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Cultural Diffusion


On one side were British thinkers such as G. Elliot Smith (with William J. Perry), who strove to trace all myths, rituals, and social institutions (except for those of hunters and gatherers) back to a single, seminal civilization—in Smith's case, that was Egypt (hence its characterization as pan-Egyptian and heliolithic). Pitted against the diffusionists were the evolutionists, such as E. B. Tylor (1832–1917) in England and the American Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), who held that significant inventions are independently created in many societies because of the common mental and psychological characteristics of our species. Influenced by the biological evolutionism of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and evolutionary paradigms of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), they ascribed to an essentially unilinear theory of the development of culture and may be referred to as independent inventionists and isolationists. A more moderate form of diffusionism, which absorbed certain aspects of evolutionary thought, was maintained by German-Austrian anthropologists such as Fritz Gräbner (1877–1934) and Father Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), who claimed that culture originated in several areas of the world that they called Kulturkreise ("culture circles"). They were referred to as the culture-historical (kulturgeschichtliche) school.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955) vigorously contested the more extreme forms of diffusionism and evolutionism through what is known as functionalism. The functionalists held that biological models should not be applied to sociological inquiries and stressed that cultural traits, even when it is possible to prove that they have been imported, are frequently radically reinterpreted in the societies to which they are introduced.

In the 1920s, with Franz Boas (1858–1942) at the helm, American anthropology clung to an essentially atheoretical position that rejected the polarizing assumptions of both diffusionists and evolutionists and considered functionalism to be overly schematic and insufficiently historical. While accepting the fact that cultural traits were manifestly transmissible, they emphasized the distinctiveness of cultures and the contingent, selective nature of borrowing. Among Boas's students was Alfred L. Kroeber (1876–1960), who put forward the modified notion of stimulus diffusion, according to which the general idea or principle of a cultural trait is thought to be adopted from one culture by another culture, but not its specific signification and purpose. Such concerns led to the examination of the mechanisms of adoption and adaptation.

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