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Comparative Civilizations

Summary and Keywords

The study of comparative civilization raises a variety of questions; for example, how “civilization” is related to “culture,” what criteria shall be used to distinguish one civilization from another, or whether the past of civilizations can tell us anything about the future of our global civilization. One way to approach these elements of the comparative-civilizational problematique is by analyzing the successive theses of notable workers in the field, from Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Marco Polo to Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, Ibn Khaldun, Giambattista Vico, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The works of Hegel and four other scholars—Nikolai Danilevsky, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Pitirim Sorokin—are considered classics in the study of macrosocial systems. More recent studies of macrosocial systems that deserve consideration are those by André Gunder Frank and Barry Gills; Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas Hall; Carroll Quigley; Matthew Melko; and Samuel P. Huntington. The “civilizations” and “world-systems” approaches to macrosocieties are both strongly concerned to explain political conditions like hegemony and rivalry, general war, and general peace. Thus, it would be useful to concentrate on the political–military–diplomatic foci of both approaches. A key to making comparative-civilizational research more systematic is to identify the spatio-temporal boundaries of civilizations as complex systems with particular locations in space and time.

Keywords: comparative civilization, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Nikolai Danilevsky, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Pitirim Sorokin, macrosocial systems, Carroll Quigley, Immanuel Wallerstein, world-system analysis


The problematique of comparative-civilizational study includes the following major questions:

  • What is a “civilization”? What is not?

  • What is the relationship between “civilization” and “culture”?

  • How many civilizations are there now? How many have there been?

  • What is the roster of civilizations, present and past?

  • What are and were their locations and boundaries in space and time?

  • Upon what criteria shall we distinguish one civilization from another?

  • Do civilizations split apart? Do they fuse together?

  • When and how do civilizations come into existence?

  • Do civilizations perish? When, where, how, why?

  • Do civilizations grow and decline? How? Why?

  • Do civilizations encounter one another? Do they clash?

  • Can civilizations communicate through dialogue? Can they learn from one another?

  • What is the relationship between civilizations and economic orders? Between civilizations and political power structures? Between civilizations and wars?

  • Can the past of civilizations tell us anything about the future of our global civilization?

Reviewing the Literature of the Comparative Study of Civilizations

Because the comparative study of civilizations is more a humanistic than a scientistic discipline, dialectical rather than progressive, controversial rather than conclusive, it is proper to approach these elements of the comparative-civilizational problematique by way of an examination of the successive theses of notable workers in the field, and of their ongoing disputations.

There is a literature of substantial age in the form of travelers’ descriptions, transcultural histories, and collected intelligence which could reasonably be cited as belonging to the comparative study of civilizations: Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Leo Africanus, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and Garcilaso Inca de la Vega are among the names which might be mentioned in this connection. The Histories (1942 [c.440 bce]) of Herodotus (c.484–c.425 bce), dealing mainly with Greeks and Persians, report also upon many nations, some of which, notably Egypt and India, are considered by civilizationists to have at some time constituted distinct civilizations. The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602?–664) traveled from China to Central Asia and India and back, and reported his travels in his Da tang xiyu ji (1884 [646]). The Genoese trader Marco Polo (1254–1324? 1325?) wrote of travels from Italy to China, Sumatra, India, Persia and home in Il milione (1993 [1298–1320]). Ibn Battuta (1304–c.1368–1377) traveled in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia, thus through most of the civilizations of his time (bar Japan and the Americas), and reported on what he saw, read, and heard in his Rihla (1958–2000 [1355]). Leo Africanus (1488?–1554?) traveled in and reported on North and sub-Saharan Africa in Cosmographia Dell’ Africa (1896 [1550]). The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c.1496–c.1584) reported upon the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerican civilization in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (1963 [1632]). The Spanish-Inca author Garcilaso Inca de la Vega (c.1539–1616) examined the Andean civilization and its conquest by Spain in his Comentarios Reales de los Incas (1966 [1609–1617]). Each of these works contains or implies a comparative study of civilizations in some of their concrete aspects. But we shall focus herein not upon travelers’ descriptions, but upon a more abstract and theoretical civilizational literature which has engendered the civilizational problematique already noted.

While they did not use civilizational terminology, Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) definitely contributed to the civilizational problematique and to two opposing theoretical schools of civilizational study, the cyclical and the progressive. Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (1958 [1377]) may be interpreted as containing a cyclical theory of civilization's fall and rise and fall, from decadence to barbarism and back: desert barbarians with high group solidarity conquer refined cities; the conquerors are attracted to the arts and letters of the conquered; as they grow more citified and cultivated, their tribal unity decays; in due course the weakened conquerors are conquered by new barbarians. Vico (1948 [1744], 2002 [1725]) also develops a civilizational cycle (corso) with three stages: divine (god-ruled, imaginative, fantastic, poetical, metaphoric, communal, collectivistic, simple); heroic (aristocratic, idealizing, divisive, class-making, sovereigntist, feudal-monarchic); human (rational, reflective, universalistic, ironic, democratic, complex); at the end stage, there is a fall into a second barbarism, and a return (ricorso) to a new formative age. Though both Ibn Khaldun and Vico deserve fuller consideration than they have received in comparative-civilizational studies, it is the third writer above mentioned, G.W.F. Hegel, from whom the modern controversies actually most derive.

Five Classics in the Study of Macrosocial Systems

Scholars today increasingly pursue the comparative study of very large societies. Some label the objects of their observation “macrosocial systems,” others “world-systems,” others “civilizations.” In earlier times, the study of very long-term, very large-scale social entities and processes was called the “philosophy of history.” Regardless of the label one now prefers, the contemporary student ought to be aware of the ideas of certain paramount scholars of the past whose influence persists: Hegel, Danilevsky, Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin.


In the early nineteenth century the noted German Christian philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel produced a liberal, rationalistic, idealistic, unifying, and developmental scheme for the understanding of world history which was widely acknowledged among the intelligentsia of, and beyond, the West European culture region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (1956 [1837]), (1975 [1837]).

Hegel's scheme saw world history as the progress of human freedom. Each epoch in human history for Hegel constitutes a stage in the development of rights, reason, and freedom under law. Three main epochs could be distinguished, in which freedom was realized for one (the monarch, the despot, the tyrant), for some (the ruling class), and at last for each and all, eventually to culminate in the achievement of consciousness, reason, and freedom, by humanity itself.

Hegel's structuring of world history in a sense implemented Immanuel Kant's project for a cosmopolitan world history. Kant proposed to use Greek, Roman, “barbarian” (i.e., German), and modern European history successively to show “a regular progress” toward a league of free, law-abiding, peaceable commercial republics, to be worldwide, but organized along lines inspired by the accomplishments of Europe (1988 [1784]). But Hegel much extended the project.

In Hegel's view, in each period of human history the greatest amount of total human progress was made in a different region of the world by a different “world-historical people” (1956 [1837]:18–19, 47, 53, 79, 99, 103–4); more than a nation, such a “People” would, in current terms, be styled a civilization. The three civilizations (or “worlds”) belonging to the three stages are the Oriental world, the Greek and Roman, and the Germanic world.

Hegel's “Oriental” world includes China and the Mongols, India, and Persia (whose heterogeneous parts, separately analyzed, include Syria, Judaea, and Egypt). The Oriental “idea” is the “One Individual” who has subjective freedom and exercises exterior despotism; Islam brings this idea to its highest development (1956 [1837]:18, 104–5, 109, 111–15, Part I, 355–60).

Hegel's Greek and Roman “world,” comprising also the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine empire, rose to consciousness of freedom for more than One, but only for some; and freedom for some was maintained only by the slavery of others (1956 [1837]:18, Parts II–III).

Hegel held that it was the “German” nations (in the widest sense: Romanic Italy, Spain, Portugal, France; England, and Scandinavia, too, as well as Germany proper), under the influence of Christianity, who “were the first to attain the consciousness, that man, as man, is free” (1956 [1837]:18, 349) “The East knew and to the present day knows only that One is free, the Greek and Roman world that some are free, the German World knows that All are free” (1956 [1837]:104), “that All men as such are free, and that man is by nature free” (1975 [1837]:54–5).

Hegel's progressivism greatly influenced nineteenth-century representations of history. Believing that political forms originate and are founded in the “material conditions of life” and “relations of production” appropriate to “a given stage of development of the material forces of production,” Karl Marx declared that “In broad outline the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society” (1970 [1859]:20, 21). Through Marx, Hegel's ordering scheme, which combined a cross-civilizational comparison with a globalist-progressive plan in which Protestant West Europe had most recently taken the lead in world development, exercised a continuing indirect influence upon the philosophy of history. Marxism, though it replaced “world-historical peoples” with “modes of production,” treated the latter as equally world-historical, and sited its successive “modes” in essentially the same locales as Hegel's successive “worlds.”

A less inclusive world history, closer in spirit to Kant than Hegel, came to influence the Western practice of history writing, via the great conservative-realist practical historian and teacher of historians Leopold von Ranke, whose unfinished World History (1896), completed up to the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, briefly covers ancient Egypt, Israel, Tyre, Assur, Medo-Persia, Greece, Macedon, Carthage, Syracuse; the Roman republic and its “world hegemony” (Weltherrschaft); the old Roman Empire; the Constantinople empire; the Arab world hegemony; Charlemagne; the German Empire; the Papal world hegemony (twelfth to thirteenth centuries); and the beginning of the modern world (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries). East, South, and Southeast Asia (and the Americas) are not to be found in this narrowed “world.”

But from a very early period Hegel's scheme drew criticism from those who found it too narrow. These critics rejected the Westernizing-progressive features of Hegel's philosophy of history, while preferring and expanding its more inclusive and comparative-civilizational aspects. Earliest in the sequence of critics along this line was the Russian scientist and socialist Slavophil Nikolai Danilevsky.


Hegel had omitted Slavdom from his scheme “because hitherto it has not appeared as an independent element in the series of phases that Reason has assumed in the World,” although it might do so in future (1956 [1837]:350. America too was for Hegel “the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself […]” (1956 [1837]:86). Danilevsky (1965 [1869]) asserted an independent Slavic role in the nineteenth-century present, and a Slavic world leadership yet to come.

Danilevsky perceived human history and geography as divided into a number of distinct regional “cultural-social types” or “civilizations,” and may accordingly be considered the first explicit “civilizationist.” Among these discrete civilizations Danilevsky recognized “1. the Egyptian; 2. the Chinese; 3. the Assyrian-Babylonian-Phoenician, Chaldean or Old Semitic; 4. the Indic; 5. the Iranic; 6. the Hebraic; 7. the Greek; 8. the Roman; 9. the New Semitic; 10. the Germano-Roman or European” (1965 [1869]:57); plus two more civilizations that had been incompletely developed (because they were destroyed), the Mexican and the Peruvian; plus two more contemporary civilizations, not yet completely developed (and somewhat endangered), the American and the Slavic.

Each independent civilization had, in Danilevsky's view, its own psychic structures, its own life cycle, and its own creative achievements, never surpassed or duplicated by others. Indic fantasy, Hebrew religion, Greek art, the Roman state, European science – each was consummate. Europe, though certainly one peak in a mountain range, was therefore not the culmination, universalization, and termination of all human progress, as it claimed; the claim was but an ideology of domination.

Having propounded this relativistic, multicivilizational theory, Danilevsky then reincorporated a Hegelian progressivism, recast so that Slavdom, not Germandom, became the final hero in and the fulfillment of world history. In the nineteenth century, Danilevsky averred, only European, American, and Slavic civilizations existed. Europe had developed much in science, but now was good for nothing but violence. America was still emerging, with its peculiar accomplishments in the fields of liberty and technology still incomplete. Slavdom, centered on Russia, had already attained its particular and private creations – communalism, state bureaucracy, and the one true religion (Orthodox Christianity). But the future and universal contribution of Slavic civilization would be to lead a great struggle against Europe, and to produce a pancultural, pancivilizational, panhuman culminating synthesis of all the prior and particularistic achievements (MacMaster 1967: ch. 7–8).


A less compromising criticism of, and alternative to, Hegelian liberal, progressive, Eurocentric world history was provided by the German Oswald Spengler in the years after World War I in his monumental work, The Decline of the West (1932 [1920–1922]).

Spengler contended, like Danilevsky, that there were, or rather had been, many separate civilizations (which Spengler called “Cultures,” reserving “Civilization” to label their terminal stages). They were the chief phenomenon of world history, which was their collective biography (I, 104). Spengler went beyond Danilevsky, altogether rejecting any universal or progressive human world history: the idea of “world-history” was itself specifically Western (1932 [1920–1922]:I, 15, 17), as were the concept of progress (I, 19–21) and the notion of “mankind as an active, fighting, progressing whole” (I, 315). Spengler denied that the West and the present were the highest point in an ascending straight line of world history (I, 16–20, 39). He admitted no “privileged position” whatever for Classical or Western (or Russian) civilization. To this uncompromising multiculturalist and prepostmodern postmodernist, all civilizations were of equal weight (I, 18, 21), and each contained its own equally valid “truth” and morality (I, 25, 345).

Spengler's list of civilizations was not unlike Danilevsky's: there had existed Egyptian, Babylonian (instead of Danilevsky's “Old Semitic”), Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Peruvian civilizations. Danilevsky's separate Greek and Roman civilizations were to Spengler a single Classical civilization. Spengler's most unusual discovery was the “Arabian” or “Magian” civilization, compounded of Persian, Armenian, Hellenistic Greek, Byzantine Greek, Syrian, Sabaean, Moorish, and Spanish-Sicilian peoples, and of Early-Christian, Orthodox, Nestorian, Coptic, Mazdaist, Manichaean, Jewish, and Islamic religious elements. In place of Danilevsky's separate European and American civilizations, Spengler recognized a single Western or “West-European-American” civilization; Russian civilization was still to come (I, 1, 8–13, 18, end-tables; II, 39–46, 192–6).

Hegel had believed in a worldsoul, a World Spirit (e.g. 1956 [1837]:10, 30–1, 37); Spengler perceived many civilizations, each with its own soul. Hegel's worldsoul was rationalist, Christian, immortal. Spengler's civilizations’ souls could die, and did. Like flowers, like organisms, Spengler's civilizations lived, flourished, died, and vanished. Indeed, civilizations “are organisms” (1932 [1920–1922]):I, 104). A civilization has the lifecycle of an organism – civilizations are born, they grow, they reach maturity; inevitably also they decline and die. In that way, Spengler argues, all civilizations are alike. Furthermore, they last for about the same life span. Every civilization must traverse a series of life-stages – youth, growth, maturity, decay – and each stage has nearly the the same definite duration (I, 1, 26, 104, 106–7, 109–10). Civilizations take form during 400 or 500 years of primitivism, enjoy 800–1200 years of growth and maturity, suffer 400 or more years of decline into sterility and fossilization (I, endtables).

While Spengler's civilizations are all alike in their lifecycle, there is also a fundamental way in which for Spengler each civilization is unique. Each civilization is distinguished by a “prime symbol”: for Egyptian, the Way to judgment; for Chinese, the Tao, a Path wandering through landscape; for Classical civilization, self-contained individual Body; for Arabian/Magian, the world Cavern; for Western, infinite three-dimensional Space; for Russian, the Plane without limit (I, 174, 188–90, 200–1, 203, 309–11, 337; II, 206, 233, 238, 287, 295, 310, 311).

Each civilization is also distinguished by a master principle, a master aesthetic, a master style, emanating from its prime symbol and defining its soul. Western civilization's master style Spengler labeled “Faustian,” after Goethe's Faust, ambitious, experimental, farreaching, wideranging, seeking to dominate nature and man. The Faustian style was for Spengler the master principle of Western civilization, singularly focused on the ego, the will, action, extensive exploration, discovery, dynamism, force, struggle, overcoming, freedom, power, and domination (I, 308–15, 341–3; II, 292–3, 309, 330–7, 501).

Where were these several civilizations in their life-cycles? Russia, as yet unformed, had not yet begun its civilizational lifespan; the West had spread all over the globe, but was reaching its terminus; all other civilizations (except Mexican and Peruvian, which were destroyed in mid-career) had reached that end-stage and ossified or perished (I, 50; II, 39–46, 194–6). The one or two centuries left to the West would see no further intellectual achievements or artistic masterpieces. An era of planned world cities of 20 millions, of Contending States and Caesars, would instead ensue. From the West, there were still to come great achievements in invention, in architecture and engineering, in diplomacy and politics, in war and imperialism and world-dominion, in welfare imperialism and world-improvement (“ethical socialism”) – but nothing more (I, 37–9, 41, 44, 342, 361–2, endtables; II, 41, 99–103, 422, 428–31, 506–7).

Such being the manifest destiny of the West, Spengler's recommendation to the West was therefore no more than to learn to will its destiny; to accept that it was in its “Roman” era; to get on with its tasks of technics, exploration and politics, of inventing, building, expanding, of fighting, conquering, uniting, ruling, of prospering, decaying and dying. Other civilizations would then grow up against it, or be born from its ruins, and would not understand it at all – even if they read Spengler, who in any case had no suggestions to offer them (I, 26, 36–41, 43–5; II, 428–31, 503, 507).


The eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee was, even more than Spengler, profoundly influenced by World War I. Until that “Great War,” many West Europeans had been confident that the Great Powers of Europe had learned enough from the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon that they would resolve their conflicts if not peacefully then at least with lawfully limited war. Instead Europe experienced a catastrophe with perhaps 20 millions dead. To Toynbee that war was not only a great social disaster, but also a great personal sorrow in which about half of his schoolmates died (1972:11).

Toynbee became a constant analyst of world politics, editing and writing the Survey of International Affairs from 1924 to 1956. He had personal and professional reasons to hope to understand the reasons behind the cataclysm of World War I, and to wonder whether it would be likely or even possible to avoid a repetition or, worse, a sequence of such calamities.

Toynbee was also an historian, from a clan of historians; and recalling the history particularly of classical Greece and Rome, in which he, like the rest of his generation of British students, was well versed, he thought he saw some parallels between the tragic sequence of prosperity, followed by overconfidence, followed by catastrophe, in Western Europe, and an earlier such sequence in classical history.

Toynbee had a theoretical mind with a capacity for categorizing and comparing concrete events, and for building them into abstract models. He searched civilizational histories events comparable to the “Great War,” and came to believe that he had found significant historical parallels, and even that he had understood their common theme.

Toynbee believed that he had found the social unit that could experience, and indeed produce, such enormous calamities as World War I. No unit as small as one city-state, or one nation-state, could suffice, for the great disasters were on a much larger scale. Toynbee thought he saw, behind the separate histories of the separate states, for instance the separate states of Western Europe, a common underlying history, a common struggle and a common destiny, which bespoke the existence of a structure, a society, larger than that of an ordinary state, that could produce and sustain the huge catastrophes. He looked for the “minimum unit […] which might be found intelligible if treated as self-contained,” and believed that he had found it. Toynbee's proposed unit of analysis, the level of analysis above the nation-state, was organized, as he believed, sometimes as a system of independent states, sometimes as a single great multinational empire or socalled “universal state” (like the Roman or Han Empires). Toynbee accepted “civilization” as the best label for this underlying large society, with its common history uniting its states even when independent, eventually defining a “civilization” as a society with non-economic specialists and a vision or endeavor of pan-human harmony (1972:52, 44).

Like Danilevsky and Spengler, Toynbee contended that there had existed on Earth only a small number of these very large, very long-lived societies. In the last of his rosters he recognized 15 “independent,” 13–17 “satellite,” and 6 “abortive” civilizations. For instance, “Western civilization” was the underlying great society that united the West European enemy states of World War I, Britain, France, and Germany, and locked them to a common destiny.

Toynbee saw World War I primarily as a phenomenon internal to the Western civilization and displaying a crisis and breakdown in Western civilization. Likewise the horrific series of wars among the classical Greek states Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, and the succeeding spread of their wars east to Persia and west to Rome, Toynbee saw as a phenomenon internal to what he called “Hellenic” civilization, and as a symptom of its crisis and breakdown. Similarly, the epoch in Chinese history known as the Warring States period was to Toynbee a symptom of a crisis and breakdown of an underlying “Sinic” civilization, a civilization that linked and locked together the fighting states.

Toynbee saw civilizations as having in common the patterns of genesis in challenge-and response; growth toward self-determination, through creative responses to further challenges; breakdown, through tragic failure after demoralization by success; and disintegration into dominant minorities, internal proletariats, and external proletariats. The dominant minorities produced universal states which imposed civilizational peace; the internal proletariats produced universal churches – promoted by the state peace – which would nurture what might become higher religions; the external proletariats produced barbarian war-bands which in their “heroic ages” would destroy the debris of the dead civilization (1972: Parts II–VIII).

Toynbee found a further “standard pattern,” which he labeled the “Helleno-Sinic model,” combining a sequence from early Hellenic with one from later Sinic history. A civilization begins as a cultural unity without political unity; enjoys cultural and social progress, but suffers from chronic warfare. Intensifying warfare produces a breakdown, a time of troubles, and a universal state. The universal state in due course becomes an economic burden and disintegrates into anarchy; then the memory of its peace and order inspires the restoration of political unity, and so indefinitely, though with no guarantee of eternity (1961:197–209; 1972:55–64).

Like Hegel, Toynbee came to believe there might be some deeper element of progress in the whole flow of human history. Unlike Spengler, who thought that civilizations of the past died without leaving any useful heritage for the future, and unlike Hegel, who found the progress of non-Western “world-historical peoples” incomplete and something to be transcended, Toynbee believed that all the great civilizations – or at least those that had in their disintegration produced “higher” religions (e.g. Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism), some of which (e.g. Christianity, Islam) freed themselves from local and national matrices and offered universal spiritual help to all mankind, and one of which (Buddhism) usually did so in amicable coexistence with other faiths, had contributed to the story of human progress (1961:97, 307–8, 313; 1972:333–50).

Unlike Danilevsky, who emphasized the destructive and parasitic relation of “inoculation” between civilizations in contact (MacMaster 1967:207–8) or Spengler, who emphasized the distorting and oppressive “pseudomorphosis” inflicted by older on younger, neighboring civilizations (1932:II,189), Toynbee believed that the encounter between contemporaneous civilizations, though often destructive in just such ways, could by conscious sharing of experience and mutual adjustment be helpful to both or all (1972:377).

Unlike Spengler, who saw Western civilization as global, and the sole survivor of its species in the twentieth century, and unlike Danilevsky, who saw three survivors in the nineteenth, Toynbee saw 16 surviving civilizations as of 1972: Western, Russian, Indic, Sinic, Islamic, Monophysite, Nestorian, East and West African, South-east Asian, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamian, Nomadic, and “South-Western” (Pueblo) (1972:72).

Again unlike Spengler, who believed that civilizations were doomed to run out of creativity, decline and die, Toynbee, believing that humans possessed by nature a certain amount of free play and possibility for change, thought that by right decision and wise action a civilization could learn from the errors of its predecessors, avoid their errors, and postpone its own decline. Toynbee hoped that by the interaction of the several civilizations now alive on the earth today there might in future be created, out of the best elements of each civilization, a worldwide multicivilizational, culturally diverse universal state, or even a single “Future oecumenical civilization, starting in a Western framework and on a Western basis, but progressively drawing contributions from the living non-Western civilizations embraced in it” (1972:316–18, 422, 429, 443–4; 1961:559, 674).


The noted Russian (later American) sociologist Pitirim Sorokin was linked to Toynbee in art and life by their shared interest in long-term large-scale social phenomena, yet profoundly opposed his basic ideas. Toynbee expounded, studied, and theorized about civilizations; Sorokin, though like Toynbee an early member of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC), in fact doubted the validity of any idea, and specifically Toynbee's idea, of a “civilization.”

Pitirim Sorokin was born a member of the Komi minority in the old Russian Empire of the Tsars. He was a liberal intellectual and Orthodox Christian politician, a member of the democratic resistance in Russia. After the Bolshevik coup, Sorokin left the country to avoid execution (Johnston 1996:3–5).

Toynbee had been enthralled by war; Sorokin was enthralled by revolution. The result was much the same: Sorokin became a student of great social processes, of social catastrophes, and of sweeping cultural change. Having seen how, in Russia, a profoundly and deeply religious culture suddenly and almost overnight turned radically secular and antireligious, Sorokin was particularly attentive to long-term epochal change. This naturally brought the work of his contemporary Toynbee to his attention.

Toynbee believed that as of the twentieth century there were still many existing civilizations in the world with separate, though interacting, histories, processes, and phases. Sorokin by contrast was a globalist, in this more like Kant or Hegel: he thought the advance of capitalism and Marxism, both of them in his eyes empiricist and materialistic, was a worldwide phenomenon that did not respect any boundaries between Western and other civilizations.

Sorokin found other reasons to doubt the value of Toynbee's civilizational concepts. He noticed that the three civilizationists Toynbee, Spengler, and Danilevsky counted different numbers of civilizations in world history. Sorokin contended that Toynbee had no consistent definition of civilizations; that he sometimes defined a civilization by a common religion, sometimes by a common language, sometimes by a common territory, sometimes by the possession of a common state. Sorokin declared that the civilizations Toynbee found thus lacked meaningful unity, were not true systems; not even causally integrated, they were simply meaningless and arbitrary cultural heaps. Sorokin contended that all three civilizationists – most especially Toynbee – had observed social groups and wrongly fancied they observed cultural groups.

Sorokin concluded that Toynbee had not developed, that nobody had developed, and that there was no reason to expect that anyone would ever develop, a consistent definition of civilizations, a defensible list of civilizations, or a persuasive theory of civilizations (1950:113–20, 206–17; 1956:163–4; 1963:413–19; 1966:121–2, 548–9; Wilkinson 1996).

Sorokin however did not end with criticism. He offered his own theory of world-historic processes, one which, he claimed, was based on selfconsistent definitions and systematically collected historical data.

Sorokin believed that he could prove the existence of what he called “cultures,” or more precisely, “cultural supersystems” – macrocultures. Like Hegel's “peoples” or “worlds,” Danilevsky's “cultural types,” Spengler's “Cultures,” and Toynbee's “civilizations,” Sorokin's cultural supersystems existed at scales larger than nations, larger than states, larger than religious groups. But Sorokin's “cultures” were fully abstract types, unlike the geographically and even geopolitically specific entities of his predecessors.

The most notable historically distinct cultural supersystems that Sorokin distinguished were two: “Ideational” culture and “Sensate” culture. Each of these two great cultural supersystems is portrayed by Sorokin as internally logically or aesthetically consistent. The ideational supersystem is also sacred, religious, theistic, ascetic, messianic. The sensate supersystem can also be termed secular, empirical, humanistic, Promethean, scientific, technological.

Sorokin envisaged the main type of cultural process as a fluctuation between ideational and sensate extremes, passing briefly through an “Idealistic” phase in which material means are harnessed to non-materialistic ends. In Sorokin's view, each of the major cultural prototypes could grow and flourish for a while, working out its own internal possibilities. But both after a while tended to decline the ideational into a narrow, ideological fanaticism the sensate into gross, vulgar, violent brutality.

Sorokin thought a harmonious integration and balance among ideational, idealistic, and sensate cultures, hence faith, reason, and science, would be desirable and was possible, since the “idealistic” balance had in fact been reached by accident at some times and places. But such balance was unusual and unstable. The more usual routine was that each extreme cultural prototype exerted itself to the maximum, became dominant in an epoch, attained overripeness and declined, to be succeeded in turn by an epoch of dominance of the alternative extreme prototype: when ideational culture declines, sensate rises; when sensate declines, ideational returns.

Sorokin believed that the world in his time showed a clear global dominance of the sensate culture; that sensate culture had been dominant for 400 or 500 years; that sensate culture was now in an age of decline; and that a new epoch of aesthetic and religious creativity, an early ideational phase, lay just ahead.

It was his hope that on the one hand the growth of the new ideational phase could be hastened; and on the other hand that it could be prevented from too soon going to its fanatical extreme, but rather perhaps harmoniously completed and balanced by some of the best of the sensate and idealistic cultures, in a deliberately engineered synthesis for which he chose the name “Integral” and whose main program was “altruization” (Sorokin 1948; Johnson 1996).


Hegel insightfully perceived that a single historical process could persist over thousands of years, with the chief parts sometimes played by one people, sometimes by another; with the main parts sometime occurring in one place, sometimes in another. The idea of a continuing process that outlives particular religions, outlives particular languages, outlives particular states, outlives particular nations, and moves about on the earth is a real and valuable insight, better framed by Hegel than by Kant, preserved in different ways by Marx, Danilevsky, Toynbee, and Sorokin. The idea “that All men as such are free, and that man is by nature free” is certainly far more widely disseminated today, more “globalized” than in 1822–3, as Hegel expected. But it seems impossible to prove thereby the necessary existence or rational unfolding of a world spirit in history, itself a spiritual or religious teaching, and imprudent to assume that this global process is necessarily monotonic and cumulative – or that all such processes are therefore “progressive.”

Danilevsky persuasively insisted on the addition of Mexico and Peru to what became the roster of civilizations, and of Americans and Russians at least to the current account of the overall civilizational process. But Danilevsky melds geopolitically isolated, culturally diverse and variable macrosocieties (Mexico, Peru, Chinese, Indic, “Old Semitic”) into single civilizations if they are far removed in space, time and interest from Danilevsky himself, but divides such into several civilizations (Hebraic, Greek, Roman; European, Russian, American) if they are nearer, dearer, or at least more familiar. Hegel had done the like.

Danilevsky probably overemphasizes unilaterally profitable, parasitic, or exploitative interactions as the main form of relations between civilizations, or (as one might argue for his main case, Europe and Russia) between cultures within a single civilization. He was right to demand more attention than Hegel gave to the destructive consequences of encounters between culture-types; but a more balanced view, envisaging mixture, fusion, exchange, even perhaps mutual progress, at least as possibilities, could have led him to question his own apocalyptic visions of final war.

Spengler was brilliant and provocative. He develops a consistent and lucid picture. His material shares the “perspective” problem found in Hegel and Danilevsky: it comes mostly from three of his civilizations (Classical, Arabian, Western), the three “nearest” him, which he differentiates, while leaving each of “Indian” (including Buddhist), “Chinese,” and “Egyptian” (including Minoan) societies as a consolidated whole.

Spengler's hypotheses are intuited, elaborated, illustrated rather than tested systematically. Nevertheless, it would be feasible to draw a substantial number of significant and verifiable propositions from Spengler's work, and their investigation can itself be interesting, whatever its issue.

Sorokin's notion of “ideational” and “sensate” culture-types, with no geographic referent, are a significant contribution to the analytical vocabulary, which can serve in characterizing some current cultural processes and engagements in the current global civilization. Sorokin may have been overly sanguine in diagnosing the crisis of sensate culture and imagining that its global tidal advance would soon turn and ebb. His hope that we could find some harmonious reconciliation between extremes of ideational and sensate cultures is a practical civilizational project worth pursuing, or at least exploring.

But Sorokin goes too far, both in avoiding the use of the term “civilization” because of inconsistencies in its usage, and in studying only macrocultures, not macrosocieties. It should be possible to provide a consistent and explicit definition of civilization and a roster of civilizations that are all of one species and so can be studied comparatively, simply by treating civilizations as social groups and not as cultural groups. Each such civilization then appears, just as Sorokin complained (1950:213), as “a cultural field where a multitude of vast and small cultural systems and congeries – partly mutually harmonious, partly neutral, partly contradictory – coexist” – but this creates no logical inconsistencies, and poses only empirical problems.

Of the five scholars thus far mentioned, Toynbee provides the best foundation for the extension of the comparative study of civilizations. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Toynbee was also the most open to the systematic revision of his theories based on criticisms received. In an empirical test of his civilizational kinematics (phase transition sequence), original and revised versions, vs. those of Spengler, Philip Bagby (1958), Melko, and Quigley, the data seemed to fit the expectations of his revised theory perfectly; and those of his original theory came in next best (Wilkinson 1986:29).

Toynbee, by developing his taxonomic concept of “satellite” civilizations (1961:552), escaped the “perspective” trap into which Hegel, Danilevsky, and Spengler fell, by conscientiously maximizing the number of “distant” civilizations. He accepts, for instance, six East Asian civilizations (1972:72) where Danilevsky and Spengler each saw only one. He does not, however, thereby elude Sorokin; Sorokin's main criticism of Toynbee (and the other civilizationists) is justified. Toynbee did not define civilizations in a fully consistent way and the members of his various lists (1946, Table V; 1961, 558–61; 1972, 72) are in fact not all distinguished by the application of a single criterion, though the later lists are more consistent than the earliest.

Toynbee reacted too strongly against both Hegel's optimistic globalism and Spengler's pessimistic globalism, and thereby closed his eyes to the possibility – or the reality – that a historical system and process of global scale had become so prominent and dominant in world politics, economics, and culture that we should accept that the several civilizations of the past had already become one single global civilization. This seems paradoxical, since Toynbee himself was writing annually for the Survey of International Affairs, documenting the existence of the globalscale civilizational process which his civilizational theory denied or at best expected only in some remote future.

It may be that Toynbee was so determined not to be Eurocentric (“Europocentric” in his terminology), and to give a full hearing to the non-Western World (see especially his remarks, 1961:627) that he really could not see that the “oecumenical” civilization he hoped for had, as a global society, already arrived, and, as a global culture, had failed to arrive for its global society only in the same way and to same extent that every macrocultural homogenization of every macrosociety has failed.

Nevertheless, all Toynbee's work brims with ingenious ideas; right or wrong, rousing and sharp he is the most liberal of civilizationists, in the oldest sense of that word, and an excellent teacher. And of the five, Toynbee is also the one whose influence has had the most extended scholarly influence.

More Recent Students of Macrosocial Systems

Some leading recent and contemporary analysts of macrosocial systems whose work ought to be reviewed by those in and entering the field of comparative-civilizational studies are André Gunder Frank and Barry Gills; Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas Hall; Carroll Quigley; Matthew Melko; and Samuel P. Huntington. Melko, Quigley, and Huntington are all explicitly students of civilizations, and all reflect the influence of Toynbee. And of these seven scholars, all but Melko and Huntington focus on the economics of macrosocial systems, and on account of this focus have been influenced in one way or another by the work of Karl Marx, Quigley directly, the others by way of Immanuel Wallerstein's world-system analysis.

Wallerstein and the post-Wallersteinians

Wallerstein concurred with Marxism's emphasis on the importance of economics as the main driving force in history. But Wallerstein thought international economics, trade, and dependency were relatively more important in world history than the class struggles within nations emphasized by Marx. So Wallerstein concentrated his attention on the economics of international relations and uneven development. His major work, The Modern World System (1974, 1980, 1988), dealt with the history of world inequality after 1500, which he attributed to capitalism and thought could only be cured by socialism.

Now although Wallerstein made some observations about non-Western societies and world empires, and although he had gone farther back in detailed history then most Marxist or postMarxist writers, he did not deal at length with pre-modern or non-Western history. Some who thought Wallerstein was right both to treat economics as central, like Marx, and to examine the political economy of systems on a world scale, unlike Marx, also contended that such analysis of economic world-systems could be carried on in a useful and constructive way both for non-Western societies and their trade and inequality, and for periods very much earlier than 1500 ce (e.g. Abu-Lughod 1989, for 1250–1350). This interest in premodern and non-Western societies led them into interchanges with civilizationists, among whom such an interest was taken for granted.

Two pairs of world-system analysts in particular came into contact with the civilizationists: André Gunder Frank and Barry Gills; and Christopher ChaseDunn and Thomas Hall. Without themselves entering into comparative-civilizational studies, they drew upon Wallerstein to challenge civilizationists to take more account of the economies of civilizations than had been usual.

André Gunder Frank and Barry Gills (1993) strongly affirmed several key propositions. First and foremost they argued that the existence and development of the present world-system stretches back at least 5000 years. By this they meant to say that we can trace the currently global network of trade back in time to at least 3000 bce. At that early date the trade-net was of course not yet global; but, they maintain, it was at least Old-World-wide, connecting Africa, Europe, India, and China through trade routes in Central Asia.

Frank and Gills further asserted that a continuing process of capital accumulation has played a central role, perhaps the central role, in the world-system for several millennia. Their view was that the process of saving and accumulation of wealth from generation to generation has endured since at least the appearance of cities, which themselves imply capital accumulation; that the process of accumulation was much the same in East and West; and that the Marxist despotic, feudal and capitalist “modes of production” were not successive stages, but actually coexisted in time and space.

Gills and Frank also contend that they could trace far back in world-system history three basic processes that Wallerstein asserted as main world-system processes in the modern West: the unequal division of labor in the system between a privileged core area and an underprivileged periphery; rivalry for hegemony and achievement of hegemony over the system; and an alternation of phases of world-systemwide economic growth with phases of world-systemwide economic decline and crisis.

ChaseDunn and Hall argue (1991; 1997; Chase-Dunn 2001) that there were many different world-systems, many closed trading networks, not just Wallerstein's one, and that the many different “precapitalist” world-systems displayed different modes of production, or qualitatively different “logics of accumulation” (kin-based, tributary and capitalist). Chase-Dunn and Hall accept that the many small-scale local or regional world-systems that once existed have merged or been incorporated over the last 12,000 years into a single global system. Chase-Dunn and Hall propose a single model for explaining the changing scale and nature of world-systems, from the very local to the global, over the past 12,000 years. One major hypothesis they advance is that of the crucial importance at all scales of “semiperipheral development”: semiperipheral regions, they contend, are characteristically the most fertile locations for the emergence of new innovations and transformational actors at all social scales.


Certain major theses of Chase-Dunn and Hall (different modes of production in different world-systems; the central importance of the semiperipheral zones), run parallel to Carroll Quigley's earlier and independently developed critique of Toynbee (1961), which draws upon a critique of Marx rather than of Wallerstein. But being to a significant degree a believer in the centrality of economic processes in the evolution of civilizations, Quigley developed the idea of the “instrument of expansion,” a multicultural and civilizationist replacement for the global-progressive Marxist notion of “mode of production.”

Quigley's roster of civilizations is very like Toynbee's original list. Quigley found several surviving civilizations in the contemporary world, as did Toynbee, but Quigley saw fewer of them – Western, Russian, Indian, Chinese (1961:92).

Quigley proposed that close examination would find a specific phenomenology in the history of every civilization, namely, some social arrangement that acted for centuries as an “instrument of expansion” that produced economic surplus over subsistence; and caused that surplus to be saved; and caused those savings to be invested in increased production; and directed that investment toward inventions; and directed those inventions toward increased efficiency of production.

Quigley cited as examples of instruments of expansion household slavery, territorial feudalism, and commercial capitalism, and despotic state socialism. But in his view these were not a sequence of progressive modes of production in world history, but merely the particular instruments of expansion belonging to different civilizations.

When such an instrument of expansion existed and functioned, Quigley argued, civilizations, viewed in comparison, would be seen to display several features (1961:81–2):

  • increasing population;

  • increasing geographic extent;

  • increasing prosperity;

  • increasing political participation (democratic and revolutionary);

  • increasing factual and scientific knowledge;

  • increasing cultural creativity (artistic and philosophical).

But when a civilization's instrument of expansion broke down, usually owing to institutional changes that diverted production from the innovative cycle, the civilizations would be seen to move into a crisis (1961:82–4):

  • declining rate of expansion;

  • increasing class conflict and class oppression;

  • increasing frequency and violence of imperialist wars;

  • increasing irrationality.

“Stages of expansion” might alternate indefinitely with “stages of conflict” in the longue durée between the genesis and the dissolution of a civilization. “Western” civilization had already undergone three stages of expansion, in 970–1270 ce, 1440–1690 ce, and 1770–1929 ce (1966:10–11; cf. 1961:93, 227, 233, 248–250), and three of conflict. This alternation resembles Wallerstein's proposal that the “modern” world-system showed an alternation between long phases of economic growth and decline; but Quigley found such phases to belong to civilizations, to each separately, and to all of them as a class, but not to the world economy as a whole.


A more traditional approach to civilizations was developed in the direction of comparative social science by Matthew Melko. Melko's research involved the elaboration and, unusually, the empirical testing of a model of civilizations. Melko's roster of civilizations most resembles that of Quigley, his political sequence or cycle (feudal-state-imperial – 1969:101–35) that of Spengler (1932 [1920–1922): Table III).

After a series of studies of the incidence of peace (1973, 1981 [with Weigel], 1984 [with Hord]) Melko embarked on the attempt (1997) to establish the incidence and characteristics of epochs of general war in civilizations by collecting a list of general wars attributable to each civilization, assessing their consequences, exploring patterns in their onsets and in their outcomes, and ascertaining whether there was revealed therein a cycle of general wars.

Melko found (2001) 38 cases of general war, 33 of them from nine non-Western civilizations. By reviewing his case set, Melko reached tentative yet reasonably persuasive answers to his key research questions: general wars are rare and rather destructive. They often involve several civilizations, while remaining centered on the territories of single civilizations. They are not characteristically “turning points” in history, nor loci of major systemic change, nor parts of a patterned cycle. Their origins are diverse; they have no characteristic relation to or meaning for civilizational hegemony. Most hypotheses regarding their origins and consequences do not in fact hold up. Tolstoy interpreted the Napoleonic wars as gigantic events which, though decisive for participants, were meaningless overall. Melko's work suggests that general wars as a class are historically meaningless.


The best-known civilizationist work today is that of the late Samuel Huntington on the “Clash of Civilizations” (1993, 1996). Huntington defined civilizations in terms of cultural groupings and cultural identities, as the largest units of identification smaller then the human race itself. By his definition, then, there are necessarily always several civilizations on the globe.

Huntington then prepared a roster of civilizations, derived from Quigley's, which has a significant resemblance to that of Toynbee: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, SlavicOrthodox, Latin American, possibly African.

Huntington's main purpose was to identify and predict future patterns of world struggle. (Quigley did so as well, but only by the way – 1961:92.) Huntington suggested that, in the future, civilizations would increasingly become not just passive collections of cultural characteristics but organized, selfconscious actors in international politics; that conflict between civilizations would supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict; and that the fault lines between civilizations would be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington argued that, as a consequence partly of the fundamental cultural differences between civilizations (a point made by Danilevsky and Spengler) and partly because of the increasing impingement of Western civilization on all the rest (a Danilevskian idea again, and a persistent theme of Toynbee's, e.g. 1953), there were likely to be especially large, intense, and prolonged conflicts between “the West and the rest,” conflicts which Huntington thought particularly dangerous insofar as they pitted Western against Confucian and Islamic civilizations. He proposed to reduce the likelihood of such conflicts by reducing intercivilizational intermeddlings, especially in the form of Westernization.


Frank and Gills are quite right to reject the Marxian idea of a succession of dominant modes of production, and perceive instead a single economic process with a changing balance among different styles of production. It is also quite likely that, as they assert, there has been significant economic inequality within and between states since the earliest cities were founded. They are surely correct to discern a continuously existing economic network and process as far back as 5000 years ago, with very significant long-distance trade across an economic network reaching from Africa to East Asia, with Egypt, Mesopotamia, Europe, India and China linked through Central Asia (Wilkinson 1992, 1993). There is evidence (Wilkinson 1995) that they were right to see an alternation of phases of economic growth and decline across this network, as well as in the civilizations, or world-systems, included within it.

At the same time, it seems clear that the spatial domains of economic-trade networks, world-economies, or “oikumenes,” were not coextensive with those of the politico–military networks that characterize “civilizations” until the politico–military globalization of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries made it so. There was not, and could have been, genuine hegemony (or rivalry) over this whole great area for the entire 5000 years of the trade web's existence. Genuine rivalries for hegemony did exist, but within smaller regions of the oikumene. There were separate systems of politico–military–diplomatic interaction in the Middle East, in India and in the Far East for instance in 500 bce or 500 ce. These areas were different and mutually independent systems of states, systems of conflict, world-systems, and civilizations even while they were also parts and regions of a larger economic network or oikumene. While an entire oikumene can be subject to phases of economic growth and decline, only a politico–military network can generate rivalries for hegemony. Accordingly, we should expect to find that, before the nineteenth century, the linkage between economic phase in the multicivilizational oikumene, and political phases in each civilization within the oikumene, will be looser than after the global war of 1914–18. Thereafter the link between global economic fluctuations (i.e., the Great Depression) and global political fluctuations (i.e., World War II and the Cold War) can and perhaps does become much tighter.

Chase-Dunn and Hall have tantalizingly argued the viability of transferring a mode of analysis designed for application at global-civilizational scale to a far smaller social scale. Their critique of Wallerstein opens up the entirety of human history, and indeed prehistory, to analysis in world-systems terms. They have however retained the most problematic element of Wallersteinian theorizing, the imputation of “hegemony” in the modern world-system to The Netherlands (seventeenth century), to Britain (nineteenth century), and to the United States (twentieth century): the actuality of such hegemony, as opposed to active participation in hegemonic rivalries, remains to be demonstrated to skeptical eyes.

Chase-Dunn and Hall see many different world economies (closed trading networks), not just one, in world history. There have indeed been many small oikumenes or trade nets, as Chase-Dunn and Hall contend, in areas and periods outside the mainstream “world-system” focused on by Gills and Frank in the Americas pre-1500, in southern Africa pre-1500, in the South Sea Islands pre-1800s – as well as in non-civilizational (cityless) areas and periods. And these many oikumenes are worth studying, both in their own right and as tributaries to the mainstream.

Chase-Dunn and Hall view these non-mainstream oikumenes as having “precapitalist” modes of production. The problem in using the term “precapitalist” to describe any empirical world economy/oikumene, or any civilization/world-system, is that, while capitalist (and socialist) ideals, ideologies and utopias are rather recent, statist and marketive practices of accumulation and distribution are surely very old, the statist perhaps contemporaneous with the startup of civilization, the marketive perhaps much earlier.

Carroll Quigley’s writings should be better known to world-systems analysts, as providing a perspective they will be able to understand and appreciate; but they share with orthodox Marxism a problem which those analysts have already confronted. Working with the common assumption of civilizationists that civilizations are coherent monocultures, Quigley believed that in periods of economic growth it could be shown that civilizations were characterized by a single pervasive instrument of expansion. Like the classical Marxist idea of a single dominant mode of production, the idea of a single pervasive instrument of expansion is unlikely to be demonstrable. More plausible is the idea that, just as civilizations are polycultural, they are also polymodal that is, they can have and usually do have several different kinds of instruments of expansion or modes of production functioning side-by-side and simultaneously.

Elaboration of theories about the evolution of civilizations has advanced far further than the testing of those theories; in this connection, Melko's theory-testing work, which has resulted mostly in disconfirmations, is greatly to be praised for its “creative destruction.”

While Huntington's work has been the object of philosophical, ideological, and policy-oriented critiques, it contains an empirical-hypothetical component subject to test. A large-scale test of that component, conducted in a broad-gauged style similar to Melko's, would extend and deepen the empirical tests in the analyses of Russett, Oneal, and Cox (2000), Henderson and Tucker (2001) and others (cf. Bolks and Stoll 2003).

One basis for such a large-scale test already exists; it would build on the foundational work of the great statistician of war, Lewis Fry Richardson (1960). Richardson actually counted and measured the conflicts between and within cultural groups which he labeled Christian, Moslem, Marxist–Leninist, Confucian–Taoist–Buddhist (for old China), Shinto–Buddhist (for Japan), Hindu, Buddhist, and “animist” (for small tribal cultures). Richardson also counted and measured the conflicts between groups with different languages or the same language; with different religions or the same; of different races or the same; of different culture styles (as in dress, law, etc.) or the same. In his work, the importance of cultural factors in war origins was abundantly documented (Wilkinson 1980).

A positive research response to Huntington's initiative would be to revive the collection of statistics of deadly quarrels which Richardson completed for the years 1820 to 1952, but which has never since been brought up to date, even though, unlike other statistical collections on war, it gives explicit attention to cultural identities of conflict groups. By resuming the Richardson data collection on a large scale it would be possible to provide an independent test not only of Huntington's hypothesis but also of others, even the opposing hypothesis that cultures play no significant role in conflict. With such systematic data collection, Huntington's hypothesis could inspire a deeper and more empirical understanding of the relationship of civilizations, cultures, and conflict.


The “civilizations” and “world-systems” approaches to macrosocieties are not mutually exclusive (Sanderson 1995). There are constructive elements in both which can and should be critically selected and combined. In doing so, it would be useful to concentrate on the political–military–diplomatic foci of both approaches, since in fact both are strongly concerned to explain political conditions like hegemony and rivalry, general war, and general peace.

The study of macrosocial systems – civilizations and world-systems – is richer in theories than in data. Many existing theories lend themselves better to dialogue than to verification, but most contain significant elements open to verification. Matthew Melko followed the right track in extensively collecting evidence to test and to generate hypotheses. The post-Wallersteinian world-systems work of Frank and Gills, and of Chase-Dunn and Hall, has empirically testable components, some already tested and passed, which can be paralleled in cross-civilizational studies. Huntington's theories invite Richardsonian tests, greatly enlarging upon those tests already undertaken.

But evidence-collection and theory-testing will be unnecessarily restricted until Sorokin's objections are met. An essential preparation for more systematic comparative-civilizational research is the better specification of the unit of analysis, “civilization.” It is essential to delineate the spatio-temporal boundaries of civilizations as complex systems with particular locations in space and time, entities distinct from macrocultures and world-economies, with boundaries distinguishable from the boundaries of macrocultures and of world-economies (Wilkinson 1987a, 1987b, 2008). The study of civilizations as macrosocial systems can then become, and indeed begins to be, a part of science, as well as of humanistic philosophy.


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                                                                                                                                        Comparative Civilizations Review. At, accessed Nov. 2009. The leading journal for the comparative study of civilizations.

                                                                                                                                        Journal of World-Systems Research. At, accessed Nov. 2009. The leading journal for the comparative-historical study of world-systems.