What is a Civilization? - Definition & Common Elements

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  • 0:01 What Is a Civilization?
  • 1:58 Characteristics
  • 4:53 History of Civilization
  • 6:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will define the term civilization. We will identify the core characteristics of a civilization, and understand the function of civilizations in the context of historical development.

What Is a Civilization?

We hear a lot about Western civilization. In most colleges and universities there is a required course called Western Civilization. Usually it is broken up into two parts. But, what exactly is a 'civilization?' How is it defined, and what are its core characteristics? That is what we will be discussing in this lesson.

A civilization is generally defined as an advanced state of human society containing highly developed forms of government, culture, industry, and common social norms. Of course, not all scholars agree with this definition. In fact, there is much debate over what constitutes a civilization and what does not. Furthermore, who determines what is 'advanced' and what is not?

There seems to be a bit of subjectivity involved. So yes, on the one hand, this is a bit of a tricky issue. On the other, the general consensus defines civilization in much the same way as I just described. The definition I provided is typically along the lines of what you would see in a dictionary or textbook. So, even if it is an oversimplification, it is the commonly understood definition, and for our purposes, we'll just go with it.

The word itself comes from the Latin root civilis, meaning civil. The word 'civilization' first began appearing during the Enlightenment. If you're familiar with the Enlightenment, this is not surprising. The Enlightenment was all about civilizing humankind, using reason, education, and science to bring people up to a high state of human functioning.

Characteristics of Civilization

Historians, anthropologists, and other scholars have identified several core characteristics of civilization. Some of the most commonly suggested characteristics include urban centers, agricultural manipulation and storage, irrigation, written language, standards of measurements, craftsmanship technology, social stratification, state government, a common religion and/or ideological outlook, and a shared culture. Let's quickly go through these terms just to make sure we understand how they contribute to civilization.

Urban centers, of course, would include cities or villages throughout the territory occupied by a civilization. Agricultural manipulation and storage is important because it allows people to ensure their future livelihood, rather than just scrounge for food on a day-by-day basis. Irrigation allows for the growth of crops, and in some cases, clean drinking water and even plumbing.

A written language unites a people, and allows them to communicate ideas with one another. A common system of measurements means that two people understand the same quantity of an object, distance, etc... Craftsmanship technology allows for the building of complex structures, tools, and art.

Social stratification is a fancy way of saying different classes of people - you know, rulers, laborers, slaves, etc... State government refers to a common legal system of political authority. Religion and ideology refer to what a people group believes about God, gods, and/or the way the world works. Perhaps most importantly, culture refers to the way of life among a particular group of people.

One of the most important theorists of civilization was V. Gordon Childe, who lived from 1892 to 1957. Many of the characteristics listed above were theorized by him. Not everyone agrees with his ideas, however. Other scholars have proposed other sets of criteria. For example, some have suggested forms of taxation or tribute are characteristic of civilization. Others argue military forces, education systems, and monumental architecture should be included. So you see, not everyone totally agrees on every single point. The bottom line, however, is that civilization exerts control over nature.

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