Values and Norms: insights from Norbert Elias (Part 2)

In my first blog in this series, I introduced a research narrative from “Max” about conflicts that were arising as three teams came together in a newly merged organisation.  These arose as the values and norms of those involved were being renegotiated in their interactions with each other.  I introduced some ideas from Norbert Elias (1996) as a way of making sense of what might be happening in the narrative.

Max’s narrative also highlights another point made by Elias about norms and the way they are portrayed by some writers and how they conceptualise norms in a highly idealised manner, allowing the reader to see only those functions which they wish them to have and block the perceptions of those functions that they do not wish to perceive. So for example, the norm in Max’s narrative regarding not exposing disagreements in meetings, whilst serving some desirable functions, at the same time may block the potential to explore different perspectives in a way which could lead to something novel and creative to emerge. (Noting this too is not a panacea – as any norm suggesting conflict of this kind is “a good thing” which can only lead to positive outcomes is to misunderstand what Elias is pointing to. Something new and different does not always mean it will be better, and of course the judgement on this will vary from differing perspectives of those involved.) Thus any norm will have within it the same paradoxical features to which Elias is pointing – so a shift to a norm that encourages open contradiction and conflict in meetings as a generalised rule could at the same time block some of the benefits arising from failing to disagree, such as the ability to maintain a sense of civilised order and conduct in a way that enables groups to try to listen to each other.

Elias observes that this way of thinking about norms takes no account of the fact that in contemporary nation states, the supreme value codes that one and the same society may impress upon its members can be inherently contradictory, e.g. that an individual is the supreme value, and at the same time that the sovereign collectivity, the nation state is the supreme value to which all individual aims and interests – even the physical survival of individuals- is to be subordinated. He observes that conflicts arising from contradictory norms and a corresponding contradictory conscience formation of individuals may be latent only for certain periods of time and become acute only in specific situations of which war is the most extreme (i.e. context is crucial).

In Max’s narrative I also notice a constant negotiation and checking along a similar continuum, at times favouring the good of the “organisation”, and at times his own corporate survival or considerations for that of colleagues. This observation is also helpful, as in our everyday work we are constantly coming up against conflicting values/ norms and having to choose what to do. (For example, in the case of Max’s diabetic project, in particularising the needs of this specific group of patients, values emerge around ease of access to services patients require, safety, cost and patient choice, which inherently contradict each other and require compromises to be made.)

Elias concludes that such a theoretical approach (i.e. one that uses as an instrument of sociological analysis an idealised concept of norms) is not adequate. He observes that it is probably the case that nation states are unable to escape the patterns of their mutual suspicions, threats and fears precisely because problems such as these cannot be studied and discussed openly and dispassionately. Elias attributes the reasons from this contradictory code of norms to the following. First, in historical development, the middle and working classes traditionally had no access to the process of interstate relations which was conducted mainly by the aristocracy or those who stood in the traditions of a nobility. In many cases, those following the aristocracy continued in this tradition – after the rise to power of the industrial classes. Democratisation gave a different complexion to this tradition. The parochial, inegalitarian, nationalist morality of the warrior code of the aristocracy was no less demanding, no less unconditional and unquestionable than the universal, egalitarian, humanist morality.

He observes that the development of a dual and inherently contradictory code of norms is one of the common features of countries moving from an aristocratic – dynastic to a more democratic state, in which category he includes the UK and Germany. Whilst noting these contradictions may become more apparent in specific situations and more acute in wartime, he points to the fact that even in peacetime this dual code has considerable influence on individual attitudes and on how we conduct our affairs. Thus some groups lay greater stress on the values of the nationalist creed without altogether abandoning those of the humanist, egalitarian tradition – and vice versa. He concludes that this whole figuration, the alignment of groups of people somewhere between these two poles, is a common feature in all societies of this type.

He cautions against simplistically viewing these insights as a conflict between the survival of “the individual” and an outer power called the state or society. He notes it is always a question simultaneously of an “inner” conflict between the different compulsions of one and the same individual.

The rules and norms of the nation-state, together with the system of attitudes and beliefs which is supported through the external constraint (Fremdzwang), of the state, have their counterpart in the inner constraint, (Selbstzwang) which individuals exert on themselves in the form of their conscience and their we-ideal.

If we also think about the rules and norms for Max’s organisation (a leap I have argued is legitimate for reasons cited above), I can see evidence of the kind of conflict Max is describing in his narrative as the external and internal constraints  described by Elias come into play.

Elias  notes how Durkheim inclines towards the view that the patterns of these two constraints simply complement each other. The society thus projects the norms and values into the individual. Freud and other followers assumed an equally static correspondence, although in Freud’s case it often appears as if “the individual” projects his conscience into the “society”. Elias’s  problem with this is that the model from which one begins is simply of a society at a particular point in time and fundamentally static – thus allowing us only to view it from either one or the other perspectives.  Thus one cannot handle the many problems which the relationship between the organisation and patterning of personal and social controls throws up.  He then moves on to argue that these can only be understood when static models are replaced by dynamic models, when societies as well as individuals are seen to be in processes of development.

One cannot, de facto, clearly recognise the connections between- whatever it is- “society” and “culture” and “state” and “individual”, external” and “internal” steering mechanisms, unless one conceptualises them as something in movement, as aspects of social processes which are themselves processes, indeed functionally interdependent processes involving varying degrees of harmony and conflict.

The change-relationships between these aspects are complex. It is flatly not the case that one of them is the prime motor of social development while others have secondary effects or passively follow. As aspects of a social process most of them have both active and passive functions. They form and are formed, drive and are driven or are active through the sheer resistance with which they oppose changes beyond themselves. To be sure, the degree to which they are able to influence each other and the development of society as a whole varies………..But their power in relation to each other is by no means always the same in all types of society, at all stages of social development. The Germans, p336

So in this dynamic process that Elias describes, I can see that the potential for  transformation of values/norms arises in their particularising as described in Max’s narrative  because of the potential for spontaneity to generate variety in human action and the capacity to amplify consequent small differences in their particularisation. Such a shift would necessitate at the same time a renegotiation of the abstracted generalisation (or the value/norm) which also has the potential to be transformed. For example, Max and colleagues may reappraise norms such as whether or not  it is acceptable for challenge each other in meetings and this discussion may call into question values such as democracy and patient safety and how they are understood and functionalised. This is clearly a very different understanding of transformation to that used in the traditional management and leadership literature which locates the capacity for transformation with individual leaders.

These 2 blogs have been developed in preparation  for The University of Hertfordshire’s Doctor of Management Programme July Residential Unit, on the Theme of Leadership and the exploration of values, norms and conflict.  6-9 July 2012.  For further information, click here.




Elias, N. and  Scotson, J.([1965]/1994), The Established and the Outsiders, London: Sage.

Elias, N. (1996) The Germans, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mead , G.H. (1934) Mind, Self & Society, Chicago The University of Chicago Press.

Stacey, R. (2007) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the Challenge of Complexity, London: Prentice Hall.

Stacey, R. (2010) Complexity and Organisational Reality, London: Routledge.


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