Culture Is What We Are, Civilization Is What We Have

What is Culture, What is Civilization, Components of Culture, Functions of Culture, Development of Civilizations, Traits of a Civilization, Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Relationship Between Culture and Civilization

Hello Friends, today we will explore the essay topic name “Culture Is What We Are, Civilization Is What We Have” which had been asked in the UPSC Civil Services Main Examination 2020 (Section-B, Topic No. 5). Let’s start now.

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” – Jawaharlal Nehru


The quote “Culture is what we are, civilization is what we have” succinctly captures the key difference between culture and civilization. Culture refers to the beliefs, customs, arts, etc. that characterize a society, while civilization refers to the material and institutional structures created by a society. In this essay article, we will analyze this quote in-depth and examine the relationship between culture and civilization.

Defining Culture

The Broad Scope of Culture

Culture is a broad concept that encompasses all the knowledge, beliefs, customs, traditions, languages, values, norms, material objects and artefacts that make up the way of life of a group of people. It binds people together through shared experiences that shape worldviews and ways of being. Culture is learned and passed down from generation to generation through the socialization process. Language is an important part of culture, enabling shared communication and the transmission of knowledge and identity. Other key elements of culture include religious beliefs, social norms, music, art, cuisine, dress, rituals and customs. Overall, culture defines how people see the world and their place in it.

The Components of Culture

Culture has both material and non-material components. Material culture refers to physical or tangible creations like art, buildings, foods, tools, technology, etc. Non-material culture includes the beliefs, values, customs, traditions, philosophies and norms that guide society. Other non-material elements are social institutions like the family, education systems, political systems, etc. Symbols used in communication like language and art are also part of non-material culture. Both material and non-material cultures are important, as they fulfil spiritual, intellectual and social needs.

The Functions of Culture

Culture fulfils several important functions in human societies:

  • It provides a sense of identity and belonging through shared experiences and worldviews. Culture connects people to their social groups.
  • It promotes social solidarity and cohesion by providing a model for acceptable behaviours and norms.
  • It facilitates communication between members through a shared language and symbology system.
  • It preserves and passes on knowledge, beliefs and traditions between generations. Culture provides continuity and roots.
  • It allows people to adapt to environments through learned behaviours and technologies.
  • It provides meaning, purpose and standards for accomplishing goals. Culture shapes motivations.
  • It has recreational and aesthetic value through cultural activities like arts, music, dance, etc.

Culture is Learned and Shared

Culture is not static, but rather learned and passed down through generations. Humans are not born with culture imprinted in their genes. Children learn cultural norms through childhood socialization from family, school, media and other institutions. People who grow up in a particular culture absorb its elements and share common cultural bonds and experiences with other members of the culture. This collective learning and transmission process distinguishes culture from human nature.

Defining Civilization

The Development of Civilizations

Civilization refers to the advanced stage of cultural, organizational and technological development in human societies. Civilizations have urban centres, complex institutions, advanced technologies, writing systems, monumental architecture, and surplus economies that allow for divisions of labour and specialization. The earliest civilizations emerged around 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Mesoamerica. Key markers of civilization include agriculture, urban settlements, social stratification, government bureaucracy, labour specialization, monumental architecture, mathematics, astronomy and writing systems.

The Traits of a Civilization

Anthropologists generally identify the following traits as markers of a civilization:

  • Urban centres and high population densities.
  • Surplus food production and complex economic systems.
  • Full-time specialized occupations outside of agriculture.
  • Complex institutional structures like government, religion and bureaucracy.
  • Social stratification and inequality.
  • Standardized monumental architecture like temples, palaces and infrastructure.
  • Advanced systems of writing, record-keeping and mathematics.
  • Sophisticated technology and craft skills.
  • Elite arts, literature, philosophy and learning.

Civilizations represent the peak of human cultural complexity and organization. They demonstrate immense creativity, organization and adaptation. However, civilizations are also characterized by high levels of inequality, social stratification, concentrated wealth and power, and greater potential for conflicts.

Stages in the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

The history of human civilizations reveals certain broad patterns in their evolution:

  • Formation – Civilizations take shape around river valleys or other hospitable environments where agriculture and settlements first emerge.
  • Expansion – Economic surpluses, technological innovations and military conquest allow civilizations to expand their territories and spheres of influence.
  • Peak/Golden Age – A period of remarkable cultural, intellectual and artistic achievements.
  • Decline – Environmental disasters, epidemics, invasions, social upheavals lead to the breakdown of institutions.
  • Collapse or Absorption – The civilization disappears or is absorbed into a new emerging civilization.

The Relationship Between Culture and Civilization

Culture Underpins Civilizations

Civilizations are underpinned by the cultures that forge their fundamental belief systems, values, social institutions and achievements. Culture provides the social ‘glue’ and worldviews that shape people’s behaviour and motivations. Shared cultural bonds enable the collective action needed to build civilizations. As culture evolves, it lays the groundwork for more complex structures like writing, mathematics, technology and social hierarchies.

Civilization Represents the Materialization of Culture

If culture provides the software of beliefs and knowledge, then civilization provides the hardware of material, organizational and technological capabilities. Civilization represents the materialization of cultural knowledge into material forms like agriculture, infrastructure, writing systems, calendars, trade networks and political institutions. Culture evolves over centuries and millennia, while civilizations emerge more rapidly by actualizing cultural potential.

Civilization Shapes Culture Too

While culture underlies civilization, the process is also reciprocal. Once civilizations form, they start reshaping culture through new institutions like organized religion, formal education, political doctrines and social hierarchies. Successful civilizational traits get absorbed back into culture. Technologies like writing and mass media also reshape cultures.

Tensions Between Culture and Civilization

There are often tensions between traditional cultural values versus material changes brought by civilization. Social reformers and intellectuals sometimes reject certain civilizational achievements as undermining cultural integrity. Examples are movements like Gandhian simplicity, environmentalism, arts and crafts, etc. that attempt to restore non-material cultural priorities.

Examples of Differentiating Culture and Civilization

Indian Civilization and Hindu Culture

The Hindu religion and associated belief systems form the cultural core underlying Indian civilization. Principles like dharma, karma and reincarnation shape India’s culture. Indian civilization represents the material manifestation of this culture seen in achievements like the Indus Valley cities, Buddhist stupas and temples, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, literature, education system, bureaucracies, trade routes and diverse food traditions.

Chinese Civilization and Confucian Culture

Confucian philosophies and Daoist principles are deeply embedded in Chinese culture emphasizing harmony, moral virtue, filial piety and respect for wisdom and education. The Chinese civilization represents the working out of these cultural values to build large cities, waterways, the Great Wall, paper, gunpowder, civil service, restaurants, calligraphy, medicines, silk textiles and more.

Western Civilization and Christian Culture

Christian theology and values like human dignity, charity and justice undergird Western civilization. This culture evolved into university systems, democratic ideals, human rights doctrines, modern science, capitalism, Renaissance art, symphonic music, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and other achievements of Western civilization.


In summary, culture represents the shared worldviews, customs and social behaviours of a people, while civilization represents the technological, organizational and material infrastructures built by human societies. Culture is software programming human minds, while civilization is the hardware realized by collective effort. Civilization derives from culture, but also reciprocally shapes culture. This dynamic relationship between the two is the driver of human social evolution. The quote thus elegantly captures the interplay between culture and civilization in human development.

“Culture relates to objects and mindsets that we have; civilization relates to ideas and institutions that we build.” – N’Gai Croal

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What are some key differences between culture and civilization?

Ans: Key differences include:
1. Culture refers to beliefs, customs, values, etc. while civilization refers to material creations like cities, technologies, etc.
2. Culture is intangible while civilization is tangible.
3. Culture develops gradually while civilizations emerge more rapidly.
4. Culture is social ‘software’ while civilization is material ‘hardware’.

Q: What role does culture play in building civilizations?

Ans: Culture provides the shared worldviews, values, identities, and social behaviours that enable collective mobilization to build civilizations. It gives inner coherence and meaning to civilizational achievements.

Q: Can civilizations exist without an underlying culture?

Ans: It is highly unlikely civilizations can emerge without an underlying culture to bind people together through shared understanding. Culture provides the social fabric for civilization.

Q: Does civilization also reshape culture?

Ans: Yes, the material and organizational transformations led by civilizations also feed back into culture by creating new institutions, beliefs, and norms that get absorbed into the cultural matrix.

Q: What are some examples of tensions between culture and civilization?

Ans: Tensions can arise over technological changes undermining traditional values, industrialization weakening folk crafts, or globalization eroding local cultures. Social reformers often invoke cultural purity to criticize civilizational ills.

Q: What causes the decline of civilizations?

Ans: External factors like invasions, diseases, climate change and internal factors like social upheavals, inequality, and institutional failures are seen as causes of civilizational decline.

Q: How can culture and civilization be balanced for positive growth?

Ans: By evolving culture to incorporate modernity and progress while retaining its core humanistic values and allowing civilizations to materially advance people’s well-being and capacities in an inclusive manner.

Related Posts :

Leave a Comment