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The theory of “civilizing processes” was developed by Norbert Elias in the 1930s to describe and explain the generation of higher standards of various forms of conduct in the context of unplanned but structured changes in state formation and lengthening chains of social interdependencies (Elias 2000). The idea of civilized conduct may seem a strange companion to popular understandings of consumer culture, when the latter phrase is often associated with hedonism, individualism and excess. But consumer cultures do refer to the meanings, values, emotions and practices surrounding the use of goods and services, including how people use their bodies through acts of consumption. Elias’s book The Civilizing Process, originally published in 1939, examines changing expectations regarding eating especially, but also other bodily practices such as deportment and dressing. Through broader social processes such as urbanization, industrialization and commercialization within the context of the state increasingly pacifying people within the territory (i.e., state agencies such as the police force become solely responsible for keeping the peace), each person comes to depend on more and more interlinked people for the fulfilment of needs and wants on a more consistent basis. For example, in very agrarian societies people tend to rely on themselves or small local groups for the provision of food, but within industrial societies the various processes involved in the production, distribution and consumption of food can involve many individuals connected through specializing in the various parts of these processes (the division of labour). This is an example of lengthening chains of social interdependencies, and as this occurs cultures of consumption also change.
Dolan, P. (2011) Civilizing processes, in D. Southerton (ed.) Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture. London: Sage.