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Defining the Concept of Civilizations Essay

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Updated: Jul 14th, 2018

Civilization is one of the key concepts of Anthropology. Recognizing this phenomenon as a complex one, researchers integrate materialistic and spiritualistic approaches to defining it, considering physiological peculiarities of the development of the nervous system, geographical and social environment, and system of beliefs as the main determinants of the formation and development of the civilizations.

The theories of Boas and Mead contradict the views of Tylor and Morgan on the main factors which have impact on the process of evolution.

Defining the concepts of civilization and culture, anthropologists Boas and Mead established the relationship between the heredity, social and geographical environment and realization of these or those peculiar characteristics. Boas used the observational data for defining the peculiar features of various peoples and races, using an evolutionary approach to his comparative analysis. His main argumentation was focused on the changes in person’s central nervous system which are dependent upon the environment and living conditions.

“Social and geographical environment must have an influence upon the form of the body of the adult, and upon the development of his central nervous system” (Stocking 215). He supported the monogenist theories concerning the common ancestry of all the humans. At the same type the central concept of his researches is the plasticity of human types predetermined with the differences in external factors of both geographical and social surrounding.

At the same time, Boas does not claim for the comprehensiveness of his studies, pointing at the weaknesses of the statistics analysis and particular inconsistencies of observational data. “A race must not be identified with a subjectively established type but must be conceived as a biological unit, as a population derived from a common ancestry and by virtue of its descent endowed with definite biological characteristics” (Boas 37).

Developing his theories, Mead shifts the emphasis to the peculiarities of temperament in men and women. She researched the attitude towards sex-differences among the representatives of the three primitive societies (Mundugumor, Arapesh, and Tchambuli). Mead used the analysis of temperament peculiarities and social roles of the two sexes for defining the particular elements of civilizations as the so-called social fabrics.

Mead’s primary argument is “the general belief of our society that there was a natural sex-temperament which could at the most only be distorted or diverted from normal expression” (Mead 22). The anthropologist does not overemphasize the role of the physiology, acknowledging that the observations are focused on generally accepted behavioral patterns and the social attitudes that innate characteristics.

The anthropologists Morgan and Tylor investigated the main principles of organization and development of the society. Along with the evolutionary approach that was implemented by Boas and Mead, these researchers consider the backward movement within the community as a significant factor which can result in degradation and regress of mankind.

Morgan’s historical analysis of formation and development of civilizations is based on the theory of acquisition of knowledge and experience. Starting from the analysis of the tribes of savages and barbarians, the researcher gets to the roots of the origin of the civilizations, considering the progress of the humanity as a rather casual phenomenon that could be prevented under particular circumstances.

“Civilization must be regarded as an accident of circumstances” (Morgan 553). Morgan’s views on the paths of the development of the humanity contradict Boas’s and Mead’s theories and cannot co-exist with them. As opposed to Boas’s hypothesis concerning the diversity of the races, Morgan considers the process of progress predictable, explaining it with the universal natural laws of human mind.

Using the same method of statistics analysis, anthropologist Tylor evaluates the role of progress and regress strengths in the development of civilizations. Recognizing the concept of civilization as a complex phenomenon, the researcher does not limit its definition to constant progress of the primitive society resulting in the present day level of development of humanity.

As opposed to Boas and Mead who decided on the materialistic approach to defining the concepts of culture and civilization and focused on the physiological characteristics of the central nervous system, heredity or social environment as the most important issue of their theories, Tylor focuses on the relationship between the system of beliefs and the life of the community, integrating the issue of regress of civilizations into his analysis for making it more comprehensive.

“In striking a balance between the effects of forward and backward movement in civilization, it must be borne in mind how powerfully the diffusion of culture acts in preserving the results of progress from the attacks of degeneration” (Tylor 376).

Using different approaches for defining the concepts of culture and civilizations, Boas and Mead, on the one hand, and Morgan and Tylor, on the other hand, formulated their hypotheses of the main principles of the development of the mankind which cannot co-exist because of the differences in the anthropologists’ approaches.

Implementing the same method of historical and statistical analysis for defining the concept of civilization and the main principles of its development, Boas and Mead, on the one hand, and Morgan and Tylor, on the other hand, came to different conclusions, emphasizing various sides of life.

Works Cited

Boas, Franz. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1938. Print.

Mead, Margaret. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1935. Print.

Morgan, Lewis. Ancient Society. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1907. Print.

Stocking, George. (ed.) The Shaping of American Anthropology 1883-1911: A Franz Boas Reader. New York: Basic Books Publishers. 1974. Print.

Tylor, Edward. Primitive Culture: Researchers into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. London: John Murray. 1871. Print.

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