Civilizing and Decivilizing Characteristics of the Contemporary Penal Field

  • John Pratt


For Norbert Elias, the characteristics of the civilizing process, from the Middle Ages onward, took the form of a strong central state authority; a growing capacity for rational, humanistic thought and the decline of superstition; an increasingly strong sense of mutual identification between constituent groups and individuals; and a raising of the threshold of tolerance and self-restraint. In his magnum opus, The Civilizing Process (1939, 1984), Elias uses illustrations from literature, art, and manners books (with particular reference to eating and personal hygiene arrangements) to illustrate such developments. It was not, though, a normative standard he was developing but, instead, a sociological explanation of long-term social structural, psychological, and cultural development. In these respects, he implies—particularly in his later work, The Germans (1994), for example—that the civilizing process has always been contingent and fragile, and that its outcome remains uncertain. Indeed, the very attributes that we associate with the civilizing process—technological efficiency, bureaucratic rationalism, professionalism, expertise, and so on—are just as capable of bringing about the most profane barbarities, as Zygmund Bauman famously demonstrates in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989).


Death Penalty Prison Sentence Royal Commission Private Prison Liberal Establishment 
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© Tatiana Savoia Landini and François Dépelteau 2014

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  • John Pratt

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