Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Civilization
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Civilization

For alternative meanings see: Civilization (disambiguation).

The term civilization (or civilisation) comes from the Latin civis, meaning "citizen" or "townsman." The term has been used to mean many things in different contexts. Most people agree, however, that a civilization is a complex society that involves living in cities. Civilizations are distinguished from tribal societies such as hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads. Historically, people who lived in civilizations have often distdainfully looked down on these other groups.

Table of contents
1 Civilization as a type of social organization
2 Civilization as a cultural identity
3 Civilizations as networks
4 Negative views of Civilization
5 The danger of the term Civilization
6 Some civilizations in human history
7 Wiktionary
8 External links

Civilization as a type of social organization

In general, civilizations share the following traits:

By this definition, some societies, like China, are clearly civilizations, whereas others like the Bushmen clearly are not. However, not every society can be so easily classified. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, there was such an abundant supply of fish that nature itself gave the people a food surplus, leading to permanent settlements, social hierarchy, material wealth, and advanced artwork (most famously totem poles), all without the development of intensive agriculture. Meanwhile, the Pueblo culture of southwestern North America developed advanced agriculture, irrigation, and permanent, communal settlements such as Taos. However, the Pueblo never developed any of the complex institutions associated with civilizations.

Civilization as a cultural identity

Civilization can also be seen as a cultural identity which represents the broadest level of identification in which an individual intensely identifies, broader than family, tribe, hometown, nation, or region. Civilizations are usually tied to religion or some other belief system. Thinking this way, a female of African descent living in Florida in the United States has many roles that she identifies with. However, she is above all a member of Western civilization. In the same way, a male of Kurdish ancestry living in Syria is above all a member of Islamic civilization.

The thesis that civilizations represent relatively homogeneous cultural spheres was central to the thinking of Oswald Spengler, who defined the coherence of a civilization as its organization around a single primary cultural symbol. Civilizations experienced cycles of birth, life, decline and death, often supplanted by a new civilization with a potent new culture, formed around a compelling new symbol.

This cultural concept of civilization also influenced the historical theories of Arnold J. Toynbee. Toynbee explored civilizational processes in his multi-volume A Study of History, which traced the rise and, in most cases, the decline of 21 civilizations and five "arrested civilizations". Civilizations generally declined and fell, according to Toynbee, because of moral or religious decline, rather than economic or environmental causes.

Samuel P. Huntington similarly defines a civilization as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." He argues that the defining characteristic of the 21st century will be the interaction and conflict between civilizations, supplanting the conflicts between nation states and ideologies that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other historians who have analyzed civilizations as cultural groups include Noam Chomsky who described the Western Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who have looked at civilization more theoretically.

Civilizations as networks

Another group of theorists, inspired by systems theory, look at civilizations as systems or networks of cities that emerge from pre-urban cultures, and are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and cultural interactions between them. An influential thinker in this school is urbanist Jane Jacobs, who, in her books The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, defined cities as the economic engines of human economies, and identified the process of "import replacement" as central to the development of city networks. Import replacement involves peripheral cities developing the capability to replace goods and services that were formerly imported from more advanced cities. Successful import replacement creates economic growth in these peripheral cities, and allows these cities to then export their goods to less developed cities in their own hinterlands, starting the process anew. Jacobs' work explores economic and technological exchanges across networks of cities rather than the development of distinct cultural spheres.

Systems theorists look at various spheres of relations between cities, including economic relations, cultural exchanges, and political/diplomatic/military relations; these spheres often occur of different scales. The total sphere of trade relations are called an oikumene; city and economic historians have observed that trade spheres were, until the nineteenth century, much larger than either cultural spheres or political/diplomatic/military spheres. For example, extensive trade routes, including the silk road through Central Asia and Indian Ocean sea routes linking the Roman Empire India, and China, were well established 2000 years ago, when these civilizations did not have political, diplomatic, or military, or cultural ties. "World systems" theorists argue that economic and political/diplomatic/military integration of the world's civilizations has already happened, and Huntington's 21st-century "clash of civilizations" is actually the clash of cultural spheres within a single, integrated economic-political-military civilization. Some theorists argue that this integration has happened over the last few hundred years, as Western Civilization expanded through the processes of colonialism and imperialism to dominate the globe; others argue that this process of civilizational integration started much earlier.

David Wilkinson's theory of a Central civilization posits that multiple civilizations, defined primarily as political-diplomatic-military networks of cities, emerged in different places around the world at different times, and formed autonomous civilizations; some of these historical civilizations include the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indic, Aegean, Chinese, Japanese, Mesoamerican, and Andean civilizations. Some historic civilizations, like Japan, are culturally homogeneous, while others were culturally heterogeneous but integrated in the economic-political-military sphere. By 1500 BCE, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations merged into a "Central civilization", which expanded to include Europe, northern and eastern Africa, and Central Asia by about 1500 CE. Central civilization is culturally heterogeneous, but integrated politically, militarily, and economically; thus, according to Wilkinson, many civilizations identified by historians, including Byzantine, Western, Islamic, Hellenic-Roman, etc. were not separate civilizations, but were coherent cultural spheres within Central civilization. European expansion after 1500 brought the Americas, subsaharan Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and Oceania into Central civilization, with China and Japan integrated in the 19th century.

Negative views of Civilization

Over the years many members of civilizations have shunned them, believing them to be restrictive of people's "natural" state. Many Chinese Taoists have often felt confined by the hectic pace of urban life and have retreated into nature. Christian and Buddhist monks have attempted to form societies apart from civilization. In the 19th century, Transcendentalists believed civilization was shallow and materialistic, so they wanted to build a completely agrarian society, free from the oppression of the city.

Karl Marx believed that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression. As more food was produced and the society's material possessions increased, wealth became concentrated in the hands of the powerful. The communal way of life among tribal people gave way to aristocracy and hierarchy, which in turn gave way to the inequalities of industrial society. In addition, many feminists believe that civilization is the source of men's domination over women. Together, these ideas make up modern conflict theory in the social sciences.

Some postmodernists argue that the division of societies into 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' is arbitrary and meaningless. On a fundamental level, they say there is no difference between civilizations and tribal societies; each simply does what it can with the resources it has. The concept of "civilization" has merely been the justification for colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and coercive acculturation.

Many ecologists criticize civilizations for their exploitation of the environment. Through intensive agriculture and urban growth, civilizations tend to destroy natural settings and habitats. This is sometimes referred to as "dominator culture." Proponents of this view believe that traditional societies live in greater harmony with nature than civilizations; people work with nature rather than try to subdue it. The sustainable living movement is a push from some members of civilization to regain that harmony with nature.

The danger of the term Civilization

"Civilization" is a highly connotative word, and its use can lead to misunderstanding. It brings to mind qualities such as superiority, humaneness, and refinement. Indeed, many members of civilized societies have seen themselves as superior to the "barbarians" outside their civilization.

Many 19th-century anthropologists backed a theory called cultural evolution. They believed that people naturally "progress" from a simple state to a civilized state. John Wesley Powell, for example, classified all societies as Savage, Barbarian, and Civilized; the first two of his terms would shock most anthropologists today. Now most social scientists realize that complex societies are not by nature superior, more humane, or more sophisticated than less complex groups.

Therefore, many scholars today avoid the term "civilization" because it implies superiority; they preferto use "urban society" or "intensive agricultural society." But "civilization" remains in use. However, its connotative meaning can lead to misunderstanding. Hence, Mahatma Gandhi's famous response to the question "What do you think of Western civilization?" – his reply: "I think it would be a good idea." THe reporter meant "civilization" in a neutral sense, meaning in this case "cultural group." Gandhi interpreted it to mean "refinement" or "humaneness."

Some civilizations in human history

Civilizations can be defined in several ways, and the number of distinct civilizations, their duration and extent, are the subject of some debate. Historians may emphasize cultural distinctiveness, or may distinguish civilizations by degree of economic, political, and diplomatic integration.The list below includes a number of civilizations commonly identified by historians. Many cultures evolve through the fusion of elements from other cultures, so discerning sharp divisions between civilizations on the basis of culture is difficult indeed, and subject to varying interpretations. Civilizations may be lumped or split.

Most of the civilizations identified below meet the criteria of posessing cities, specialized occupations, political entities larger than a single settlement, extensive trade networks, and writing, but not all of the civilizations listed below include all of these criteria. A number of cultures that possess certain of these characteristics are not included here.

Most of these civilizations are now gone; some disappeared, their people returning to a pre-urban way of life; others were conquered by or merged into other civilizations. How many distinct civilizations exist at present is a subject of some debate.

Wiktionary

External links