Craving Certainty – Social Process

20151104_145251Norbert Elias was a sociologist and lived (1897 – 1990) through what can be considered one of the most significant and ‘compressed’ times of social change in history. For me in many ways Elias’ work made social construction ‘clear’ and was a great influence on our interaction model.

So why Elias and certainty?

Elias studied the process of the development of societies and had particular interest in the civilizing process; the process by which individuals in society exist together.  How formal processes such as laws, institutions etc. and informal processes such as behavioral constraints developed over time. I am equating the idea of laws and informal constraints on behavior as a form of certainty; things that are required for large groups of people to exist together.

One of the points Elias makes is that as people became more specialized in the things they did, they became more interdependent. This interdependence required changes in the way people interacted, the way they behaved and the very way in which they understood ‘how to be’ given this interdependence.

Way back in history, hunter gatherer tribes were relatively small and everyone knew each other. While there was some specialization of tasks this was not the main influence on how people behaved together. The main influence was the knowledge each person had of the others. As the agricultural revolution emerged the nomadic life of hunter gatherer people ended and much larger groups of people began living together and there was a much greater specialization of work. If you were a tool maker you had to rely on a farmer to provide food and the farmer needed to rely on the tool maker to help the farm function. This interdependence created a need for differing ways of behaving with each other so both the farmer and tool maker could effectively get by.

To get a feel for where this idea of interdependence is now, just take a moment to look around you and consider how many other people you have relied on to have what exists in your immediate environment. I would guess it’s quite a lot of people. And you probably don’t know, or have ever met any of those people!

Yet, our societies exist with an astounding level of certainty that this interdependence will work!

We are pretty darn certain that we can go to the grocery store and buy food, send our kids to school, go to the movies if we want and all the other things we consider very, very normal. Yet the only thing that makes these things seem normal are countless formal and informal constraints and enablers of behavior that create this certainty! As we have become more and more specialized in what we do we rely more and more on ‘social certainty’ to enable us to get by in our normal worlds.

Society requires a very high level of behavioral certainty!

Not only did Elias illustrate this ‘civilizing process’ he noted something very important ABOUT this process. From The Society of Individuals:

‘… in the course of history, a change in human behaviour in the direction of civilization gradually emerged from the ebb and flow of events. Every small step on this path was determined by the wishes and plans of individual people and groups; but what has grown up on this path up to now, our standard of behaviour and our psychological make-up, was certainly not intended by individual people. And it is in this way that human society moves forward as a whole; in this way the whole history of mankind has run its course.’ (underlining is mine) (The Society of Individuals – pages 63 – 64).

Elias is pointing out that this drive for certainty that is such a necessity for societies (which include our organizations) to exist, ’emerged from the ebb and flow of events.’ Much like the biological certainty noted in the last post, we really didn’t have to think much about this certainty, it was simply a requirement for societies, and organizations to exist.

Hmmm… does this mean that certainty is a requirement for the existence of organizations? Meaning (again!) that OUCH! is natural, normal and inevitable. This may be getting depressing!

But let’s look at social evolution before we get too depressed.


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