Civilising Pressures in Globally Expanding Networks of Functional Interdependence: Power Inequalities and Equalities.

From Firenze University Press Journal: Cambio

University of Florence
4 min readNov 24, 2022

Cas Wouters

Norbert Elias’s concept of «functional democratisation» describes an equalisation in social power relations through the differentiation («division of labour») and interweaving of social functions in expanding interdependency networks. This concept was absent in my work until I ran into «functional de-democratisation», about eight years after it was introduced by Stephen Mennell in The American Civilizing Process (2007). In a small section of the final chapter entitled «functional de-democratisation», Mennell first draws attention to a sequence of twentieth century emancipation struggles in which the power balance between outsider groups and their established counterparts becomes less uneven. He refers to these trends as «real and important; they played a key part in the process of ‘informalisation’, and from some standpoints may appear the dominant feature of the last century».

Thus Mennell builds up to the introduction of the concept in the title of this section:

In the counterpoint of history, however, they can be interwoven with contrary trends. Elias paid less attention to the possibility of what may be called functional de-democratisation and its effects. Yet in his writings and those of subsequent researchers who have followed his lead, there are important clues as to the genesis and consequences of functional de-democratisation (2007: 311).

This claim, however, is left unsubstantiated. In two later articles, Mennell again uses the term «functional de-democratisation» without providing a more solid empirical or theoretical elaboration (2014a; 2014b). I therefore set out to learn more about both concepts of functional democratisation and functional de-democratisation: their meaning and how they are introduced and used. This exploration was shared with the publication of Functional democratisation and disintegration as side-effects of differentiation and integration processes (Wouters 2016).

In later years, as I focused on the wider framework of civilisation and informalisation theory, the perspective of the grow-ing dominance of globalisation over nationalisation (Wouters 2019a; 2020), made me realise that this change in dominance implies that the expansion of functional interdependency networks — with differentiation and integration as their general process drivers — have continued onto the global level, the highest possible level of integration. This also implies that, as before, changes towards this higher level of integration are accompanied by integration conflicts: conflicts and counter-trends. Present examples of such counter-trends on lower levels of integration and organisation include rises in social inequality and changes toward hierarchisation or defunctionalisation, coinciding with less egalitarian and more hierarchical manners and emotions. These trends may also include increasing numbers of people living in deserted, derelict buildings of factories and houses in increasingly depopulated neighbourhoods. When they are caught up in counter processes like these, people are more likely to lose their jobs, or if they keep them, they are more likely to be ‘bossed around’ and snubbed as relationships become more authoritarian, less pacified and less democratic.When one of those co-existing opposite processes appears, it is tempting to interpret it as a ‘reversal’ of the dominant trend, but in that case, the word ‘reversal’ is a stark exaggeration of what actually occurs. These oppos-ing processes of de-democratisation and rising power inequalities are likely to (have) spread in interdependency networks that are characterised by defunctionalisation and disintegration of social functions. Therefore, from this perspective it is theoretically very important to refer to the opposite process of functional democratisation not as «functional de-democratisation» but as defunctional de-democratisation, and to realise that spheres of rising social inequality and de-democratisation have spread in expanding interdependency networks together with continued social equalisation and «functional democratisation».

They co-exist as co-dominant contradicting trends.To conceptualise changes in the opposite direction of «functional democratisation» as «functional de-democratisation» confuses and obscures our ability to see trends and countertrends by conflating levels of interdepend-ency and integration. Maintaining the word «functional» to describe the opposite trends of democratisation and de-democratisation is part of the problem. This conceptualisation fails to acknowledge the different direction of trends, on the one hand, towards rising equality in relationships via functional differentiation and functional democratisation, and on the other, towards defunctionalisation and greater inequality. Mixing up the direction of trends in this way is combined with mixing up the level of integration at which they occur: the global and/or local level. This blurs and complicates the focus of research on manifestations at both global and local levels of rising inequality and defunctionalisation, as well as their counterparts of «functional democratisation» and «informalisation». Research that combines and integrates these two areas of focus can be stimulated by achieving greater conceptual and theoretical precision. There still seems to be a lack of clarity around understanding and analysing the growing dominance of globalisation over nationalisation, how to use these concepts and how they fit into Eli-as’s theory, hence my contribution here.


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