Culture of Civilizations

Political anthropology. Society. Cultural objective elements. Self-identification of people

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The Culture of Civilizations:

The Interaction of Culture within Civilizations

Political Anthropology

11/26/2002

Political Anthropology

11/26/2002

The Culture of Civilizations:

The Interaction of Culture within Civilizations

In 1993, when Samuel L. Huntington wrote his world-renown article concerning the new shift away from the classical nation-states toward a new world of civilizations, he kept in mind a very broad and general sense of the term culture. In his thesis, Huntington states that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic, conflict will be cultural.” (Huntington, p.22) While trying to define what culture is, Huntington gives an example of how culture works in order to define a situation:

The culture of a village in southern Italy may be different from that of a village in northern Italy, but both will share in common Italian culture that distinguishes them from German villages. European communities, in turn, will share cultural features that distinguish them form Arab or Chinese communities. Arabs, Chinese and Westerners, however, are not part of any broader cultural entity. They constitute civilizations. A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species. (p. 24)

With the use of very eloquent language and a very reasonable example, Samuel Huntington takes the term culture, something very personal within each society, and stretches it out in order to have it represent an entire society. Culture is not a term that can be generalized nor equally shared amongst many countries; “villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious groups,” (p. 23-24) are all different cultural groups. Culture is of the utmost importance to individuals, it reflects who they are, where they are from and what they believe in. It is not something that should be imposed on arbitrarily, but something that various communities work on to ameliorate themselves. Small towns have culture, regions within a country have culture, even large countries have culture, but to say that it is possible to have Britain, France, and the USA all constitute a general western culture is too broad.

Huntington tells us that there are seven or eight different civilizations in the world Western (USA, Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe), Confucian (Northern and Eastern Asia), Japanese (which constitutes the only single-country civilization), Islamic (Arab, Turk, Malaysian), Hindu (the Sub-continent), Slavic-Orthodox (Eastern Europe, ex-USSR), Latin American (Central and South America), and maybe African. (p. 25) He then precedes to tell us that there are two factors in defining a civilization, one by common cultural objective elements, which are language, history, religion, customs, and institutions. The second factor in defining a civilization is by the “subjective self-identification of people.”(p. 24) However, this concept of self-identification, without any current evidence, is arbitrary. For the purpose of this argumentation, the concept of self-identification contradicts this concept of culture. If a group of people can capriciously choose what civilization they want to belong to with out having similar cultural elements, then the boundaries of civilizations will soon fade away. Turkey, for example, self-identifies with the Western Civilization but their culture, language, history and religion clearly places them in the Islamic Civilization. Thus, self-identification cannot be used as a clear definer of culture.

Huntington states that in a very compelling manner, that the differences between these elements are what separate one civilization from another. However, if these same five elements are studied and applied within the individual civilizations, one will find compelling reasons why either this list of cultural elements is limiting or the list of civilizations needs growing. In the chart below one can see how only a few civilizations have similar cultural elements within their own “villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious groups,” (p. 23-24) and especially within the separate countries that encompass each civilization. When trying to categorize these civilizations, it is very important to avoid making general comments and concentrate on the particularities of each one.

Cultural Elements

History

Language

Customs

Institutions

Religion

Civilizations

Western

Very different history among each Western state, inclusive colony/mother country relationship

Huge spectrum of very different languages. Anglo-Saxon and Romance seem to be the dominant root.

Even though it has been argued that the differences are minimum, each culture group is very different from the other.

Similar

The only true religion practiced by Westerners would be that of a non-secular state, but religions are varied through out the west.

Confucian

Similar

Very different languages

Many different customs and traditions throughout all these countries

Similar

Similar

Japanese

Similar

Similar

Similar

Similar

Similar

Islamic

Very different nations, very different history.

Arab, Turkish, Malaysian. Very Different just among those.

Though similar religions produce similar customs, in this case, the great variety of nations offer a great variety of customs.

Similar

Similar

Hindu

Similar

Similar

Similar

Similar

Similar

Slavic-Orthodox

Similar

Very different.

Many different nations with different customs.

With 7 recent entries into NATO, Slavic-Orthodox has lost 7 nations to the West

Similar

Similar

Latin American

Similar

Similar

Similar

Similar

Similar

Africa

All suffered through imperialism, but all countries have very different history

The most varied languages in the world

Very different customs.

Similar

Many different religions.

From what is seen in this chart, the biggest differences lie within what Huntington considers to be the more important civilizations, the Western and the Islamic civilization. The problem here is that Huntington groups too many nations and people into each civilization, especially in these two. This is where the arguments of Eric Wolf come into play.

Eric Wolf, the author of Envisioning Power, explores the concepts of power and culture within three cases studies of three very different groups, the Kwakiutl of the northwestern coast of the North American Pacific Ocean, the Aztecs from Mesoamerica, and the National Socialist Germany of WWII. Throughout the study, Wolf tries to answer the question of how culture and ideology ties in with the use, and in many times, abuse of power. Huntington would likely agree with Wolf's findings since the former believes that Western civilization has come to power through the use of culture and self-identification, as defined by him. However, it is difficult to assess whether Huntington's theory is truly correct since “Western Civilization” encompasses too many different cultures.

With another look at the chart on the previous page, one can observe the great differences among Western civilization. If Western civilization encompasses North America and Western Europe, then they do not share many cultural factors in common. History: Their history is very different, Europe is a much older region than North America, even though they share some history because of colonialism, they are both separated by a diverse history and evolution.

Language: Their languages are very diverse, from Romance to Anglo-Saxon roots.

Customs: Their customs would probably be the most different factor not only among European nations, but also among Europe vs. North America.

Religion: The majority of the West is considered to be Christian, nonetheless the West is not know as being a secular civilization like Islam is considered to be Muslim. Christianity is the major religion, with many different sub-religions associated to it. Even though these religions originate from the same foundation, they are all different and with distinct customs. Along with all the different Christian religions, the West has also become a safe haven for other religions. So therefore, religion is not a cultural factor that the entire Western civilization has in common.

Institutions: The institution that the West shares in common is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). So the only solid factor holding these two regions together is not cultural, but instead is political and military. However, within the second page of Huntington's analysis, he very clearly states that “it is far more meaningful now to group countries not in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development but rather in terms of their culture and civilization.” (p. 23)

If NATO and the arbitrary form of self-identification of people is basically the only two factors that classifies a country within Western civilization, then the seven newly appointed members to NATO from the Slavic-Orthodox civilization now become Western. According to Huntington “civilizations are dynamic; they rise and fall; they divide and merge.” So therefore, as long as these seven countries fit the same profile as the rest of the Western civilization, being members of NATO and self-identification of the people, then yes they now do belong to the Western civilization. According to Wolf, however, this just broadens the definition of culture. If a civilization is to grow to the size that Huntington proposes with his civilizations, it is important to have a central control of power, economic, political, military, and have a common culture. If this is not established, then a civilization is too large and it needs to be divided. In the case of the Western civilization, it is clear that the difference is between North America and Europe. By dividing Western Civilization into these two separate civilizations, the cultural elements would become much more similar.

By trying to use a loose definition of culture and concentrating on the generalizations instead of the particularities, Eric Wolf clearly responds to Samuel Huntington's theory by trying to remove these generalizations that were made when arbitrarily choosing these civilizations:

I have characterized the beginnings of anthropology as part of a wider orchestration of claims against the Enlightenment vision of the rule of universal reason. These diverse counterclaims were incorporated into a concept of culture that emphasized the particularities of different peoples, each with its separate history and language and with distinctive qualities of mind that shaped its authentic being. (Wolf, p. 286)

It is clear to Wolf that when speaking of culture and of power, one cannot be so general, as culture is particular to a certain people. If culture is Huntington's main focus to categorize civilizations, then Wolf would tend to believe that Huntington is being too universal.

In modern times, our world is becoming a much smaller place to live in. As our economic barriers fall, giving way to a new system of globalization, culture becomes increasingly more important. If we begin to undermine the importance of each nation or group of nations' culture, we begin to undermine who we are. What makes this world so impressive is the diversity in which we live in. To say that our cultural barriers will soon fade away, is to remove the importance that culture has on our everyday lives. Huntington is very accurate in saying that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” (Huntington, p. 22) However, it would not be wise to over generalize the boundaries between these cultures and civilizations. Differences among nations and groups of people do exist, and they will continuously be a part of our everyday lives. This is why it is important to carefully classify a civilization by the particularities of its culture, and not by a broad sense of who belongs together, or by the arbitrary conclusions of one person.

Work Cited

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs. Summer 1993.

Wolf, Eric R, “Envisioning Power” University of California Press. Los Angeles, 1999.