- diffusion, diffusionismDiffusion refers to the spread of cultural attributes from one culture to another through contact between different cultural groups. Diffusion theory developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in opposition to evolutionary theory, both being concerned with the origins of human culture. Diffusionists such as Robert Lowie (The History of Ethnological Theory, 1937) saw cultures as patchworks of borrowed traits, the superior traits moving out from the centre, like the ripples from a stone thrown into a pond. The movement of these cultural traits could be reconstructed by assuming that the traits most widely distributed are the oldest.Some diffusionists sought to prove that all human culture originated in one place and spread out from there by diffusion. The similarities between Mayan temples and Egyptian pyramids led anthropologists like W. Perry (1887-1949) and Elliot Smith (1871-1937) to argue that Egypt was the fount of human culture (see, for example,, The Growth of Civilization, 1926).Anthropology has largely moved away from this debate, seeing most cultural traits in disparate areas as having developed independently, and criticizing the diffusionists for extracting cultural artefacts from their context. For example, although the Mayan temples and Egyptian pyramids share a similarity of form, they have completely different religious functions. Some of the original interests of the diffusionists have continued to be pursued by the American historical school of anthropology. See also Galton's problem.
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.