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The comparability of civilizations

Vol. 4, No. 2, December 2008
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Johann P. Arnason, La Trobe University

If Braudel’s idea of a grammar of civilizations is to be taken more seriously than it was in the book which used it as a title, the shared basic components of civilizational patterns must be defined more precisely. The working hypothesis formulated by M. Hodgson – that civilizations are distinguished not so much by their constituent elements as by the relative weight and the particular interrelations of these elements – can be taken as a guideline. The paper explores several approaches to this problematic. Civilizations can (with reference to the argument adumbrated by Durkheim and Mauss) be analyzed as different ways of combining cultural, political and economic dimensions. They can also, when understood in terms of longue durée dynamics, be approached through closer examination of the elementary structures of traditions; here Hodgson’s suggestions are particularly useful. Finally, civilizations appear – following a line of interpretation pioneered by S. N. Eisenstadt – as frameworks for long-term transformations of relations between the cultural, institutional and organizational levels of societies.