A perspective on childrearing, conduct and distinctions
In this chapter, we present the theoretical framework of the book; that is, the way we have adapted Norbert Elias’s theory and concept of ‘civilising’ to the study of upbringing ideals and practices in the institutions of the Danish welfare state. In Elias’s work the concept of ‘civilising’ is used to denote both visions and ideals of cultivated conduct and ambitions, as well as the process that over time creates changes in the way people feel, think and behave. These visions and ideals reflect relations of interdependence and social domination, and give way to processes of distinction. Applying this notion of civilising to the way Danish families, day-care institutions and schools bring up children, and exploring how civilising projects unfold in the everyday lives of these institutions, grants us a better view of the social and cultural embeddedness of formative work and its implications for children and childrearers. As we will argue, the approach also opens up insights into how children’s institutions contribute to the social and moral hierarchies of welfare society, not only in Denmark but also in contemporary welfare states in a more general sense.
The Civilising Process
Norbert Elias elucidated his theory of ‘the civilising process’ in a complex and comprehensive work containing an in-depth examination of the relation between the formation of Western European states and what he describes as a ‘civilising’ of behaviour and personality since the Middle Ages (Elias 1994 ).1
According to Elias, civilising processes take place in all societies, but the civilising process of European societies has a
particular character, due to the central role of the state (1994 :379; Mennell 1990:208). Using France and Germany as his empirical cases, he describes a lengthy historical development from the establishment of courts in the Middle Ages, towards an increasingly integrated state society in which the state gradually gains a monopoly over taxation and the use of violence.2
This consolidation of the state reflects a process of greater population density and a division of labour and functions, leading to a high degree of internal dependence between members of society, or what Elias calls ‘chains of interdependence’ that become longer and more differentiated over the centuries (1994 :289).
Elias argues that the combination of state monopolisation and increased social integration has led to greater physical security for the members of a society and, over time, a general aversion to and heightened ‘threshold of sensitivity’ towards violence (Elias 1998a:182–93). In order to live in mutual interdependence, members must develop a high level of self-control, avoid aggression and other behaviour that may offend others, and seek to adapt their behaviour to other people’s expectations (Elias 1994 :366–9, 429). This necessitates a certain standardisation of conduct and coordination of interactions – not least through increased temporal regulation (Elias 1992:118–19). In a societal organisation based on members’ mutual dependence, control of drives and predictability becomes central. Over time such adaptations are integrated into well-established patterns for interpersonal interaction. A central point here is that through this process, what were previously external requirements are gradually internalised as ‘self-restraints’ associated with feelings of shame or disgust over the uncivilised behaviour of yourself or others (Elias 1994 :365). The genuine fear of other people’s use of violence and reprisals is transformed into a fear of other people’s judgements: a fear of being excluded or losing face. Thus, self-control and shame become psychological mechanisms that replace the fear of aggression from others. In this way, behaviour becomes the basis for assessing status and respectability.
Elias illustrates this via a historical review of rules for etiquette and manuals for childrearing aimed at raising young boys in the German and French court societies. He describes how norms slowly spread from these court circles to the rest of society and became integrated in social interactions. Using examples from these manuals, he shows how physical restraint and the restricted expression of emotions in particular became markers of social distinction gradually changing the make-up of the
individual psyche. Whereas, for example, in the fifteenth century, spitting on the table when eating was described as being merely bad manners, over time spitting has become something which is generally repellent. However, this is not simply a change in practice, but also a need that is eliminated or at least suppressed via a gradual transformation of feelings (Elias 1994 :131–6). Using several body-related examples (e.g. table manners, bed sharing, sexual relations, toilet habits, and fights), Elias illustrates how, over the centuries, an increasing suppression of drives and a detailed division of public, private and intimate behaviour has developed (1994 :160). He argues that a person’s social reputation and interactions with others necessitate an intensified awareness about which forms of expression and ways of behaving are appropriate in different social contexts. Corporal punishment of children in Denmark may serve as an example. From being a normal and widespread practice, adults’ right to hit children was first problematised, then forbidden for authority figures in children’s institutions, and finally in 1997 – after substantial controversy – made illegal also for parents in private homes and, in addition, fraught with shame. In this way, behaviours that were previously widespread in the public sphere have gradually become socially degrading, even within the boundaries of the home.
Figurations and the Relationship Between Sociogenesis and Psychogenesis
As this shows, the norms of conduct that people must observe to be accepted as civilised persons change over time. Elias’s point is that they change in relation to alterations in social power balances between social groups, and via complex processes of social mobility, social struggles, integration and distinction. He describes, for example, how the growing bourgeoisie of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Germany and France, in their striving for social elevation, adopted part of the court’s etiquette and symbols of distinction while dismissing other aristocratic manners as decadent in an attempt to establish their own code of conduct as morally superior (1994 :387, 433). Such social dynamics and changes in power balances are decisive not only for which norms become dominant, but also for the individual’s personal conduct and perception of social relations. They influence what Elias terms ‘human figurations’; that is social networks of interdependent actors which form the outset for individual reasoning, self-awareness and orientation (Elias 1970:127–33).
It is a key point in the theory of Elias (also named ‘figuration theory’) that it is not possible to understand the actions of a person in isolation; their meanings are fundamentally social and must be grasped in relation to the webs of interdependences and structures of dominance within the figurations which all individuals and groups are situated in.
In this way Elias systematically links the acts of individuals with changes in social dynamics or what he terms ‘psychogenesis’ and ‘sociogenesis’. It is through interactions with others – especially in childhood – that each individual’s ‘habitus’ is formed into what Elias calls a ‘second nature’; that is, the social adaptation and suppression of the ‘first nature’ – an individual’s immediate drives and needs (Elias 1994 :369; Wouters 2011:148).3
Due to this social base, people’s innermost feelings are inextricably linked to the power balances between social groupings and societal norms and values. From this perspective, important changes to societal structures (industrialisation, urbanisation, commercialisation, democratisation and, not least, monopolisation of violence and the formation of the state) influence both interpersonal relations and individual people’s innermost orientations, perceptions and judgements. Likewise, historical transformations of behaviour, psyche and norms are caused by changes in human figurations and will follow these.
Elias stresses that this dynamic reveals that the civilising process is not a planned process, though it does have a certain structure and causality. It develops without a goal, though not without the will of humans. It is driven by historical changes that appear to have a particular direction, but are actually just the result of many individuals’ acts, choices and plans:
This basic tissue resulting from many single plans and actions of people can give rise to changes and patterns that no individual person had planned or created. From this interdependence of people arises an order sui genesis, an order more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of the individual people composing it. It is this order of interweaving human impulses and strivings, this social order, which determines the course of historical change; it underlies the civilising process. (Elias 1994 :366)
Self-Regulation and Informalisation
Although Elias emphasises that the historical development of manners never was linear, and that there has been an easing of behavioural norms
in the period following the Second World War, he nevertheless concludes that the psycho-social development of Western Europe generally has been characterised by an increase in self-restraint (Elias 1994 : 413–14, 1998b: 235–8). With an unmistakable Freudian inspiration, Elias describes the development of a more distanced relationship to the body, and repression of impulses and drives (Elias 1994 :409).4
Though drives have always been socially regulated, along with the increased social integration of society, bodily urges and natural functions are pushed behind the scenes of social life. However, this does not mean that violence, bodily secretions, sex and intense affect have ceased to be part of social life. On the contrary, as anthropologist Mary Douglas also elucidates, taboo marks phenomena of key cultural significance (Douglas 1966; Elias 1994 :439–45).
This process has been accompanied by new thresholds for feelings of shame associated with transgressing social norms and breaking cultural taboos (Elias 1994 :415; Engebrigtsen 2006:110; Scheff 2004). Shame comprises a fear of losing esteem and of social degradation, arising from what Elias describes as ‘the constant pressure from below’, and may thus be considered a strong driving force which increasingly characterises social interactions (1994 :424). The more people depend on each other and the evaluations of others, the more expectations will be related to behaviour. Therefore, an ever greater number of factors become associated with the risk of social blunders and linked to feelings of shame. At the same time, shame itself becomes an indication of social respectability. Feeling shame – or at least expressing that one knows one should be ashamed – becomes a way of demonstrating an awareness of social requirements, a way of showing that one is a trustworthy and accountable person. According to Elias, this development culminated in the moral code of the Victorian era, followed by a relaxation of self-restraint and a – selective – loosening of taboos within the last century (Elias 1998a:206). Elias’s point is, however, that the interpersonal dependence of the present day does not require a lesser degree of self-control, and that shame is still an important mechanism of social regulation – just in different ways.
This point is further elaborated by sociologist Cas Wouters when discussing ‘the informalisation process’ which has unfolded in European societies during the twentieth century (Wouters 1977, 2004, 2011). As more rigid forms and authoritative societal structures were left behind, emotional expressions that were previously repressed and associated with shame became more widely recognised. Wouters argues that despite the
seemingly less restricted style of interaction, emotional expressions have not become more in tune with ‘the first nature’ – the immediate drives and needs. Rather what comes to the fore is a new form of personality – a ‘third nature’ (Wouters 2011:152–6). The current form of expression is still socially regulated; it has simply been adapted to a more individualised societal form in which the individual cannot rely on standardised forms. Instead, he/she must flexibly and reflexively express and conduct him/herself in ways that are considered to be respectable, credible and sincere in a variety of social contexts (Wouters 2011; Elias 1998a:206). The result is thus heightened demands in terms of the individual’s social sensitivity and tact, and what Elias has described as ‘controlled decontrolling of emotional controls’ (quoted in Wouters 1986:3).
The Social Dynamics of the State
In Elias’s analysis, it is particularly in relation to the historical reduction of violence in Western European societies that the significance of shame and self-regulation is revealed. In most circles, physical aggression is now perceived as unacceptable – an essential breach of self-control and therefore socially degrading and associated with shame. He relates this development to the emergence of the state as a mediating authority. The state’s monopolisation of violence and punishment has resulted in the criminalisation of all forms of physical violence, and it is no longer acceptable for individuals to solve conflicts between themselves in a violent manner. This has led to a general decrease in the levels of violence in society. However, people are well aware that violence may occur and that the civilised order could erode. This fear is latent and functions both as a regulatory mechanism in interpersonal interactions and as a legitimisation of the state’s authority to mediate, judge and punish. Sociologist Loïc Wacquant articulates Elias’s point in the following:
Elias places violence and fear at the epicenter of the experience of modernity: together they form the Gordian knot tying the outermost workings of the state to the innermost makeup of the person. The expurgation of violence from social life via its relocation under the aegis of the state opens the way for the regulation of social exchange, the ritualization of everyday life, and the psychologization of impulse and emotion. (Wacquant 2004:112)
In this way, the state plays an important role in Elias’s argumentation. However, it should be noticed that Elias regards neither the state nor society as distinct entities in relation to other entities: individuals (Elias 1970:14–16). The state and society are made up of people who act and reproduce the societal order via their actions and social interactions (see an elaboration of this point in Bourdieu 1994, 2004). Thus, the state’s function is indeed regulatory, but this is only maintained by many individuals’ acceptance of the specific understanding of order that the state enforces. In this context, the regulating and detail-oriented Scandinavian welfare states can be regarded as a special case. The increasingly refined institutional structures that incorporate people of all levels of society, have turned security, predictability and equality into key concerns of the state. However, it would not be possible to exercise this regulatory function without acceptance by many individuals who acknowledge the core values of the welfare state in their daily activities. For instance, most people refrain from violence, pay taxes and send their children to school not just because they have to, but also because they feel that these are the right things to do (see a related discussion in van Krieken 1986). Societal order cannot be reduced to supra-individual functionality or external regulation; it is upheld by a pronounced moral dimension and influenced by psychosocial mechanisms, such as shame and trust, a sense of the appropriate, a striving for respectability and fear of social degradation.
The Civilising of Children and Childrearers
According to Elias, one of the changes that the civilising process in Western Europe has brought about is a change in the conceptualisation, treatment and rearing of children. Although he did not conduct empirical analyses of childrearing, childhood and children were central themes in his discussions of the civilising process. As mentioned above, he studied the inculcation of manners through etiquette books for young boys, and he analysed the relationship between generations as well as the formation of the individual habitus in childhood. He points out that each generation will bring up the younger generation according to the norms its members deem important. Elias underlines that this ‘civilising of the human young’ has become increasingly comprehensive and the focus of planned interventions, in line with the increasingly extensive standards for what is considered shameful and offensive (1994 :367, 376–7). The more the codes of civilised conduct are refined, and the greater the demands
made on the individual, the longer the transformation process becomes that the individual must undergo from child to adult (Elias 1998a:200).
According to Elias, the civilising process does not only lead to a growing preoccupation with teaching children how to behave properly, but also involves what he sees as a classificatory distinction between children and adults, and thus an increased distance between generations. Based on historical sources, Elias portrays how children in medieval society participated extensively in adult life. They often slept in the same room or even in the same bed, and were not kept away from adult knowledge or activities (Elias 1998a:197). Discussing the argument of the French historian Philippe Ariès (1962) that childhood was ‘discovered’ between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, he argues that the perception of children’s distinctness has further developed up till the present time just as the distance between the generations has grown since the Middle Ages (1998a:190). In line with Ariès, he sees this as a process accelerated by schooling, but also by the industrialisation and urbanisation of Western Europe, which through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gradually reduced the economic function of the child and thus altered the pattern of interdependency within the family figuration (1998a:208).
The distance between the generations seems to have reached something of an apex in the Victorian period in the latter half of the nineteenth century among the privileged and therefore normative classes (1998a:206). Strong contrasts between classes, increased social mobility and mutual dependence necessitated greater attention, at least in bourgeois circles, to class affiliation and stratification. As Cas Wouters points out in his discussion of social changes in the Netherlands, this created greater demands in terms of presentability and moral solidity and thereby a greater focus on the family, on women’s respectability and a close monitoring of children and their ‘indecent’ behaviour (Wouters 2004:202; for a parallel discussion from Sweden see Frykman and Löfgren 1987 ). One consequence of this was that children were gradually moved from public and adult life into homes, schools and institutions (Wouters 2004:202).
Describing the picture with broad brush strokes, Elias argues that these changes not only altered the position of the child in the family as well as in society, but also led to a ‘civilising of parents’ (1998a). As birth rates fell and children became less useful as workers, and as the family lost many of its former functions to the modern state, the individual child grew more valuable for its parents and the emotional functions of the family
grew stronger (1998a:206–8). This changed the power ratio in families between parents and children, leading towards the democratisation and emotionalisation of the adult–child relationship. One important aspect of this is the curbing of the use of violence by parents, a more egalitarian and informal relationship between parents and children, and a raised awareness of children’s needs and particularities (1998a:190).
The civilising process in Western Europe has thus generally implied greater separation between the generations yet also an increased emotionalisation of the relationship between them. Childhood has increasingly been conceptualised as a period of learning the civilised behaviour of adults. In the light of Elias’s reasoning, educational institutions for children can be seen as purpose-built for this learning process: it is here that children, who are vulnerable, and inept in terms of impulse regulation and respectable behaviour, are transformed before they can take part in society...