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  Civilization (from Latin civilis, ‘belonging to a society’) is an ambiguous term. In its contemporary usage it refers to a unified social system, and is invested with notions of technological advances and cultural complexity characterized by hierarchical organization. The notion of civilization has, therefore, been used both to measure the sophistication of a society, and as a stick to beat those who seem to be less civilized.

Among the evolutionists of the 18th and 19th centuries, civilization was considered the summit of human achievement the prerogative of Western culture. Although ancient civilizations in Mexico, China, Egypt and India were recognized, the word acquired its ambiguity when used by evolutionists to talk about Western civilization. However, as Mahatma Ghandi wryly pointed out, the notion of a West that was civilized was a good idea, but it had certainly not been attained.

Evolutionists described civilization as the end result of a process of development that started with their notion of savagery. This view was outlined in Henry Morgan\'s Ancient Society (1877), which described the evolutionary stages of social structure from ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilization’. It was the opposition of civilization to notions of the ‘primitive’ which gave ideas like ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’ their disparaging tone. The connotations of the civilizing force of Western civilization could be conveniently used to legitimize cultural and political dominance over others, as with the justifications about the welfare of ‘natives’ in colonized countries. Contemporary anthropology rejects such biased methods of comparing and evaluating societies, and is accordingly wary of using the term civilization. CL

See also colonialism; ethnocentrism; evolutionism; literacy/orality; primitivism.Further reading A. Kuper, The Invention of Primitive Society; , G. Stocking, Victorian Anthropology.



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