The diffusion of ideas or artifacts from one culture to another is a well-attested and uncontroversial concept of cultural anthropology. For example, the practice of agriculture is widely believed to have diffused from somewhere in the Middle East to all of Eurasia, less than 10,000 years ago. Other established examples of diffusion include the smelting of iron in ancient times, and the use of cars in the 20th century.
In 1962, Everett Rogers published his seminal book on Diffusion of innovations. The book is now in its fifth edition and Rogers is widely regarded as the father of studies into how and why cultures adopt new innovations.
Mechanism of diffusion
Cultural diffusion can happen in many ways. Migrating populations will carry their culture with them. Ideas can be carried by trans-cultural visitors, such as merchants, explorers, soldiers, diplomats, slaves, hired artisans. Trans-cultural marriages between two neighnoring or interspersed cultures will also do the trick. Among literate societies, diffusion can happen through letters or books (and, in modern times, through other media as well).
Although migration is responsible for the mechanism of diffusion, diffusion does not actually occur until the culture practice is adopted the new group.
While the concept of diffusion is well accepted in general, conjectures about the existence or the extent of diffusion in some specific contexts have been hotly disputed. Those disputed are fueled in part by the overuse of diffusion, starting in the late 19th century, as an explanation for all similarities between widely dispersed cultures. The most famous proponent of this theory was William Graham Sumner, who argued that civilization first formed in ancient Egypt and then diffused to other places.
A more recent proponent of this theory was Thor Heyerdahl, who argued that elements of Polynesian culture have their origins in ancient Peru.
The theory of diffusion has been criticized for being ethnocentric; it implies that people living in different places are not equally capable of innovation; that some people innovate and others copy. It has also been criticized for being speculative.
Today most anthropologists accept that diffusion occurs, but see it as one among many explanations for cross-cultural similarities. Even when diffusion occurs, the theory does not explain why it occurs -- in other words, why some ideas or artifacts diffuse, and others do not. Moreover, it does not explain how in the course of diffusion traits may be assigned new uses and meanings.
Last updated: 04-29-2005 17:01:29