The Civilized Process, Economic Change, and Violence: An Assessment of the Evidence in England, the Netherlands and the United States

Dennis M. Mares, University of Missouri - St. Louis

Increasingly historical research that looks at trends in interpersonal violence is making use of Elias' theory of the civilizing process. The theory, which argues that an increasing monopoly of force has led to a greater degree of self-control, has proven particularly suitable to explain the historical decline in violence. Nevertheless, research has not addressed if and how this perspective can be useful for interpreting increasing rates of violence.

The purpose of this paper is to develop and refine Elias' arguments in order to explain both decreasing and increasing rates in interpersonal violence. In order to accomplish this, the theory needs substantial elaboration, and specifically take into account the profound economic changes that have accompanied this long-term process. By using illustrative historical evidence from England, the Netherlands and the United States, this paper will demonstrate that the 'civilizing process' does not penetrate all layers of society evenly. Structural economic change accompanied with reduced social mobility will undermine the effectiveness of the monopoly of force. The results in the form of 'decivilizing processes' is especially visible among 'outsider' groups that have been least affected by the civilizing process to begin with.

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Updated 05/20/2006