Elias was born on June 22, 1897 in Breslau in Silesia to Hermann and Sophie Elias. His father was a businessman in the textile industry and his mother, as usual at the time, a housewife. After passing the abitur in 1915 he volunteered for the German army in World War I and was employed as a telegrapher, first at the Eastern front, then at the Western front. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1917, he was declared unfit for service and was posted to Wroclaw as a medical orderly. The same year, Elias began studying philosophy, psychology and medicine at the University of Breslau, in addition spending a term each at the universities of Heidelberg (where he attended lectures by Karl Jaspers) and Freiburg in 1919 and 1920. He quit medicine in 1919 after passing the preliminary examination (Physikum). To finance his studies after his father's fortune had been reduced by hyperinflation, he took up a job as the head of the export department in a local hardware factory 1922. In 1924, he graduated with a doctoral dissertation in philosophy entitled Idee und Individuum ("Idea and Individual") supervised by Richard Hönigswald, a representative of Neo-Kantianism. Disappointed about the absence of the social aspect from Neo-Kantianism, which had led to a serious dispute with his supervisor about his dissertation, Elias decided to turn to sociology for his further studies.
During his Breslau years, until 1925, Elias was deeply involved in the German Zionist movement, and acted as one of the leading intellectuals within the German-Jewish youth movement "Blau-Weiss" (Blue-White). During these years he got acquainted with other young zionists like Erich Fromm, Leo Strauss, Leo Löwenthal and Gershom Scholem. In 1925, Elias moved to Heidelberg, where Alfred Weber accepted him as a candidate for a habilitation (second book project) on the development of modern science, entitled Die Bedeutung der Florentiner Gesellschaft und Kultur für die Entstehung der Wissenschaft (The Significance of Florentine Society and Culture for the Development of Science). In 1930 Elias chose to cancel this project and followed Karl Mannheim to become his assistant at the University of Frankfurt. However, after the Nazi take-over in early 1933, Mannheim's sociological institute was forced to close. The already submitted habilitation thesis entitled Der höfische Mensch ("The Man of the Court") was never formally accepted and not published until 1969. In 1933, Elias fled to Paris. His elderly parents remained in Breslau, where his father died in 1940; his mother was deported to Auschwitz, where she probably was killed in 1941.
During his two years in Paris, Elias worked as a private scholar supported by a scholarship from the Amsterdam Steunfonds Foundation. In 1935, he moved on to Great Britain, where he worked on his magnum opus, The Civilizing Process, until 1939, now supported by a scholarship from a relief organization for Jewish refugees. 1939, he met up with his former supervisor Mannheim at the London School of Economics, where he obtained a position as Senior Research Assistant. In 1940, when an invasion of Britain by German forces appeared imminent, Elias was detained at internment camps in Liverpool and on the Isle of Man for eight months, on account of his being German. During his internment he organized political lectures and staged a drama he had written himself, Die Ballade vom armen Jakob (The Ballad of Poor Jacob) (eventually published in 1987).
Upon his release in 1941, he moved to Cambridge. He taught evening classes for the Workers' Educational Association (the adult education organization), and later evening extension courses in sociology, psychology, economics and economic history at the University of Leicester. He also held occasional lectureships at other institutions of higher learning. While in Cambridge, he trained as a group therapist under the psychoanalyst S. H. Foulkes, another German emigrant, with whom he co-founded the Group Analytic Society in 1952 and worked as a group therapist.
In 1954, he moved to Leicester, where he became a lecturer at, and contributed to the development of, the University's Department of Sociology, until his retirement in 1962. At Leicester, his students included, among others, John Eldridge, Anthony Giddens, Godon Lawrence and Earl Hooper. From 1962 to 1964, Elias taught as professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Ghana in Legon near Accra. After his return to Europe in 1965, he based himself in Amsterdam but travelled much as a visiting professor, mainly at German universities. His reputation and popularity grew immensely after the republication of The Civilising Process in 1969. From 1978 to 1984 he worked at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld. Elias was the first ever laureate of both the Theodor W. Adorno Award (1977) and the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Sciences (1987). Outside his sociological work he sporadically also wrote poetry and essays.
Elias died at his home in Amsterdam on 1 August 1990.
Elias' theory focused on the relationship between power, behavior, emotion, and knowledge over time. He significantly shaped what is called process or figurational sociology. Due to historical circumstances, Elias had long remained a marginal author, until being rediscovered by a new generation of scholars in the 1970s, when he eventually became one of the most influential sociologists in the history of the field. Interest in his work can be partly attributed to the fact that his concept of large social figurations or networks explains the emergence and function of large societal structures without neglecting the aspect of individual agency. In the 1960s and 1970s, the overemphasis of structure over agency was heavily criticized about the then-dominant school of structural functionalism.
Elias' most important work is the two-volume The Civilizing Process (Über den Prozess der Zivilisation). Originally published in 1939, it was virtually ignored until its republication in 1969, when its first volume was also translated into English. The first volume traces the historical developments of the European habitus, or "second nature," the particular individual psychic structures molded by social attitudes. Elias traced how post-medieval European standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance, working outward from a nucleus in court etiquette. The internalized "self-restraint" imposed by increasingly complex networks of social connections developed the "psychological" self-perceptions that Freud recognized as the "super-ego." The second volume of The Civilizing Process looks into the causes of these processes and finds them in the increasingly centralized Early Modern state and the increasingly differentiated and interconnected web of society.
When Elias' work found a larger audience in the 1960s, at first his analysis of the process was misunderstood as an extension of discredited "social Darwinism," the idea of upward "progress" was dismissed by reading it as consecutive history rather than a metaphor for a social process.
The Quest for Excitement, written by Norbert Elias with Eric Dunning, and published in 1986 has proved a seminal work for the sociology of sport, and of football in particular. The Centre for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, England is host to a number of important sociologists who work on the Elias and Dunning tradition.
(In chronological order, by date of original publication)
1939: Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation. Soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen. Erster Band. Wandlungen des Verhaltens in den weltlichen Oberschichten des Abendlandes and Zweiter Band. Wandlungen der Gesellschaft. Entwurf einer Theorie der Zivilisation. Basel: Verlag Haus zum Falken. (Published in English as The Civilizing Process, Vol.I. The History of Manners, Oxford: Blackwell, 1969, and The Civilizing Process, Vol.II. State Formation and Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).
[2000, The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Revised edition of 1994. Oxford, Blackwell].
1965 (with John L. Scotson): The Established and the Outsiders. A Sociological Enquiry into Community Problems, London: Frank Cass & Co. (Originally published in English.)
1969: Die höfische Gesellschaft. Untersuchungen zur Soziologie des Königtums und der höfischen Aristokratie (based on the 1933 habilitation). Neuwied/Berlin: Luchterhand. (Published in English translation by Edmund Jephcott as The Court Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).
1970: Was ist Soziologie?. München: Juventa. (Published in English as What is Sociology?, London: Hutchinson, 1978).
1982: Über die Einsamkeit der Sterbenden in unseren Tagen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Published in English as The Loneliness of the Dying, Oxford: Blackwell, 1985).
1982 (edited with Herminio Martins and Richard Whitley): Scientific Establishments and Hierarchies. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook 1982, Dordrecht: Reidel.
1983: Engagement und Distanzierung. Arbeiten zur Wissenssoziologie I, edited by Michael Schröter, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Published in English as Involvement and Detachment. Contributions to the Sociology of Knowledge, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.)
1984: Über die Zeit. Arbeiten zur Wissenssoziologie II, edited by Michael Schröter, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Published in English as Time. An Essay, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
1985: Humana conditio. Betrachtungen zur Entwicklung der Menschheit am 40. Jahrestag eines Kriegsendes (8. Mai 1985), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Not available in English).
1986 (with Eric Dunning): Quest for Excitement. Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process. Oxford: Blackwell.
1987: Die Gesellschaft der Individuen, edited by Michael Schröter, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Original 1939, published in English as The Society of Individuals, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
1987: Los der Menschen. Gedichte, Nachdichtungen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Poetry, not available in English).
1989: Studien über die Deutschen. Machtkämpfe und Habitusentwicklung im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, edited by Michael Schröter, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Published in English as The Germans. Power struggles and the development of habitus in the 19th and 20th centuries, Cambridge: Polity Press 1996.)
1990: Über sich selbst, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Published in English as Reflections on a life, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994).
1991: Mozart. Zur Soziologie eines Genies, edited by Michael Schröter, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Published in English as Mozart. Portrait of a Genius, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993).
1991: The Symbol Theory. London: Sage. (Originally published in English.)
1996: Die Ballade vom armen Jakob, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag (Drama, not available in English).
1998: Watteaus Pilgerfahrt zur Insel der Liebe, Weitra (Austria): Bibliothek der Provinz (Not available in English).
1998: The Norbert Elias Reader: A Biographical Selection, edited by Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Mennell, Oxford: Blackwell.
1999: Zeugen des Jahrhunderts. Norbert Elias im Gespräch mit Hans-Christian Huf, edited by Wolfgang Homering, Berlin: Ullstein. (Interview, not available in English).
2002: Frühschriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Early writings, not available in English.)
2004: Gedichte und Sprüche. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. (Translations of poems in English and French).
Norbert Elias, by Robert van Krieken, London: Routledge, 1998;La sociologie de Norbert Elias, by Nathalie Heinich, Paris: La Découverte, 2002 (in French).
"Civilization and Violence". TELOS 54 (Winter 1982-83). New York: Telos Press