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  Diffusionism (from Latin diffunder, ‘to pour out’) is the term used by anthropologists and sociologists to account for the spread, through time, of aspects of culture—artistic traditions, language, music, myths, religious beliefs, social organization, technological ideas—from one society or group to another. The term was first used by the anthropologist Edward Tylor, in his book Primitive Culture (1871), to explain the presence of elements of culture in societies where they could not have originated.

Tylor\'s work initiated a debate among anthropologists which continued for most of the succeeding 50 years. Diffusionists used evidence for similar cultural elements from diverse areas to map out geographical distributions, forming what were called ‘culture areas’. With the increase in Egyptian archaeological finds from the 1920s onwards, Elliott Smith and others proposed the spread of Egyptian culture as a model, saying that cultural traits diffused from this ‘cradle of civilization’ to other parts of the world, as ripples spread when a stone is thrown into a pond—a process effected, they said, by cultural contact, by trade or by movement of populations. Evolutionists, by contrast, claimed that if similar cultural traits were observed in diverse communities, they could equally well be the result of coincidence, that different peoples could experiment and invent on similar lines without need of actual contact.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the diffusionist-evolutionist debate was dropped in anthropology, mainly because its historical arguments could not be properly substantiated. Instead, anthropology concentrated on data collected from field work among communities in the present. However, the debate continues in speculation about archaeological finds, and is helped by the method of radiocarbon dating (pioneered by W.F. Libby in 1946). This discussion has centred on the geographical origins and spread of humankind (a study supported by skeletal discoveries), and on speculations about the origins of material cultures (a study supported by the remains of artefacts and the evidence of such things as crop cultivation and metal technology).

Sociologists generally come down on the diffusion side of the evolution-diffusion argument. Some go so far as to claim that by the present day cultural diffusion has occurred on such a large scale that all modern societies exist as part of a single world-system. There is a body of opinion which holds that the diffusion of social institutions and cultural values characteristic of Western capitalist systems was essential if development was to occur in the Third World; their critics point out that the diffusion of Western cultures to the Third World, which has been occurring for centuries, has resulted in under-development rather than development.

Sociologists also use the term diffusion in a more mathematical sense to refer to the spread of ideas. Models show a pattern of spread which proceeds slowly at first, then more rapidly, then slowing down as there are fewer people still to be involved. These models are similar to those for the spread of disease, but social diffusion is assumed to be more varied than that of disease. DA RK

See also archaeology; assimilation; civilization; convergence thesis; dependency theory; ethnoarchaeology; evolutionism; field work; globalization; norms; society; syncretism; theories of modernity; values; world system.Further reading J. Goody (ed), The Developmental Cycle in Domestic Groups; , P. Spencer, The Riddle of the Sphinx.



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