Spontaneous Processes of Civilization


A vertical perspective has in practice, though not in theory, dominated recent research on the civilization process. This process is seen basically as heteronomous, carried out through forces imposed on the masses by the elite. The civilization process is seen as external and coercive. Criticisms of this interpretation are developed. Though we reject a definition of civilization solely in terms of impulse control, our aim is not to shatter the heritage of Norbert Elias, but rather to integrate his contributions into a wider concept of the civilization process. As an alternative, we point to the existence of a secular learning process involving growth in the communicative capacity among large groups of people. Human thought grows through action and reflection. When entering wider social and economic networks, actors will meet many others with varied life experiences. Individual biographies will differ more from each other. As people expose themselves to others, for instance due to increased migration, personal as well as group information fields grow. This will be associated with a dramatic rise in the transaction costs involved in controlling others. Actors will have to cope with new realities where violence and tight personal control become more costly, if not impossible. This process has intended as well as unintended consequences. Several limitations of the vertical perspective on civilization are illustrated with reference to Sweden before 1850. Empirically, the striking long-term decline in interpersonal violence up to 1750 is suggestive not only of a strengthening of impulse control, but also of a growth in the communicative competence among broad strata. This situation breeds tolerance and to some extent empathy, but also indifference. Values once considered absolute - or not reflected at all - will appear more relative. The growth of knowledge associated with the widening of networks encourages reflectiveness, planning, and material growth. But reflection is also at the root of anxiety of the Kierkegaardian type, which probably did not emerge as a widespread phenomenon until the former half of the nineteenth century. Regional information on suicide rates is reviewed in this perspective. Other changes which have occurred spontaneously, interacting with State policies without being determined by them, involve secularization - strongly resisted by the authorities - and new patterns of migration and marriage.

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Jarrick, A. & Soderberg, J., (1993) ‚ÄúSpontaneous Processes of Civilization‚ÄĚ, Ethnologia Europaea 23(1), p.5-26. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ee.1204


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Arne Jarrick (Stockholm University)
Johan Soderberg (Stockholm University)



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