Ecumene Research Paper

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Ecumene (sometimes oecumene) is a rendition of the Greek word oikoumene, which the ancient Greeks applied to the inhabited (i.e., known to them) world. It conveys a sense of communion (as, notably, in religious ecumenism), a community of independent but interacting members, or a set of separate but interrelated societies and cultures. The notion is useful to anthropologists, geographers, historical sociologists, and world historians when they wish to indicate a large region that represents a sphere of persistent and effective interaction among a group of societies that have been influencing one another and have been shaped to some significant degree by a shared history. The concept of ecumene may thus serve to reflect the subdivision of the world into several separate spheres of culture-historical experience. More recently, with the growing interest in ‘globalization,’ the notion of a ‘global ecumene’ has emerged; the notion reflects the idea that the entire world is now becoming a single interaction sphere, and that processes (such as integration and constant cultural exchange) that used to characterize the more restricted ecumenes of the past now operate on a worldwide scale. This research paper will focus on the use of the term in anthropology, and to some extent in world history and historical sociology. The term has been most used by scholars interested in large-scale cultural dynamics over both time and space and who therefore tend to share in a common scholarly discourse.

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1. Early Perspectives

Nineteenth century evolutionary anthropology (primarily Anglo-American) assumed that local societies were expressions of general cultural evolution; in effect, the ethnographic world was not mapped geographically but was viewed in terms of postulated temporal stages. By contrast, German ethnology (which was more firmly grounded in first-hand observation) emphasized the geographical distribution of cultural traits; it regarded cultural contacts and diffusion as the primary mechanisms of cultural dynamics. This fitted well with the commonplace experience that neighboring societies usually tend to be culturally similar, forming what German ethnology called ‘cultural provinces’—a concept that stressed cultural continuities within regions.

Early twentieth-century American anthropology, whose worldview was derived from German anthropology by way of its founder Franz Boas, adopted this spatial perspective and saw the ethnographic world as being subdivided into ‘culture areas’ shaped by regional diffusion. This, however, was mainly true of the ‘primitive’ ethnographic world, which has usually been peripheral to the world centers of historically significant cultural developments. Even in the ‘primitive’ world, the diffusionist view raised some problems. The fact that North America, for example, had several culture areas rather than one, demanded some explanation of the cultural discontinuities between the culture areas (a problem that Ruth Benedict proposed to solve by postulating distinctive regional patterns of culture). When one turned to regions of historically complex societies (such as Europe, the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and South or East Asia) one found long-standing interactions in the midst of marked cultural heterogeneity.

The mounting dissatisfaction with the simplistic view of a world organized into a series of disparate culturally homogenous areas led Alfred Kroeber (1945) to draw attention to the existence on the world map of a central and culturally diverse area of ‘civilization’ (‘a great web of cultural growth’ stretching from Gibraltar to China). Within it, there were centers of consistent creativity, generating ideas and techniques that diffused through this area and sometimes to the peripheral areas beyond. Kroeber adopted the term oikoumene for it and his discussion may be seen as an early and prescient invitation to deal with the wider non-‘primitive’ world from an anthropological perspective. In this view, a culture area became a particular kind of ecumene—local and relatively, but not entirely, homogenous. As Kroeber (1936) had previously shown, such an area exhibited centerperiphery relations through which diffusion throughout it took place.

However, Kroeber’s 1945 invitation to expand the anthropological vision to worldwide cultural dynamics had scarcely any takers (for an unusual exception, see Hewes 1970). In the 1930s, anthropology began to abandon its regional ethnological perspectives in favor of a concentration on cultural dynamics. This turn took two directions. It either studied them within single societies or, when it dealt with contact, it studied it as it occurred between two neighboring societies. In the latter case, anthropology did develop a rich collection of ideas about cultural transmission, but the notion of the ecumene had no place in such a locally focused endeavor and it lay dormant in anthropology for some 30 years. In the meantime, the issues it raised came to the fore among world historians and historical sociologists (see Grew 1995).

2. World History

A ‘universal history’ had been a major project of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and the idea was revived in the earlier twentieth century in the comparative analysis of civilizations by such historians as Spengler (1926–1928) and Toynbee (1934–1961). Though these comparative studies did not fashion a unified historical narrative on a world scale, they did bring to attention the existence of ‘high’ periods in the histories of non-Western societies. This undermined the Eurocentrism of world history of the time, in which the first ecumene of any importance seemed to have arisen only with the fifteenth century expansion of the West. Now, attention was being drawn to the dominance of preceding regional ecumenes, such as the Islamic world or China-centered eastern Asia, with the West being frequently peripheral to them. Some historians, notably McNeill 1963), began to frame world history in terms of a succession of dominant ecumenes, thereby wrenching it out of the complete grip of Western history.

The disappearance of the Western colonial empires after the Second World War reinforced the trend, for it raised questions about the very primacy of the West in world history, the reasons for it, its transience, and the lessons all this held for the immediate future. Here, post-colonial political and sociological concerns merged with historical ones, calling into being a historically oriented political science and political sociology. To be sure, the focus at first remained Eurocentric, as shown in one of the first formulations of these new perspectives—that by Wallerstein’s (1974) ‘world-system’ analysis. Wallerstein took modern Western expansion to be a historically unique occurrence arising from specifically Western historical factors, such as the rise of capitalism. Nevertheless, the formulation was a first step toward an exceptionally fruitful debate and a series of analyses and reanalyses (e.g., Abu-Lughod 1989, Frank and Gills 1992, Smith 1991).

The debate brought to historical consciousness a variety of preceding smaller ‘world-systems,’ ecumenes that coexisted with one another in different patterns of integration, and that went back into prehistory. This new world history transcends the traditional national units and focuses on such inter- regional processes as long-distance trade, economic interdependence, interregional enterprise, large-scale imperial polities, and continent-wide cultural relations between centers and peripheries. It recognizes large areas of economic, political, and cultural interaction, their dynamics, and their periodic demise and reorganization into new ecumenes (Mazlich and Buultjens 1993). As is natural with any new paradigm, it has led to detailed examinations of local dynamics of economic, political, and cultural exchanges. This development represents, in some sense, a retreat from worldwide perspectives and it often provides correctives to the sweeping assertions of the grand picture. But many of these local studies take the world setting as a necessary context for their analyses and thus address the broader issues.

3. Modern Anthropology

Similar currents began to sweep anthropology in the later 1960s. The paradigm that had dominated anthropology since the 1930s and that dealt with the systemics of single cultures was lapsing. The demise of colonial rule made an ahistorical approach to ethnography increasingly unrealistic, and this called attention to the larger forces swirling around the anthropologist’s supposedly isolated societies. With the introduction of historicity into modern ethnography, it has become obvious that historicity is also necessary in dealing with the ethnographic past.

This new vision of former ‘primitives’ as being bounced about by the surrounding world was also reinforced by the popular journalistic discussions of ‘globalization,’ including large-scale international migrations, ethnic diasporas, world labor markets, economic integration, transnational economic and cultural flows, multiculturalism, cultural ‘creolization,’ the unifying role of the cyber net, and the divisive role of networks. These processes are sometimes seen as dismantling the separate old regional ecumenes that used to divide the world. What looms instead is a single community of interacting societies whose very borders appear increasingly to come into question—in brief, a single ‘global ecumene’ whose nature is being explored by anthropologists with the use of anthropological concepts (e.g., Foster 1991, Hannerz 1992). Thus, Kroeber’s ancient oikemene has been transposed out of culture history and into the contemporary era.

In sum, the concept of the ecumene allows anthropologists to deal with interactions among disparate societies. Previously, the only concept that aggregated groups of societies was that of the culture area. But culture areas projected a homogenizing view of cultural interaction and it tied cultural diffusion to territorial continuities. The ecumene, by contrast, allows anthropologists a more realistic view of cultural dynamics—one in which very different societies interact and influence one another selectively and without ceasing to be different. As the mechanisms of such influence become better understood, it becomes clear that they can operate over discontinuous territory and thus encompass, in the modern age, the entire globe. At the same time, it should be noted that much of this new concern in anthropology has more to do with subject matter than theory, for it revives such old-standing anthropological interests as innovation, diffusion, culture contact, and selective acculturation.


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  2. Foster R J 1991 Making national cultures in the global ecumene. Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 235–60
  3. Frank A G, Gills B K 1992 The five thousand year world system: An interdisciplinary introduction. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 18: 1–79
  4. Grew R 1995 Review of Costello P World historians and their goals: Twentieth century answers to modernism. History and Theory 34: 371–95
  5. Hannerz U 1992 The global ecumene as a network of networks. In: Kuper A (ed.) Conceptualizing Society. Routledge, London
  6. Hewes G W 1970 Mapping the growth of the Old World ecumene. In: VIIth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences VIII. Nauka, Moscow, pp. 373–79
  7. Kroeber A L 1936 Culture elements distributions: III. Area and climax. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 48: 1–242
  8. Kroeber A L 1945 The ancient oikoumene as an historic culture aggregate. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 75: 9–20
  9. Mazlich B, Buultjens R (eds.) 1993 Conceptualizing Global History. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  10. McNeill W H 1963 The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  11. Smith A K 1991 Creating a World Economy: Merchant Capital, Colonialism, and World Trade, 1400–1825. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  12. Spengler O 1926–1928 The Decline of the West. 2 Vols. Knopf, New York
  13. Toynbee A 1934–1961 A Study of History. 12 Vols. Oxford University Press, New York
  14. Wallerstein I M 1974 The Modern World-System. 2 Vols. Academic Press, New York
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