Is There a Civilizational Paradigm

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Matthew Melko:

"There does appear to be a civilizational paradigm. Possibly the science has become too normal. Perhaps the paradigm has been taken too much for granted. The International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC) moved from Austria to the United States in 1971. After a few years in which methods and theory papers predominated, papers presented at annual meetings covered a wide range of subjects involving comparisons of political, economic, social, cultural, aesthetic, religious, philosophical, literary and other aspects of civilizations; examinations of particular problems within a civilization, often Western; looking back to the civilizational roots; explorations of the primitive precursors of civilizations; and examinations of the interactions between civilizations. But the civilizationists who continued to be interested in the overall processes of civilizations — e.g. David Wilkinson, David Richardson, Roger Wescott, Gordon Hewes, John Hord, Lee Snyder, Corinne Gilb, Ross Maxwell — seemed to constitute just another aspect of the normal science, and they were not getting many books published on this subject, only papers and articles. The paradigm was sufficiently understood. We knew what we meant by civilizations, we used familiar examples. We compared philosophies and religions. When we did a session on Hadrian and I set out to look for the Chinese Hadrian (1996), I knew I was looking for an emperor who set limits on the expansion of the Han or Tang or Ming Empire, preferably one who traveled its borders. I didn't find him, but I would have recognized him if he existed.


Meanwhile, the World Historical Association came into existence and grew rapidly, meeting the needs, not only of researchers, but of the growing number of teachers of world history in undergraduate colleges and high schools in a time of increasing sensitivity to multiculturalism. World history text books tended to be divided into historical periods. Scholarly books, the sources for the text books, could take a section of period and area, more than a nation, less than the world, for instance considering the Asian world before industrialization [e.g. Chaudhuri, 1990], Another area of study with a world scope was initiated in the 1970's by the world systems analysts (wearing black hats). To a civilizationist, the analysis of macrosystems relationships might be perceived as a kind of intercivilizational encounter, but after it was introduced by Immanuel Wallerstein in 1974, it developed a life of its own. While world systems analysts could teach only college classes at the major or graduate level, they were spinning off a new research area, playing off one another. Their paradigm was tighter, more coherent than that of the civilizationists, and more focused on world economy. They were much more successful at getting books published and reviewed, and were pioneers of the Internet. A pair of well known debates occurred in the nineties between civilizationists and world systems analysts [Sanderson 1994, 1996], but the real focus of the debates was world systems, with the civilizationists serving as foils to criticize the world systems approach and set up rebuttals. The only major attention drawn to civilizations since the founding of the ISCSC was created by a civilizational outsider (though a political science insider), Samuel P. Huntington [1996], who got considerable attention by taking civilizational theory and applying it to the future, warning of potential major conflicts involving the West, Islamic Civilization, and China. While some civilizationists sniffed at Huntington's more popular approach and sometimes debatable conjectures, others acknowledged that he was doing what more civilizationists should be doing: applying the lessons of the past to the contemporary world and to the future [Drew, 2001]. So, yes, there is a civilizational paradigm. By 1970 the mapping was sufficient to allow civilizationists to take off in different directions.


What might be helpful now, it seems to me, is a reconsideration of the central problems dealt with by civilizationists, a firm (nay a dogmatic) statement of probability, and—instead of a debate about the superiority of civilizational study to anything else—a linking of civilization-al theory to world history and world systems analysis, perhaps under the generic heading preferred by Lee Daniel Snyder [1999]: Macrohistory."