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Survival units as the point of departure for a relational social theory

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Draft version – not to be quoted without permission from the authors ; Paper presented at the 37th World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology, Stockholm, July 5th-July 9th 2005 ; Relational social theory can be found in the works of Hegel, Marx, Simmel, Mannheim, Mead, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault and Bourdieu. However, one of the most consistent relational thinkers is Norbert Elias. In order to develop his figurational and relational social theory Elias makes two claims: 1) the only theoretically sustainable point of departure for a social theory is to study human beings, human society (and maybe also other animals but we leave this aside for the moment!) in a relational perspective! This claim is justified by a number of arguments among others his critique of methodological individualism, methodological holism, individual-society categories and the homo clauses perspective. 2) The other important assumption that Elias makes concerns the smallest social unit – a survival unit. In other words, the first social relation to be studied is not the single individual or a man-woman relation (family) or man-nature (subject-object). The first unit of analysis is the double relational binding of human beings in social groups. In the first order we find the relation between survival units (‘state’-‘state’). In a second order we find relations between families and individuals within each of the survival units. We accept these two claims and we intend to contribute to a further substantiation of these two claims. Moreover, we shall raise a particular problem which is not sufficiently addressed in Elias’s work or in the critical literature on Elias. In particular we shall explore the problem of survival units. Elias assumes that human societies from very early on were divided into survival units (it is plausible that this can be traced back to approx. 4 million years ago when Australopithecus afarensis and upright walking began to spread). These survival units have been demarcated; in other words, they have demarcated themselves towards other units, and units from outside have generated a demarcation. The questions we need to address concern the problem of demarcation: a) Why are these survival units demarcated towards each other? Why has this been the case for at least 4 million years? b) Why has the world not at any point been one survival unit? Is it a plausible future development? Can the world turn into one state/survival unit? We shall argue that although Elias has given an explanation for this demarcation, he has overlooked another mechanism sustaining the separation between units. Furthermore, by incorporating Hegel and Clausewitz into Elias’s relational theory we shall demonstrate that an answer to these two questions is possible.

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Lars Bo Kaspersen, Norman Gabriel

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