Anthropology and Culture

1 January 2017

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).

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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 its simplest elements, had spread after the advent of navigation; (3) human history was full of decadence and the spread of this civilization was naturally diluted as it radiated outwardly (Lowie 1937:160-161). Smith and W. J. Perry, a student of W. H. R. Rivers, hypothesized that the entire cultural inventory of the world had diffused from Egypt.

The development began in Egypt, according to them, about 6,000 years ago (Harris 1968:380; Smith 1928:22). This form of diffusion is known as heliocentrism (Spencer 1996:608). They believed that “Natural Man” inhabited the world before development began and that he had no clothing, houses, agriculture, domesticated animals, religion, social organization, formal laws, ceremonies, or hereditary chiefs. The discovery of barley in 4,000 B. C. enabled people to settle in one location. From that point invention in culture exploded and was spread during Egyptian migrations by land and sea.

This account was similar to the Biblical version of world history (Harris 1968:389-381). The German School of Diffusionism has chief proponents like Friedrich Ratzel, Leo Frobenius, Fritz Graebner and William Schmidt. Their approach was through the analysis of culture complexes identified geographically and studied as they spread and developed historically. It has both time and space dimensions. The first dimension of space was explained in terms of culture circles and the second dimension of time was explained in terms of culture strata.

Freidrich Ratzel (1844-1904) was a German anthropologist who was a significant contributor to nineteenth-century theories of diffusion and migration. He developed criteria by which the formal, non-functional characteristics of objects could be compared, because it would be unlikely that these characteristics would have been simultaneously invented (Barnard 1996:588). Ratzel warned that possible migration or other contact phenomena should be ruled out in each case before cross-cultural similarities were attributed to independent invention.

He wrote The History of Mankind, a three volume publication in 1896, which was said to be “a solid foundation in anthropological study” by E. B. Tylor, a competing British cultural evolutionist (Harris 1968:383). Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) was a German, who was the originator of the concepts of the Kulturkreise (culture circles) and of the Paideuma (or “soul” of culture). Although he had no formal education, he was involved in extensive research in Africa, which was made possible by donors and by his own income from books and lectures (Barnard2002:862).

Fritz Graebner (1877-1934) was a German anthropologist, who was a leading diffusionist thinker. Graebner supported the school of “culture circles” (Kulturkreis), which could trace its beginning to the inspiration of Friedrich Ratzel, the founder of anthropogeography. Leo Frobenius, a pupil of Ratzel, expanded on the “culture circle” concept, which stimulated Fritz Graebner, then at the Berlin Ethnological Museum (1904), to write about culture circles and culture strata in Oceania.

Two years later, he applied these concepts to cultures on a world-wide basis. In 1911 he published Die Methode der Ethnologie in which he attempted to establish a criterion for identifying affinities and chronologies, called the Criterion of Form (Harris 1968:383-384). Father Pater Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) was a Catholic priest in Germany and an ethnologist who studied religions of the world and wrote extensively on their inter-relationship (Barnard 1996:589).

At about the same time that Fritz Graebner (1906) was applying the culture-circle and culture-strata ideas on a worldwide scale, Father Schmidt helped to promote these ideas, began the journal Anthropos, and created his own version of the Kulturkriese (Harris 1968: 383). Although both Graebner and Schmidt believed that all culture traits diffused out of a limited number of original culture circles, Father Schmidt’s list of Kreise (culture circles) was the most influential. He proposed four major temporal phases: Primitive, Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.

Within this framework was a grouping of cultures from various parts of the world in an evolutionary scheme, which was basically the very familiar sequences of “stages” progressing from hunter-gatherer, to horticulturalists, to pastoralists, and ending with complex stratified civilization (Harris 1968:385). The Diffusionist thought in America centered on Culture areas which referred to relatively small geographical regions containing the contiguous distribution of similar cultural elements. The term culture area was first used by O. T Mason who identified 18 American Culture Areas.

His ideas were elaborated by scholars like Clark Wissler and Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie. In 1895 Otis T. Mason wrote an article entitled “Influence of Environment upon Human Industries or Arts,” which was published in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution. This article identified eighteen American Indian “culture areas. ” It was a simple concept, in that tribal entities were grouped on an ethnographic map and related to a geographical aspect of the environment. In 1914, the “culture area” concept was refined by G. Holmes. This comprised the basis for a “landmark treatment of American Indian ethnology” by Clark Wissler.

Even some years later in 1939, this same “culture area” concept was used by A. L. Kroeber’s in his publication of Cultural and Natural Areas (Harris 1968:374). Clark Wissler (1870-1947) was an American anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Even though he was not in a university where he could train students, his writings still influenced and inspired many of his contemporaries. His ideas on the culture-area approach were especially significant (Barnard 1996:593). In 1917 Wissler created a “landmark treatment” of American Indian ethnology based on Otis T.

Mason’s 1895 article in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, which identified eighteen American Indian culture areas (Harris 1968:374). He expanded the idea of “culture center” by proposing a “law of diffusion,” which stated that “… traits tend to diffuse in all directions from their center of origin. ” The law constituted that basis of the “age-area principle” which could determine the relative age of a culture trait by measuring the extent of its geographical distribution (Harris 1968:376). A. L. Kroeber (1876-1960) was an early American student of Franz Boas.

He helped establish the anthropology department at Berkeley as a prominent educational and research facility from where he conducted valuable research among the California Indians (Barnard 1996:581). Kroeber (1931) observed that the culture-area concept was “a community product of nearly the whole school of American Anthropologists (Rice, 1931). ” Using the culture areas proposed by Otis T. Mason in the 1895 Annual Report of the Smithsonian, Kroeber published his well-known book, Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America, in 1939 (Harris 1968:374).

Now that the background and contributors of diffusionism have been discussed; the concepts of diffusionism must be explained. This school of thought proposed that civilization spread from one culture to another, because humans are basically conservative and lack inventiveness (Winthrop 1991:83). An extreme example of this theory was the idea proposed by English scholar Grafton Elliot Smith. He considered Egypt as the primary source for many other ancient civilizations (Smith 1931:393-394). This form of diffusionism is known as heliocentric diffusionism (Spencer 1996:608).

A wider concept, explaining the diffusion of culture traits, was formulated by Leo Frobenius, through the inspiration of his teacher, Freidrich Ratzel. This version is called “culture circles” or Kulturkreise (Harris 1968:382-83). An even more expanded version of diffusionism was proposed in the United States, where diffusionist ideas culminated in the concept of “culture areas. ” A. L. Kroeber and Clark Wissler were the main proponents of this version (Harris 1968:373-74). Culture Circles German and Austrian diffusionist argued that there were a number of culture centers, rather than just one, in the ancient world.

Culture traits diffused, not as isolated elements, but as a whole culture complex, due to migration of individuals from one culture to another (Winthrop 1991:83). The Kulturkreise (culture circle) school of thought, even though inspired by Friedrich Ratzel, was actually created by his student, Leo Frobenius. This stimulated Fritz Graebner, at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, to write about this concept in his studies about Oceania, then on a world-wide scale. Father Wilhelm Schmidt became a follower of these ideas, created his version of the Kulturkriese, and began the journal, Anthropos (Harris 1968:382-83).

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