What Is Civilization? - Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Where Did the Word Come From?
  • 1:17 What Characterizes a…
  • 2:09 What About Culture?
  • 2:33 How Has it Been Defined?
  • 3:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

This lesson attempts to discover a suitable definition for the word 'civilization.' Understanding the meaning of the word helps us better understand its uses and implications in historical and modern records.

Where Did the Word Come From?

We've all used words like civilization, society, and culture. Do you ever wonder what these words really mean? Are they interchangeable? The word 'civilization' is used often to describe ancient groups of people. In order to really understand the word and what it might indicate about a group of people, we should consider a suitable definition.

Civilization is derived from the Latin word civilis, which means civil. Other related Latin words are civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city. Over the years it has been used to indicate various meanings. In the 7th century, Emperor Justinian consolidated Roman civil law into the Corpus Juris Civilis. After this collection was discovered in the 11th century at the University of Bologna, the word civil began to be used more often.

In the 18th century, the word was used to distinguish behavior. Behaving as a civil person was the opposite as behaving as a barbarian. Later on, during the time of the French Revolution (late 1700s to early 1800s), the word referred to humanity in its entirety rather than just a specific group of people. As more modern times approached, the word was sometimes used interchangeably with the word 'culture.'

What Characterizes a Civilization

Civilization has been given many characteristics by many different people. A social scientist named V. Gordon Childe believed civilizations could be distinguished from other forms of society by their types of livelihood, settlement patterns, forms of government, economic systems, and literacy. However, many consider civilization to indicate a group of people living in a city. Urbanization helps many historians distinguish between many groups that have existed, especially in ancient times. Civilizations generally have complex systems of ownership of land and marketable goods.

Some of the earliest civilizations were established in the ancient Middle East. Mesopotamia is said to be the cradle of civilization. Mesopotamia was the location of some of the world's earliest cities, not to mention the first writing system called cuneiform.

What About Culture?

Some use the word civilization to specify the cultural part of a society rather than the society as a whole. Culture generally refers to a group's customs and ideas that make it distinguishable from other groups. A civilization can contain several different cultural aspects (such as religion, art, and administrative techniques). Civilization, in this instance, would refer to the consolidated group of cultures.

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