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A sketch of the model of worldwide cultural diffusion radiating from Egypt (after Grafton Elliot Smith ) as an example of heliocentric diffusionism in the early 20th century

Diffusionism (from Latin diffundere "pour out, spread": theory of cultural spread) describes a series of social and cultural theories to explain cultural development and spread in connection with similarities between neighboring and also distant cultures ( societies ). A basic assumption of this research approaches states that cultural innovations ( innovations ) worldwide rarely invented are and then spread to other cultures. Accordingly, the equality and similarities between different cultures are attributed to their contact with one another (see also culture transfer and homology ).

Classic diffusionism

Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904) is considered to be the founder of early or classical diffusionism

The diffusionism developed at the end of the 19th century in response to the theories of evolutionism (the higher oriented society development) and played up in the 1920s into a major theory strand of Social and Cultural Anthropology an important role in the German ethnology ( anthropology ). In the Anglo-Saxon language area , this theoretical approach was referred to as the German School .

The German zoologist and geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904) is considered the founder of diffusionism .

A representative of classical diffusionism was the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius as the founder of the culture circle theory (first in 1898). His pupil Hermann Baumann assumed that cultures influenced each other towards the end of the 4th millennium BC. In the area between the Nile and the Indus , which created a world myth that later spread in waves to different regions.

Further representatives were above all the Viennese School of Ethnology with Wilhelm Schmidt and his pupil Wilhelm Koppers , which developed in the 1920s , as well as the museum ethnologists Bernhard Ankermann , Fritz Graebner , William Halse Rivers and Clark Wissler . The Viennese School used the basic terms "primitive culture, primary culture, secondary culture", whereby the primitive culture was viewed as the most valuable, the so-called "civilized peoples" as degenerate in comparison .

Prominent representatives of diffusionism in the field of archeology , the so-called cultural - historical archeology , were Gustaf Kossinna (1858–1931) and Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957), who tried to trace the spreading process and migration of the early Indo-Europeans .

The diffusionists viewed cultural innovations as relatively rare occurrences and assessed the inventiveness of humans and the influence of environmental factors on cultural techniques as generally rather low. They attributed the great cultural achievements to a few creative peoples - quite in keeping with the background of the genius cult of this time and ideas of the superiority of certain races . To reconstruct the history of mankind and civilization, they resorted to spatial explanatory models: "From the spread of cultural elements in space, one hoped to draw conclusions about geographical movements in time and thus about the history of peoples." The transfer of cultural elements or phenomena took place afterwards this theory through migrations of peoples , trade and travel contacts, through missionary work or through the conquest by a foreign people . Often the extreme diffusionism - also with some of Friedrich Ratzel's successors - was associated with racist or Christian fundamentalist meanings, as it tended to "globalize one's own", as well as to oppose Western (or later US ) culture as a bringer of civilization To absolutize “persistent” non-European societies (see also Eurocentrism ).

The American anthropologist Roland Burrage Dixon examined the writings of the early diffusionists in his 1928 work The Building of Culture . He saw cultures as holistic static units that only change through migration, a position that has found no successor. In contrast, the Danish ethnographer Thomas Thomsen (1870–1941), who conducted field research among the Inuit in Greenland and Canada, viewed cultures as collections of material elements and artefacts that can "migrate" separately. Any comparison of the development of cultures must be based on an analysis of their individual elements or the complexes of such elements. A similar position was taken by Kaj Birket-Smith , who examined the spread of the circumpolar culture of reindeer herders and traced it back to both migrations and the diffusion of individual materials and artifacts, some of which had existed since the Paleolithic. When assessing the question of whether a cultural element is a local innovation or the result of a diffusion process, Birket-Smith also resorted to geographical aspects.

Most proponents of diffusionism do not presuppose a single primitive culture, but only a limited number of cultural centers. Theories that assume that all cultural and technical innovations can be derived from a single starting point are also known as hyperdiffusionism .

Critics of diffusionism such as Adolf Bastian pointed to the great similarity of the “elementary ideas” of many peoples, an idea that refers to the archetypes of C. G. Jung .

Heliocentric Diffusionism

As heliocentric diffusionism historical theories are called, their representatives, the Ancient Egyptians saw as the cradle of human culture. The Egyptian culture has fertilized a number of civilizations , all of which worship the sun as the main deity. Representatives were, for example, the Australian Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) and the British William James Perry (1887-1949).

Modern diffusionism

A number of different theories are assigned to modern diffusionism, which no longer primarily attach great importance to the spread of dominant cultures through conquest or land grabbing as a driving force of cultural development, but rather to establishing contact and interaction with previously isolated cultures across large areas, for example by crossing the Pacific . A well-known representative is the Norwegian researcher Thor Heyerdahl (1914–2002).

The British Marxist archeology theorist Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), who initially followed Gustaf Kossinna's theories , but then criticized them for their racist meaning and the internal development dynamics and differentiation of early societies, was more important than migrations and theoreticians moderately diffusionist theories attributed asymmetrical cultural contacts. For him, stages of development in human culture were not tangible realities, but spiritual contexts of meaning or order structures whose foundations were to be grasped. In contrast to linear racist theories of evolution, Childe used the terms neolithic revolution and urban revolution .

In their original subject areas ( anthropology and ethnology , archeology and cultural geography ), diffusionist theories are still hardly recognized, and sometimes even taboo .

Opposite poles

In contrast to diffusionism are theories of socio-cultural evolution , evolutionism and memetics (dissemination of the content of consciousness). The concept of contact innovation at the borderline between two cultures, which plays a role, for example, in linguistics and archeology, occupies an intermediate position between diffusionist and evolutionist theories .

For example, all attempts at diffusion theory, the emergence of the old West African kingdoms on diffusion processes of the culture of the kingdom of Kush, for example through the dissemination of the state idea by mounted war elites, failed, while John Donnelly Fage and Roland A. Oliver with the fruitful contacts between arable farmers and Explain nomads. Intercultural differences act as obstacles to the diffusion of the respective cultural elements, but they promote the pace of inventions and innovations at the borderlines between cultures and cause emergent properties (spontaneous formation).

Cultural diffusion in other sciences

From the point of view of the dissemination of innovations, the preoccupation with cultural diffusion processes in related disciplines has become a natural subject of research, for example diffusion theories with regard to social systems or markets. These include above all agricultural economics and agricultural sociology , economic geography , political science ( diffusion ), education and history . With the exception of the latter, the research also includes the consideration of societies under the question of how they can be influenced to carry out innovations , as well as the prediction of the results of such innovations (for example with regard to technology transfer ).


  • R. Bernbeck: Theories in Archeology. Francke, Tübingen 1997, ISBN 3-8252-1964-X .
  • D. Jones: Kinship and Deep History. Exploring Connections between Culture Areas, Genes, and Language. In: American Anthropologist. Volume 105, No. 3, 2003, pp. 501-514.
  • T. Jones, K. Klar: Diffusionism Reconsidered: Linguistic and Archaeological Evidence for Prehistoric Polynesian Contact with Southern California. In: American Antiquity. Volume 70, No. 3, 2005, pp. 457-484.
  • Y. Kashima: Culture as Interpersonal Process. In: Psychological Sciences. University of Melbourne, 2011.
  • Y. Kashima: A Social Psychology of Cultural Dynamics: How Cultures are Formed, Maintained, and Transformed. In: Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Volume 2, 2008, pp. 107-120.
  • A. Korotayev, A. Kazankov: Regions Based on Social Structure: A Reconsideration (or Apologia for Diffusionism). In: Current Anthropology Volume 41, No. 4, 2000, pp. 668-690.
  • Martin Rössler: The German-speaking ethnology until approx. 1960. A historical outline. In: Cologne working papers on ethnology. Volume 1, Institute for Ethnology, University of Cologne 2007, pp. 7–19 ( PDF download possible ).
  • Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 5th edition. Free Press, New York 2003, ISBN 0-7432-2209-1 (original: 1962).

Web links

  • Christine Pellech: Migration & Diffusion. Own website, accessed on July 23, 2014 (English; online journal with articles from the field of modern diffusionism).

Individual evidence

  1. Compare Fritz Stolz : Grundzüge der Religionswissenschaft. 3. Edition. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2001, ISBN 3-8252-1980-1 , pp. 197-198.
  2. a b Tamara Neubauer: What role do cultural differences play in social and cultural anthropology? Study paper for the lecture by Franz Martin Wimmer : Intercultural Philosophy: Introduction. Vienna, winter semester 2003–2004 (PDF file, 212 kB; 10 pages).
  3. ^ Frank Heidemann: Ethnology. An introduction. Göttingen 2011, p. 56.
  4. ^ Compare Friedrich Ratzel : Anthropogeographie. Principles of the application of geography to history. Stuttgart 1882; Friedrich Ratzel: Anthropogeography. Part 2: The geographical distribution of man. Stuttgart 1891.
  5. ^ A b Wilhelm Pratscher , Robert Schelander: Wiener Jahrbuch für Theologie 2012 . V&R unipress. 2012. p. 146.
  6. Compare James M. Blaut: The Colonizer's Model of the World. Guilford, New York 1993 (English).
  7. Joachim Matthes: Between the Cultures? Schwartz, Göttingen 1992, p. 7.
  8. Kaj Birket-Smith: Kulturens Veje. Copenhagen 1948.
  9. a b Michael Goldstein, Gail King, Meghan Wright: Diffusionism and Acculturation. Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama, 2009, accessed July 23, 2014.
  10. Antje Majewski: The mummy country. ( Memento of November 23, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Own website, undated, footnote 8, accessed on July 23, 2014: "[...] the Egyptians fertilized a number of civilizations, all of which worship the sun as the main deity".
  11. Ralf Gleser: On the idea of ​​prehistory and early history as historical science. In: Research magazine of the Saarland University. Issue 2, 2007, p. 42 ff.
  12. ^ Entry: V. Gordon Childe. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 23, 2014.
  13. ^ Victor H. Mair: Cultural Diffusion - Resolution. In: Science Encyclopedia. Net Industries, undated, accessed July 23, 2014.
  14. Jacek Fisiak: Linguistic Change under Contact Conditions. Gruyter, Berlin 1995.
  15. ^ Assaf Yasur-Landau: Old Wine in New Vessels. Intercultural Contact, Innovation and Aegean, Canaanite and Philistine Foodways. In: Journal of the Institute of Archeology of Tel Aviv University. Volume 32, No. 2, September 2005, pp. 168-191 (24) (English).
  16. Roland A. Oliver, John Donnelly Fage: A short History of Africa. London 1988, p. 37 f.
  17. ^ Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 5th edition. Free Press, New York 2003, ISBN 0-7432-2209-1 (English; original: 1962). Note: Rogers assumes that the decision to adopt innovations does not primarily depend on their popularity, but above all on interpersonal communication. Innovation cannot cross a cultural threshold through information alone.
  18. ^ Peter J. Hugill: Diffusion. In: David Levinson, Melvin Ember (Eds.): Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Holt, New York 1996, p. 343 (English).