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  • Norbert Elias and the Analysis of History and Sport: Systematizing Figurational Sociology by Joannes Van Gestel
  • Colleen English
Van Gestel, Joannes. Norbert Elias and the Analysis of History and Sport: Systematizing Figurational Sociology. New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. xv+154. Index and figures. $140.00, hb. $54.95, eb.

In Norbert Elias and the Analysis of History and Sport: Systematizing Figurational Sociology, Joannes Van Gestel honors the sociologist Norbert Elias’s work, particularly in relation to his analyses of social history and sport. Van Gestel situates this tribute within a larger work [End Page 134] on “process” or “figurational” sociology and Elias’s transformational role within the field. Elias, perhaps known best (especially within sport studies) for The Civilizing Process, challenged the field of sociology and helped develop sport sociology, according to Van Gestel.

Van Gestel breaks his work into seven chapters, with the first five focusing specifically on the field of sociology and its psychological and social constraints. The last three chapters center on Elias’s civilizing process, theories on leisure time, and sportization. While not explicitly a textbook, this work often veers toward that style, especially in the early chapters. Rather than creating a new theory, Van Gestel provides significant literature reviews on the biological basis and features of human activities, the psychological constraints and drives present in human behavior, and the social constraints and power relationships within human interaction. These chapters excel at providing clear descriptions of a wide variety of scholarship, and the author provides diagrams to illustrate some difficult concepts. However, some parts of this description—especially the section on psychological constraints—are overlong and not obviously related to Elias’s sociological work (or, at least the author does not clearly articulate these relationships).

The following chapters focus more directly on Elias’s theories of the civilizing process and sportization. Van Gestel describes the civilizing process as an examination of “the changes both between and within people” (89). In other words, it takes into account the changes in people’s behavior and psychology, as well as alterations to social structures. Van Gestel spends much of this chapter examining the implications and applications of the civilizing process and how other sociologists interact with this theory.

The final two chapters look at Elias’s work, especially the civilizing process, within studies of leisure time and sport. For Elias (including in his work with Eric Dunning), activities people take part in during their leisure time are often meant to counter monotony by creating exciting experiences. These are activities that have a “high degree of . . . sociability, motility, and imaginary/emotional arousal” (110). Both playing and watching sport can fall under these notions of leisure-time activities.

The concluding chapter of Norbert Elias and the Analysis of History and Sport most fully addresses the role of sport in the sociologist’s theoretical work. In this chapter, Van Gestel looks specifically at sportization—the process of how some human activities become sports. He analyzes both the philosophic and sociological viewpoints of the question “What is sport?” These approaches include the work of notable scholars, such as Allen Guttmann, Johan Huizinga, and Roger Caillois, whose investigations have had a major impact on sport studies, along with historic evidence that sport has changed and evolved over time and the impact of sport on human emotional response. Van Gestel concludes his book by suggesting “final” definitions of sport and recommending further study on the structural changes of sport and “the different types of bonds between people and groups of people” (139).

This book provides significant analysis of Norbert Elias’s role in sociology, particularly in relation to leisure-time activities. For those who are interested in the psychological and social antecedents of sociological theory and Elias’s work, this book nicely provides context. Van Gestel skillfully deploys a wide variety of scholarship to define important sociological concepts, contextualize various theorists, and detail the relationships between wider sociological theories and sport and leisure. Both those familiar with Elias’s work and novices to sport sociology may enjoy and benefit from this background information. [End Page 135]

However, Van Gestel’s book does have some shortcomings. The chapters on the civilizing process and sportization...


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