The theoretical concept of the “civilizing offensive” (het beschavingsoffensief): Notes on its origins and uses

POWELL, Ryan (2013). The theoretical concept of the “civilizing offensive” (het beschavingsoffensief): Notes on its origins and uses. Human Figurations, 2 (2).

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It is over 30 years since the theoretical concept of the civilising offensive (het beschavingsoffensief) emerged from Amsterdam and the work of Norbert Elias. Since then a small but important number of studies, primarily focused on the Netherlands, have applied the concept to various historical civilising projects aimed at bringing about cultural shifts and inculcating lasting habits in working-class populations deemed to be ‘immoral’ or ‘uncivilised’. More recently, a number of UK academics have sought to apply the concept to contemporary concerns related to welfare policies aimed at specific ‘problematic’ populations perceived to be in need of ‘civilising’. These disparate but overlapping UK accounts have neglected the Dutch origins of the concept. This paper seeks to reconcile that neglect in charting the genealogy of the concept of the civilising offensive. In doing so the paper argues that a greater appreciation of these theoretical origins and developments can not only aid a more coherent understanding of the concept and facilitate comparative analyses, but also enable its refinement and development - both as a complement to Elias’ theory of civilisation and as a tool for exposing the targeted and stigmatising projects of powerful groups. Drawing on existing studies, the paper also suggests that more nuanced insights on the impact of civilising offensives can be gleaned, and greater understanding accrued, by moving beyond the narrow conceptualisation of them as projects of elites (the established) aimed at less powerful groups (outsiders). The importance of internal pressures and group and peer socialisation relative to civilising offensives are therefore discussed. The paper concludes that the theoretical concept of the civilising offensive offers much potential in understanding group conflict and the role of the state in contemporary neoliberal society, as well as historically.

Item Type: Article
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research
Depositing User: Sarah Ward
Date Deposited: 19 Jun 2013 13:36
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2021 10:32

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