Skip to main content

The American Civilizing Process

The American Civilizing Process

Stephen Mennell

ISBN: 978-0-745-65538-3

Apr 2013, Polity

400 pages

$23.99

Description

Since 9/11, the American government has presumed to speak and act in the name of ‘civilization’. But isthat how the rest of the world sees it? And if not, why not?

Stephen Mennell leads up to such contemporary questions through a careful study of the whole span of American development, from the first settlers to the American Empire. He takes a novel approach, analysing the USA’s experience in the light of Norbert Elias’s theory of civilizing (and decivilizing) processes.

Drawing comparisons between the USA and other countries of the world, the topics discussed include:


  • American manners and lifestyles

  • Violence in American society

  • The impact of markets on American social character

  • American expansion, from the frontier to empire

  • The ‘curse of the American Dream’ and increasing inequality

  • The religiosity of American life

Mennell shows how the long-term experience of Americans has been of growing more and more powerful in relation to their neighbours. This has had all-pervasive effects on the way they see themselves, their perception of the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world sees them.

Mennell’s compelling and provocative account will appeal to anyone concerned about America's role in the world today, including students and scholars of American politics and society.

Preface.

Prologue:.

1 ‘American Civilization’.

The Founding Fathers as Philosophes.

‘Progress’ and ‘American Civilization’.

Fugitive government and ‘American Civilization’.

‘Human nature’ and ‘American Civilization’.

European absolutism and ‘American Civilization’.

Conclusion.

2 ‘Fellow Americans’ and Outsiders.

Others: the Native Americans.

Others: the Blacks.

Others: the Europeans.

Anti-Americanism: How the outsiders view the established.

Conclusion.

3 American Manners under Scrutiny.

American manners books.

Americans observed.

Technology, hygiene and deference.

Victorianism.

Informalization.

Conclusion.

4 American Aristocracies.

The colonial gentry.

The South: American Junkers?.

The North: Working upper classes.

From cumulative to dispersed inequalities?.

A significant absence: an aristocracy of office.

Conclusion.

5 The Market Society.

The constraints of the market.

The constraints of organization.

Conclusion.

6 Violence and Aggressiveness.

Long-term trends in violence.

Is America peculiarly violent?.

Capital punishment.

Conclusion.

7 And wilderness is paradise enow: From Settlements to Independence.

Autarky, but not terra nullius.

Population.

Early phases of the American state formation process.

Conclusion.

8 Westward Look the Land is Bright: From Frontier to Empire.

Manifest destiny and latent dynamics: a necessary theoretical digression.

The balance between the planned and the unplanned in US territorial expansion.

‘Sovereignty’ as a function of power ratios.

The Frontier.

Beyond manifest destiny: the beginnings of an American empire.

Conclusion.

9 Integration Struggles.

Urbanization and resentment of the city.

Immigration.

Growth of the means of ruling.

The breakdown: the Civil War and its aftermath.

A central ambivalence: the armed forces.

Conclusion.

10 The Curse of the American Dream.

Equality and inequality in America.

The American welfare state.

Social mobility in America.

Conclusion: Upwards identification, not mutual identification?.

11 Involvement, Detachment and American Religiosity.

Fantasy and the growth of knowledge.

American religion in long-term perspective.

Some explanations.

Odd one out - Europe or the USA?.

Conclusion.

12 America and Humanity as a Whole.

‘American Social Character’: Diminishing contrasts, increasing varieties.

The problem of the American homo clausus: the We-I balance.

Market fundamentalism and diminishing foresight.

Functional de-democratization.

The American Empire.

Conclusion: path dependency in America and the world.

Notes.

Bibliography.

Index

"This book has a great potential for upsetting the sensibilities of American graduate students and stimulating debate about the form and development of American culture and social organization."
Theory and Society

"All in all, this is a book full of treasures that I would recommend unreservedly."
Farhad Dalal, Group Analysis

"[A] work of immense scope, insight and erudition by a major figure in sociology."
Andrew Linklater, International Affairs

"Guaranteed to be 'model setting' in its own right. All future studies of civilising processes, which will hopefully include analyses of such dynamics in rising powers such as China, India, Brazil and so forth in the emerging post-Western international system, can derive their bearings from this volume."
Figurations

"What makes Mennell's book exceptional is its theoretical framework building on the elaborate theory of civilizing processes developed by Norbert Elias (1897-1990), who elaborated his theory on European state-formation processes."
Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft

"A broad and brave, yet incisive, exploration of the process of US evolution, effectively mingling, and moving between, sociological and cultural considerations with political and international trends."
Irish Journal of American Studies

"Mennell has robustly put the American processes of civilization through the demands of Elias-ian analysis."
Prometheus

"Mennell is the best expositor of the pattern of American geopolitics, along with British military historian John Keegan’s Fields of Battle."
European Journal of Sociology

"A very fine book indeed: a triumphant vindication of the capacity of Elias's thesis to illuminate huge tracts of American history and at the same time a highly original and independent work which never follows the master slavishly but maintains its intellectual independence, recognising the difficulties which Elias's theories sometimes raise, and abounding in fresh insights of its own. It is also beautifully lucid and agreeably unpretentious in tone."
Sir Keith Thomas, All Souls College, Oxford

"Written in a beautifully lucid and lively style, this book should be read by all who seek to understand a fascinating as well as important country."
John A. Thompson, St Catharine's College, Cambridge

"This is a book that is long overdue. Norbert Elias pioneered analysis of the civilizing process that helped make modern Europe. But just how much America is distinct has been both historically contested and conceptually unclear. Stephen Mennell brings considerable insight in this thoughtful reconsideration of the American story in light of Elias’s originally European framework."
Craig Calhoun, New York University

"Stephen Mennell, an outstanding disciple of the great sociologist Norbert Elias, employs the latter's insights to look at the USA. Using the idea of state-formation along with that of the civilizing process, the result is a wide-ranging treatment of the sole contemporary superpower that has both scholarly merit and an enormous relevance to the present moment. Filled with insights, combining theory and empirical observations, and offering a judicious comparison with other countries of America and its claim to exceptionalism, the result is a splendid contribution to history, sociology and international relations."
Bruce Mazlish, MIT

 


  • Highly original, provocative account of how America came to be what it is today
  • Engagingly written, so likely to appeal beyond specialists in this area, as well as find upper-level course adoption
  • Huge span - from first American settlers to the current day
  • Masterly analysis of themes such as: American manners and lifestyles; violence in American society; the ‘curse of the American Dream’ and increasing inequality; the religiosity of American life
  • Offers a very different perspective on the crisis facing US society, which goes far beyond the usual occupation with Iraq and neo-conservative politics