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Cultural Diffusion


While diffusionism remains unfashionable (indeed, virtually unmentionable) within anthropology, studies of diffusion in other fields are commonplace and fruitful. Investigations of the diffusion of innovations are regularly undertaken by researchers in agricultural economics, communication, education, sociology (especially early sociology and rural sociology), food processing and preservation, geography (particularly economic geography), general economics, industrial engineering, manufacturing, marketing and management, packaging, public health and medical sociology, psychology, public administration and political science, statistics, and other areas.

Prominent among scholars who undertake this relatively uncontested kind of pragmatic diffusionism, often employing sophisticated mathematical models, are Torsten Hägerstrand, Lawrence A. Brown, and Peter J. Hugill. These researchers have made fundamental contributions to the understanding of the diffusion of innovations in global communications, the analysis of world trade patterns, and the relationship between geopolitics (including its manifestations in war and espionage) and the transfer of technology. It is odd that the mere mention of diffusion among anthropologists is still capable of evoking paroxysms of indignation, whereas in most other disciplines it is considered a perfectly normal topic for discussion. One can only conclude that issues pertaining to diffusion in anthropology carry potent politico-ideological overtones and are borne on sensitive ethnological undercurrents that are wholly lacking in more utilitarian, less value-laden research fields.

The discipline of history has finally managed to extricate itself from the more acrimonious aspects of the debate over diffusionism. This is above all true of scholars aligned with William McNeill, who has for more than four decades identified intercivilizational contact as the main motor of human history. World history is now a vibrant subfield with its own lively journal (Journal of World History, edited by Jerry H. Bentley) in which researchers routinely write about world systems, interaction spheres, interregional contact and exchange, and other highly productive topics in noncircumlocutory terms. It is intriguing to observe that world historians increasingly resort to reticular imagery to show that the transmission of goods and ideas is multidirectional and totally interwoven. A parallel, but not always congruent, line of intellectual history is that of world systems theory, which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly as advocated by the economic historian Immanuel Wallerstein. A major concern of world systems theorists was the movement of precious metals among polities, some of which were separated by enormous distances. The Marxian aspects of this theory, together with the postmodern reaction against it, undoubtedly is one source of contemporary anthropology's lingering unease with diffusionism.


Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

——. ed. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, and Marcus W. Feldman. Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

McNeill, J. R., and William H. McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th ed. New York: Free Press, 2003. The second edition, by Rogers with F. Floyd Shoemaker, was published as Communication of Innovations: A Cross-Cultural Approach, New York: Free Press, 1971.

Victor H. Mair

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