Diffusionism: Anthropology and Culture

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Diffusionism as an anthropological school of thought was an attempt to understand the nature of culture in terms of the origin of culture traits and their spread from one society to another. Diffusionism refers to the diffusion or transmission of cultural characteristics or traits from the common society to all other societies. The Biblical theory of human social origin was taken for granted in Renaissance thought (14th century-17th century). The role diffusion played in cultural diversity was acknowledged, but could only be interpreted as the result of cultural decline from an "original Adamic condition" (Hodgen 1964:258). The Renaissance conception of a "Great chain of Being", the hierarchical ordering of human societies, reinforced this Biblical interpretation (Hodgen 1964: Ch. 10). They criticized the Psychic unity of mankind of evolutionists. They believed that most inventions happened just once and men being capable of imitation, these inventions were then diffused to other places. According to them all cultures originated at one point and then spread throughout the world. They opposed the notion of progress from simple to complex forms held by the evolutionists. They also held that primitive or modern are also a relative matter and hence comparative method is not applicable. They looked specifically for variations that gradually occurred while diffusion took place. Versions of diffusionist thought included the conviction that all cultures originated from one culture center (heliocentric diffusion); the more reasonable view that cultures originated from a limited number of culture centers (culture circles); and finally the notion that each society is influenced by others but that the process of diffusion is both contingent and arbitrary (Winthrop 1991:83-84). Diffusionist research originated in the middle of the nineteenth century as a means of understanding the nature of the distribution of human culture across the world. By that time scholars had begun to study not only advanced cultures, but also cultures of nonliterate people (Beals and Hoijer 1959:664). Studying these very diverse cultures created the major issue of discerning how humans progressed from primeval conditions to superior states (Kuklick 1996:161). Among the major questions about this issue was whether human culture had evolved in a manner similar to biological evolution or whether culture spread from innovation centers by diffusion (Hugill 1996:343). The main proponents of British school of Diffusionism were G. Elliot Smith, William J Perry and W.H.R Rivers. They held the view that all cultures originated only in one part of the world. Egypt was the culture center of the world and the cradle of civilization. Hence human culture originated in Egypt and then spread throughout the world. They pointed to the Pyramid like large stone structures and sun worship in several parts of the world. W. H. R. Rivers (1864-1922) was a British doctor and psychiatrist who became interested in ethnology after he went on a Cambridge expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898. He later pursued research in India and Melanesia. His interest in kinship established him as a pioneer in the genealogical method and his background in psychiatry enabled him to do research in the area of sensory perception (Barnard 1996:588). Rivers was converted to diffusionism while writing his book, The History of Melanesian Society, and was the founder of the diffusionist trend in Britain. In 1911, He was the first to speak out again evolutionism (Harris 1968:380). G. Elliot Smith (1871-1937) was a prominent British anatomist who produced a most curious view of cultural distribution that Egypt was the source of all higher culture. He based this on the following assumptions: (1) man was uninventive, culture seldom arose independently, and culture only arose in certain circumstances; (2) these circumstances only existed in ancient Egypt, which was the location from which all culture, except for...
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