Exploring Micro-Sociality through the Lens of Figurational Dynamics

Image: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Thursday 30th November, 2017

Rachel Swann and Gordon Hughes

An interview with Rachel Swann and Gordon Hughes, author of Exploring Micro-Sociality through the Lens of ‘Established-Outsider’ Figurational Dynamics in a South Wales Community, shortlisted for The Sociological Review Award for Outstanding Scholarship 2016.

What was The Established and the Outsiders?

Rachel: E&O is a seemingly standard community case study of a largely affluent, unexceptional white working class neighbourhood in Britain in the early 1960s, drawing on qualitative, ethnographic immersion undertaken by Norbert Elias and John Scotson. Read more carefully and when placed in the wider context of Elias’ broader body of work, now associated with ‘figurational’ or ‘process’ sociology, this ‘old’ study from 50 years ago also carries important and lasting conceptual insights on the collective interdependencies between closely related groups and of the ‘ties that bind’ as much as bond us as members of communities.

Gordon: We should say at this point the concept of figuration is employed in Eliasian research to capture the shifting networks of people with fluctuating and asymmetrical power balances as Eric Dunning and Jason Hughes have put it in their useful 2013 introduction to the place of Elias in modern sociology. To go back to the study itself, the researchers discovered and examined a ‘figuration’ formed by two working class groups in ‘Winston Parva’ in which one of the status groups (‘the established’) was clearly culturally dominant and the other (‘the outsiders’ ) was placed in a subordinate position, despite both being identical in terms of standard measures of social stratification. As relative ‘newcomers’, the outsider status group suffered collective stigmatisation and exclusion as ‘uncivilized’ whilst the established families basked in ‘civilized’ group charisma.

Rachel: We should also emphasise that the established-outsider model moves us beyond – or rather, to be more generous, adds to- the microscopic study of stigma associated with Goffman’s pioneering interactionist research by centring the study of the long-term processes of collective, and cross-generational stigmatisation. The community of Winston Parva may also be seen as an empirical case in which to test and develop broader ‘middle range’ theorising regarding shifting, relational ‘power-ratios’ between groups over time.

Why has it been so neglected?

Gordon: Elias is now internationally renowned for his theory of civilizing processes in which he traced over centuries the connections between the seemingly trivial minutiae of developing social manners and sentiments at one level, and processes of state-formation and degrees of domestic pacification at another level. Compared to such grand, ‘classical sociological’ ambition, the book E&O on the surface appears very parochial and atheoretical. It may then have suffered understandably in comparison with the two-volume blockbuster, The Civilizing Process. However, as well as this specific cause of neglect, we would also want to highlight, as we do in the article, a broader problem in both sociology and its off-shoot, sociological criminology, regarding ‘old’ research and what has been termed both ‘sociological amnesia’ and ‘criminological chronophobia’. Accordingly, what is not new and not seemingly of the present is too often ignored or held in disdain in contemporary sociological and criminological circles. In contrast to this tendency our paper sought to play a modest role in alerting a broader range of scholars to the theoretical and empirical potential of the work of Elias and Scotson and the broader espousal of ‘figurational’ analysis in sociological criminology.

Rachel: And as we emphasise in the SR article, this process of revisiting and retrieval of ‘old’ sociological knowledge is not borne out of nostalgia but rather due to the lasting empirical and theoretical significance of this sociological enquiry for both the contemporary and future analysis of insider-outsider relations in bounded, household-based communities.

What can we learn from it?

Rachel: The contemporary significance of the theoretical and empirical contributions to the analysis of insider-outsider relations in bounded communities made by the original work was foregrounded in our SR article. The findings from our research on ‘Cornerville’ confirmed many of the empirically-based conceptual claims of Elias and Scotson’s earlier diagnosis of largely intra-working class relations, and especially the distribution of status honour and its obverse, shame and disgrace, in processes of local communing.

Gordon: We are also further developing these contributions in a forthcoming article on ‘gossip’ and ‘grassing’ as modes of social control drawing on comparative community-based case-study research across South Wales.

Rachel: That’s right, though we weren’t able to provide an in-depth discussion on the significance of ‘gossip’ and ‘grassing’ for understanding social relations in the article but we are working on addressing that now. Together with ‘Cornerville’, we will be including a recently completed case study of a South Wales community, ‘Ashmill’ and discuss the commonalities and differences between them.

Gordon: Finally at a broader dimension, I’m engaged in leading a broader programme of research and scholarship aimed at re-connecting classical and contemporary practice in sociological criminology in a forthcoming book which seeks deploy the intellectual resources associated with the likes of Elias, Weber and Merton and the broader historical-sociological imagination to interrogate the crime and violence question in today’s world.

Rachel Swann is a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.

Gordon Hughes is Emeritus Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.

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