Cultural diffusion

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The concept of diffusion was born to controversy. The initial debate over this issue took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


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 civilizationin 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 (18321917) in England and the American Lewis Henry Morgan (18181881), 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 (18091882) and evolutionary paradigms of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (18591941), 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 (18771934) and Father Wilhelm Schmidt (18681954), 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 (18841942) and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955) 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 (18581942) 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 (18761960), 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.


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.


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.

See also Communication of Ideas ; Ideas, History of ; Oral Traditions .


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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The term "cultural transmission" does not appear in Sigmund Freud's work, but the idea is implicit in such notions as cultural heritage and phylogenetic inheritance. Freud believed that the (since abandoned) biological precept, according to which "ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis," could be applied to human psychic development. The notion of cultural transmission refers to the possibility that the acquisitions of an individual or of a culture can be transmitted to descendents and form the basis of cultural development.

Freud addressed the topic for the first time in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), where he advanced the hypothesis that the feeling of guilt over the murder of the primal father had persisted over the centuries and still affected generations that could know nothing directly about it.

In Freud's later works, the main mechanism of transmission was said to be identification, which ensconced the lost object in the ego, as described in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-17g [1915]), and finally produced an alteration in the ego that gave rise to the superego, as described in The Ego and the Id (1923b). In the New Introductory Lectures (1933 [1932]) Freud observed that the superego could be viewed as the outcome of successful identification with the parental agency, and as the natural and legitimate heir to the Oedipus complex. As the bearer of tradition, the superego was a true agent of cultural transmission from one generation to the next. In Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38]) Freud returned to the idea of an archaic heritage and compared such inherited acquired characteristics to instincts in animalsan inheritance on par with symbolism.

After Freud, the idea of phylogenetic transmission was seemingly relegated to the background, as an explanation of last resort, and the emphasis shifted toward a detailed and expanded study of identifications. The point of departure for this was Freud's remark in the New Introductory Lectures, in which he observed that the child's superego was not formed in the image of the real or imaginary parents, but instead modeled on the parents' superego. The main focus soon moved beyond direct parental and intergenerational identifications to more distant identifications, such as those with grandparents, ancestors, or mythical characters in family history, who re-emerge amid the descendents as a kind of actualization of family prehistory. The theme of the intergenerational (or transgenerational) appears in psychotherapeutic work with families, children, and adolescents, and sometimes gives the impression that this sphere of observation is being invaded by the study of archaic identifications. The other area where this theme comes to the fore is work with survivors or descendents of survivors of the Holocaust or other genocides, such as those committed by Latin American dictatorships. In these two areas, the importance of secrets, the unspoken, or ancestral crimes that the family has decided to bury, is much in evidence. In the case of the survivors of genocide, there is an attempt to make the traumatic situation disappear by denying it representation. But the buried material reappears two or three generations later, as a ghost that occupies the place where the concealment of important aspects of the ancestor's life has produced a "blank" in the descendant's psyche. In such cases, we speak of "alienating identifications." A particular aspect of this type of intergenerational transmission was studied by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok (1972/1978), in relation to the problem of grief.

We thus see that a number of ideas are related: in Freud's work we encountered identification, phylogenetic heritage, and intergenerational process; in other authors, the notions of transgenerational transmission, "fantasies of identification" (de Mijolla, 1986), and "alienating identifications."

In summary, we may say that the concept of phylogenetic heritage has gradually been reconsidered, to the benefit of more detailed study of the mechanisms of possible transmission, notably identification, the core of the issue. The uncovering of alienating factors in the subject's prehistory, factors that can go back several generations, has come to the fore, replacing the ideas of "family romance" and "mythical descent," so well known to us since Freud. But emphasis on the intergenerational may push analytic work in the direction of applied psychoanalysis, so distancing it from a deeper understanding of the configurations and processes of the analytic situation, which is the prime locus of psychoanalytic discovery. This danger may even be exploited by the ever-renewed faces of resistance to psychoanalysis.

Madeleine Baranger

See also: Intergenerational; Ontogenesis.


Abraham, Nicolas, and Torok, Maria. (1968). The shell and the kernel: Renewals of psychoanalysis. Ed. and trans. Nicholas Rand. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1939a [1934-38]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 139-207.

Kaës, René; Faimberg, Haydée; Enriquez, Micheline, et al. (1993). Transmission de la vie psychique entre générations. Paris: Dunod.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1986). Les Visiteurs du Moi, fantasmes d 'identification (2nd ed.). Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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cultural diffusion See DIFFUSION.