Thinking with Elias about British independent funeral firms
Sereva, Emilia Petrova
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This thesis is about using rather than applying Norbert Elias’s conceptual ideas, and its analytical procedure employs a ‘fair play’ approach to theorists and theory. This is put to use regarding British independent funeral firms by conceiving these as a figuration developing over the long-term, and exploring the accounts of funeral directors placed in dialogue with Elias’s ideas. The thesis examines how the key Eliasian concepts of figuration, sociogenesis, habitus and de/civilising processes play out in context, including over-time developments within the British funeral industry. Its focus is ‘thinking with Elias’ about such matters in relation to the everyday working practices of independent funeral directors. Chapter One introduces Elias’s key conceptual ideas. In beginning its ‘fair play’ analysis it discusses criticisms, debates and uses of his work and explores the substantive literature on death, funerals and the British funeral industry. Building on this, Chapter Two considers analytically the process of methodologically trying out potential approaches to thinking with Elias around one of his core ideas, figuration. Departing from Elias’s retrospective approach, it chases the independent funeral firm figuration as it unfolds in the present. Using figuration in thinking with Elias sets the stage for further analytical use of Eliasian concepts in subsequent chapters. Chapter Three explores how sociogenesis works by examining intersections and departures between the funeral directors’ accounts and the Eliasian view of long-term development. Regarding sociogenesis, the ‘actual’ processes of death-related social change were not of central interest to the funeral directors, who were more concerned with ensuring their firms’ persistence. Chapter Four engages with Elias’s ideas about habitus and the we-identities of the independent directors, shared belief and behaviour traditions within and between firms and the directors, and also sources of conflict. Core to this is the emphasis on traditions, although these are present-time ‘invented’ around the priority of remaining in business. Chapter Five presents Elias’s theory of the de/civilising process as his ‘bigger picture’ of social change, and its analysis engages and contrasts this with the independent funeral directors’ accounts of the bigger picture in discussing perceived trends. They respond to changes as these are unfolding, and explain over-time matters of stasis and change as they experience them in ways that challenge Eliasian thinking. Chapter Six discusses the main contributions of the thesis. In using theory and thinking with Elias rather than against him, I have aimed to be a fair player in doing sociology. First, my thesis recognises the importance of context and that how concepts play out in ‘real’ life will vary significantly. Second, in adopting a fair play approach, the thesis provides a detailed empirical example of how to evaluate theorists on their own terms by following in their suggestions and engaging with their ideas in contextual and reflexive ways. It has neither replicated nor reproduced an Eliasian study, but instead demonstrated how actually using it in a context will play out. Third, the thesis has used the Eliasian key concepts of figuration, sociogenesis, habitus and de/civilising in a present-day setting so as to examine how these unfold in the present and can be explored through people’s accounts. Fourth, it analyses the accounts of the independent funeral directors in a fair play way and establishes that their ideas work as theory, as exploring the dialogue between Elias and the funeral directors has shown. Overall, the thesis is a reply to Elias’s call for sociologists to think for themselves, engage with and expand upon ideas and settings to hand, and to pursue the actual processes at work in society.