Diffusionism (Anthropology)

Fundamental to anthropological inquiry in the late nineteenth century was the task of explaining similarities observed in the habits and beliefs of so-called primitives all over the world. Were peoples everywhere essentially identical, joined in the ‘psychic unity’ postulated by such figures as the German Adolf Bastian, and therefore capable of independently inventing the basic constituents of social life? Or did common practices denote common origins, indicating that similarities were products of diffusion? At issue was the mechanism of human progress, the process by which humans rose from their primeval condition to superior states. If diffusion rather than independent invention explained resemblances among peoples who were separated by great distances and geographical barriers, then these peoples might once have been joined, or they might each have been affected by contact with migrant bearers of the traits they shared.

Why should accounts of social change not invoke both independent invention and diffusion? The American Lewis Henry Morgan did so — and infuriated his British contemporaries. Morgan argued that ‘the experience of mankind has run in nearly uniform channels’, indicating agreement with British sociocultural anthropologists’ view of progress as an independently invented passage through an invariant sequence of evolutionary stages; but he also insisted that peoples who shared such traits as kinship terminology had to be members of the same racial stock — even if they were geographically dispersed. Such prevarication was inadmissible among the founders of British anthropology as a discipline, evoking the poly-genist argument they successfully suppressed, for equating culture and race suggested that the varieties of humankind were separate species. Thus, late nineteenth-century British anthropologists insisted that, at least in the more primitive of societies, independent invention was the primary mechanism of social change; though such figures as E.B. Tylor allowed that cultural diffusion occurred, they focused on the evolutionary progress which derived from societies’ internal dynamics (see Tylor 1888; Lowie 1937: 59, 60-1; Stocking 1971).

By the turn of the twentieth century, the unity of the human species had become incontrovertible. Palaeoanthropologists undertook to trace the lines of filiation joining all human varieties to a single (disputed) origin point, and diffusionist interpretations assumed very different significance for sociocultural anthropologists. In Britain, such prominent figures as fA.C. Haddon and fW.H.R. Rivers determined that social change must be explained as a function of migration and ^culture contact, thus embracing the fundamental premises of diffusionist argument. Biologically trained, they reasoned that they were extending Darwinian principles into anthropology: social forms were like life-forms, migrating over diverse habitats if not presented with geographical obstacles to movement, sustaining adaptive modifications as their circumstances changed. The British extreme diffusionists, led by the palaeoanthropologist fG. Elliot Smith, his associate W.J. Perry, and (for a time) Rivers, emboldened by the 1900 rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s genetic findings, declared that human beings were naturally conservative and a new form of social life was analogous to a new species arising from genetic mutation; the basis of Western civilization was a set of practices engendered by historical accident in ancient Egypt. Enjoying considerable prestige within the British scientific community in the years around World War I, the diffusionists were discredited after the war by the emergent functionalist school of Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Redefining the enterprise of sociocultural anthropology, declaring biological findings irrelevant to sociological inquiries and bracketing consideration of the course of human history, the functionalists rendered the issue of independent invention versus diffusion moot: even if some practices in any given society could be identified as imported, their original character was effectively obliterated by incorporation into the ongoing life of the society, in which they might serve functions altogether different from their purposes elsewhere. Formulated in opposition to extreme diffusionism, then, British functionalism was also uncompromisingly schematic (see Elliot Smith etal. 1927; Kuklick 1992: 119-81).

By contrast, American sociocultural anthropology of the first half of the twentieth century, shaped by Franz Boas and his students, blended approaches regarded as mutually exclusive in Britain. Trained in Germany as a geographer, Boas attended to factors that figured in the historical school of Fritz Graebner and Wilhelm Schmidt, who identified primeval culture complexes, Kulturkreise, which underwent modifications as they diffused throughout the globe; but unlike theirs his approach was historical rather than historicist, postulating neither cultural archetypes nor a pattern in world history. Early twentieth-century American anthropologists might have insisted that the processes of independent invention and diffusion be distinguished, but they considered documentation of the course of diffusion a vehicle for explication of the problematic at the very core of British functionalism. That is, they judged that by identifying the selective principles which determined assimilation of diffused elements, the anthropologist revealed the ethos of the host culture – the coherent interdependence of its habits and beliefs (see Wissler 1914; Steward 1929; Lowie 1937: 142-6, 177-85).


By the World War II era, the question of independent invention versus diffusion had been rendered nonsensical in sociocultural anthropology: either it was irrelevant to explanation of the dynamics of social life or it represented a false dichotomy. It persisted in certain anthropological quarters, however. In particular, archaeologists remained concerned to specify the nature of innovations, because, unlike socio-cultural anthropologists, they had not abandoned the effort to account for world historical change (see Stahl 1994).

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