What are the problems with using the word “civilization” to describe a society?What are the problems with using the word “civilization” to describe a society?

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litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that there are value judgements associated with the term civilzation, at least historically. It implies that there are some civil people and some uncivil ones. Civil is also a value judgment, meaning a good kind of organized. To describe civilization creates a barrier between the two societies.
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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I agree that the biggest problem is found in the word itself.  Being "civil" or "civilized" is a huge assumption, really; and the quality of being civilized is a matter of both opinion and culture.  It's a rather light-hearted example, but when I take students with me to Europe, they are always taken aback by the bathrooms.  Squatting over a hole is, to them, "primitive."  So who gets to decide what is civilized and what is not? 

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Using the word "civilization" or "civilized" implies that there are those who do not meet that definition.  "Savages" and "heathens" have been labels often applied to such peoples, and racism, discrimination and genocide have been common results of this.  Defining yourself as civilized breeds feelings of superiority, and inevitably leads to unhealthy social and political relations between peoples.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The previous thoughts were really accurate.  The implication behind "civilization" is lies in its root word.  "Civilized" is within the word, and it helps to create the idea that a social order is morally or ethically superior.  For example, when we use the term "civilization" to describe British colonialism, it is far from civilized.  In fact, some of the things that the British did were quite uncivilized when examining the raping of land, the violation of individual political and civil rights, and the abuses perpetrated on the indigenous people.  If we were to apply the term to American government in its treatment of Native Americans or Africans, I am not sure we can honestly say that "civilized" behavior is present when mothers are separated from children, and individuals are abused at whim.  My problems with the term is in its root word and the value judgments associated with it.

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missy575 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The most serious potential problem I see is that civilization has come to have more than one meaning. When you mean an entire people group, a society, just say that.

Civilization can mean a person's or society's act of being civil. This is certainly not the case for all societies that have ever existed. We have many even today that don't fit the definition of civil.

Civil can mean acting appropriately under the circumstances.

To be civilized can mean to have grown out of savagery and into new technologies in terms of making people's lives easier. It also may refer to how we interact or behave appropriately.

Another misconception could come because within an entire civilization (which is a concept bigger than a society) there may be several different societies which come into being and live and die and co-exist with other societies at the same time.

Taking a look at Iraq might be a great example. History over that current location which has had civilization or at least occupation for thousands of years demonstrates peoples of different faith and value systems occupying that territory. Currently, the three types of Muslim faith represented there are trying to work into a democracy which is an idea for a society that hasn't existed there for quite some time. As people within that society embrace or disagree with democracy, we will see the society change. People will leave. Others will become more involved.

This is a great question. You might do a study yourself by just looking at how closely related the words are and what the differences are.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

You may have a book that asserts that there are particular problems that you need to know.  You might want to check on that.  In my own opinion, these are some problems with using the term "civilization:"

  • It is too often tied up in value judgements.  We say that some group is civilized if it behaves in ways that we think are appropriate.  We think that societies are civilized if they act like "good" people as opposed to acting like "savages."
  • It is too hard to define.  There is no clear line that divides a civilized society from a society that is not civilized.

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