Civilizations are similar to world-systems in that they are long-term, large-scale social organizations. The term civilization is older than world-system and generally less precise. Different authors use the word civilization to mean different things. As a rough generalization, historians of civilizations are more interested in high culture than in political or economic systems. Or in so far as civilizational history does encompass politics and economics, it tends to view ideas, cultures, beliefs, and attitudes as having significant influence over material life. Civilizations are seen as creating a distinctive way of life or view of the world, which in turn influences the full range of human behavior. In this sense, the roughly 20 to 40 historically known world civilizations (the specific list varies from author to author), define alternative ways of being in the world.
Civilizations: One or Many?
A useful question to ask in the early 21st century is, does the current world continue to feature multiple different civilizations, or is there in effect just one civilization that includes the entire world? Samuel Huntington is an example of an author who supports the persistence of multiple civilizations. In his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Huntington detailed nine currently active civilizations: Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese (Huntington, 1996). By contrast, writing in 1995, David Wilkinson argues there is just one civilization left – Central Civilization (Wilkinson, 1995). Beginning with the merger of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations around 1500 BCE, Central Civilization expanded through various conquests (Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Islamic, European) to eventually encompass the entire globe. As a symbolic ending to the era of plural human civilizations, the forced opening of Japan to the West in 1853 will serve as a milestone. (In point of fact, Japan had been interacting with the West for a few centuries before that, but after 1853 Japan unambiguously began in earnest to play on the stage of world affairs.) India, China, Africa, the Americas, Australia, and various island territories had all mostly been colonized or forced into trade relations by Western powers (representing Wilkerson’s Central Civilization) before 1853. In any case, if scattered remote territories remained (or still remain) unclaimed by global powers after 1853, none of the uncolonized places really could serve as examples of separate civilizations. Cultures, perhaps, but the world civilization implies a type of large-scale, long-term urban development that world travelers take notice of. That being said, though, if civilizations are so vast and so persistent, how can authors like Huntington and Wilkinson disagree about whether our world currently features nine of them or just one? It really comes down to a question of definition. Huntington reflects the idea that different cultural systems distinguish different civilizations. Because nations like China and the United States feature clear cultural differences, Huntington regards them as distinct civilizations. Wilkinson, by contrast, defines civilization as something approaching a world-system. Once the political actors in particular geography are locked into competition with one another (hot wars, cold wars, treaty relations, or the wary build-up of forces), or once economic relations between peoples become significant beyond the occasional exchange of curiosities, in effect what used to be separate social systems now becomes one conjoined system. For Wilkerson, civilizations are forged in trade or battle. Culture can catch up later. From that point of view, China and the United States, joined at the hip economically and locked in a system of military and diplomatic alliances against one another, are leading players in what is on the way to becoming effectively a single world civilization.