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Can Elias’s characterisation of the civilising process help us to understand contemporary punishment?

One of the most important issues of contemporary society is that of punishment. There are however many philosophies behind the reason for punishment and the measures that we employ as a society. The debate that will be raised during the course of this work is to see whether or not Elias's characterisation of the civilising process can help us understand contemporary punishment. By identifying the distinctive features of his approach to punishment it will enable us to examine how relevant it is in today's society. Although not exclusively revolving around crime and punishment the civilising process is a major theory when discussing any kind of contemporary social etiquette. By looking at the issue from a sociological perspective it will help the debate not to get saturated with legal technicalities and will give us more of a simplistic overview. This will also make us see how relevant the civilising process actually is and whether or not it is just specific to one society or if it can be used as a general model for others. With the backing of key theorists and empirical research there will be some strong arguments to state whether or not the civilising process can help us understand contemporary punishment. With a quick reference to the evolution of punishment we can interrelate this to the theory in question and put it in to some sort of historical context.

First of all we have to point out that the civilising process is supposed to be seen as an evolutionary theory where peoples' attitudes and actions rationally change over time. This is rather than the civilising process being a radical and revolutionary systematic change that can be pin pointed to an exact date in history, as some people may believe it to be. It is not a sudden switch in society's psyche from a harsh draconian regime to a liberal understanding of things but rather a process 'identified by Elias in which history can be seen as the progressive ability of humans to control their emotions. Elias showed how different standards of behaviour (decorum or etiquette) come into existence and create a more civilised human being'. (Lawson, T and Garrod, J p35: 2000)   From this definition we can try and identify some of the characteristics that are important in relation to contemporary punishment.  However the change of etiquette and attitudes must have originated or started to appear at some point in history. The process sees this as starting with the upper echelons of society and then percolating into the masses becoming more widespread. When you look at modern day attitudes to punishment you can see how reflective they are of this civilising process. For instance in comparison to the witch hunts and the brutal punitive measures and attitudes that were employed at that time you can quite clearly see a society which was very much a reactionary one. According to Garland (1991) the civilising process in relation to contemporary punishment has seen a move from what we would consider inhumane to one that is very much concerned with civil liberties. It is very unusual these days for the public to want to see a criminal being hung from the highest tree for the pettiest of crimes. You could argue against this by saying that in today's society there are many examples of people wanting harsher punishments. These examples show that not all human emotions have been restrained when considering contemporary punitive attitudes. Such crimes as paedophilia and the murdering of juveniles are still met with volatile and somewhat vigilante style reactions. However in conjunction with this we have to remember that societal reaction is somewhat different to the sentences dealt out by the governing institutions and it isn't always the case that these sentences co-inside with the mentality of a society. 

  If we are seeing the civilising process as being particular to Britain then we can see quite clearly that we have a strong disliking for the distasteful. For example we shudder at the very thought of a beheading as punishment when one may get broadcast to us. To other people around the world such actions are seen as the staple punishment for committing particular crimes. It is this kind of global difference that shows the civilising process and its' characteristics as having little relevance. Whilst there are obvious advancements within Britain and Western European societies from such barbarism how do we know that current laws and the punishment that ensues if they broken are made simply as a result of chivalrous judges? Isn't it possible for other reasons for such liberal punishments to exist?

The reason for raising such a point is because it would be naïve to suggest that punishment is just a reflection of hearts becoming more sober and being able to restrain emotions. In fact it would be fair to suggest that a lot of punitive methods are preferred due to economic reasons. If we look at Britain the use of tagging and other surveillance and control techniques have all but replaced short stints of being incarcerated for the simple fact that it is cheaper to do so. This is an obvious example of the characteristics of the civilising process as not being particularly relevant because you could say the increased use of tagging has been overused and against the will of the people. There are large numbers from the public shouting for more people to be sent to prison (and according to them the ones that are sent should be there for longer) rather than being given lenient sentences because there is a decreasing capacity to keep them there.  You can also raise the question that because the civilising process was not specifically written regarding punishment then it is hard to generalise or even separate Elias's thoughts of self restraint to institutions and the actual criminals themselves. Surely the type of people committing crimes, the people who choose the appropriate punishment and the reaction of the public to whether the punishment is fair are all different with different motives. The Elisian approach assumes everybody to be experiencing this gaining of manners and etiquette at the same time when in reality people develop certain sensibilities at different periods in their lives and some never develop them at all. An example of this is that there has always been and always will be crime. No civilised approach or inhumane approach can be seen as completely resolving criminal activities no matter what time in our history. The characterisations of the civilising process also do not take into account other motives behind contemporary punishment such as rehabilitation, deterrence, restorative justice and the community reparations that criminals may pay towards repairing some of the damage done by their crimes.

There is an argument to suggest that society isn't even becoming more civil in the way in which Elias seemed to think. Finklestei (1988, P167) suggests that we become civil through certain social changes such as 'Increasing trade, for example, forced the individual to confront more people in differing situations over an increased range of activities. Forcing the individual to reflect upon their manner of interaction'. However there is an argument to the contrary to say that we live in an age of increasing faceless interaction. Inventions such as the internet help us to do most things within the confines of our own home, self swipe machines at the supermarket help us not to talk to anyone whilst shopping and there are more and more people working from home. So how valid is this civilising process when considering contemporary punishment when simple observations of contemporary interaction show us that the theory is outdated when considering one to one networking? If we are to take the above quote as a symbol for societies increasingly polite and understanding reaction amongst its member's maybe we should look at the fact that we also live in an intense capitalist society. This type of society has been said to cause many individuals to be concerned primarily with their own standing and interests rather than be generous and well mannered. These types of self serving people exist in all walks of life and we also have to consider that they could very well have an influence in the legal system. This influence has been very much overlooked by a generalising macro theory such as this one.  

In conclusion we shall tie up some of the major points discussed in the body of the essay. On the whole punishment today is more lenient than other periods in history such as in the days of Caligula but what we also have to bear in mind is that with all laws and institutions it is an area that will be in constant flux. What may be relevant one decade may not match up to the attitudes of another, as generational differences are obvious just in the short time of our lives. This makes the idea of the civilising process as an exact epoch less valid and can be easily criticised as a grand meta narrative and being particular of one society. Some of the characterisations of the civilising process do however show us how societal changes have influenced contemporary attitudes towards punishment. There has been an obvious shift in mentality from retribution and revenge to a less reactionary response where rehabilitation and reintegration are the real motivation behind punishment. It is quite clear from what we have discovered from a previous point made that this is a somewhat outdated view of society with regards to technology and how people act towards one another. We have also seen that this process is very particular to western society. The civilising process is somewhat irrelevant in relation to countries ran by much harsher laws such as some African and Middle Eastern countries. It is vital that we don't generalise this thinking to a global scale or even see it as exclusively European as each government, country and regime adopts different mentalities towards punishment according to their own history and customs. Although Elias's civilising process rises some poignant questions about our being there are many more issues to think about when discussing contemporary punishment.

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