This short introduction to the following collection of essays seeks to map out the different ways in which the discourse of civilization has been understood and deployed over the past century. We can find tensions in the understanding of civilization between conceptions of it as singular and multiple, between civilization as a process and an achieved state, between spiritual and material civilizations, and between elite and popular or ethnographic versions. These tensions reflect the ambivalence of civilization as subservient to the goals of the nation-state and as encompassing a higher, authorizing ideal that continues to this day.