Processes of Decivilization


Some time ago Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the big lesson of “Katrina” was not the incompetence of the Bush administration, the scandalous neglect of poor black people in the United States or the unpreparedness for major natural disasters. The big lesson of “Katrina” was that the crust of civilization on which we tread is always wafer thin. “Remove the elementary staples of organized life – food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security – and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.” We easily find other examples which make us think about the rapidity of the breakdown of societies, their acknowledged societal rules and norms and their fierce recourse on violence: Remember for example the desintegration of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Ruanda; remember earlier experiences like the Holocaust or the Gulag; additionally we can think of actual processes of state failures and civil wars in Africa or other regions of the world. According to recent data, the world has seen more than 200 international and civil wars since 1900, in which aproximately 100 million people perished. What do these cases have in common? The basic point is that they reject the notion civilization, that they are regarded as forms of uncivilized behaviour, that they are an expression of decivilizing processes, that they indicate a loss of control, either self-control or control by other instances. To a certain degree we are all used to think in terms of Elias’ process of civilization: People become ever more civilized due to effective state building, the legitimate monopoly of force, the suppression and control of violence, the refinement of manners, effective self-control of drives and impulses and the growing propensity to abstain from aggressiveness and violent behavior. In this sense, decivilization seems to be right the opposite of civilization where people ceased to be civilized and become barbaric. But this is rather misleading to some extent. Today we have a huge knowledge on civilizational processes – not least due to the work of Norbert Elias and others. Only recently, people have begun to worry about this fact when they were confronted with failed statehood, protracted civil wars, or genocide. They started to ask themselves, how vulnerable modern civilization really is, what is going on during the breakdown of societies, why does a decay of civilized behaviors occurr, and they wonder how simple an open relapse or a regression into barbarism is. These questions can easily be translated as follows: - What are decivilizing processes and how can they be conceptualized? - How can we specify processes of decivilization and get a grip on the methodological problems involved? - Under which circumstances does decivilization occur and what conditions favor decivilization? - Which aspects and processes do we have to take into account to understand decivilization? - What are probable characteristics of decivilizing processes? - Which levels are involved when decivilizing processes occurr and what consequences do they have for a society? - Where does decivilization start and how can we stop or reverse decivilizing tendencies? - What is the meaning of decivilization in the context of a loss of control? The term decivilization (or breakdown of civilization) will preliminary refer to constellations of widespread and violent destruction of a social order that succeed earlier periods when civilization prevailed to a greater degree, with more restrained modes of interaction and more tempered self-constraints. The term decivilization suggests that something that once existed has since disappeared, that it was lost or destroyed. In the research project I make an attempt to come to terms with decivilization and decivilizing processes. My overall interest is to develop a model which helps us to understand what’s really going on when some kind of decivilizing occurs. This model should include the different aspects, stages and groups or parties involved on various levels. In a first step, I review the underlying problem and its theoretical and sociological implications. In a second step, I discuss the main proposals to think about decivilising processes and resume the problems involved in these concepts. In a third step, I develop a tentative model of decivilization bringing together important elements for an adequate understanding of processes of decivilization. Afterwards, in a forth step, I systematically consider three paradigmatic cases of decivilizing processes to compare them with the theoretical insights of the model. In the conclusions, I look for consequences from theoretical conceptualizations and empirical findings and address some lines of future research on the topic. My assumptions are that there are some regularities between the different cases that allow for such a modeling, and that after such a modeling comparisons between cases studies will be easier. The purpose of the project is to understand in an ideal-typical manner what is going on before, during and behind decivilizing takes place.


Art des Projekts / Förderung:
International Research Group on „Control of Violence“, ZiF, University of Bielefeld

Projektbezogene Publikationen:
Processes of Decivilization or Some Preliminary Thoughts and Tentative Conclusions on How the Thin Veneer of Civilization is Stripped Off – An Exploration of Concepts and a Proposal for Analysis, 98 pp., Bielefeld 2008 (Working Paper).