Occidental self-understanding and the Elias-Duerr dispute: ‘thick’ versus ‘thin’ conceptions of human subjectivity and civilization

05 May 2006

It has become central to Occidental self-understanding to see Western European identities and forms of social relations as historically unique. This is true both in everyday, commonsense understandings of what it means to be a person in contemporary societies, and in social scientific studies of Western culture and society, especially in history and sociology. However, there are arguments against an overemphasis on the uniqueness of the modern habitus, and against the picture which is then drawn of ‘the Other’: the inhabitants of previous eras and other cultures. This paper will examine and assess the arguments against seeing the modern, civilized habitus as radically different from that of previous historical epochs and ‘non-Western’ cultures, and for a greater sensitivity to the continuities in the historical development of social relations and psychic structures. The discussion will focus on Hans-Peter Duerr’s critique of Elias in order to identify the underlying conceptual issues running through all historical and comparative sociology which these debates bring to the surface in an exemplary way, particularly the distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ conceptions of human habitus and subjectivity.