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

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