Marta Bucholc - “Involvement and Detachment in Legal Concepts and Practices: On the potential of Norbert Elias´s approach in the global comparative research of legal cultures”


Norbert Elias created an influential sociological paradigm whose research potential still remains to be explored. He applied his figurational sociology (or, as he himself preferred to call it, sociology of social processes) in many fields, including art, politics, sports, communication and social exclusion. Nevertheless, two subjects are virtually absent from his reflection: religion and law. These two powerful sources of normative order were never discussed by the author whose commitment to study of norms and standards was unsurpassed among the great sociologists.
My aim is to try and fill in this gap in Elias's writing as far as law is concerned. I propose first to give ground for Elias's maintaining that there is essentially no difference between law and other normative orders in society as far as the sources of its binding force are concerned. Legal norms prescribe standards of behavior. It is the task of a sociologist to enquire about origins and change of these standards, in order to explore their place in the process of civilization, which Elias famously characterizes as a growth in the number of internal restraints of affects and drives resulting in gradual elimination of uncontrolled violence from social life.
There is a direct link connecting civilization and two properties of human thinking which Elias refers to as "involvement" and "detachment". Involvement consists in relating contents of knowledge to "we" perspective and preference for the interests of immediately concerned. Involved thinking focuses on the group to which the thinker belongs, whereas detachment is a property of knowledge which is oriented towards the object of thinking (the "it"), group focus being removed for the sake of a more distanced view. I propose to apply these two qualities of thinking to the notion of standards, in order to demonstrate in what involvement and detachment could consist in this case. I further argue that the notions of involvement and detachment can be relevant to our thinking about law, providing us with a measure for assessing its cultural aspect. Although Elias preferred to reason in terms of the level of civilization and figurational interdependencies than in those of cultural idiosyncrasies, I believe that cultural dimension of legal standards is in fact their indispensable "we" component.
I argue that by thus making use of Elias's categories in research of law as part of culture, we may be able to solve a few problems, which incessantly pester sociology of law. This pertains in particular to plurality of normative orders in society and difficulties in delimiting law as one of them for analytical purposes, especially where plurality is an effect of heterogeneity of norms and internal cultural differences. Still more useful can these conceptual instruments become when we come to comparative research, in which many legal orders need to be considered together with their cultural components. Ethnocentrism and relativistic skepticism seem to threaten such intellectual ventures, thus impeding out efforts better to understand the conditions for the existence of what Elias firmly believed could one day become a global human community living in peace.

Dr. Marta Bucholc
University of Warsaw

Curriculum Vitae

Marta Bucholc is assistant professor for sociology at the University of Warsaw. Her research has been recognized, inter alia, with the Florian Znaniecki Award from the Polish Sociological Association, the START Fellowship from the Foundation of Polish Science, as well as the Bronisław Geremek Fellowship from the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Since October 2012, Marta Bucholc is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities "Law as Culture".

selected Publications

  • Samotnosc dlugodystansowca. Na marginesach socjologii procesow spolecznych (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. On the Margins of Social Process Sociology, upcoming in September 2013).
  • Climbing the Stairs: On the Progress of Society and Science in Norbert Elias's Theory, in: Social Transformations in Theory and Practice, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows' Conferences, Vol. 31, 2012 (ed. Marta Bucholc), published on
  • Konserwatywna utopia kapitalizmu. Etyczne iluzje międzywojennego kupiectwa (Conservative utopia of capitalism. Ethical illusions of interwar merchants), Warszawa; Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2012 (in Polish).
  • Gendered figurational strategies, in: Polish Sociological Review, No. 4 (176)/2011, 425-436.
  • De la politique neotribale, in: Sociétés. Revue des Sciences Humaines et Sociales, vol. 2/2011, 17-27.
  • Politics as Art of Translation. Max Weber's Political Ethic in Light of Ludwig Wittgenstein's and Norbert Elias's Theories of Language, in: Disappearing Realities. Cultural Consequences of Social Change; Institut für Wissenschaften vom Menschen Junior Visiting Fellows' Conferences, Vol. 30, 2011 (ed. Marta Bucholc, Anne Dwyer), published on
  • Annulment, in: Dialogue and Universalism, vol. XX, No. 7-8/2010.
  • Communication sociale du droit - fin d'interprétation juridique classique?, in: Langue, Droit, Societe. Language, Law, Society, red. Danuta Bartol, Anna Duszak, Hubert Izdebski, Jean-Marie Pierrel, series Dictionnaire des notions politiques et sociales des pays d'Europe centrale et orientale, Cahiers nos. 5 et 6, 2006.