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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Culture Vs. Civilization: Nancy Jervis - What Is a Culture?

Are culture and civilization synonyms? No, there is a difference. Some notes from What is a Culture? by Nancy Jervis (PH D, China Institute, NY):

Definition of culture: the thoughts, behaviors, languages, customs, the things we produce and the methods we use to produce them. It is this, the human ability to create and transmit culture, that differentiates us as humans from the rest of the animal world.

The essential feature of culture, that it is learned and transmitted from one generation to the next, rests on the human capacity to think symbolically. Language, perhaps the most important feature, is a symbolic form of communication.

How do cultures form in the first place? Groups of people living in specific ecological niches interacted with their environments over long periods of time. Given a certain degree of isolation, they developed adaptations to their environment, methods of survival, and ways of organizing themselves socially, and came to share beliefs and symbols that explained their world. They also developed a language they used to communicate with each other that enabled them to transmit learning to future generations.

Over time, increasing communication between early human groups broke down geographic isolation. Gradually, through cultural diffusion, linkages were formed and many different specific cultures evolved into larger groupings called culture areas - regions with shared cultural traits.

Over time, a culture may evolve into what is termed a civilization. A civilization is generally understood as a more advanced form of organized life: civilizations usually have more complex forms of social, political, military, and religious life. Writing and the use of metals are also features of some civilizations.

There is no absolute threshold after which we can firmly state that a culture has evolved into a civilization.

Religion is not the same as culture or ethnicity; it can overlap either. Technically, religion is defined as a set of beliefs. But while some religions confine themselves to the realm of ideas or beliefs, other religions extend into the realm of behavior and prohibit or mandate certain actions as well. The Ten Commandments identify behaviors prohibited by the Judeo-Christian religions. For Orthodox Jews, kosher rules are an example of behavior that is required. For Moslems, eating during daylight during Ramadan is prohibited behavior.

All religions that accept or desire converts have had to adapt themselves to the cultures where they spread or they would not have been accepted. Catholicism's spread into South America was facilitated by its willingness to incorporate native religious practices into its canons there, as with the many feasts for saints that are particular to the region. Similarly, as Islam spread in Asia and Africa, it incorporated specific cultural practices peculiar to the areas it reached. For example, Moslem women in sub-Saharan Africa do not wear veils, while those in rural Afghanistan cover themselves with the burka. Female circumcision is practiced in Moslem sub-Saharan Africa, but not anywhere else in the Islamic world. This adaptability of religion to local cultures sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish culture from religion - but they are not the same.

And Nancy Jervis ends up by quoting John H. Bodley (Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States and the Global System, 1994): culture is made up of at least three components: what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce; it is shared, learned, symbolic, transmitted cross-generational, adaptive, and integrated.

Read the whole essay at:

So for Nancy Jervis civilization is culture evolved into a more advanced form. I dare to say I would disagree: culture and civilization are however different.

Nancy Jervis is a cultural anthropologist (Ph.D. Columbia), specializing in China. She lived and worked in China for three years (1979-82), having first visited that country in 1972. Her most recent visit was in 1999, when she curated a photographic exhibition of old photos of Beijing at the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing. Her anthropological fieldwork is in Henan Province in north central China.

Dr. Jervis studied film and filmmaking at Sarah Lawrence College and with Jean Rouch in a summer workshop in Massachusetts. In the 1970’s she worked with Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens on the English version of his film series How Yukong Moved the Mountains, and on the films’ premiere at MoMA. In 1979-80, she was the first foreigner after the Cultural Revolution to work at the China Film Corporation in Beijing. Her job including viewing and writing synopses as well as creating sub-titles for newly-released Chinese films for the English-speaking market. Fluent in Chinese, Nancy Jervis is currently Vice President and Director of Programs at China Institute, located in New York City.

(A Life in Books)

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