of the Inter-University Foundation for the Social Sciences in the Netherlands (SISWO), in 1990 the group is to be reactivated under a new name, Process Sociology Research Group.
In retrospect it is clear that by 1981 research inspired by the figurational perspective in general and the theory of civilising processes in particular already had a momentum of its own. It has been continuing vigorously, regardless of the vicissitudes which the Research Group went through in the aftermath of the conference.
The activities of the Figurational Sociology Research Group represent an episode during which the reception of Norbert Eliass work in the Netherlands was most intense. In a more general way the reception had already begun before the German occupation in 1940, with favourable comments and reviews by the influential literary critic Menno ter Braak and the sociologist and criminologist W.A. Bonger. In some intellectual circles, mainly comprising readers of Ter Braak and former students of Bonger, the original Swiss edition of The Civilizing Process continued to be read and recommended throughout the war and post-war years.
In the early 1970s, when Elias himself regularly lectured in the Netherlands and collected a small group of admirers around him, his ideas became the subject of a wider public interest. Almost immediately following upon the publication of some highly laudatory reviews of his recent books in German and Dutch, controversies arose in newspapers and monthly reviews as well as in scholarly journals. Some critics simply derided Elias as a cult figure. Others more substantively challenged his view of the civilising process or the wider implications of his ideas for problems of philosophy and history.
It was partly due to the confusion and vehemence of these debates that some of those who were influenced by Eliass writings and teachings kept a rather low profile in this respect. If for this reason alone, it would be impossible to demarcate once and for all the boundaries of figurational sociology clearly. Yet it is generally agreed that a number of contributions to sociology in the first place, but also to anthropology and to a lesser extent to history, fall within its orbit. These contributions cover a wide array of substantive problems. They have in common a shared theoretical perspective and they derive their central concepts and ideas from the same body of writings. In terms of citation networks they are connected by strategic dependency rather than functional dependency [Whitley 1982; Hagendijk & Prins 1984].
Some central research themes have been directly inspired by Eliass work. Foremost among these is a concern with the theory of the civilising process and with the problem of whether and to what extent this theory can be made to apply to eras and areas not covered in Eliass original book. Abram de Swaan, Cas Wouters, Paul Kapteyn, Christien Brinkgreve and several others have addressed themselves to this problem. A recurrent issue in their work is the question first raised by Wouters of whether the civilising process in Europe and the United States in its current stage can be characterised in terms of increasing informalisation.
Another common problem relates to the continuation of state formation processes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which raises questions about the modern welfare state and its implications for personality structure. In this area De Swaans work is pivotal; others, such as Wouters and Bram van Stolk and Rineke van Daalen have added important contributions.
Other common focuses of research are to be found in Anton Bloks work on control of violence and codes of honour in Mediterranean countries and in Mart Baxs work on religious regimes, both of which have inspired anthropologists of a younger generation to conduct investigations along similar lines. On the whole, however, research themes tend to range widely, as they do in Eliass own work, with regard both to time and space and to topic. By and large, the linking characteristics are rather to be found in the general approach, in the use and avoidance of particular concepts and turns of phrase, and in a style which tends to be more literary and polished than the average standard in sociology.
In accordance with their low degree of organisation and their diverging substantive interests, Dutch figurational sociologists have never founded a journal or series of publications of their own. Yet there are some periodicals in which the figurational point of view is strongly represented to such a degree that these are sometimes regarded by outsiders as organs of the school.
This was very much so in the case of Symposion, an annual review edited by a group of young scholars who had been students of sociology and anthropology at the Universities of Amsterdam and Nijmegen in the 1970s. Unfortunately only three issues appeared (1979-81). Strong continuity on the other hand has been achieved by the Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift, founded in 1973 by junior staff of the sociology department at the University of Amsterdam, some of whom were later to join the Figurational Sociology Research Group. The contingent of figurational sociologists in the editorial board has increased over the years, and while editorial policy has never been avowedly committed to figurational sociology, it has always proved to be sympathetic toward this perspective. A third periodical to be mentioned in this context is the literary monthly De Gids. It is typical that quite a few contributions to figurational sociology including Eliass Essay on Time were first published not in a professional journal, but in this general cultural review.
Another cluster of publications bearing the traces of a strong exposure to the perspective of figurational sociology is formed by a number of dissertations in sociology written under the supervision of De Swaan and myself at the University of Amsterdam. Over the years, however, graduates and postgraduates from the University of Amsterdam have swarmed out over other universities as well. Partly through the dispersal of personnel, partly through the dissemination of ideas by books, reviews and oral presentations, figurational sociology has spread out over the whole country. Samples of it can also be encountered in the Netherlands Journal of Sociology, an international journal sponsored by the Netherlands Sociological and Anthropological Association. In anthropology, the figurational approach is now most clearly manifest in the departments of the Catholic University at Nijmegen and the Free University at Amsterdam.
In the process of diffusion, the intellectual perspective itself has not remained unchanged. Often it is almost imperceptibly merged with other views in sociology, in anthropology, in history. One field in which traces of its influence continue to be rare is, somewhat surprisingly, psychology.
A handy yardstick for the extent to which the figurational perspective has become established in the Netherlands is its acceptance in the leading textbooks. One of the most popular textbooks in sociology, by De Jager and Mok [1989 - 9th ed.], which has been thoroughly revised over the years, has given increasing attention both to the concepts and ideas inherent in the figurational perspective and to empirical studies carried out along these lines. More recent textbooks exhibit its influence even more clearly. While avoiding any direct identification with figurational sociology, the introductions to sociology by Berting and Verrips-Roukens  and by Wilterdink & Van Heerikhuizen [1985; 1989] are evidently informed by a figurational approach. A strong leaning toward this approach is also exhibited in Bloks introductory essay on theoretical and methodological perspectives in anthropology [Blok 1975].
Although until now Eliass influence among social scientists has extended nowhere as far as in the Netherlands, interest in his work is growing in many other countries as well. In Germany, where he has received several high distinctions, he is widely revered as one of the very few surviving links with a lamented past. The sociologist Korte  has written a biographical introduction to his early work, and the number of dissertations and other monographs in sociology and history inspired by it is increasing each year. A tribute in disguise is the announced four-volume critique of the theory of the civilising process by the anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr, the first two volumes of which have appeared in 1988 and 1989.
In France Elias is recognised as an inspiring predecessor by historians of the Annales school and by one of the leading sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu. Parts of his work are now also available and being discussed in other languages of both Western and Eastern Europe and in Japanese.
Only in the English-speaking world does its reception appear to be lagging somewhat behind. Within sociology, however, it is being aided by the currently reviving interest in such fields as comparative historical sociology and the sociology of culture, and by the emergence of new research areas such as the sociology of emotions. For all these areas, Eliass work contains seminal ideas, especially at the high level of general synthesis at which seemingly disparate phenomena can be shown to be interdependent. It is to be expected that Stephen Mennells lengthy and informative monograph [Mennell 1989] will further stimulate interest in these ideas. Meanwhile the journal Theory, Culture & Society appears to be developing into a regular platform for publications by and about Elias [Featherstone 1987].
In the Netherlands, the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam continues to be the hub of what may loosely be called figurational sociology or, as Elias himself has recently suggested, process sociology. Even there, those who are clearly affiliated with this approach constitute a minority which especially in its early years often met with bitter opposition (cf. Van Peursen). In the entire spectrum of sociology in the Netherlands, the figurational segment is even smaller. All the same, as this bibliography clearly demonstrates, the figurational perspective is by no means confined to Amsterdam, nor to sociology.
The critical discussion and empirical elaboration of Eliass writings which started in the Netherlands some twenty years ago is now taking place on a much larger scale in an international context. Work along these lines in other countries might benefit from a better acquaintance with the Dutch contributions over the preceding period. Making these more readily accessible is the purpose of the present publication.
Obviously any inventory can only show the work that has been done up to a particular moment. Figurational sociology, or process sociology, in the Netherlands is a continually expanding field, in terms of both the number of studies carried out and the range of subjects covered by these studies.
For the period up to 1989, however, a fair measure of completeness has been attained, thanks to Willem Kranendonk who has performed with great dedication the task of collecting the data for this bibliography. In doing so he could draw on a long-standing familiarity with figurational sociology and an impressive sense of accuracy. I have also been able to profit from these qualities through his comments on earlier drafts of this introduction.
 Amsterdam, November 1989. © 1990 J. Goudsblom
 Having been personally involved in the development of figurational
Berting & Verrips-Roukens: see Verrips
Blok, Anton 
De Jager, H. / Mok, A.L. [1978, 1983, 1989]
Elias, Norbert [1969a]
Elias, Norbert [1969b]
Elias, Norbert  Wat is Sociologie? Utrecht/Antwerpen: Het Spectrum (Dutch translation by Jan Vollers and Johan Goudsblom of Eliass Was ist Soziologie?, Munich 1970: Juventa Verlag)
Flap, Henk / Kuiper, Yme 
Gleichmann, Peter R., Goudsblom, Johan / Korte, Hermann (eds) 
Gleichmann, Peter R. / Goudsblom, Johan / Korte, Hermann (eds) 
Gleichmann, Peter R. / Goudsblom, Johan / Korte, Hermann (eds) (1984)
Goudsblom, Johan 
Goudsblom, Johan 
Goudsblom, Johan 
Goudsblom, Johan 
Hagendijk, Rob / Prins, A.A.M. 
Jager, de: see De Jager
Korte, Hermann 
Peursen, van: see Van Peursen
Rijnders, Kyong / Rijnen, Angela 
Van Peursen, Albertine 
Vansuyt, Chantal / Roorda, Carla 
Verrips-Roukens, Kitty / Berting, J. / Witte, M.C. de / Cruson, C.I. 
Whitley, R.D. 
Wilterdink, Nico 
German summary: Bemerkungen zur Zivilisationstheorie
(Comments on the theory of the civilizing process), 530-534 in: F. Heckman & P. Winter (eds), 21. Deutscher Soziologentag 1982. Beiträge der Sektions- und Ad-hoc-Gruppen. Opladen 1983: Westdeutscher Verlag (Proceedings of the 21st German Sociological Convention [at Bamberg] 1982: Contributions to the sessions of the sections and the ad hoc-groups [on Figurational Sociology inter al., including German summaries of six contributions by Dutch participants]
Wilterdink, Nico / Heerikhuizen, Bart van (eds.) [1985, 1989]
dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Studies
University of Amsterdam
|Last modified||03rd April, 2017|