Glossary Item

civilization

The word "civilization" refers to a condition of relative advancement in human society. While there is no essential threshold at which point a society becomes "civilized" (civilization is probably best thought of as a complex continuum rather than a binary of "haves" and "have nots"), a civilized society is usually "marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions" (American Heritage English Dictionary). Civilization and culture: Culture precedes civilization. A human society will have distinct meaning systems, including language and religious systems, before these systems become institutionalized politically and socially. However, the fact that a society becomes progressively more "civilized" does not diminish the role of culture; the institutions of civilization continue to play a major role in cultural meaning systems and in the process of cultural reproduction.

Civilization: The word's meaning as a site of cultural negotiation

When we choose to apply the word "civilization" to a human society of the past, we are often playing a role, wittingly or no, in a process of cultural negotiation. In other words, how we perceive cultures of the past can make a big difference in how we structure present-day cultural meaning systems. For example, historians typically refer to the human society of medieval England as a civilization because of its relative advancements in writing, smithing (working with metals), transportation, and agriculture. Native American societies of the same period are typically referred to as "primitive" cultures because they lacked a formal writing system and had not learned to work with metals. One can argue, however, as have some archaeologists, that the rank and file members of the Anasazi culture during the European medieval period lived as well or better than their counterparts in Europe; furthermore, there is ample evidence that the Anasazi enjoyed sophisticated systems of social, political, and religious organization. Clearly, the hierarchy implicit in the "primitive/civilized" terminology affects the modern cultural meanings associated with being of Native American or Euro-American descent. The same hierarchy also affects the value placed by U.S. culture as a whole on the Native American cultural tradition—which is, of course, a significant component of U.S. culture.

The point here isn't that the word "civilization" should be applied to many ancient cultures that are commonly described as "primitive." Some would argue strenuously that this is necessary; others would argue that the distinction between "primitive" and "civilized" is an important one to maintain. Rather, we mean to emphasize the modern cultural implications involved in using a word like "civilization" to refer to one ancient society and not to another. The meanings we choose to assign to such words—the role we choose for them to play in our cultural meaning systems—is contested everyday, and that contest is a fundamental part of modern U.S. culture.


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