Civilizational analysis, social theory and comparative history

Authored by: P. Johann Arnason

Handbook of Contemporary European Social Theory

Print publication date:  December  2005
Online publication date:  September  2006

Print ISBN: 9780415355186
eBook ISBN: 9780203086476
Adobe ISBN: 9781134255474


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The term ‘civilizational analysis’, as used in recent research and debate, refers to civilizations in the plural and is commonly linked to comparative perspectives on their patterns and transformations. It seems preferable to ‘civilizational theory’, inasmuch as it stresses the need to merge theoretical discussion with more concrete comparative-historical inquiry. The plurality of civilizations can, in the first instance, be understood in light of macro-cultural units that are frequently mentioned in accounts of world history and have – on a more reflective level – figured in proposals for alternatives to the dominant models: Western European, Byzantine, Islamic, Indian (or Indic) and Chinese (or Sinic) civilizations are the key cases in point. Their distinctive dynamics are, for example, central to Marshall Hodgson's critique of William McNeill's more linear approach to Afro-Eurasian history (Hodgson 1993). Civilizational analysts do not agree on the use of such categories; some of them suggest more extensive additions and differentiations than others, but the above-mentioned scheme of Eurasian subdivisions may be seen as a shared starting-point. It cannot be dismissed as a premature or speculative construct. Those who prefer to interpret world history as a development of increasingly global networks of interaction between smaller units are also making far-reaching assumptions which have to be justified through confrontation with models centred on macro-units. 1

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