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Posted: 25 October 2007

How America got to where it is today

By drawing comparisons between the USA and other countries throughout the world, in his latest book: “The American Civilizing Process,” Professor Stephen Mennell, UCD School of Sociology, discusses American manners and lifestyles, violence in American society, the impact of markets on American social character, American global expansion, the ‘curse of the American Dream’ and increasing inequality, and the religiosity of American life.

Viewed from Europe, Professor Mennell shows America as a land of familiar paradoxes. “An agreeable civility habitually prevails in most everyday relations among people in America – yet the US is almost the last bastion among advanced democratic nations of capital punishment,” he says.

“In most parts of America, the laws and social customs strongly restrain people from doing harm to themselves and others by smoking – yet the laws and social customs only weakly restrain people from doing harm to themselves and others by the use of guns, and the murder rate is about four times as high per capita as in Western Europe,” he explains.

In “The American Civilizing Process,” Professor Mennell asks can history and social science help to explain these seeming paradoxes and to show how they relate to each other. He also examines how Americans see themselves, how they view the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world sees them – in the light of America as an ever-expanding global power.

Those concerned about America’s role in the world today would be well served by reading this compelling and provocative work, which uses Norbert Alias’s theory of civilizing processes to trace how America reached its present position in the world.


Professor Stephen Mennell has been Professor of Sociology at University College Dublin since 1993. He read economics at Cambridge (BA 1966, MA 1970). He was a Frank Knox Memorial Fellow at Harvard University from 1966 to 1967, where he gained grounding in sociology, social psychology and anthropology. In 1985, he received the degree of Doctor in de Sociale Wetenschappen (Doctor of Social Sciences) from the University of Amsterdam. From 1987 to 1988 he was a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), Wassenaar. In 2004 he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, KNAW). The same year, he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters (LittD) by the University of Cambridge for his published work over three decades.

Professor Mennell is one of the three trustees of the Norbert Elias Foundation, Amsterdam. He edits its international research newsletter: Figurations.

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How America got to where it is today