Categories Anthropology I

I.6.(b) Diffusionism

Diffusionism as an anthropological school of thought, was an attempt to understand the distribution of culture in terms of the origin of culture traits and their spread from one society to another.

Diffusion may be simply defined as the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places . A more expanded definition depicts diffusion as the process by which discrete culture traits are transferred from one society to another, through migration, trade, war, or other contact .

Diffusionist research originated as a means of understanding the nature of the distribution of human cultural traits across the world. Diffusionism emerged as an “anti-evolutionist” school of thought, highly critical of the evolutionary school and its premise of “psychic unity of mankind”.

Versions of diffusionist thought

  1. all cultures originated from one culture center (heliocentric diffusion);
  2. cultures originated from a limited number of culture centers (culture circles);
  3. each society is influenced by others but that the process of diffusion is both contingent and arbitrary .

Points of Reaction

  1. The cross-cultural encounters provided the impetus for the development of concepts concerning the processes involved in cultural progress .
  2. The concept of diffusion originated in its opposition to the  concept of evolution, which proposed that all human beings possessed equal potential for inovation.
  3. It was in reaction to the concept of psychic unity of mankind.

Basic Premises

  1. Human are basically uninventive.
  2. Important inventions were made only once at a particular place.
  3. They spread through diffusion to different places.

Characteristics of Diffusion

  1. Adoption of a cultural trait by a group depends on meaningfulness and usefulness the trait to the socio-economic life.
  2. The original form of the cultural trait need not he retained during the course of diffusion.
  3. Diffusion is more or less from a developed to underdeveloped culture.
  4. Diffusion may create culture change in the group that borrows.
  5. Barriers for diffusion include factor like transport, communication, ethnocentrism, geography etc.

Schools of Diffusion

Diffusionism is further classified into three schools- British, German and American.

I. British School of Diffusion

The British school is  extreme diffusionist and anti-evolutiomst. It is also called Pan-Egyptian school or Heliocentric school because for these scholars, all the cultures originated from one culture centre- Egypt. Culture traits diffused or migrated to rest of the parts of the world from here.

The chief proponents are G. E. Smith  W. J. Perry and W. H. R. Rivers.

II. German School of Diffusion

The German School is considered  refined in its approach and methodology compared to their British counterparts. the development of culture occurs at several different places at several times. Thus, the culture traits originate independently, at several parts of the world and migrated to other places. Inventions and discoveries were continuous processes and they reach to other areas by migration.

The proponents in this school of anthropological thought were Frederick Ratzel, Frietz Graebner and Father William Schmidt.                                                                          ‘

III. American School Of Diffusion

 The diffusion of culture from one place to another is caused by the process of imitation. Borrowing the traits from one culture group is easier at times than to invent them within one’s own culture. The group which borrows a culture trait adopts it to suit the needs of its own culture. Thus, diffusion and modification are two principles that operate. The diffused traits are more similar in areas residing in a particular geography. The process of diffusion is more prevalent among cultural groups residing in close contact to each other. In order to explain diffusion, this group of scholars devised a methodology called Culture-Area approach. Under this approach, the world is divided into different cultural areas on the basis of geographical regions. Geographical aspects of culture are indispensable in studying culture areas. A study pursued throughthis approach reveals that groups residing in close geographical area represent more uniformity than others. This is why the American school is also known as “Culture Area School”.

The American school of Diffusion is represented by Franz Boas, A. L. Kroeber and Clark Wissler.

Diffusion, as an anthropological school of thought, was a crucial part in the development of anthropological concepts, however, it has suffered with ethnocentric bias.This resulted in emergence of functional school of thought.

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