Edmund Leach

  • The Anthropology of Violence edited by David Riches
    Blackwell, 232 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 631 14788 8
  • Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process by Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning
    Blackwell, 313 pp, £19.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 631 14654 7
  • Sport, Power and Culture: A Social and Historical Analysis of Popular Sports in Britain by John Hargreaves
    Polity, 258 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 7456 0153 7
  • At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression and the State by Eli Sagan
    Faber, 420 pp, £17.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13822 5

As the bombs go off in Belfast, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, New Delhi, Beirut or wherever and the police start shooting ordinary citizens in order to preserve the peace, the television watcher develops a clear visual impression of what the word ‘violence’ signifies in contemporary English. To apply the same term to the ritual obscenities of bottle-throwing soccer fans somehow seems misplaced. David Riches is aware of this incongruity. His symposium contains 11 papers by 11 different authors drawn from the Proceedings of an ESRC-funded conference held at St Andrews University in January 1985. The violence under discussion is not a concept which readily translates from one cultural milieu to another. The English of the present day take it for granted that violence is a ‘bad thing’, a characteristic of law-breakers and terrorists: policemen and soldiers who may appear to be acting in much the same way are seldom described as violent. But at other times in our history and in other countries at the present day violent action has been differently assessed. Montaigne in his celebrated essay on cannibalism noted that the procedures for extracting confessions in 16th-century France seemed every bit as barbarous as those reported of the Tupi-speaking cannibals of coastal Brazil. Despite Riches’s valiant attempt to pull it all together, the range of themes covered in these essays, which include circumcision among the Gisu of Uganda, cannibalism by dead ancestors as a cause of death among the Piaroa of Venezuela, bull-fighting in contemporary Spain, shoot-ups in Northern Ireland, erotic films in Japan, and much else, is altogether too wide. A narrower view of what violence is about is to be preferred.

The Elias/Dunning and Hargreaves volumes go to the opposite extreme. Both are concerned almost exclusively with sport in Great Britain and a very large part of both texts is devoted to football violence, especially among spectators at soccer matches. Some of the generalisations which emerge (such as the emphasis on masculinity) seem quite plausible but would need to be modified if the half-time female ballet dancing of American College football were taken into account.

Mainly on the strength of a two-volume work published in 1938 (Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation), there is a cadre of Dutch and German academics who consider that Norbert Elias is the greatest living sociologist. In 1930 he was Karl Mannheim’s assistant at Frankfurt. He subsequently held posts in Paris, London, Leicester and Ghana and, most recently, at Bielefeld. His very Germanic, 19th-century ideas of long-term social progress have never caught on in Britain, however. An English version of Volume One of Prozess was published in 1978 under the title The Civilising Process: The History of Manners. Volume Two, with the title The Dynamics of the State, was promised for the autumn of 1979, but it finally appeared only in 1982, with the title State Formation and Civilisation. The book now under review is a collection of previously published essays, the English versions of which are mostly post-1966, though much of the argument seems to belong to a much earlier period. Three are by Elias alone; four claim a joint authorship, Elias/Dunning; five are by Dunning, though in one of these he had collaborators. The same team is responsible for an essay in the Riches volume which is almost identical in content, though the words are different and it carries a different title.

Dunning, who teaches sociology at the University of Leicester, was once a pupil of Elias; he remains a devotee, but the focus of his interests is rather different. Elias originally used the history of changing styles in what he calls ‘sport-games’ (defined in a footnote as ‘football, rugby, tennis, cricket, golf etc’) to illustrate his theories about the progress of civilisation. Dunning is interested in the sociology of sport as an end in itself. In the present text he returns repeatedly to the topic of football hooliganism. The Hargreaves book, though less obsessional, follows much the same line. Both books emphasise that there is nothing new about rowdy football, but with the media getting support from Mrs Thatcher on the need to preserve law and order, the publishers (Blackwell’s in both cases) must feel that they are onto a good thing.

The individual essays in the Elias/Dunning volume were designed for widely different audiences, but on their central theme of football violence they are very repetitive. Most other varieties of sport and leisure are almost completely ignored. Only British sports are considered. This leaves out some very striking cases of controlled sporting violence, such as bull-fighting, with its long history from Minos to modern Spain, American football, baseball, carnival. One very unimpressive essay by Elias is concerned with fox-hunting, but there is little or no reference to shooting (birds or mammals), fishing (large fish or small), stag-hunting, coursing after hares, horse-racing (the traditional ‘sport of kings’), boxing, rowing, sailing, athletics, swimming, car-racing (surely an exciting sport?), tennis, golf. There are three preposterous brief references to cricket. Leisure activities which are not contests between rival teams of players – attending a disco, for instance, or watching television or DIY house repairs or growing vegetables – are ignored. Thus the reference to ‘leisure’ in the subtitle is quite inappropriate.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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