We Cannot Understand Modern Punishment without Attention to Modern Sensibilities

Many scholars have identified the contributions of Norbert Elias as central in the understanding of the changes, which have been witnessed regarding the various forms of punishments preferred by the society. Vaughan (2000) noted that Elias had derived his civil process notion from the observed increase in interdependency among humans. According to Elias, it is this trend that enabled people to start to be cautious on the effects their behaviours could have on others. This, on the other hand, made people including those who are in leadership, to be more sympathetic hence the reduction on the tendency to use such forms of punishment as were seen to be more physically punitive.

The opponents of the theory have maintained that civilizing process, as conceptualized by Elias, is never capable of incorporating the interaction witnessed between conscience and convenience that accompanies high levels of feelings and low interest. Ray (2011) notes that this group of scholars has maintained that the theory put forward by Elias ignored the fact that the level of sympathy that can be dispensed in the various penal practices is reduced considerably and that it is majorly experienced because the public normally have a desire to see the criminals suffer. Their argument is that, since civilizing process perceives the process of decivilization as different and independent from that of the process of civilizing, it does not support such facts.

Why us?

Our custom writing service is your shortest way to academic success!

  • Expert authors with academic degrees
  • Papers in any format: MLA, APA, Oxford, Harvard
  • 24/7 live customer support
  • Only authentic papers for every customer
  • Absolute confidentiality
  • Decent prices and substantial discounts
Order now

Some of the weaknesses of the theory have also been based on its univocal nature, the passiveness of its agents, and finally its evolutionism. Irrespective of the flaws, it is understood that Elias’ theory is still cable of offering a sound understanding on the observed shift in the various features of the various modes of punishments considered as “decivilized”, as well as the conditions under which it may arise. This paper will identify both its strengths and limitations in helping in the understanding of the modern sensibilities, which help determine the changes going on in the nature of preferred forms of punishment, in evaluating the notion by Elias.

Elias’ used his theory of the civilizing process to qualify his argument that we cannot understand modern punishment without paying attention to modern sensibilities. The first underlined the fact that there has been a change in the process of punishment brought about by the change in the state. According to him, the state has increasingly developed civilized sensibilities, which has seen the culture in which forms of punishments were shaped by emotions come to pass. He, however, identified new aspects of culture which are of immense influence on the changes in the modern forms of punishments. He generalized them as modern sensibilities. Smith (2001) identifies a number of these modern sensibilities. They include growing negative attitude towards violence, aggressiveness and also an open display of desires of a person or group.

Elias notion that we cannot understand modern punishment without paying attention to the modern sensibilities is, therefore, valid especially if the identified modern sensibilities are applicable. This means that any person seeking to understanding the reason behind the preference of certain forms punishment over the others must understand, how these forces, the sensibilities affect the views of the state on punishment. This will enable to know the reasons behind the development and use of every modern form of punishment.

In his explanation of the change in the forms of punishments with civilization, Elias argues that civilization process is normally characterized by an increase in the intensity, at which those in authorities control their subject and a reduced utilization of overt physical violence (Colvin, 2000). He based his explanation on interdependency, which normally develops among all people across every class with the increasing civilization. According to his theory, as dependency increases among people due to the ever increasing specialization, they also become more disciplined in their conduct, as well as tend to be restrained in actions. However, he notes that specialization cannot lead to the formation of an emotional bond between people to drive them to maintain control over their conducts. This is because of independencies, which are created by specialization, are only relatively impersonal.

Elias’ theory can enable one to understand the shift from the use of violence by the state, to that of such non-punitive measures like imprisonment. Vaughan (2000) notes that Elias had started by explaining the reasons why the central authority had emerged just before the “Middle Ages” ended. According to Elias, this resulted from the competition between feudal lords, which after attaining the position of domination established control over the masses. He notes that the central authority acquired a force of arms that enabled it to obtain peace to some level. The authority emphasized monopoly of violence because the force of arms had made it superior. This is what Elias describes as the social monopoly mechanism.

According to Elias, it is this new mechanism which led to specific social spaces that later acquires the status of cities. He explained that, at this later state, there was a decline in the threat of violence making it increasingly easy to predict. This led to a situation in which one would be attacked any time by the state which had seemingly adopted physical violence as one amongst its prerogatives. Elias argues that this new behaviour of the use of violence by the state impacted negatively on the interpersonal relationships. With the increasing rate of violence, the state had to provide extra protection, which was thus seen as a “survival function” of the state as it had to ensure that all its members were secure from any physical attack.

Elias argued that interdependencies that followed were a creation of the survival function. This was an emotional bond that brought the state and various societies together, including the members who pledged their allegiance to the state. This resulted in a period during which people begun living peacefully besides each other resulting into a society that is finely differentiated (Vaughan, 2000). In such a society, people have to assist each other accomplish the various, complex tasks. This is what he calls a “web interdependency” which has come with the need to balance power between various groups.

According to Elias, people do not always resort to violence until they observe that power has not been distributed equally among them. He argued that violence would not be affective in regulating behaviour in the increasingly civilizing world, and another means had to be found (Hudson, 2004). He explained that this led to the need of refining manners. According to him, this is achieved when individuals begins to esteem self-control and not to wait to be controlled by other people. Coupled with this self-control, is becoming aware of other people, which is an indication of the increase social relation’s scale. It is also a modern sensibility that must be understood by those who seek to understand the shifts occurring in the forms of punishments used by the state (Kuri, 2008).

Get this EXCLUSIVE benefits for FREE




Table of



  References and
bibliography list

Outline (on demand)


Elias has also made it possible for people to understand that violence is still within the society, but it is carried out in other forms by state. He sees that state as the sole body allowed to contain and carry out violence experienced in various institutions (Vaughan, 2000). Understanding Elias’s process of psychological sedimentation can also help understand, how the various conducts initially considered instrumental in distinguishing the various social classes within a given society, are viewed today as highly right and justified. This explains why leaders are shifting from executing such capital punishments as capital deaths. According to Elias, the fact that manners have been diffused has enabled public executions to repel everybody. This is to say that, in today’s society, people are not totally opposed to capital punishment, but most are of the opinion that it should not be carried out in the open but secretly as people would not want to see others undergoing pain which is inflicted deliberately (Vaughan, 2000).

Elias’ work has also enabled his scholars to understand the reason behind the tendency to establish various correctional institutions as a new form of punishment by the states. According to Elias, by developing penal institutions, states have not reformed themselves from the initial forms of punishment but instead distributed it more efficiently (Karolewski, 2006). He argued that the major reasons for the development of the various forms of punishments, which are used today, are thoughts by the elites that it is not pleasant to execute punishments openly. According to him, this is the reason why today’s conduct of the death penalty in secret. The secrecy is meant to enable it to retain its respect. His explanation, therefore, goes past that which can be obtained from reading Foucaldian ideas on the sociology of punishment. They had viewed this shift as being brought about by the need of a new strategy meant to enable the leaders obtaining the power to punish. According to this group, the state had wanted to have authority to control and that of reducing the cost for their personal gain (Gorski, 2003).

Elias work also helps in understanding the reason why certain people have explained the emergence of solitary confinement in a cultural but not an ideological perspective. As explained by another scholar, Frank, only a scarce amount of social utility can be obtained from solitary confinement. This is based on the fact that the individual confined may not know what interest, group or power he/she is serving (Maguire, 2007). According to Elias, it is simply meant to bring the virtues of self-control while indicating that there was an increasing loss of confidence in those forms of self-constraint that are carried out externally. Elias further explained that, the notion of confinement for the sole reason of enabling one to acquire self-control emanated from those of the upper class, who had believed that those committing a crime were not able to control themselves and that it was only by confining them that they could have the opportunity to learn (Vaughan, 2000).

This notion was, however, replaced by the understanding that the community too had an effect on the individual. Elias thus enables his scholars to focus also on the social circumstances surrounding an individual. These advancements explain the increasing consideration of the need to help criminals acquire social skills by most societies. In his psychological reading, Elias argues that certain basic instincts are normally moulded by the social life. To him, all instincts are touched by how people relate socially and, therefore, all drives can never successfully oppose social relations. Such reasoning has enabled people to correctly interpret the effect of various social forces on the policies related to various forms of punishments in today’s society (The New School of Social Research, 2011).

In summary, prisons were seen as helping in softening the offenders to enable them to become the decent neighbours to allow interdependencies. On the other hand, public executions were viewed as unfit in a society where everyone was increasingly being dependent on others irrespective of their classes. Such forms of punishment as capital punishment have thus being viewed as fuelling divisions between the different members of the society. Such ideas by Elias are thus needed in understanding the shift in the various forms of punishment.


Save time and let professionals work
on your academic papers!

Order now

Even though Elias model of the civilizing process is lauded by many for having provided explanations that move people away from the initial shallow perspective of power, it has been argued that one may not be able to know the clear implication of the model. This criticism is based on the fact that the model is potentially misleading. This, in turn, is based on Elias’ premise that the shift from more punitive forms of punishment to less physically harsh punishments, like imprisonment, is purely due to the realization of the fact that every member of any given society is independent on the other, as well as the assumption that all people’s wishes must be taken into account (Vaughan, 2000).

It is also not convincing to say that subjecting the offenders to what Elias see as mere efficient forms of brutality, is a sincere regard for the offenders. Smith and Natnier (2001) argue that there have been indications that brutality continued even into the prisons just as was the case with what was initially happening outside. The scholars have refuted the claim by Elias, noting that any bit of compassion towards prisoners always have a limit and comes with a demand.

According to Ray (2011), Elias never reflected on interdependency. He argues that other scholars like Mouzelis rightfully note that the concept is more complex than was presented by Elias. For example, he observes that it is never automatic that whenever there is an increase in interdependency, people will less likely to be treated in a brutal manner. This may mislead young scholars relying on his work in their attempt to understand punishments.

It is also argued that Elias never recognized the exception cases like that which occurred just before the end of 18th century. This was a time when the people of the middle classes were welcoming those who were initially marginalized. It is noted that the process was not complete leaving others to remain neither as partly of totally belonging to the group of elites. This group met brutal punishment. Elias work can thus be said to be a clear demonstration of how various groups influence the behaviours of another till they attain interdependency state. This can only help in understanding the trends in the execution of punishments, in certain cases, because not all the time will two groups approach and assimilate one another.

I also believe that Elias’s notions may have to be modified before being totally incorporated in the understanding of punishments. This is based on his explanation that the process of civilizing represents an evolutionism as he had stated that it cannot be reversed. Elias had believed that it is never easy to separate the individuals and the societal processes. This notion is refuted by Vaughan (2000) who noted that research has shown a possibility of individuals dissolving into social processes.

Finally, Elias may also mislead his scholars to neglect culture while overstressing the structures of the societies. This is because he never took into account the autonomy that comes with the various belief systems. For example, research has proved that it is due to the inclusiveness practice among the France citizens that those who were initially marginalized economically are increasingly coming up. It is also understood that citizens within capitalistic societies have increasingly embraced exclusion because of the reducing need for unskilled labor.

In conclusion, it is, therefore, true that it can never be possible to have a full understanding of the modern punishment without paying attention to modern sensibilities. Even though his theory of the civilizing process may not have achieved its perfection in contributing to the analysis of the various modern sensibilities that cause a shift in the forms of punishment, it has to a larger extent highlighted certain things that one needs to have a deep knowledge of the existing forms of punishment.

Discount applied successfully