Book Review: Anthropology and Civilizational Analysis: Eurasian Explorations

Johann P Arnason and Chris Hann (eds)
Anthropology and Civilizational Analysis: Eurasian Explorations (SUNY Press 2018)

Reviewed by Jeremy Smith, School of Arts, Federation University

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

Despite encountering one another for more than a century, anthropology and civilizational analysis have yet to commence systematic or consistent dialogue. In this volume, however, we find that a deeper engagement has clearly started. From an editorial perspective, there are three blockages. In the eyes of most current day anthropologists, “civilization” as a notion loaded with evolutionist and colonialist connotations cannot enter serious scholarship. Second, the scale of “the civilizational dimension” (as S N Eisenstadt has characterized it) operates at a supra-local level too elevated for most anthropologists. This relates to a third barrier. Anthropology prides itself on empirical rigour and the methodological discipline of fieldwork. Civilizational analysis at times seems remote and dependent on hermeneutical interpretation of texts. In all, opposites seem to demarcate the separation of the two fields. The book notes three reasons for the apparent estrangement. Anthropology’s focus is on micro-cultures, while civilizational analysis explores constellations. The latter studies discourses of civilizations, while anthropological self-critique fully targeted notions of civilization ideologically reproduced in such discourses. Scale and evidence separate the two. Is a lasting dialogue feasible?

This collection of essays suggests that the time has come for an exchange of views about topics of mutual interest and a clarification of areas of ongoing difference in scope, intellectual tradition, epistemology, methodology, and disciplinary identity. The collection successfully congregates a broad range of perspectives from both sides on the long and complex relationship between multidisciplinary civilizational analysis and the discipline of anthropology. All essays in this volume critically present to readers problems subject to ongoing debate. Thus, this is a book for readers on how paradigms form and are re-made through contact with critical counterpoints and confrontation with new theories and fresh evidence. The fact that this can occur in productive encounters between anthropologists and civilizational analysts is one important finding of this book. Another finding is that future dialogue could do much to re-define both fields.

So the dialogue is feasible and, indeed, underway. What does each field offer the other? Most contributors conclude that anthropology still has more untouched riches to offer, especially given the transformations of both fields since the 1970s. On the other side, conceptual re-definition in civilizational analysis has done much to allay most concerns about the notion of civilization, particularly in the elevation of inter-civilizational encounters. Arguably, the challenge for anthropology has shifted. Many essayists (Ladwig, Gellner, Kahn—who invokes the phrase ‘civilizational imaginaries’ (p.229)—and, more cautiously, Tappe and Gingrich, Feuchtwang, and Santos) reach the conclusion that including a limited notion of “civilization” in anthropology’s conceptual apparatus has value in enlivening the discipline, connecting it productively to others, and helping it confront key issues of the human condition. That this dialogue can occur and be productive is evidence of success in social science reconstruction of a self-limited notion of civilization as an imaginary dimension of macro-formations. If there is approximate agreement on the conceptual issues, reaching such a point in no way compromises the specificity of each field. Anthropology’s careful focus on the quotidian in social life remains. Civilizational analysis’ domain of multi-societal constellations transformed by intercivilizational encounters, as well as endogenous processes, is still the focus of the paradigm. Dialogue has clarified the distinctiveness of each side while producing points of common ground on key issues and the terms on which further debate could take place.

The meeting leading to this publication was a 2012 workshop at The Max Planke Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle. As well as the above controversies, the conference generated considerable critical reflection on what classical theory represents for anthropology and civilizational analysis. The starting point is an observation that no convergence of the two occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Arnason notes in the introduction (xviii-xix). Of course, the notable exceptions are Durkheim and Mauss and, to varying degrees, the Durkheimians that followed. Arnason’s essay, dedicated to that subject, establishes the importance of this tradition for both anthropology and civilizational analysis, as well as the significance of Durkheim and Mauss’ analyses for re-framing key questions. Aside from Arnason’s genealogy, several other contributors remark on the conceptual and analytical purchase that they find in Durkheim and Mauss’ formative work (Santos, Ladwig, Tappe, Feuchtwang, and Prozorova). Other influences are more distant—Toynbee, Spengler, and Marx and Engels (of course, the latter had been important reference points for anthropology until the early 1980s). Weber could rarely appeal to anthropologists due to, on one hand, the absence of his engagement with the ethnographic work of his day and, on the other, the deficits in some of his own accounts of non-Western formations. Of course, he proved to be the source for sociologists instead. Like much of this collection, discussion around this dimension of the encounter of civilizational analysis and anthropology feels timely. The reappraisal of Weber’s significance that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s has removed a number of misconceptions of his work. Much of the ground is clear for critical reconsideration of classical sources in a number of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including anthropology.

Both traditions have theoreticians of interest to the other side and areas of inquiry in common. Prominent anthropologists have developed theoretical frameworks that speak to civilizational analysis and thereby constitute part of the subject matter of dialogue: Alfred Kroeber, Robert Redfield, Maurice Godelier, Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Dumount, and Marshall Sahlins (neither of the latter two articulated a language of civilizations, even though they had been Mauss’ students). Civilizational thinkers who give due account of everyday life can be conversation points for anthropologists: Elias (as Hans Hahn argues) and Braudel in some guises, particularly in his history of material life (Braudel 1981). An exchange such as that can help both sides know each other and themselves better through a process of rediscovery of dormant historical problems and shared reference points amongst figures that feature in the classical traditions of both fields. As Hann observes in his afterword, the focus on macro-formations pulls anthropology away from methodological nationalism and localism (pp.348-9). Furthermore, civilizational analysis compels anthropology to become acquainted with sociology and history.

However, both fields could connect one discipline with more substantially. As Prozorova argues in her essay, archaeology produces distinctive insights into the material culture and cultural memory of daily life. The evidence highlighted by archaeologists informs a common fund of scholarship on archaic civilizations. The diachronic insights that archaeology supplies are of particular interest to anthropologists and civilizational scholars wishing to build up a picture of pre-archaic formations. Yet, archaeology’s area of specialism is material culture, which has yet to attract the full attention of civilizational scholars. Like so many of the areas of scholarship that could profitably be incorporated into civilizational analysis, there are powerful antecedents in Durkheim and Mauss. For those inspired by the latter’s example (including Arnason, Nelson, and Pozorova herself), archaeology is well placed to shed light on how far back we can date the importance of interaction and conflicts between complex societies often termed intra- and intercivilizational encounters. Prozorova reveals how archaeology is a frontier discipline when it comes to generating questions about the pre-archaic era. Many questions revolve around the symbolic and cultural exchange bound up in material transfer between cultures, exactly the sort of interrogation of interest to Nelson’s construction of “intercivilizational encounters”. Cognitive archaeologists also address construction of memory in complex transitions from pre-archaic formations to ancient civilizations. In civilizational analysis, Jan Assmann has notably examined the creation of modes of memory in early civilizations. However, in this respect, archaeology also addresses concerns about this crucial phase in world history shared by anthropologists as well, as Prozorova steadily reveals in her pithy and valuable essay.

Seen from the vantage point of archaeology, the creation of civilizations should be a process of interest across the human sciences. Essays on specific constellations suggest that there is an exchange going on. We find essays on India, China, Southeast Asia, nomadic societies, the Arabian states, Central Asia, and Russia, in which contributors apply the scholarship of both fields to two levels of questioning. First, there is discussion of macro-sociological questions of the (dis)unity of cultures and languages, imperial expansion, the incarnation of institutions of power and domination, and institutionalization of cultural patterns. Second, many essays address different responses to meso-sociological problems of localized encounters and civilizing processes in specific constellations. This is a representative sample of Eurasian societies, although the editors make no claim to be representative. Yet, this reviewer feels the absence of a contribution on Japan, which is arguably a civilization at the edge of Eurasia. I feel this, not because of the position of Japan in relation to East Asia (a point of interesting debate), but due to the intensive study of Japan’s civilizational pattern by both anthropologists and scholars of civilizations.

An important moment in this book is discussion of inter-civilizational encounters as a potential meeting point between anthropological and civilizational perspectives. Nelson and Arnason (and arguably Durkheim and Mauss) are explicit sources of theoretical inspiration arising from historical sociology, along with case study analyses from many others. However, in anthropology, the importance of encounters is clear in many studies of cultural formations; so also is it clear in archaeology. Furthermore, Nelson and Arnason are both evidently interesting for scholars open to interdisciplinary work (there are indisputable examples in this collection of such scholars—Fuchs, Ladwig, Tappe, Prozorova, and Kahn). In particular, Ladwig’s essay brings together consideration of problematics of textual and political imaginaries, on one hand, and intercivilizational encounters, on the other. In a discussion of Sheldon Pollock’s thesis of vernacularisation across the 1st millennium Buddhist ecumene, Ladwig further elaborates Castoriadis’ construction of the imaginary institution from an anthropological point of view. In this reviewer’s mind, this is an original argument that warrants more attention. Spatial and cultural zones in which civilizations engage and interact seem such conspicuous objects of inquiry for both civilizational scholars and anthropologists—perhaps this could have been an even more prominent theme in this collection?

To reiterate, this collection is timely. The encounter in Halle is an attempt to spark an unfashionable dialogue. However, anthropology and civilizational analysis have always been ahead of their time in respect of landmark breakthroughs in the human sciences. Anthropology’s self-critique of its own origins preceded the fashionable spread of post-colonial studies in Western universities. Eisenstadt’s introduction of the problematic of multiple modernities did more to advance the study of diversity of large-scale constellations in comparative and historical sociology than anything else. Before the onset of global history, Eisenstadt and his collaborators had begun debating the Axial Age as an era of transformations in the world’s major centres. These are strengths of both fields. Anthropology has much to say about the worlds beyond the remit of the project: the Pacific, new world societies, and sub-Saharan Africa. To this point, civilizational analysis has not systematically comprehended the full implications of developments in these world regions for its field as a whole. A reasonable single conclusion to take away from the collaborators in this book is that Durkheim and Mauss provide a good starting point. They composed a conceptual outline of civilizational analysis in light of their work in Australia and the Pacific, as well as other civilizational sites. Moreover, they produced lasting models of scholarship in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and their outline of an agenda for the pluralistic study of civilizations. A provocation to the human sciences at the time, the latter gives us only an underdeveloped sketch. Yet, this is sufficient as a theme of discussion amongst contributors from different traditions. There is, however, an even greater meta-theoretical problem that all these essays speak to, one discussed in Hann’s ‘Afterword’: how to conceptualize diversity and the wholeness of cultural worlds. In other words, we confront the problems of how to balance the local and regional, societal, multi-religious, and transcultural in small formations and large-scale constellations. Those problems are relevant to a wider readership today. Who better to debate it in dialogue than scholars of the local and cultural, on one hand, and those of multi-societal constellations, on the other?


Braudel, F (1981) The Structures of Everyday Life: the Limits of the Possible, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

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