The Importance of Survival Units for Norbert Elias's Figurational Perspective

Lars Bo Kaspersen, Norman Gabriel

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    In this paper, we argue that Norbert Elias's concept of survival unit is a distinctive part of the development of his figurational sociology and one of the most consistent contributions to relational thinking. The survival unit is a particular form of figuration which provides security and the material foundations for life such as food and shelter. Every human being is born into a survival unit. This unit is a relational concept which cannot be conceived outside a relationship with other survival units.
    By introducing the concept of survival unit Elias overcomes one of the key problems in relational sociology: how to demarcate primary social relations. Elias argues that human societies from very early on have been divided into survival units. These survival units are demarcated and constituted in their relationship to other survival units. Consequently, their boundaries are generated in a confrontation with other survival units.
    This relationship can be peaceful or conflict ridden but in the last resort it can end with violent confrontation. Only the survival unit with the ability to defend a domain of sovereignty will survive. This observation places Elias among the few sociologists with an understanding of the role of warfare in social relationships.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalSociological Review
    Issue number3
    Pages (from-to)370-387
    Number of pages8
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2008

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