Dynamics of Civilisation

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Centre for Research into the Dynamics of Civilisation (CREDOC)
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In China, the Middle East and Africa, the concept of civilisation is being reinvented in ways that need to be researched and understood.

There is widespread dissatisfaction in those regions with the traditional concepts of long-term social, economic and historical change that took form within the nations and empires of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ideas of ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘nation state’ are now being openly questioned and even rejected both within and outside Europe, yet they continue to inform the research activities of the social, historical, and political sciences, and the arts and humanities. Concepts of ‘civilisation’ that operate above and beyond the nation state are now being revitalised in order to help shape and legitimate the unity or the diversity of newly emergent political and economic blocs in Asia and Africa. Researchers therefore need to engage with the dynamics of civilisation if we are to understand the global play of politics in the twenty-first century.

The concept of ‘civilisation’ constitutes an emergent and important political and cultural counter in Africa, China and Europe’s post-socialist countries. In acts of opposition to globalisation, regional identities of nation, religion, and ethnicity are now being cast in the language of separate (and superior) civilisations. Hierarchies of civilisations are matched onto modern cultures to justify confrontation and even domination. But definitions of civilisation and civilisations (in terms of culture, technology, science, political systems and social relations) are highly problematic. The causes of their formation, development, durability and decay are hotly debated. Thus the dynamics of civilisation need to be reconceived better to understand and challenge the role civilisation is being made to play in the post-modern, post-colonial world.

Research into the dynamics of civilisation:

  • incorporates both temporal and spatial scale (negotiating geographies, materials, peoples, and infrastructures spread over long periods and distances).
  • offers intellectual complexity (providing a wide open space for cross-disciplinary thinking: an opportunity to engage with big questions of origins, development, environment, history, culture, science, technology and sustainability, responses to which cannot be easily polarised between the humanities and the sciences).
  • embraces controversy (because ‘civilisation’ is a problematic concept that requires reflexive thinking and radical responses to the oppositions with which it has been associated, whether West/East, primitive/civilised, or ancient/modern).

CREDOC is focusing critical attention on four regions and three cross-regional sets of fundamental questions. These questions underlie a series of workshops CREDOC will hold to encourage debate across regions, periods, and disciplines.

Constructions of Civilisation

What contemporary needs are being addressed through the discourse of civilisation? Where are such discourses generated? How do they come to influence public policy? What kind of narratives and counter-narratives are generated by the concept of civilisation? How might they differ from discourses about ‘culture’, ‘society’, or ‘nature’? And how have they evolved from antiquity to the present?

Civilisation in Time & Space

How might we reclaim a civilisational scale of analysis for human cultures and societies, in the absence of a single narrative of ‘progress’ or ‘evolution’? What are the spatial dynamics of civilisations? What kind of boundaries do they create, and how are these to be negotiated? What new insights would be generated by a return to the genuinely long-term and large-scale analysis of social and cultural phenomena? What kind of innovative methods and techniques could be brought to bear on such an analysis?

Mind, Body & Civilisation

How are civilisations reproduced and transformed through the cognitive habits and bodily practices of individuals? How are concepts of civilisation, including distinctions of value and hierarchy, internalised and translated into social relationships? How might the distribution in time and space of these forms of relatedness differ in extent from the boundaries of self-conscious ethnic, religious, or national-imperial groupings? How might their study bring to light new configurations and trajectories of global historical development, to replace the old dichotomies between ‘literate’ and ‘non-literate’, ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, ‘complex’ and ‘simple’ societies?

Page last modified on 21 nov 13 14:25