Helen Palmer (nice_cup_of_tea) wrote,
Helen Palmer

Elias Section (1669 to 1182 words)

The dreaded Elias section is now finished, finally! Just need to do one final edit of the whole literature review before sending it off!

The cornerstone of Norbert Elias' sociology is his theory of the civilising process (Hughes 1998, Van Iterson et al 2001). The theory focuses on the long term development of human society, the interdependence between people and the resulting power chances from these unplanned soial figurations (Goudsblom 1977a in Mennell 1992: 94). Whilst his work is rarely applied to small group settings, there are exceptions (Maguire and Mansfield 1996) and Pugh (2004) who combines Elias theory of social development with the Community of Practice Model to analyse learning within the basketball clubs. What relevance to Elias' theories have on the Samaritan induction context? This section will consider two main groups of theories. Firstly, the notion of figurations is used to explain relationships between interdependent people and the resulting tension between involvement and detachment. Secondly, power chances within the group are explored through Elias' work on established and outsider relations.

Elias takes a long term perspective on the development of society and interdependent persons. He argues that power configurations within the long-term perspective of societies’ structural development are intricately bound together with the minutiae of people’s behaviour and emotional subjectivity (Mennell 1992: 42, Newton 2001: 471). In “The Civilising Process” (1994 [1939]) Elias studies the development of manners and behaviour since the Middle Ages, and argues that changes in emotions and personal subjectivity are determined by power changes at a societal level. Power, originally wielded by many tribal leaders, became centralised under a stable monarchy. Since physical power was no longer available as a means of negotiation, individuals had to control their emotional impulses and show greater civility than before, begging access to court, or favours from the monarch (Newton 1995: 71). Van Iterson, Mastenbroek and Soeters argue that whilst the marked power imbalance between individual and monarch initially produced behavioural and emotional restraints, these restraints were later compelled “…by the more impersonal, less visible compulsions of a closer social interdependence” (1991: 505). Modern society is characterized by lengthening chains of interdependence, and emotions are tightly restrained in order to facilitate the ordered running of society.
As a result of these 'lengthening chains', people are bound together in figurations, constrained by their mutual social obligations (Pugh 2004: 5). This in turn leads to tension between involvement and detachment, as people balance their needs and self-interests with the need to take others into account (Wouters 1989: 106). This appears paradoxical. Being involved or being empathetic demands a closeness to the other person, and yet how can this be reconciled with remaining detached? Yet Elias saw involvement and detachment less as polar contrasts, and more as a continuum (Mennell 1992: 160). Samaritans as a voluntary emotional support service illustrates this continuum. Firstly, Samaritan volunteers are skilled at balancing empathy and detachment. They reach out to the caller and listen with empathy, and yet retain an emotional distance so that the caller's distress cannot overwhelm them. Secondly, the dense figurations of interdependent people in modern society demand that emotional control is applied by the individual, not by external social forces. Samaritans offers a form of release from this emotional control.. Suicide is still a taboo topic, and emotional self-restraints such as shame and embarrassment prevent people from openly discussing their feelings. Individuals who are unable to acknowledge their emotions and difficulties to family or friends, talk anonymously to a volunteer.

All communities are characterized by relations of power that reflect their unique social histories (Elias 1974 in Pugh 205: 21). Elias developed his theory on established and outsider relations after studying two working class communities (see Elias and Scotson 1994). Both groups were similar in terms of social class, occupation and income, the only qualitative difference was the length of history. The established group had a cultural history and common memories and were a cohesive unit with close interdependencies between members. The rejection of the newcomers was based on the established group’s fear that these immigrants would threaten their standing and lower standards of behaviour. Elias and Scotson claim that there was no concerted plan amongst the villagers to act in this way (1994: 18), it was an unconscious social process. The established group used gossip as a weapon of ideology, in order to promote their ‘we-image’ against the inferior image of the outsider group. The outsiders accepted this negative view of themselves because of the unequal balance of power.
Mansfield and Maguire (1999) studied established and outsider relations within an aerobics class. It consisted of a small clique of established members and a larger group of outsiders. The established group engaged in rituals which strengthened their power relations. They arrived at class early in order protect their personal exercise space at the front of the class. Their exercise clothing and jewellery marked them out as high status members, whilst also drawing attention to their bodies. The established group communicated non-verbally, using smiles, nodes and waves to signal their membership of the clique. The spatial positions of the members clearly reflected their power chances. The established group performed at the front of the class which gained them greater access to the mirrors and to the expert knowledge of instructor. The outsider group at the back of the class were prevented from seeing the routines and were therefore unable to gain expertise and power. However, the established group was not rigidly partitioned. With time, outsiders could gain expertise and join the clique. The outsiders would progress to the middle of the exercise space, before their expertise gained them access to the established group’s protected area at the front.

There is a clear parallel here with the journey from peripheral to full participation within communities of practice. Established outsider relations explain the ways in which groups work to protect established power hierarchies (Pugh 2005: 23) and this is also evident within the Samaritans context. Shifts can be long established, coherent groups, ambivalent about the incursions of new volunteers. Shifts may have practices and attitudes, learnt over many generations of volunteers, which become the de facto standard of volunteer behaviour on that shift.

In summary, Eliasian theory argues that the ‘divide’ between the individual and the group is an artificial one; that “(…) we are social to our very core, and only exist in and through our relations with others (…)” (Van Krieken 2003: 2). Samaritans provides an interesting example of the tension between involvement and detachment amongst interdependent people and the associated power relations. Newcomers must negotiate their way around their new environment, recognising the power hierarchies, whilst gaining the expertise and history to join the established group. Elias therefore, in contrast to Lave and Wenger, shows that the journey from novice to Master can be problematic.

This section has analysed several theoretical approaches to induction. The Samaritan volunteer develops their listening and helping skills through an understanding of the caller client relationship within person centred therapy (Rogers), whilst using Egan’s helping model to practice these skills. Within Lave and Wenger’s community of practice theory newcomers develop their identity and expertise within the community. Finally, Elias’ theory of established and outsider relations explains the conflict possible within a group.

Tags: research

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