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Civilizational analysis for beginners

Chris Hann

The concept of civilization has not prospered in socio-cultural anthropology. Its origins lie in Enlightenment France, where it was used in both singular and plural forms, the universalist singular eventually prevailing in the decades leading up to the Revolution. Our discipline came to prefer pluralizing counter-currents of this universalism such as that associated with Johann Gottfried Herder. The key term in German was Kultur, though it was not widely used in the plural until the twentieth century, while Zivilisation referred to technological progress. For Edward Burnett Tylor in England, culture and civilization were synonymous. But even before the demise of the European colonial empires, most socio-cultural anthropologists were uncomfortable with the normative connotations of the latter. They preferred to carry out ethnographic studies within paradigms that represented the world as composed of more or less bounded societies with their more or less incommensurable cultures. With the abandonment of evolutionist paradigms, analyses of the emergence of civilization from primitive cultures were rendered redundant and repugnant.

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