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Cultural Diffusion


After more than half a century of dissension over the opposition between cultural diffusionism and independent invention, many scholars began to search for means to circumvent the counterproductive impasse. A landmark event in diffusionist thinking took place at the 1948 International Congress of Americanists in New York when a Mesoamericanist archaeologist, Gordon F. Ekholm, and an art historian of South and Southeast Asia, Robert Heine-Geldern, presented an exhibition of Old World and New World artifacts that revealed startling similarities. In a subsequent series of publications, they suggested possible Hindu-Buddhist influences on the Maya and the Toltec. The methodology of new diffusionists such as Ekholm and Heine-Geldern differed markedly from that of their predecessors in that it downplayed unicentric theory and emphasized the accumulation of overwhelming amounts of juxtaposed, concrete evidence. Their work was carried on with the utmost attention to detail by researchers such as Paul Tolstoy, who pointed out striking cultural parallels between the manufacture of bark cloth in Southeast Asia and in Mesoamerica. On the theoretical plane, Tolstoy drew an important distinction between diffusion as explanation (arguable) and diffusion as event (demonstrable). Empirically grounded studies were also continued in the investigations of Stuart Piggott, who plotted the path of wheeled vehicles across large swaths of Eurasia, displaying a good example of a finely worked case study of technological diffusion.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century and the age of globalization, the discussion had been entirely recast (whether conceived of as a quantitative or qualitative difference in how cultural ideas have moved around since the dawn of humanity). A leading figure of this approach to macro-and micro-analysis of cultural contagion is Arjun Appadurai. One of Appadurai's most frequently cited texts is the essay entitled "Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology" (now Chapter 3 in his Modernity at Large), where he talks about the role of "imagination" in the transnational flow of culture that is associated with globalization. In the pathbreaking book entitled The Social Life of Things, edited by Appadurai, ethnohistorians look at the problem of how the objects of material culture change as they migrate, lending subtlety to the treatment of an unspoken diffusionism. It should, however, be pointed out that none of the anthropologists who are fascinated with such global phenomena claim any influence from the older schools of diffusionist thought and would undoubtedly disown it.

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