Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning
(Blackwell: Oxford UK & Cambridge USA)
Excerpts from Norbert Elias: Introduction
Dynamics of Sport Groups with Special reference to football (p.6)
It happens quite often in the development of a science, or of one of its branches, that a type of theory which has dominated the direction of research for some time reaches a point where its limitations become apparent.1 One begins to see that a number of significant problems cannot be clearly formulated and cannot be solved with its help. The scientists who work in this field then begin to look round for a wide theoretical framework, or perhaps for another type of theory altogether, which will allow them to come to grips with problems beyond the reach of the fashionable type of theory.
What is called ‘small group theory’ in contemporary sociology appears to be in that stage. It is fairly evident that a good many problems of small groups are beyond the reach of small group theory in its present form, to say nothing of its limitations as a model-setting theory for the exploration of larger social units. It did not, at any rate, prove of great help to us when we tried to investigate problems of small groups engaged in sport-games such as football. Confronted with the study of sport groups in vivo, small group theory failed us.2
We therefore set out – in connection with a wider investigation of the long-term development of football – to explore some of the theoretical aspects of the dynamics of groups engaged in games of this type. It appeared to us that sport-games in general, and football in particular, could serve as a useful point of departure for the construction of models of small group dynamics which are somewhat different from those offered within the framework of present-day small group theories.
Some aspects of such a model are presented in this paper. ..
[p.51] Much has been written about individual origin of what is called ‘ideas’. Who uttered an idea first is highly regarded as a topic of research. A favourite competitive pastime of learned men and women is the discovery that a certain ‘idea’ saw the light of the day earlier than had previously been believed according to the consensus of the specialists. However, many aspects of human societies cannot be explained in [p.52] terms of the history-of-ideas model of explanation. Who first spoke the English language is not a meaningful question. Nor is it meaningful to ask: which Englishman was the first to conceive of the idea of parliamentary government or, for that matter, of cricket or soccer? These and numerous other aspects of human society cannot be explained in terms of the ideas of individual people, not even in terms of an accumulation of such ideas. They require explanation in terms of a social development.
Elsewhere I have used a simple example in order to indicate one of the crucial aspects of the difference between the two types of explanation. I have used a special type of game model in order to indicate that a move in the middle of the game — let us say the twentieth move in a game of chess — can no longer be explained only in terms of the plans and intentions of one or another of the two players. The interlocking of their plans and actions results in a pattern not intended and perhaps not foreseen by either of them. Yet, although not intended, this pattern and the game-process of which it forms part can, in retrospect, be clearly recognized as structured. That is the reason why, if one does not go further, the simple statement that intended actions can have unintended consequences is little more than a palliative of one’s ignorance. Imagine the interlocking of the plans and actions, not of two, but of two thousand or two million interdependent players. The ongoing process which one encounters in this case does not take place independently of individual people whose plans and actions keep it going. Yet it has a structure and demands an explanation sui generis. It cannot be explained in terms of the ‘ideas’ or the ‘actions’ of individual people.
Terms such as ‘social process’ or ‘social development’ are simply conceptual symbols which reflect the singular mode of existence of this continuous interweaving of the plans and actions of human beings in groups. These concepts are designed to help in the exploration of the unique type of structure which results from this interlocking of individual actions and experiences, from the functional interdependence of individual actors in their various groupings. The popular term, ‘interaction’, does not do justice to the intertwining of the experiences as well as the actions of people. It is too closely associated with the traditional model of a society as a pure cumulative unit of a number of initially isolated human individuals.
The observation of an ongoing game of football can be of considerable help as an introduction to the understanding of such terms as interlocking plans and actions. Each team may have planned its strategy in accordance with the knowledge of their own and their opponents’ skills and foibles. However, as the game proceeds, it often produces constellations which were not intended or foreseen by either [p.52] side. In fact, the flowing pattern formed by players and ball in a football game can serve as a graphic illustration not only of the concept of ‘figurations’ but also of that of ‘social process’. The game-process is precisely that, a flowing figuration of human beings whose actions and experiences continuously interlock, a social process in miniature. One of the most instructive aspects of the fast-changing pattern of a football game is the fact that this pattern is formed by the moving players of both sides. If one concentrated one’s attention only on the activities of the players of one team and turned a blind eye to the activities of the other, one could not follow the game. The actions and experiences of the members of the team which one tried to observe in isolation and independently of the actions and perceptions of the other would remain incomprehensible. In an ongoing game, the two teams form with each other a single figuration. It requires a capacity for distancing oneself from the game to recognize that the actions of each side constantly interlock with those of their opponents and thus that the two opposing sides form a single figuration. So do antagonistic states. Social processes are often uncontrollable because they are fuelled by enmity. Partisanship for one side or another can easily blur that fact.
In the case of a game of football, the interdependence of the opponents, the interlocking of their activities and thus the fact that the rival groups in action form a single figuration, is perhaps not too difficult to recognize. It is, at present, probably much more difficult to recognize that in society at large, too, many groups of opponents are wholly interdependent and that, there, too, their actions and feelings in relation to each other cannot be understood if one does not perceive the opponents as a single figuration. Perhaps the most telling example in that respect is the arms race between two superpowers. It is an example of a self-perpetuating process which cannot be understood if one tries to perceive each side in isolation, that is, independently of the other. In this case, the equivalent of the game-process, the self-escalating armaments race, also has a relative autonomy in relation to the aims and intentions of the leading groups on either side. Each side may believe itself to be a free agent but both are, in fact, captives of the ‘game’s’ process which, in that case, too, is likely to take a course not intended by either side.
The difficulty is that the depth and strength of one’s personal involvement in favour of one side or another block the perception both of the changing figuration formed by the two sides and of its relatively autonomous dynamics which drive the interdependent enemies, locked in their clinch, towards conditions which neither of them intended. To perceive the changing figuration of interlocking opponents as a unitary process requires detachment at a fairly high level. [...]
[p.192] In studying football and other sport-games, one encounters from the start certain semantic difficulties. People often speak of a game of football as if it were something outside of, and apart from, the group of players. It is not entirely incorrect to say that a game such as football can be played by many different groups. As such, it is partly independent of any one of them. At the same time, the pattern of each individual game is itself a group pattern. In order to play a game, people group themselves in specific ways. As the game runs its course, they continually regroup themselves in a manner similar to the ways in which groups of dancers regroup themselves in the course of a dance.
The initial figuration from which the players start changes into other figurations of players in a continuous movement. It is to this continuous movement of the figuration of players to which we refer when we use the term ‘game-pattern’. The term can be misleading if it makes one forget what one actually observes when watching a game: one observes small groups of living human beings changing their relations in constant interdependence with each other.
The dynamics of this grouping and regrouping of players in the course of a game are fixed in certain respects and elastic and variable in others. They are fixed, because without agreement among the players on their adherence to a unified set of rules, the game would not be a game but a ‘free-for-all’. They are elastic and variable, otherwise one game would be exactly like another. In that case, too, its specific character as a game would be lost. Thus, in order that group relations can have the character of a game, a very specific balance must be established between fixity and elasticity of rules. On this balance depend the dynamics of the game. If the relations between those who play the game are too rigidly or too loosely bound by rules, the game will suffer.
Take the initial figuration of players in Association Football. It is regulated by certain rules. Thus, the wording of one of the 1897 rules about the ‘kick-off’ figuration, which with some qualifications is still valid, is this:
The game shall be commenced by a place-kick from the centre of the field of play in the direction of the opponents’ goal-line; the opponents shall not approach within ten yards of the ball until it is kicked off, nor shall any player on either side pass the centre of the ground in the direction of his opponents’ goal until the ball is kicked off. 
It is easy to see how much room for manoeuvring this kind of rule leaves to the two sides — how elastic it is. Within the framework of the [p.193] kick-off rules, players can group themselves in a ‘W-formation’ (2-3-5) or in the form of a ‘horizontal H’ (4-2-4). If they want to, the defending side may even mass themselves solidly in front of their own goal, although in practice this is rarely done. How the players actually position themselves at the kick-off is determined by formal rules as well as by convention, by their experience of previous games, and often by their own strategic plans coupled with their expectations of the intended strategy of their opponents. How far this peculiar characteristic, this blend of firmness and elasticity applies to the regulation of human relations in other spheres is a question which may deserve more attention than it has received so far.
From the starting position evolves a fluid figuration formed by both teams. Within it, all individuals are, and remain throughout, more or less interdependent; they move and regroup themselves in response to each other. This may help to explain why we refer to this type of game as a specific form of group dynamics. For this moving and regrouping of interdependent players in response to each other is the game.
It may not be immediately clear that by using the term ‘group dynamics’ in this context we do not refer to the changing figurations of each of the two groups of players as if they could be considered in separation, as if each had dynamics of its own. That is not the case. In a game of football, the figuration of players on the one side and that of players on the other side, are interdependent and inseparable. They form in fact one single figuration. If one speaks of a sport-game as a specific form of group dynamics, one refers to the overall change in the figuration of the players of both sides together. Few aspects of the group dynamics of football show as clearly as this the relevance of sport-games as models for the dynamics of groups in many other fields.
A fundamental characteristic, not only of football, but of practically all sport-games, is that they constitute a type of group dynamics which is produced by controlled tensions between at least two sub-groups. For this reason alone, traditional sociological small group theory is not of very great help in the exploration of the sort of problems which confronted us here. These require specific concepts different from those used so far in the sociological study of small groups, and perhaps a little more complex than those commonly used in discussions about sport-games. According to present conceptual usage, one might be content with saying that a game of football is played by two different groups. This is one of those linguistic conventions which induce people to think and to speak as if the game were something apart from the human beings concerned. By stressing that the game is nothing but the changing figuration around a moving ball of the players themselves, one brings into focus at the same time that it is not the changing [p.194] figuration of each of the two teams seen separately, but of the players of both teams together in their struggle with one another. Many people who watch a game of football may know that this is what they try to follow — not merely one team or the other, but the fluid pattern formed by both. This is the pattern of the game — the dynamics of a group in tension.
As such, this model of group dynamics has theoretical implications beyond the study of small groups. It may be of help for the study of such varied problems as, for example, that of marital tensions, or of union-management tensions. There, as in the case of sport groups, tensions are not extraneous, but intrinsic to the figuration itself; there too, they are to some extent controlled. How and to what degree they are, and how they came to be controlled, is a problem to be studied. Inter-state relations are another example of a figuration with built-in tensions. But in that case effective and permanent tension control has not yet been achieved and, at the present level of social development and of sociological understanding of groups-in-tension, perhaps cannot be achieved. Among the factors which prevent the achievement of better control is certainly the widespread inability to perceive and to investigate two states in tension or a multi-polar state system as a single figuration. One usually approaches such a system as the involved participant of one side and is therefore not quite able to visualize and to determine the paramount dynamics of the figuration which different sides form with each other and which determines the moves of each side. The study of sport-games like football can thus serve as a relatively simple introduction to a figurational approach to the study of tensions and conflicts — to an approach in which attention is focused, not on the dynamics of one side or the other, but of both together as a single figuration in tension.
Today, sociological thinking with regard to problems of this kind often seems to revolve around two alternatives: problems of group tension stand on one side, problems of group co-operation and harmony on the other. Group tensions appear to be one phenomenon; group co-operation and harmony another. Because one has different words, it appears almost as if the phenomena themselves were different and independent of each other. An analysis of sport-games illuminates the inadequacy of this approach. The group dynamics of a game presuppose tension and co-operation on a variety of levels at the same time. Neither would be what it is without the other.
Traditional small group theory is apt to lead attention away from problems of this type. Its representatives often select for study small group problems in which tensions play no part at all, or if they select for study problems of tension, they confine themselves to specific types of [p.195] individual tension such as individual competition. In reading their arguments, one often has the feeling that their discussions on the subject of group tensions and conflicts are discussions about questions of political philosophy and political ideals rather than about conclusions derived from strictly scientific enquiries. In this case as in others, contemporary sociology appears at times to be threatened by a polarization between those who are blind to the role of tensions in social groups — or at least who greatly underplay this role — and those who overplay the role of tensions and conflicts to the neglect of other, equally relevant aspects of group dynamics. Homans, for example, has developed a small group theory in which conflict and tension play at most a marginal part. It is probably not unfair to suggest that this harmonistic tendency is connected with a pre-established scheme of values, a kind of sociopolitical Weltanschauung which sets the course for theoretical arguments and empirical observations alike. It almost appears as if Homans has developed an emotional allergy to the discussion of tensions and conflicts. Thus, he wrote:
if we confine ourselves to behaviour ... (concerned with the exchange of rewarding activities), we are sure to call down upon our heads the wrath of the social scientists who make a profession of being tough-minded. ‘Never play down conflict,’ they would say. ‘Not only is conflict a fact of social life, but conflict has positive virtues and brings out some of the best in men.’ It turns out that these very scientists are no more willing than is the rest of mankind to encourage conflict within any body of men they themselves are responsible for. Conflict is good for other people’s subordinates, not their own. But we must refrain. It is all too easy to ask men to practise what they preach. A trap that none can escape is no fun setting. 
This, as one can see, is an emotionally charged argument. It shows how greatly Homans himself misunderstands the character of sociological analysis. Without doubt, some writers who focus attention on problems of conflict, do so because they wish to encourage conflict that is, for reasons extraneous to the sociological study of such problems. But to suggest, as Homans seems to do, that the encouragement of conflict is the only reason why sociologists try to determine the nature of tensions and conflicts in the social life of people implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the task of sociological analysis. Although Homans writes, ‘no one can deny ... that conflict is a fact of social life’, he obviously finds it difficult to deal with this fact simply as such, as one fact of life among others.
In this respect, the study of sport-games can be of considerable help. A specific type of tension plays a significant part in such games. In [p.196] studying them, one cannot overlook tensions whether one likes them or not. It seemed useful to determine the character of sport-games like football as figurations with tensions of a specific type and we thought that ‘groups-in-controlled-tension’ would be an appropriate term to express it.
At the present stage of theoretical development one is confronted by a dilemma in these matters which, in a somewhat different context, has been most clearly formulated by Dahrendorf. We have already referred to the tendency to treat conflict and co-operation as independent phenomena and to form different and separate theories, one for each of them. Dahrendorf encountered a similar problem with regard to integration and coercion, and posed in this connection a significant question:
Is there, or can there be, a general point of view that synthesises the unsolved dialectics of integration and coercion? So far as I can see there is no such general model; as to its possibility, I have to reserve judgement. It seems at least conceivable that unification of theory is not feasible at a point which has puzzled thinkers ever since the beginning of Western philosophy.
The same might be said with regard to tensions and co-operation. Some sociological theories are woven around problems of conflict and tension without much regard for those of co-operation and integration; others pay regard above all to problems of co-operation and integration, treating conflict and tension more or less as marginal phenomean. From closer range, it is easy to see the reason. Both procedures are based on a reification of values: because one attaches different values to conflict and co-operation, one is apt to treat these phenomena as if they had a separate and independent existence.
A study of sport-games is thus a useful point of departure for an approach to these problems which may allow the passions to calm down. It is easier in this field to move outside the battle of extraneous evaluations and to keep in close touch with testable, factual evidence in framing theoretical propositions. It is less difficult, therefore, to move towards a unified theoretical framework within which both tension and co-operation can find their place as interdependent phenomena. In football, co-operation presupposes tension, and tension co-operation. However, one can clearly perceive their complementary character only if one studies how the game has developed to its present form where tensions and co-operation are related to each other through firm types of control. The study of the long-term development of football enabled us, in fact, to see in a limited field one aspect of the interplay [p.197] between tension and tension-control without which the relevance of sport-games as a theoretical model cannot be fully understood. It showed how tensions which were at one time uncontrolled and probably uncontrollable were gradually brought under control. [...]
[p.199] Let us start with the concept of ‘figuration’. It has already been said that a game is the changing figuration of the players on the field. This means that the figuration is not only an aspect of the players. It is not as one sometimes seems to believe if one uses related expressions such as ‘social pattern’, ‘social group’, or ‘society’, something abstracted from individual people. Figurations are formed by individuals, as it were ‘body and soul’. If one watches the players standing and moving on the field in constant interdependence, one can actually see them forcing a continuously changing figuration. If groups or societies are large, one usually cannot see the figurations their individual members form with one another. Nevertheless, in these cases too people form figurations with each other — a city, a church, a political party, a state — which are no less real than the one formed by players on a football field, even though one cannot take them in at a glance.
To envisage groupings of people as figurations in this sense, with their dynamics, their problems of tension and of tension control and many others, even though one cannot see them here and now, requires a specific training. This is one of the tasks of figurational sociology, of which the present essay is an example. At present, a good deal of uncertainty still exists with regard to the nature of that phenomenon to which one refers as ‘society’. Sociological theories often appear to start from the assumption that ‘groups’ or ‘societies’, and ‘social phenomean’ in general, are something abstracted from individual people, or at least that they arc not quite as ‘real’ as individuals, whatever that may mean. The game of football — as a small-scale model — can help to correct this view. It shows that figurations of individuals are neither more nor less real than the individuals who form them. Figurational sociology is based on observations such as this. In contrast to sociological theories which treat societies as if they were mere names, a flatum vocis, an ‘ideal type’, a sociologist’s construction, and which are in that sense representative of sociological nominalism, it represents a sociological realism. Individuals always come in figurations and figurations are always formed by individuals.
[p.200] If one watches a game of football one can understand that it is the fluctuating figuration of the players itself on which, at a given moment, the decisions and moves of individual players depend. In that respect concepts such as ‘interaction’ and its relatives are apt to mislead. They appear to suggest that individuals without figurations form figurations with each other a posteriori. They make it difficult to come to grips with the type of tensions one encounters in the study of football. These tensions are different in character from those which may arise when two formerly independent individuals, ‘ego’ and ‘alter’, begin to interact. As has already been said, it is the figuration of players itself which embodies a tension of a specific type — a controlled tension. One can neither understand nor explain its character from the ‘interaction’ of individual players.
In societies such as ours, it is one of the characteristics of a game that the tension inherent in the figuration of players is neither too high nor too low: the game must last for a while, but must finally be resolved in the victory of one side or the other. There can be ‘drawn’ games, but if they occur too often, one would suspect that something in the construction of the game was faulty.
Thus, in present-day industrial societies, a game is a group figuration of a very specific type. At its heart is the controlled tension between two sub-groups holding each other in balance. This is a phenomenon one can observe in many other fields. It appears to deserve a special name. We have called it a ‘tension-balance’. Just as the mobility of a human limb is dependent on the contained tension between two antagonistic muscle groups in balance, so the game process depends on a tension between two at the same time antagonistic and interdependent sets of players keeping each other in a fluctuating equilibrium.
The mechanics of figurations with a tension-balance at their centre are far from simple. Two examples may be enough to illustrate them: the flexible tension-balance in a game process cannot be produced and maintained at just the right level if one side is very much stronger than the other. If that is the case, the stronger side will probably score more frequently, the game tension — the ‘tone’ of the game — will be relatively low, and the game itself will be slow and lifeless. But it would be a mistake to think that in studying the group dynamics of a game one is mainly concerned with questions arising from the qualities of individual teams or of individual players. What we have primarily studied are the development and the structure of the game-pattern as such. This pattern has, at a given time, a specific form maintained by controls at various levels. It is controlled by football organizations, by state and local authorities, by the spectators, by the teams mutually, by the players individually. One need not enumerate them all or analyse their [p.201] interplay in this context. In theoretical discourse, one is apt to consider the controls preserving a particular figuration, and above all the tension-balance of a figuration, in terms of rules or norms only. But, as in other cases, rules and especially formal rules are only one of the ‘instruments’ of control responsible for the relative stability of groupsin-controlled-tension. And, whatever they are, group rules or group norms, here as elsewhere, are no absolutes.
Rules or norms as devices for the control of tensions do not float outside and above social processes as is sometimes suggested in present discussions. The group dynamics which rules help to maintain may, on their part, determine whether rules persist or change. The development of football regulations shows very strikingly how changes of rules can depend on the overall development of that which they rule. The dynamics of such figurations have what one might call a ‘logic’ of their own. Thus, in football the tension level may flag, not simply because of the distinguishing characteristics of individual playing groups or of their individual members, but because of set characteristics of the figuration which they form with one another. This is a phenomenon which one encounters again and again if one surveys the development of a game. In 1925, for example, the offside rule in soccer was changed. Until then, the rule was this: a player could only legitimately receive a ball passed forward to him by another member of his side if at least three members of the opposing team stood between him and their goal. If less than three were so positioned, he was ruled offside and a free kick was awarded to the opponents. In 1925, the number was reduced to two. The elasticity of the older rule, skilfully exploited, had led to a stage where stalemates had become increasingly frequent. What had happened was that the balance had moved too far in favour of the defence. Games tended to drag on without decision, or scores were low. The reason was not any particular quality of individual players: the figuration of players as stabilized by a variety of controls, among which the formal rules held a key position, had itself proved deficient. Hence, the attempt was made, by means of a change of rules, to establish a more fluid figuration of the players which could restore the balance between attack and defence.
This is one example of a number of polarities which in football, and probably also in all other sport-games, are built into the established figuration of the game process. Such polarities operate in close connection with each other. In fact, a complex of interdependent polarities built into the game pattern provides the main motive force for the group dynamics of a football game. In one way or another they all contribute towards maintaining the ‘tone’, the tension-balance of the game. [...]
[p.203] These are some aspects of the theoretical model, and some examples of the type of concepts which emerge from the study of game figurations. They may help to bring into focus a few of the distinguishing characteristics of this type of group. Such groups differ from the types of groups usually employed as empirical evidence for small group studies not only because they are groups-in-controlled-tensions, but also because they are more highly structured and organized. Theories derived from studies of relatively loosely structured, ad hoc groups specially formed for the purpose of studying groups are frequently marred by a confusion between properties of groups which are mainly due to those of their individual members and properties inherent in the figuration of people itself. In the case of more highly structured and organized groups, it is easier to determine the dynamics inherent in the figuration as such — and to distinguish it from variations due to differences on the individual level. It is easier, for instance, in the case of football to distinguish the dynamics inherent in the game figuration as such from variations due to the characteristics of different nations, of different teams, or of different players.
Ad hoc groups have little autonomy in relation to the society where they are formed and this lack of autonomy can impair the validity of the results derived from studies of such groups. Thus, small groups formed in the United States with the aim of studying problems of leadership, generally, may in fact provide information only about aspects of leadership in the United States. It is an open question how far similar experiments undertaken, say in Russia or in Ghana, would produce similar results.
Games such as football are played everywhere in the same manner and the basic figurational dynamics are everywhere the same. One can study them as such and one can study at the same time the variations which arise from the playing of different nationalities, of different teams, of different individuals.
Like ad hoc groups, sport groups have definite limitations as evidence for the study of small group problems or of problems of group dynamics in general. Among them are the limitations due to the fact [p.204] that games are largely ends in themselves. Their purpose, if they have a purpose, is to give people pleasure. In that respect, they differ greatly from those groupings of people which are usually regarded as the centrepieces of social life and which hold a correspondingly central position in sociology, from groupings such as factories with the purpose of producing goods, bureaucracies with that of administering states or other enterprises, and from other, equally useful figurations of people which are not normally regarded as ends in themselves or supposed to give people pleasure. It agrees with this scheme of values that sociologists often try to define organizations and social units in general, in the first place by means of their goals.
But if it is a limitation of the study of sport-games — compared with that of social units concerned with the serious business of life — that they have no purpose except perhaps that of providing enjoyment, and are often pursued as ends in themselves, it is also an advantage. It may serve as a corrective to the teleological fallacy still fairly widespread in sociological thinking. In a simplified manner, this can be described as a confusion between the individual level and the group level. With regard to games of football this distinction is fairly clear. Individual players and teams have aims, scoring goals is one of them. The enjoyment of playing, the excitement of spectators, the hope of rewards may be others. But the concatenation of purposeful actions results in a figurational dynamics — in a game — which is purposeless. One can determine it as such and to some extent that has been done here. But this could not have been done if one had attributed the aims of individual players to the changing figuration which the players form with each other.
How far this is true of other figurations of people need not be discussed here. But one can say that even state organizations, churches, factories, and other figurations of the more serious kind, whatever the aims of the people who form them, are at the same time ends in themselves with dynamics of their own. What, after all, are the purposes of nations? It is not entirely frivolous to say that even they resemble a game played by people with one another for its own sake. To neglect this aspect by focusing attention in the first place on their purposes, means overlooking the fact that, as in football, it is the changing figuration of people itself on which at any given time the decisions, the purposes, and the moves of individuals depend. This is particularly so in the case of tensions and conflicts. They are often explained only in terms of the intentions and aims of one side or the other. Sociologists would perhaps be better able to contribute to an understanding of those tensions and conflicts which have so far proved uncontrollable if they would investigate them as aspects of the purposeless dynamics of groups.