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The Civilising Process, Decline of Homicide, and Mass Murder Societies: Norbert Elias and the History of Violence

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Norbert Elias in Troubled Times

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Abstract

Originally formulated at the end of the 1930s, Norbert Elias’s theory of the civilising process gradually won recognition among scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, and it eventually became one of the most praised paradigms in the history of violence and criminal justice. Over the past forty years, the theory of civilising process has been a major model for analysing the long-term decline of homicide in Western Europe as a result of the taming of individual violence by the state. Facing criticisms against his model due to the so-called evolutionary reading of the civilising process and its supposed contradictions with the development of mass violence in the twentieth century, Elias focused his later writings on the mechanisms of de- or dys-civilisation. This contribution will, on the one hand, analyse how the reception of Elias’s work among historians of violence and criminal justice generated several revisions of the theory of the long-term civilising process. We propose, on the other hand, to articulate three historical figurations of violence: the long decline of homicide in pacified societies (civilisation processes), the massive outbursts of extremely violent behaviour (de-/dys-civilisation processes), and transitional justice after war or political conflict (re-civilisation processes).

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Another situation, particularly underlined in Western democracies, is the supposed development or maintenance of areas of dys-civilisation (e.g. ghettos, suburbs, education systems, prisons, hospitals), usually described by medias and political actors as ‘lawless’ or ‘no-go’ zones and linked by some observers to the weakening of the state monopoly of legitimate violence. It is important, however, to remain extremely critical about the extent of these phenomena, which are often exploited either by supporters of a radical critique of the state, who see these areas as spaces of freedom and resistance, or by supporters of more severe state policies towards these areas, which are seen as clusters of anarchy and brutality (Slooter 2019).

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the editors of this volume and especially Florence Delmotte for her stimulating comments and suggestions that greatly contributed to improve this chapter.

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Rousseaux, X., Verreycken, Q. (2021). The Civilising Process, Decline of Homicide, and Mass Murder Societies: Norbert Elias and the History of Violence. In: Delmotte, F., Górnicka, B. (eds) Norbert Elias in Troubled Times. Palgrave Studies on Norbert Elias. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-74993-4_8

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