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Concept of Figuration: An Analysis

Figurational Sociology

The concept of figuration grew out of Norbert Elias’s best-known work, The Civilizing Process (Elias, 1939/1994). This work provided an analysis of how the European nation state emerged. It analysed social behaviour in modernity, and particularly social interactions. Split into two parts, the work first focussed on an analysis of manners to provide a description and understanding of the way in which modern norms underlying social interactions had developed. The second part of the book looked at how the nation-state had been built in the twentieth century. What Elias was most interested in, the central thesis of the book, was that it was possible for forms of social discipline – manners and social norms – to be translated into aspects of individual self-discipline (Olofsson, 2000). For Elias, then, there is a clear connection between a tendency towards state centralisation and the development of modern social manners. This is what he called the civilizing process. This essay, therefore, examines the concept of figuration, its theoretical roots in the study of court society, its modern form and the criticisms that have been levelled against it. As will be seen, the argument over the usefulness of the concept of figuration has been highly contested and strongly polarised (Featherstone, 1987).

At the heart of Elias’ work are a number of concepts – figuration is best understood within these. The concepts are interdependence, functional differentiation, self-control and power differences. Social change for Elias mostly results from the effects of functional differentiation. This is an idea shared with writers like Marx who placed the division of labour at the centre of his theory. For Elias, though, this functional differentiation leads to increasing levels of interdependence (Olofsson, 2000). Elias argued that the coercive power of societies emerges out of increasing interdependence.

This brings the discussion to the concept of figurations. In order to explain these, Elias uses the example of court society (Olofsson, 2000). He argues that in court society ‘calculation’ is an important process which individuals must engage in to negotiate with each other as the king communicates with his aristocracy. Because of changes in economic factors, many courts in Europe saw a shift of power from the aristocracy to the king. The power each member of the aristocracy had, therefore, depended on their relationship with the king. In order to survive, aristocrats had to play by certain rational rules that developed. These were based on the complex interdependency between the individuals and the fact that they were playing long-term power games with each other. An important component in playing these long-term power games was being able to control impulses. Because of the number of people in the court, the chains of interdependence were long and complicated. This required planning, attempting to predict the future and saving. Elias called this complex relationship between the king and the court a figuration. A figuration is characterised by asymmetrical power relations amongst a network of individuals. The court situation can, therefore, only be understood in terms of how the individuals relate to one another.

Four critical propositions about the figurational approach are extracted from Elias’ work by Goudsblom (1977). These are firstly that human beings inevitably exist in relationships of interdependence with each other. As a result of this interdependence, complex dynamics emerge which shape many aspects of development and change the ways in which people’s lives develop. The second proposition is that these figurations are constantly changing and being transformed. The third is that these social figurations are not essentially planned but emerge from the interdependencies. Fourth, figurations provide an important cause of the development of human knowledge.

In order to better understand the idea of figurations, Elias used various metaphors from games (Olofsson, 2000). Games are useful to analyse because the interactions between the players are not just a result of the absolute strength of each player, but of the relationship between the strengths of the two players. One example is two chess players pitted against each other. If one of them is significantly stronger than the other, then she will be able to control the manner of the victory as well as the actual victory itself. If, however, the levels of skill are much closer then the manner of victory will be much more uncertain and emerge from the interaction between the individuals. What this metaphor shows is that the power differences between two individuals have an important effect on the relationship. Chess only normally involves the relation between two players, but society obviously involves the relations between many more ‘players’, all with varying levels of power.

Shifts of power differences in society can be seen in the way the upper and lower classes interact. The lower classes have, for example, increased their level of organisation in order to increase their level of power in negotiating with the upper classes (Olofsson, 2000). One of the questions Elias wanted to address was how people continue to interact in generally peaceful ways when there is so much animosity in, for example, power relations (Loyal & Quilley, 2004). Models used to answer this question should have a number of characteristics. These are firstly that social processes cannot be analysed in terms of aggregations of components. Secondly the models work to both mould and constrain the behaviour and habitus of individuals.

The strength of the idea of figuration for Elias was that it was able to access ideas of what society was about more effectively than other methods in sociology (Krieken, 1998). Specifically it tends not to emphasise the dichotomy often present in sociological literature between the individual and society. Instead it places the emphasis on how human beings are interdependent. Society was not most usefully thought of as a totality or a whole system of individuals. Society for Elias was the way in which people interweaved with each other (Krieken, 1998). The advantage of this view was that it didn’t downplay the agency of the individual at the expense of society’s control and helped to show how people’s individuality melded together to form networks of interdependence. One important theoretical aspect of figurations that Krieken (1998) points out is that they can continue without the existence of the same individuals but they completely cease to exist if there are no individuals at all.

Krieken (1998) argues that Elias’ concept of figuration has been extremely important for sociology. One of its major strengths is the avoidance of the dichotomy between structure and agency. Although the distinction has been questioned many times in sociology, it is often still treated by sociologists as though it were real. Krieken (1998) points out that some have argued Elias’ concept of figuration should be placed alongside of the idea of structure. Mouzelis (1993) argues for avoiding abolishing this distinction. He argues for designating relations between actors in terms of figurations, relations between institutions as ‘institutional structure’ and plain structure when analysing the interaction between institution and individual. Krieken (1998) does not, however, agree with this three-way distinction. Krieken (1998) argues instead that Elias used the concept of figuration to subsume all these categories of analysis. This means that figuration includes the analysis of what is traditionally called the structure of society.

Habitus is also an important concept in Elias’ theory of figuration. Habitus refers to the idea that each individual has their own set of personal preferences, attitudes, beliefs, expectations and rules. Habitus comes from a person’s community and family experience and through their own experience of life as they grow up. For Elias, though, this habitus develops in an essentially shared manner (Krieken, 1998). Individuals grow up in society and their personal characteristics are, to a certain extent, moulded by those around them. Through this collective moulding of individuals, the nature of collective behaviour is formed. The ideas of habitus and figuration lead to a further important concept in Elias’ theory. That is that the way in which a person’s habitus is formed is called psychogenesis. This, then, can only be properly understood when it is considered in relation to social relations or sociogenesis. Theoretically and methodologically, therefore, Elias was arguing against the separation of sociology from psychology. Each has important complementary effects on the other, so it is hard to get a clear picture of the full human being if both are not considered together.

Elias’ ideas have vital implications for the way in which sociologists carry out their research. Krieken (1998) identifies two particular characteristics of Elias’ theory that are a challenge to some types of sociology. First is the focus of figuration on social relations which points to the fact that an individual cannot be analysed in isolation. Individuals can only be understood, even in isolation, argued Elias, in terms of how they relate to other people, as that is how people are formed. Thinking about humans without the relational element has a huge array of possible associated mistakes. For Elias, the analysis of power especially fell foul of the tendency to see power as a thing in itself rather than as arising from social relations (Krieken, 1998). This led, he thought, to all sort of misunderstandings. To be understood effectively, power should be seen in reciprocal terms. Elias argued that power was often analysed as though it only flowed down from above. A figurational analysis, however, also points to the reciprocal effects flowing up from below.

The second major characteristic of Elias’ theory is that it focuses on processes (Krieken, 1998). Figuration, therefore, cannot be seen as a static phenomenon, but as something that evolves and emerges over time. What had happened in sociology, however, argued Elias, was that there had been a reduction of social phenomena to particular states. Communities, families, individuals, all should be analysed as though in a state of flow, rather than statically. The use of figurations could be used to analyse these flows as long as there was not a reduction to a simple argument of causality. For example, Elias argued that a particular figuration made other, later figurations possible although it did not guarantee they would happen. Analysing society using a series of static conceptual categories, therefore, was precisely what Elias did not agree with (Rojek, 1986). Instead a process theory of sociology encourages analysis in terms of movement. This type of approach has a character quite opposed to many in sociology.

Figurational sociology can be seen as extremely useful as a reaction to six dominant paradigms in sociology (Arnason, 1987). First Marx’s work is limited by its concentration on the economic areas of life, whereas Elias’ figurational sociology is applicable to all areas. Against Durkheim’s idea of norms, Elias argued these do not represent fundamental units but rather the question should be asked in terms of power relations. For Elias, these questions should be addressed using a long-term analysis. Examining the functionalist approach, Elias found that trying to explain social structures in terms of the needs of the system was ineffective. The functionalist account is lacking because it finds it difficult to account for the fact that systems are interlinked at all levels. As has already been seen, Elias argued against a structuralist approach. The reductionist approach also had problems for Elias as society, he believed, could not be understood at this level. Finally, Elias took issue with individualism, the idea that it is possible to analyse society in terms of individual behaviour (Arnason, 1987). This is replaced by Elias with a focus on power relations and the analysis of figurations.

A number of methodological injunctions develop naturally from Elias’ theory of figurations; these are examined by Loyal and Quilley (2004). The first is that sociologists should not think about either individuals or society as in any way static or fixed. An effective analysis emerges which sidesteps arguments over macro- or micro- level explanations. A further dichotomy which Loyal and Quilley (2004) present as being avoided by Elias’ work is that of mind-body duality which has crept into sociological work. The idea of figuration draws attention to habits of language in which processes are often reduced to states. The focus of figuration, however, is on using language that has the meaning of motion and flow built into it. The danger for sociologists of automatically adopting the available language of states is a misunderstanding of the processes occurring in society. This view was influenced by the work of Whorf (1956) who argued that language fundamentally affects the perceptions of the members of the society that speak it. Finally, Elias believed that some measure of distance was required from society in order to be able to analyse figurations effectively.

A Critique of Figurational Sociology

While much of the commentary on Elias’ figurational approach discussed so far has been complimentary, his work has a number of critics. Layder (1986) argues that many of Elias’ claims about the benefits of his approach to sociology are vastly exaggerated. As a result, argues Layder, Elias tends to focus on trying to solve problems that don’t actually exist. Layder (1986) starts by considering Elias’ focus on the static categories used in language as well as the idea that positivistic notions of causation are inadequate. The concept of figuration is used to challenge these ideas by Elias. In addition, underlying Elias’ concept of figuration is the idea that it transcends long-running arguments in the philosophy of the social sciences such as that between induction and deduction and rationalism and empiricism.

Layder’s (1986) first criticism is that Elias’s figurational approach does not transcend previous approaches. One reason for this is that Elias uses only the worst examples from disciplines so that he can easily demolish their explanatory power. Elias’ critique of social psychology and psychiatry assumes that all its approaches are atomistic. It doesn’t, for example, take into account the wide variety of approaches such as those which do, indeed, focus on the effects of society on the individual and are not so atomistic. Symbolic interactionists, for example, highlight the way in which the ordinary, everyday processes of social interaction build to create what is called ‘society’. Mead (1934), an important theorist in this approach, emphasised the importance of socialisation and social interaction. For Layder (1986), then, the concept of figuration does not provide any additional explanatory power. Layder also argues that Elias does not demonstrate exactly how the idea of figurations provides a better explanation of society.

In criticising the concept of figurations, Layder (1986) argues that Elias makes a number of philosophical mistakes, some ontological and some epistemological. Layder describes figurations as generalised depictions of the social ties between individuals that Elias argues cannot be analysed outside of individuals. Figurations, though, must have some meaning outside of the interactions of individuals; otherwise it would not be possible to talk about them in an abstract sense. This is not, of course, to suggest that figurations only have meaning outside of actual interactions. For Layder, then Elias’s mistake is to argue that a figuration does not have both a manifestation as a social practice as well as existing as an idea about that particular social practice. If the ideas did not exist it would be impossible to talk about the things themselves in an abstract sense. For Layder, then, the very discussion of social practices as figurations proves that they exist outside of the actions themselves.

What Layder allows Elias’ concept of figuration is that it does provide a useful descriptive tool. Although it doesn’t transcend alternative explanations advanced by those working within structuralist and functionalist models, it can provide a useful way of examining interrelations between people. These analyses would, however, in Layder’s view, be useful in addition to those insights from structuralist or interactionist perspectives, they wouldn’t supplant them. The weakness of using the concept of figuration is that it tends to ignore actual people, in deference to their networks of social relations compared to, for example, the analysis provided by interactionism which is very much focussed on social actors themselves. In this sense, it is again difficult to argue that figuration provides an approach transcending interactionism and other schools of thought.

The second major criticism that Layder (1986) makes of Elias’s concept of figurations relates to their rejection of objectivist structures. As discussed, figurational sociology sees social processes as fundamentally fluid and avoids reductionism – Elias claims that this is an insight that helps the figurational analysis transcends other approaches. Against this idea, Layder (1986) argues that many phenomenological and interactionist schools of thought are based on the idea of social relations as a process. But, Elias does not compare his theory to these approaches, preferring to pretend they don’t exist. Instead, figuration is compared with the theory of Talcott Parsons as an example of an objectivist theory. Elias takes Parsons’ idea that society is essentially in an unchanging equilibrium and states that this is the way society is seen from an objectivist viewpoint – as a static system. In this analysis one of the mistakes Layder (1986) thinks Elias has made is to create a false dichotomy between static and fluid analysis as though there is no intermediary point. In doing this Elias claims that theories such as Parsons’ cannot explain processes, which, argues Layder, they can. Indeed, in concentrating on long-term processes, Elias does not allow an effective analysis of short-term processes.

The third major criticism which Layder (1986) levels at Elias is that the concept of figuration lacks explanatory power. Rather than helping to explain what lies behind social changes, Layder argues that it merely provides a description of what is happening. When looking for the causes of figurations, Elias presents more figurations.

Criticism of the concept of figuration has also come from Rojek (1986). In particular Rojek (1986) examines the way in which Elias talks about the accumulation of scientific knowledge. As briefly noted earlier, Elias argued that the quest for knowledge was not immune to the power of figurations. Indeed he thought it was a mistake that philosophers of the social sciences tended to make that assumed there was one model of the way science should be conducted.

One particular claim that has been made for the usefulness of figurational sociology is that it provides a link between micro and macro approaches (Mennell, 1980). Layder (2006) argues, however, that using figurations as the linking between the macro and micro approaches just serves to blur the differences between the two. The character of social relations is quite different depending on its manner – for example a face-to-face encounter is different from sending and receiving an email. Within Elias’ approach each of these would be considered aspects of figurations. Layder (2006), however, argues that each of these creates different levels of reflexivity and therefore requires a different analysis.

For Layder (2006), Elias’s figurational approach deflects attention away from a number of important factors. Institutions, for example, have important effects on the behaviour of people but this is difficult to analyse by thinking in terms of networks of connections between people. Further, when analysing social organisation in the form of groups, a figurational approach can deflect attention away from the nature of the ties between people, preferring instead to focus on their actual existence and their particular form.

A false criticism that Elias makes of sociology generally by way of his figurational approach is that not enough emphasis has been given to the interaction between society and the individual – Layder (2006) argues that this interaction is practically the founding idea of sociology. The challenge for sociology is in working out where to split the society from the individual. A problem which Elias’ work shares with sociology more generally is that a socially constructed model makes it difficult to understand the uniqueness of an individual. A complete lack of barriers between individuals leads to the conclusion that people have no individuality themselves. While it is not helpful to focus too much on the individual, it is also problematic for a complete understanding to give too little focus to the individual. Layder (2006) argues that, like extreme social constructionists, Elias’ theory of figuration is in danger of completely eradicating the individual as a legitimate object of study.

Figurational Sociology and Sport

In order to further assess the usefulness of the concept of figuration and see the benefits and criticisms in action, it is instructive to examine an example of its practical application. The principles of figurational sociology have been applied in a number of different areas, but one particularly popular area is that of sport. Figurational sociology has been used to try and understand football hooliganism, the growth of professional sport, the globalisation of sport and finally initial process of sportization (Murphy, Sheard & Waddington, 2002).

To take one example in this line of analysis, Dunning and Sheard (1979) examine the development of rugby. They explain the increased professionalism of the sport in terms of a societal move towards functional democratisation. This process leads to greater levels of competition, so that rugby players can no longer play just for fun. Instead, it is necessary to be highly committed to the sport in order to be recognised as successful. Because of the increased interconnectedness of individuals, it is no longer possible for athletes to play for themselves; instead they have to play for their countries (Dunning & Sheard, 1979). This analysis helps to explain professionalism in rugby and the advantages of a figurational approach can be seen. Societal changes are examined here in terms of figurations and this provides a useful analysis and explanation of changes.

In contrast, Murphy et al. (2002) point out that one of the criticisms of the figurational approach to sport is that it has ignored gender issues. Hargreaves (1992) argues that the figurational obsession with detachment has meant the analysis of sport has readily accepted a notion of sport as dominated by men. Even while Murphy et al. (2002) argue that this absence of the analysis of gender in figurational sociology is not a result of its theoretical limitations, from the criticisms already described the opposite can be argued. Particularly, as Layder (2006) points out, the figurational approach is weak on the analysis of the individual.


Elias made many claims for his concept of figuration. He claimed that it transcended previous approaches to sociology, rose above false dichotomies and helped sociologists focus on human beings as fundamentally involved in a network of interrelated relationships. Methodological injunctions also flowed naturally from Elias’ theory: e.g. focussing on processes rather than categories or states and establishing a distance between the researcher and the subject. Considering the criticism levelled at Elias’ work by Layder, however, it is difficult to see that these claims for a transcendent sociology are justified. Elias frequently misrepresented or ignored the work of sociologists he was apparently transcending as well as making serious epistemological and ontological errors. While both the advantages and disadvantages of the figurational approach can be seen in the area of sport sociology, it is hard to argue that Elias’ work stands up to Layder’s criticism. Perhaps the strongest criticism is that figuration is merely a descriptive rather than an explanatory approach. For that reason, the usefulness of Elias’ concept of figuration is limited.


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