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Understand The Two Concepts Culture And Civilization Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5555 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay will attempt a brief review of the history of the concept ‘culture’ and its relationship with the concept ‘civilization’, in order to understand the two concepts, without making any claims towards offering anything new in the analysis of the chronological account of how the definition of culture changed over time. [1] Instead, the essay will attempt to explore the harmonies and dis-harmonies in the utilization of the two concepts, as a way of coming to terms with immanent ruptures and continuities which were explicated in various ways in which the logic and lexicon of these concepts were deployed in the different anthropological traditions over the years.

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From the outset, I would like to mention that I almost abandoned this particular topic because of the difficulties I encountered in finding a concise definition of, mainly the concept of ‘culture’. When, after several weeks of reading, it finally dawned on me that actually there was none, it all started to make sense – that the subject of defining the concept of ‘culture’ has never been closed and was never intended for foreclosure. This meant that understanding how the concept was variously deployed was as important as appreciating the manner of its deployment, especially in ways in which this was always associated with the concept of civilization, whose definition was more straightforward.

The notion of Culture:

Following a very unsuccessful search for a concise definition of the concept ‘culture’, it dawned on me that Terry Eagleton and several others was after all correct when he said that ‘culture’ was one of the few very complicated concepts to have ever graced the English language (Armstrong, 2010: 1; Eagleton, 2006: 1; Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). Culture was a very difficult concept to define because the evolution of its etymology and its deployment varied in different contexts and anthropological traditions, both contemporary and classical. Its meaning in one setting was often contested in another.

The word ‘culture’ was first used in America [2] , and in etymological terms, its contemporary usage has its origin in attempts to describe man’s relationship with nature, through which resources were extracted. It depicted the outcomes of extraction of resources from nature through a process of labor, for example, through crop farming and livestock production (Eagleton, 2006: 1). It was in this sense that the concept was first formally deployed in the 19th century in Germany, where the word used was ‘Kultur’, which in German referred to cultivation. [3] The early German usage of the word culture was heavily influenced by Kant, who, like his followers, spelled the word as culture, and used it repeatedly to mean ‘cultivation’ or ‘becoming cultured’, which subsequently became the initial meaning of civilization (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 10). The way the concept was first used in modern English borrowed from the usage first made of the word by Walter Taylor, which dates back to 1871, although according to Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952: 9), Taylor’s use of the word culture, which was borrowed from German, was similar to the way the word civilization was used in Germany.

The above sense in which the concept culture was for long deployed depicted it as an activity or occupation that entailed a materialist dimension related to the extraction of resources from nature. Coming from Walter Taylor, the modern scientific sense of the word culture no longer refers primarily to the process of cultivation, but more generally as a manifestation of customs, beliefs and forms of government (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 10). The latter sense signifies some abstraction to the transcendent and divine realm of spiritualism. Over time, the concept was also deployed in other ways that depicted it as an entity (Eagleton, 2006: 1). There was also a sense in which the concept of culture also depicted the transformation that took place in society’s experiences with changing technologies of production as capitalism developed, although this understanding was quite often deployed in racist terms to differentiate between less industrialized nations of the non-west from the more industrialized European societies.

It is true, as observed by Eagleton that the relationship between nature and culture was such that ‘nature produces culture which changes nature’ (Eagleton, 2006: 3). In this sense, there is a part of nature that is cultural, and another that is not. The part of nature which is cultural is that part which labor transforms, for example, into works of art, monuments, skyscrapers (or building structures) or cities. Such products of culture are as ‘natural as rural idylls are cultural’ (Eagleton, 2006: 4). Because culture originally meant ‘cultivation’, or managing the growth of crops, which means ‘husbandry’, the cultural therefore would imply that which was within ones means to change. As pointed out by Eagleton (2006: 4), ‘the stuff to be altered has its own autonomous existence, which then lends it something of the recalcitrance of nature’ in much the same way as the extent to which culture transforms nature and also influences the rigorous limits nature imposes on the cultural project.

To this extent, I am in agreement with Eagleton (2006: 4-5) that the idea of culture signified a double rejection, of, on the one hand, the representation of culture as an organic (biological) determinism; and, on the other, as an interpretation of culture as an embodiment of autonomous spiritualism. To this extent therefore, culture rebuffs naturalism and idealism founded in biological determinism by insisting that from the point of view of culture, there was also a representation within nature which exceeded and dismantled nature. It also represented a refusal of idealism because even the highest-minded human agency had its humble roots in our biology and natural environment.

The resulting contradiction from this rejection of naturalism (emanating from organic determinism) and idealism (as a result of autonomy of spirit) led to a contest between what had actually evolved and what ought to, which transfigured into what Eagleton described as ‘a tension between making and being made, between rationality and spontaneity’ (Eagleton, 2006: 5).

Consequently, although the relation between humans and nature was important to an understanding culture, in this paper, I consider the social relations between humans and nature in the course of extracting from nature, through which humans change nature to be the most important. This is what is central to understanding the concept of culture, which makes it possible to view it as a systematic way of life and living, that humans consciously develop that is transferred from the past to the present and into the future. It depicts some semblance of historically assembled normative values and principles internal to social organizations through which a diversity of relationships are ordered. In this way, it is possible to see how culture becomes an abstraction of itself, in its own right, which does not reify culture as a thing as this essentializes culture. I am inclined to agree with Armstrong (2010: 2) in her definition, which presents culture more as a process of meaning making which informs our sense of who we are, how we want to be perceived and how others perceive us.

The above said, we also need to recognize that while culture is important, it is also not the only factor that shapes social relations between humans in the course of impacting on nature in ways that change it. Several other social, economic, political, geographical, historical and physical factors come into play. It is necessary to recognize that culture, which embodies as much as it conceals its specific history, politics and economics; is, as also pointed out by Franz Boaz [4] , not inert. It is an inherently Boasian conception to view culture as extremely dynamic; as having life, and existing in a continuous state of flux, as new notions of and about culture continues to emerge. This means that cultures cannot be expected to be static and homogenous. As new cultures emerge, tensions are usually generated. The totality of any culture and its individual trait cannot be understood if taken out of its general setting. Likewise, culture cannot also be conceived as controlled by a single set of conditions (Benedict, 1934: xv).

It is also Franz Boaz [5] who noted that culture is some form of standardized or normative behavior. An individual lives in his/her specific culture, in as much the same way as culture is lived by an individual. Culture has a materiality that makes it manifest in diverse patterns implying that it meaningless to try and generalize or homogenize about cultural patterns (Benedict, 1934: xvi). Thinking of culture as socially constructed networks of meaning that distinguish one group from another implies not only a rejection of social evolution but also an endorsement of ‘cultural relativism’, which is also a Boasian tradition. [6] Boaz [7] rightly argued that perspectives that view culture in evolutionary terms tend to end with the construction of a unified picture of the history of culture and civilization, which is misleading. Tendencies which view culture as a single and homogenous unit, and as an individual historical problem is extremely problematic (Benedict, 1934: xv). I consider the distinctive life-ways of different people as the most basic understanding of the notion of culture. ‘Cultural relativity’ is a recognition that different people have cultures and life-ways that are distinct from those of others.

The notion of civilization:

The concept of civilization, like culture, also has a complex etymology. By 1694, the French were already using the verb civiliser, and referred to the polishing of manners, rendering sociable, or becoming urbane as a result of city life (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 11). The French notion of civilization referred to the achievement of human advancement manifest in certain customs and standards of living. The French considered civilization as the end point of a process of cultivation that took place over centuries (Elliot, 2002). The English lagged behind the French. [8] In 1773, Samuel Johnson still excluded civilization from his dictionary, preferring civility, and yet civilization (from the word civilize) captured better the opposite of ‘barbarity’ than civility. The English subsequently adopted the concept of civilization deriving it from the verb to civilize and associated it with the notion of civilizing others. The 1933 Oxford Dictionary defined civilization as: “A developed or advanced state of human society; a particular stage or type of this” (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 12). By the 18th century, the word civilization in German was associated with the spread by the state of political developments akin to the German state to peoples of other nations. It was somewhat similar to the English verb to civilize (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 11). For the Germans and English, the concept of civilization invoked an imperial political agenda that was apparent in the way they deployed the concept.

The harmony and dis-harmonies in deployment of concepts of culture and civilization:

The evolutionary thinking about culture and civilization in the philosophy of Durkheim:

Among the scholars who attempted a very rigorous narrative intended to distinguish between culture and civilization was Émile Durkheim, whose writings were first published in 1893. In trying to come to terms with the complex division of labor and associated behavioral changes that occurred with the industrial revolution in England, Durkheim, argued that inside modern industry, jobs were demarcated and extremely specialized, and while each product was a specialty, it entailed the existence of others in form of the labor they input into its production. As society evolved from agriculture to industry, so did culture of the pre-industrial era give way to civilization associated with the conditions of progress in human societies. Durkheim extended the concept of division of labor from Economics to organisms and society, from which its association with culture was derived, arguing that the more specialized an organism’s functions were, the more exalted a place it occupied in the animal hierarchy. For Durkheim, the extent of division of labor in society influenced the direction of the development of the evolution of mankind from culture to civilization (Durkheim, 1984: 3).

Durkheim used division of labor to make the distinction between culture as a preserve of the pre-modern mediaeval society and civilization as belonging to the modern industrial society. Durkheim argued that all societies are usually held together by social solidarity. In the pre-industrial societies, where social bonds were based on customs and norms, this solidarity was mechanical while in the industrial societies, which were highly individualistic, the solidarity was organic, and social bonds were maintained by contracts which regulated relations between highly individualistic beings. To Durkheim, societies transition from relatively simple pre-modern societies to relatively more complex industrial societies (Durkheim, 1984: 3).

Durkheim argued that division of labor influenced the moral constitution of societies by creating moral rules for human conduct that influenced social order in ways that made industrial societies distinct from the pre-industrial ones. It created a civilized, individual man, capable of being interested in everything but attaching himself exclusively to nothing, able to savor everything and understand everything, found the means to combine and epitomize within himself the finest aspects of civilization. For Durkheim, tradition and custom, collectively defined as culture were the basis of distinction of the simpler societies which defined their mechanical form of solidarity that they exhibit. The modern societies, according to Durkheim, were characterized civilization (Durkheim, 1984: 3-4).

Durkheim advanced an essentially Darwinian argument. In the biological determinism of Durkheim, it is argued that the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity was comparable to the changes that appeared on the evolutionary scale. Relatively simple organisms showing only minimal degrees of internal differentiation ceded place to more highly differentiated organisms whose functional specialization allowed them to exploit more efficiently the resources of the ecological niche in which they happened to be placed. The more specialized the functions of an organism, the higher its level on the evolutionary scale, and the higher its survival value. In similar ways, the more differentiated a society, the higher its chances to exploit the maximum of available resources, and hence the higher its efficiency in procuring indispensable means of subsistence in a given territory (Durkheim, 1984: xvi).

There were fundamental contradictions in the perspectives of Durkheim. If Durkheim denigrated culture to the pre-modern, and viewed society as developing in evolutionary terms to the industrial, it could be assumed that he also believed that the solidarity which was associated with the industrial society was better. What then explains the fact that Durkheim was deeply convinced of and concerned about the pathology of acquisitiveness in modern capitalist society? Durkheim did not believe that the pathological features of the industrial society were caused by an inherent flaw in systems built on organic solidarity. Rather, he thought that the malaise and anomie were caused by transitional difficulties that could be overcome through the emergence of new norms and values in the institutional setting of a new corporate organization of industrial affairs (Durkheim, 1984: xxi).

For Durkheim, the flaws in industrial and class relations did not mean that the pre-modern characterized by culture was better. That the class conflicts which were inherent in the industrial society and were associated with the structure of capitalist society would be overcome by the emergence of a new corporate society in which relations between employers and employees were harmonized. Beholden to none of the political and social orientations of his day, Durkheim always attempted to look for a balanced middle way (Durkheim, 1984: xxii).

The contemporary play of relationships between culture and civilization has, to say the least, rendered wanting, the ideas which were advanced by Durkheim. For example, if culture is a preserve of the pre-modern, what explains the pervasiveness of barbarism within civilized formations of the industrialized world? Can we have culture in societies that are characterized as civilized or with civilization? Or are societies that are said to possess culture devoid of civilization?

The contradictions in the etymology and deployment of concepts of culture and civilization:

The usage of ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ in various languages has been confusing. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for English defined both ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ in terms of the other. ‘Culture’ was a particular state or stage of advancement in civilization. ‘Civilization’ was called advancement or a state of social culture. In both popular and literary English, they were often treated as near synonyms, though ‘civilization’ was sometimes restricted to ‘advanced’ or ‘high’ cultures (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 13). As early as the 1950’s, there were some writers who were inclined to regard civilization as the culture of urbanized societies characterized by cities. Often, civilization was considered a preserve for literate cultures, for instance, while the Chinese had civilization, the Eskimo were seen as in possession of culture (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 13).

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The English language distinction between civilization and culture made in the past was different from that made in the German language. In German, civilization was confined to the material conditions, while the English expression sometimes included psychic, moral, and spiritual phenomena (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 13). The German Kultur also referred to material civilization, while culture in English over time came to mean something entirely different, which corresponded to the humanities. The German Kultur also related to the arts of savages and barbaric peoples, which were not included in any use of civilization since the term civilization denoted a stage of advancement higher than savagery or barbarism. These stages in advancement in civilization were even popularly known as stages of culture; implying that the word culture was used synonymous with the German Kultur (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 13). In English, ‘culture’ was a condition or achievement possessed by society. It was not individual. The English phrase ‘a cultured person’ did not employ the term in the German sense. There was a sense of non-specificity in the way in which the concept ‘culture’ (‘Kultur’) was deployed in the German sense (Krober & Kluckhorn, 1952: 13).

From its etymological roots in rural labor, the word culture was first deployed in reference to ‘civility’; then in the 18th century, it became more or less synonymous with ‘civilization’, in the sense of a general process of intellectual, spiritual and material progress. In Europe, civilization as an idea was equated to manners and morals. To be civilized included not spitting on the carpet as well as not decapitating one’s prisoners of war. The very word implied a dubious correlation between mannerly conduct and ethical behavior, which in England was equated to the word ‘gentleman’. As a synonym of ‘civilization’, ‘culture’ belonged to the general spirit of Enlightenment, with its cult of secular, progressive self-development (Eagleton, 2006: 9).

Form my reading of the literature on this subject, it was not clear at what point culture and civilization begun to be deployed interchangeably. Suffice to mention, however, that in English, as in French, the word culture was not unconditionally interchangeable with civilization. While it was not entirely clear, between the two concepts of culture and civilization, which predated the other, they both shared a transcendental association with the notion of cultivation, as something which is done to (or changes in) humans in the course of exacting labor upon nature to change it, that leads to the development of human qualities to suit the needs of collective humanity. Culture, which emerged in German from the notion of Kultur, which meant cultivation, appeared as a form of universal subjectivity at work within the particularistic realm of our separate individualities. For Eagleton (2006: 8), it was a view of culture as a component of civilization which was neither dissociated from society nor wholly at one with it.

This kind of focus also portrayed an essentially Kantian notion of man as becoming cultivated through art and science, and becoming civilized by attaining a variety of social graces and refinements (or decencies), in which the state had a role to play. This Kantian conception therefore distinguished between being cultivated and being civilized. Being cultivated referred to intrinsic improvement of the person, while being civilized referred to improvements of social interrelations (interpersonal relations), some kind of ethical pedagogy which served to liberate the collective self buried in every individual into a political citizen (Eagleton, 2006: 7; Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952: 11).

There was a sense in which the concept of civilization had an overwhelming French connection (coming from the concept civilizer), in the same way culture was associated with the Germans (from the concept Kultur). To be described as civilized was associated by the French with finesse with regards to social, political, economic and technical aspects life. For the Germans, ‘culture’ had a more narrowly religious, artistic and intellectual reference. From this point of view, Eagleton (2006: 9) was right when he observed that: (i) ‘civilization’ was deployed in a manner that played down national differences, while ‘culture’ highlighted them; and, (ii) the tension between ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ had much to do with the rivalry between Germany and France. I am reminded here of Eagleton’s famous phrase that: ‘civilization was formulaically French, while culture was stereotypically German’ (Eagleton, 2006: 10-11).

Towards the end of the 19th century civilization and culture were invariably viewed as antonyms. If, however, the description by Eagleton (2006: 9) of French notion of civilization as a form of social refinement is acceptable, then one can also accept Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952: 14) description of civilization as a process of ennobling (or ‘creating nobility’) of humanity through the exercise by society of increased control of the elementary human impulses. This makes civilization a form of politics. In the same light, I also agree with Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952: 14) that culture’s German connections link it with the control of nature through science and art, which means culture embodies technology (including equipment) as well as knowledge systems (including skills) relevant for subduing and employing nature.

The implications of the above are two-fold: (a) culture and civilization, can not be looked at as antonyms or binary opposites, in the sense in which evolution theorists would want us to view the relationship between these two concepts – with culture as being akin to an inferior status while civilization is ascribed to the superior; (b) both tend to depict not only elements of normativity in advance in life-forms, but also constantly improving internal conditions of the internal elements of these concepts that define humanity which they embody. There is a way in which the elements embodied by these concepts depict superiority in their respective life-forms. Even when there are tendencies for overlaps in the elements depicted by these two concepts, for example, their association with politics, art, technology and urban living, there is a sense in which both concepts cannot be viewed as stages of development one from the other.

It appears to me that Eagleton viewed civilization as a value-judgmental concept that pre-supposed an improvement on what went before, to whatever was not only right, but a great deal better than what was (Eagleton, 2006: 10). Eagleton was also non-presumptive when he pointed out that historically, the deployment of the term put it within the lexicon of a pre-industrial European middle class, which used the concept to justify imperial ambitions of mercantile and early industrial European capitalism towards those they categorized as of inferior civilization (Eagleton, 2006: 10). This fact has to be borne in mind if the concept when the concept is deployed today.

Culture on the other hand, required certain social conditions that bring men into complex relationships with natural resources. The state becomes a necessity. Cultivation was a matter of the harmonious, all-round development of the personality. Because there was overwhelming recognition that nobody could do this in isolation, this helped to shift culture from its individual to its social meaning. Culture had a social dimension (Eagleton, 2006: 10).

Whichever was, between culture and civilization, the progenitor of the other, there is a dual sense in which these concepts appear linked by their enlightenment era roots; and also not linked at the same time. I agree with Eagleton that “civilization sounds abstract, alienated, fragmented, mechanistic, utilitarian, in thrall to a crass faith in material progress; while culture seems holistic, organic, sensuous, autotelic and recollective”. However, I have reservations with Eagleton’s postulation of, first, a conflict between culture and civilization, and secondly, presentation of this conflict as a manifestation of a quarrel between tradition and modernity (Eagleton, 2006: 11).

One of the greatest exports from the Enlightenment era was its universalism. Post-enlightenment political philosophy contributed significantly to critiques of enlightenment’s grand unilineal narratives regarding the evolution of universal humanity. We can look at the discourse of culture as a contribution to understanding the diversity inherent in different life-forms with their specific drivers of growth. Increasingly, it had become extremely perilous to relativize non-European cultures, which some thinkers of the time idealized as ‘primitive’ (Eagleton, 2006: 12).

In the 20th century in the primitivist features of modernism, a primitivism which goes hand-in-hand with the growth of modern cultural anthropology emerged, this time in postmodern guise, in form of a romanticizing of popular culture, which now plays the expressive, spontaneous, quasi-utopian role which ‘primitive’ cultures had played previously (Eagleton, 2006: 12).

While todate the concepts ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ continue to be used interchangeably, there is also still a sense in which culture is still deployed almost as the opposite of civility (Eagleton, 2006: 13). It is not uncommon to encounter culture being used in reference to that which is tribal as opposed to the cosmopolitan. Culture continues to be closed to rational criticism; and a way of describing the life-forms of ‘savages’ rather than a term for the civilized. If we accept the fact that ‘the savages’ have culture, then the primitives can be depicted as cultured and the civilized as uncultured. In this sense, a reversal means that civilization can also be idealized (Eagleton, 2006: 13). If the imperial Modern states plundered the pre­-modern ones, for whatever reasons, is it not a statement of both being uncultured and lack of civility, quite antithetical to what one could consider as civilization of the west. What sense doe it therefore make to posture as civilized and yet act in an uncultured manner?

Can viewing culture as civilization, on one hand, and civilization as culture, on the other hand, help to resolve the impasse in the contemporary deployment of these concepts? One fact is clear, either way; it has potential to breed ‘postmodern’ ambiguities of cultural relativism (Eagleton, 2006: 14). Alternatively, if culture is viewed, not as civilization, but as a way of life, it simply becomes an affirmation of sheer existence of life-forms in their pluralities (Eagleton, 2006: 13).

Pluralizing the concept of culture comes at a price – the idea of culture begins to entertain cultural non-normativities or ‘queer’ cultures, in the name of diversity of cultural forms. Rather than dissolving discrete identities, it multiplies them rather than hybridization, which as we know, and as Edward Said observed, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and non-monolithic (Eagleton, 2006: 15).

Attempts to valorize culture as a representation of particular life-forms associated with civility can also be perilous. There is a post-modern sense in which culture can be considered as an intellectual activity (science, philosophy and scholarship), as well as an ‘imaginative’ pursuit of such exploits as music, painting and literature. This is the sense in which ‘cultured’ people are considered to have culture. This sense suggests that science, philosophy, politics and economics can no longer be regarded as creative or imaginative. This also suggests that ‘civilized’ values are to be found only in fantasy. And this is clearly a caustic comment on social reality. Culture comes to mean learning and the arts, activities confined to a tiny proportion of humanity, and it at once becomes impoverished as a concept (Eagleton, 2006: 16).

Concluding Remarks:

From the foregoing analyses, it is clear that understanding the relationship between culture and civilization is impossible until we cease to view the world in binaries in which the West (Europe) was constructed as advanced and developed with the non-West perceived as primitive, barbarous and pagan. Historically, the West’s claim of supremacy was always predicated on their provincialization of the non-west, whose behavioral patterns were judged from the experience of the West, and characterized in generalized terms as traditional customs and therefore culture. I agree with Benedict, that the West did all it could to universalize its experience to the rest of the world, even when this experience was different from that of those from the non-west (Benedict, 1934: 5).

Assumptions of the mutual exclusivity of culture and civilization in society are premised on perceived irreconcilability of values and beliefs. Religion was always used in the West to posit a generalized provincialism of the non-west. It was the basis of prejudices around which superiority was justified. No ideas or institutions that held in the one were valid in the other. Rather all institutions were seen in opposing terms according as they belonged to one or the other of the very often slightly differentiated religions.

In this con


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