The word civilization carries connotations of a society that has reached a high level of culture, science, industry and government. Big historians carefully define it, however, as a distinct type of human community that emerges in certain locations with specific features.
The essential feature of civilization is a city, which is a settlement larger than a village and marked by some form of urban architecture. The city must have a sufficient population that allows people to specialize in non-agricultural occupations, such as craftspeople, merchants, priests and officials. This specialization frees them from the need to grow their own food and tend their own families. Cities also provide a setting where political and religious organizations can grow and develop along with complex economic exchanges, including trade and money.
Another important feature is the appearance of a centralized government and some sort of social hierarchy. This can take the form of a chiefdom, in which one family or clan rules a group; a state society with an elite ruling class and a plebeian or serf population; or some other system, such as a republic, in which citizens vote for representatives who represent them in a legislature. These governments typically have a system of justice to settle disputes and protect citizens’ rights. Civilization also includes the development of religion and a culture that may include organized art, architecture, literature and complex customs for those in the upper classes.
A third feature of civilization is some sort of complex communication and record-keeping. This can be accomplished with writing, which allows the codification of laws and better ways to manage resources. Some of the earliest written records, such as cuneiform in Mesopotamia and oracle bones in Ancient Egypt, were used to keep track of trade and other financial transactions. More recently, the invention of telegraph and later radio allowed for more sophisticated communications between cities and countries.
Some critics of civilization argue that it has moved beyond its originally beneficial purpose to dominance over the environment and humanity itself in an intrinsically harmful, unsustainable, and self-destructive manner. These critics are not without evidence, however, as human societies continue to exploit and diminish their own local resources at an ever faster pace.
Others are more ambivalent about the term, using it to refer to any sort of advanced culture or society rather than focusing on the question of what actually distinguishes civilization from simpler societies. This usage is more inclusive and less ethnocentric than the etymological and eighteenth-century French and English origins of the term. But it can be misleading, as every human society has its own unique set of characteristics and traditions. Historians have no definitive answer to the question of what makes civilization.