Diffusionism and Acculturation

By Gail King, Meghan Wright and Michael Goldstein

Basic Premises


Diffusionism as an anthropological school of thought, was an attempt to understand the distribution of culture in terms of the origin of culture traits and their spread from one society to another. Versions of diffusionist thought included the conviction that all cultures originated from one culture center (heliocentric diffusion); the more reasonable view that cultures originated from a limited number of culture centers (culture circles); and finally the notion that each society is influenced by others but that the process of diffusion is both contingent and arbitrary (Winthrop 1991:83-84).

Diffusion may be simply defined as the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places (Titiev 1959:446). A more expanded definition depicts diffusion as the process by which discrete culture traits are transferred from one society to another, through migration, trade, war, or other contact (Winthrop 1991:82).

Diffusionist research originated in the middle of the nineteenth century as a means of understanding the nature of the distribution of human cultural traits across the world. By that time scholars had begun to study not only advanced cultures, but also the cultures of nonliterate people (Beals and Hoijer 1959:664). Studying these very diverse cultures stimulated an interest in discerning how humans progressed from primeval conditions to “superior” states (Kuklick 1996:161). Among the major questions about this issue was whether human culture had evolved in a manner analogous  to biological evolution or whether culture spread from innovation centers by means of processes of diffusion (Hugill 1996:343).

Two schools of thought emerged in response to these questions. The most extreme view was that there were a very limited number of locations, possibly only one, from which the most important culture traits diffused to the rest of the world. Some Social Evolutionists, on the other hand, proposed that the “psychic unity of mankind”  meant that since all human beings share the same psychological traits, they are all equally likely to innovate (see Social Evolutionism in this site for more on the psychic unity of mankind). According to social evolutionists, innovation in a culture, was considered to be continuous or at least triggered by variables that are relatively exogenous. This set the foundation for the idea that many inventions occurred independently of each other and that diffusion had relatively little effect on cultural development (Hugill 1996:343).

During the 1920’s the school of cultural geography at the University of California, Berkeley purposely separated innovation from diffusion and argued that innovation was relatively rare and that the process of diffusion was quite common. It generally avoided the trap of the Eurocentric notion of the few hearths or one hearth origination of most cultural traits. The school of cultural geography combined idealism, environmentalism, and social structural explanations, which made the process of diffusion more feasible than the process of innovation (Hugill 1996:344).

Franz Boas (1938) argued that although the independent invention of a culture trait can occur at the same time within widely separated societies where there is limited control over individual members, allowing them freedom to create a unique style, a link such as genetic relationship is still suspected. He felt this was especially true in societies where there were similar combinations of traits (Boas 1938:211). Boas emphasized that culture traits should not be viewed casually, but in terms of a relatively unique historical process that proceeds from the first introduction of a trait until its origin becomes obscure. He sought to understand culture traits in terms of two historical processes, diffusion and modification. Boas used these key concepts to explain culture and interpret the meaning of culture. He believed that the cultural inventory of a people was basically the cumulative result of diffusion. He viewed culture as consisting of countless loose threads, most of foreign origin, but which were woven together to fit into their new cultural context. Discrete elements become interrelated as time passes (Hatch 1973:57-58).

The American, Lewis Henry Morgan,  demonstrated that social change involved both independent invention and diffusion. He agreed with British sociocultural anthropologists that human progress was often due to independent innovation, but his work on kinship terminology showed that diffusion occurred among geographically dispersed people (Kuklick 1996:161).

During the mid-twentieth century studies of acculturation and cultural patterning replaced diffusion as the focus of anthropological research. Ethnological research conducted among Native American tribes, even though influenced by the diffusionist school of thought, approached the study of culture traits from a more holistic interpretation. Presently, the concept of diffusion has value in ethnological studies, but at best plays a secondary role in interpreting the processes of culture change (Winthrop 1991:84).

Recently there have been theoretical developments in anthropology among those seeking to explain contemporary processes of cultural globalization and transnational culture flows. This “anthropology of place” approach is not an attempt to polarize autonomous local cultures against the homogenizing movement of cultural globalization. Instead, the emphasis of this line of research is to understand and explain how dominant cultural forms are “imposed, invented, reworked, and transformed.” In order to do this, an ethnographic approach must be taken to study the interelations of culture, power, and place: place making, identity, and resistance. Anthropologists have long studied spatial units larger than “the local” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997:5-7).

In spite of the fact that diffusion has its roots in anthropology, archaeology, and cultural geography, modern research involving the process of diffusion has shifted from these areas to agriculture business studies, technological advancement (Rogers 1962), economic geography (Brown 1981), history (McNeill 1963), political science, and rural sociology. In all of these areas, except for history, research involves observing societies, how they can be influenced to innovate, and predicting the results of such innovation (Hugill 1996:343).

Diffusion is well documented in the business and industrial world. The creation of copyright and patent laws to protect individual innovations, point to the fact that borrowing ideas is a decidedly human practice. It is often easier to copy an invention, than to create a new invention. Japanese business historians have been very interested in the role diffusion has played in the industrial development of Japan. Business historians give credit to the role diffusion has played in the development of industrial societies in the U.S. and continental Europe. It is hard to justify the view that diffusion in preindustrial societies was any less prevalent than it is in the industrialized societies of today (Hugill 1996:344).

Acculturation: Alfred Kroeber (1948) stated that acculturation consists of  those changes in one culture brought about by contact with another culture, resulting  in an increased similarity between the two cultures. This type of change may be reciprocal, however, very often the process is asymmetrical and the result is the (usually partial) absorption of one culture into the other. Kroeber believed that acculturation is gradual rather than abrupt. He connected the process of diffusion with the process of acculturation by considering that diffusion contributes to acculturation and that acculturation necessarily involves diffusion. He did attempt to separate the two processes by stating that diffusion is a matter of what happens to the elements of a culture; whereas acculturation is a process of what happens to a whole culture (Kroeber 1948:425).

Acculturation, then, is the process of systematic cultural change of a particular society carried out by an alien, dominant society (Winthrop 1991:82-83). This change is brought about under conditions of direct contact between individuals of each society (Winthrop 1991:3). Individuals of a foreign or minority culture learn the language, habits, and values of a standard or dominant culture by the cultural process of acculturation. The process by which these individuals enter the social positions, as well as acquire the political, economic, and educational standard,s of the dominant culture is called assimilation. These individuals, through the social process of assimilation, become integrated into the “standard” culture (Thompson 1996:112).

Milton Gordon (1964) proposed that assimilation can be described as a series of stages through which an individual must pass. These three stages are behavioral assimilation (acculturation), structural assimilation (social assimilation), and marital assimilation of the individuals of the minority society and individuals of the dominant society. Although this proposal has been criticized, it does indicate that there is a continuum through which individuals pass, beginning with acculturation and ending with complete assimilation (Gordon 1964: 71).

Complete assimilation is not the inevitable consequence of acculturation due to the value systems of the minority or weaker culture being a part of the entire configuration of culture. It may not always be possible, nor desirable, for the minority culture to take over the complete way of life of the majority culture. Often a period of transition follows where the minority society increasingly loses faith in its own traditional values, but is unable to adopt the values of the dominant culture. During this transition period there is a feeling of dysphoria, in which individuals in the minority society exhibit feelings of insecurity and unhappiness (Titiev 1958:200).

Acculturation and assimilation have most often been studied in European immigrants coming to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as minority groups already living in the United States. European “white ethnics” have experienced a higher rate of assimilation than nonwhite, non-European, and more recently immigrated groups. These studies have resulted in several important cross-cultural generalizations about the process of acculturation and assimilation (Thompson 1996:113).

According to Thompson (1996), these generalizations are as follows: First, dominant cultures coerce minorities and foreigners to acculturate and assimilate. This process is slowed down considerably when minorities are territorially or occupationally concentrated, such as in the case of large native minorities who often become ethnonationalistic. Second, acculturation must precede assimilation. Third, even though a minority may be acculturated, assimilation is not always the end result. Fourth, acculturation and assimilation serve to homogenize the minority group into the dominant group. The many factors facilitating or preventing this homogenization include the age of the individual, ethnic background, religious and political affiliations, and economic level (Thompson 1996:114).

Points of Reaction

Diffusionism: The Biblical theory of human social origin was taken for granted in Renaissance thought (14th century-17th century). The role diffusion played in cultural diversity was acknowledged, but could only be interpreted as the result of cultural decline from an “original Adamic condition” (Hodgen 1964:258). The Renaissance conception of a “Great Chain of Being,” the hierarchical ordering of human societies, reinforced this Biblical interpretation (Hodgen 1964: ch. 10).

During the latter part of the fifteenth century, European voyages of discovery resulted in contact with diverse cultures startlingly unlike those of Europe. The resulting cross-cultural encounters provided the impetus for the development of concepts concerning the processes involved in cultural progress (Davis and Mintz 1998:35).

Actual diffusion research would not take place until the nineteenth century when some scholars attempted to understand the nature of culture and whether it spread to the rest of the world from few or many innovation centers. The concept of diffusion strengthened in its opposition to the more powerful concept of evolution, which proposed that all human beings possessed equal potential for inovation. Evolutionism eventually became linked to the idea of independent invention and the related notion that contact between preindustrial cultures was minimal (Hugill 1996:343).

Acculturation: The most profound changes in a society result from direct, aggressive contact of one society with another. There is hardly any modern society which has not felt the impact of this contact with very different societies. The process of the intermingling of cultures is called acculturation. Because the influence of Euro-American culture on nonliterate, relatively isolated groups has been so widespread and profound, the term acculturation is most commonly applied to contact and intermingling between these two cultures (Titiev 1959:196-200).

Acculturation studies evolved into assimilation studies during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries when great numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States. Studies of the rate of assimilation of minority groups already living in the United States became another area of focus. The pursuit of explanations for why different groups assimilate at different rates have largely guided many acculturation and assimilation studies (Thompson 1996:113).

Leading Figures

Franz Boas (1858-1942) was born in Germany where he studied physics and geography. After an expedition to Baffin Island (1883), where he conducted ethnographic work among the Eskimo, Boas’s lifework changed. In 1886 he worked among American Indian societies in British Columbia before his permanent move to America in 1888.  This eventually lead to a professorship at Columbia University in 1899 which he held until his retirement in 1936 (Lowie 1937:128-129). Boas was a pioneering anthropological field worker and based many of his concepts on experiences gained while working in the field. He insisted that the fieldworker collect detailed cultural data, learn as much of the native language as possible, and become a part of the native society in order to interpret native life “from within.” Boas hoped to document accurately aboriginal life and to alleviate the bias of “romantic outsiders.” He used the technique of recording the reminiscences of informants as a valuable supplement to ethnography (Lowie 1937:132-135). He believed the cultural inventory of a people was cumulative and was the result of diffusion. Boas envisioned culture traits as being part of two historical processes, diffusion and modification (Hatch 1973:57-58).

Boas represented the American Museum of Natural History in the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, organized early in the year 1897. The underlying reason for the expedition was the search for laws that govern the growth of human culture. Interest in the Northwest Coast of the United States was based on the knowledge that the Old World and the New World came into close contact in this area. Migration along the coastline, because of favorable geographical conditions, could have facilitated a cultural exchange by diffusion between the Old and New Worlds (Stocking 1974:110-116).

Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) was a German, who was the originator of the concepts of the Kulturkreise (culture circles) and of the Paideuma (or “soul” of culture). He was involved in extensive research in Africa, which was made possible by donors and by his own income from books and lectures (Barnard2002:862).

Fritz Graebner (1877-1934) was a German anthropologist, who was a leading diffusionist thinker. Graebner supported the school of “culture circles” (Kulturkreis), which could trace its beginning to the inspiration of Friedrich Ratzel, the founder of anthropogeography. Leo Frobenius, a pupil of Ratzel, expanded on the “culture circle” concept, which stimulated Fritz Graebner, then at the Berlin Ethnological Museum (1904), to write about culture circles and culture strata in Oceania. Two years later, he applied these concepts to cultures on a world-wide basis. In 1911 he published Die Methode der Ethnologie in which he attempted to establish a criterion for identifying affinities and chronologies, called the Criterion of Form (Harris 1968:383-384).

A. C. Haddon (1855-1940) was a Cambridge zoologist and anthropologist who led the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Straits(1898-1899). Assisted by W. H. R. Rivers, this expedition was undertaken just after the Jesup North Pacific Expedition led by Franz Boas (Lowie 1937:88-89). Haddon’s book, A History of Anthropology, is still considered to be one of the finest histories of anthropology ever written (Barnard 1996:577).

Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was a Norwegian adventurer best known for his attempts to sail across the oceans in replicas of water craft used by ancient peoples. His goal was to prove that such people could have migrated across the oceans and that the ancient diffusion of culture traits could have spread from one group to another, even across formidable barriers of water (Barnard 1996:578). Heyerdahl also studied the huge statues and numerous caves of Easter Island. Although he made some effort to become acquainted with the contemporary people in order to unlock many of the mysteries of the island (Heyerdahl 1958:Introduction), most anthropologists seriously question the scientific validity of his speculations.

A. L. Kroeber (1876-1960) was an early American student of Franz Boas. He helped establish the anthropology department at Berkeley as a prominent educational and research institution from which he conducted valuable research among the California Indians (Barnard 1996:581). Kroeber (1931) observed that the culture-area concept was “a community product of nearly the whole school of American Anthropologists” (Rice, 1931). Using the culture areas proposed by Otis T. Mason in the 1895 Annual Report of the Smithsonian, Kroeber published his well-known book, Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America, in 1939 (Harris 1968:374).

Freidrich Ratzel (1844-1904) was a German anthropologist who was a significant contributor to nineteenth-century theories of diffusion and migration. He developed criteria by which the formal, non-functional characteristics of objects could be compared, because it would be unlikely that these characteristics would have been simultaneously invented (Barnard 1996:588). Ratzel warned that possible migration or other contact phenomena should be ruled out in each case before cross-cultural similarities were attributed to independent invention. He wrote The History of Mankind, a three-volume publication in 1896, which was said to be “a solid foundation in anthropological study” by E. B. Tylor, a competing British cultural evolutionist (Harris 1968:383).

W. H. R. Rivers (1864-1922) was a British doctor and psychiatrist who became interested in ethnology after he went on a Cambridge expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898. He later pursued research in India and Melanesia. His interest in kinship established him as a pioneer in the genealogical method and his background in psychiatry enabled him to do research in the area of sensory perception (Barnard 1996:588). Rivers was converted to diffusionism while writing his book, The History of Melanesian Society, and was a founder of the diffusionist trend in Britain. In 1911, He was the first to speak out again evolutionism (Harris 1968:380).

Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) was a Catholic priest in Germany and an ethnologist who studied religions of the world and wrote extensively on their inter-relationships (Barnard 1996:589). At about the same time that Fritz Graebner (1906) was applying the culture-circle and culture-strata ideas on a worldwide scale, Schmidt helped to promote these ideas in part by establishing the venerable journal Anthropos, and by positing his own version of the Kulturkriese (Harris 1968: 383). Although both Graebner and Schmidt believed that all culture traits diffused out of a limited number of original culture circles, Schmidt’s list of Kreise (culture circles) was the most influential. He proposed four major temporal phases: Primitive, Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary. Within this framework was a grouping of cultures from various parts of the world in an evolutionary scheme, which was basically the very familiar sequences of “stages” progressing from hunter-gatherer, to horticulturalists, to pastoralists, and ending with complex stratified civilization (Harris 1968:385).

G. Elliot Smith (1871-1937) was a prominent British anatomist who produced a most curious view of cultural distribution arguing that Egypt was the source of all higher culture. He based this on the following assumptions: (1) man was uninventive, culture seldom arose independently, and culture only arose in certain circumstances; (2) these circumstances only existed in ancient Egypt, which was the location from which all culture, except for its simplest elements, had spread after the advent of navigation; (3) human history was full of decadence and the spread of this civilization was naturally diluted as it radiated outwardly (Lowie 1937:160-161).

Smith and W. J. Perry, a student of W. H. R. Rivers, hypothesized that the entire cultural inventory of the world had diffused from Egypt. The development began in Egypt, according to them, about 6,000 years ago (Harris 1968:380; Smith 1928:22). This form of diffusion is known as heliocentrism (Spencer 1996:608). They believed that “Natural Man” inhabited the world before development began and that he had no clothing, houses, agriculture, domesticated animals, religion, social organization, formal laws, ceremonies, or hereditary chiefs. The discovery of barley in 4,000 B. C. enabled people to settle in one location. From that point invention in culture exploded and was spread during Egyptian migrations by land and sea. This account was similar to the Biblical version of world history (Harris 1968:389-381).

E.B. Tylor (1832-1917) was a cultural evolutionist who believed that diffusion was involved in the process of humankind’s cultural evolution from savagery to civilization. He promoted the idea that culture probably “originated independently more than once, owing to the psychic similarity of man the world over (see psychic unity of mankind), but that actual historical development involved numerous instances of cultural diffusion, or inheritance from a common tradition” (Bidney 1958: 199). He traced “diffused traits side by side with a deep conviction that there had been a general uniformity in evolutionary stages” (Harris 1968: 174).

Clark Wissler (1870-1947) was an American anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Even though he was not in a university where he could train students, his writings still influenced and inspired many of his contemporaries. His ideas on the culture-area approach were especially significant (Barnard 1996:593). In 1917 Wissler created a “landmark treatment” of American Indian ethnology based on Otis T. Mason’s 1895 article in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, which identified eighteen American Indian culture areas (Harris 1968:374).  (See “A Criticism of Wissler’s North American Culture Areas” by Carter A. Woods for commentary on Wissler’s 1917 publication). He expanded the idea of “culture center” by proposing a “law of diffusion,” which stated that “… traits tend to diffuse in all directions from their center of origin.” The law constituted that basis of the “age-area principle” which could determine the relative age of a culture trait by measuring the extent of its geographical distribution (Harris 1968:376).

Key Works

Principal Concepts

Diffusionism: This school of thought proposed that civilization spread from one culture to another, because humans are basically conservative and lack inventiveness (Winthrop 1991:83). An extreme example of this theory was the idea proposed by English scholar Grafton Elliot Smith. He considered Egypt as the primary source for many other ancient civilizations (Smith 1931:393-394). This form of diffusionism is known as heliocentric diffusionism (Spencer 1996:608). A wider concept, explaining the diffusion of culture traits, was formulated by Leo Frobenius, through the inspiration of his teacher, Freidrich Ratzel. This version is called “culture circles” or Kulturkreise (Harris 1968:382-83). An even more expanded version of diffusiionism was proposed in the United States, where diffusionist ideas culminated in the concept of “culture areas.” A. L. Kroeber and Clark Wissler were among the main proponents of this version (Harris 1968:373-74).

Culture Circles German and Austrian diffusionists argued that there were a limited number of culture centers, rather than just one, in the ancient world. Culture traits diffused, not as isolated elements, but as a whole culture complex, due to migration of individuals from one culture to another (Winthrop 1991:83).

The Kulturkreise (culture circle) school of thought, even though inspired by Friedrich Ratzel, was actually created by his student, Leo Frobenius. This stimulated Fritz Graebner, at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, to write about this concept in his studies about Oceania, then on a world-wide scale. Father Wilhelm Schmidt became a follower of these ideas, created his version of the Kulturkriese, and began the journal, Anthropos (Harris 1968:382-83).

Culture Areas: In 1895 Otis T. Mason wrote an article entitled “Influence of Environment upon Human Industries or Arts,” which was published in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian  Institution. This article identified eighteen American Indian “culture areas.” It was a simple concept, in that tribal entities were grouped on an ethnographic map and related to a geography of the environment. In 1914, the “culture area” concept was refined by G. Holmes. This comprised the basis for a “landmark treatment of American Indian ethnology” by Clark Wissler. Even some years later in 1939, this same “culture area” concept was used by A. L. Kroeber’s in his publication of Cultural and Natural Areas (Harris 1968:374).

Acculturation: Kroeber (1948) described acculturation as changes produced in a culture because of the influence of another culture, with the two cultures becoming similar as the end result. These changes may be reciprocal, which results in the two cultures becoming similar, or one-way and may result in the extinction of one culture, when it is absorbed by the other (Kroeber 1948:425). Acculturation contrasts with diffusion of culture traits in that it is a process of systematic cultural transformation of individuals in a society due to the presence on an alien, politically dominant society (Winthrop 1991:83). The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (1996) defines acculturation as the process of acquiring culture traits as a result of contact and that it was a common term, especially used by American anthropologists, until recently.

Assimilation: Milton Gordon (1964) formulated a series of stages through which an individual must pass in order to be completely assimilated (Thompson 1996:113). Although he listed acculturation as the first stage in the series, not all individuals go past this stage. It is not always possible to adopt the dominant culture’s way of life completely, in order to assimilate (Titiev 1958:200).

An individual is assimilated when he is capable of entering social positions and political, economic, and educational areas of the standard society. If he cannot, he may simply remain acculturated because he has learned the language, habits, and values of the standard or dominant culture (Thompson 1996:112).


American School of Thought: The concept of diffusionism was based in American ethnographic research on the North and South American Indians. This research logically included the mapping and classifying of the various American Indian tribes. The building of ethnographic collections at the American Museum of Natural History and the Chicago Field Museum occurred at the same time that American anthropologists were reacting to some of the schemes formulated by the evolutionists. This stimulated research concerned with determining how culture traits were arranged geographically in a “delineated aspect of the environment”. Although “culture area” was a term originally used in 1895 by Otis T. Mason, the most prominent anthropologists who used the term in research were Clark Wissler and A. L. Kroeber. They used the concept of culture areas to help sort out the findings of American Indian ethnology (Harris 1968:374).

German School of Thought: German anthropologists were considered to be extreme diffusionsists. This school of thought was dominated by the Catholic clergy, who attempted to reconcile anthropological prehistory and cultural evolution with the Book of Genesis. One of the best-known leaders in this attempt was Father Wilhelm Schmidt, who had studied and written extensively on the relationships between the religions of the world. Father Schmidt was a follower of Fritz Graebner, who was also working on a world-wide scale with “culture-circles” (Harris 1968:379-83).

The “culture circle” concept was inspired by Friedrich Ratzel and expanded by Leo Frobenius in his Vienna based Kulturkreise or “Culture Circle” approach. This concept provided the criteria by which Graebner could study Oceania at first and, two years later, cultures on a world-wide basis (Harris 1968:383).  The “culture circle” concept proposed that a cluster of functionally-related culture traits specific to a historical time and geographical area (Spencer 1996:611) diffused out of a region in which they evolved. Graebner and Schmidt claimed that they had reconstructed a “limited number of original culture circles” (Harris 1968:384).

British School of Thought: Diffusionism occurred in its most extreme form in the ideas of the British school of thought. W. H. R. Rivers was the founder of these ideas. He confined his studies to Oceania, where he tried to organize the ethnography according to nomothetic principles and sought to explain the contrasts between Melanesian and Polynesian cultures by the spread of original complexes, which supposedly had been spread by successive waves of migrating people (Harris 1968:380). Rivers states that “a few immigrants possessed of a superior technology can impose their customs on a large autochthonous population” (Lowie 1937:174). He also applied this extreme concept of diffusionism to Australian burial practices. The obvious problem with Rivers’ explanations appears when questioned as to why the technology of the “newcomers” disappeared if it was superior. Rivers solves the problem with a rather fantastical flare. He claims that because the “newcomers” were small in number, they failed to assert their “racial strain” into the population (Lowie 1937: 175).

The leading proponent of this extreme diffusionist school was Sir G. Elliot Smith. He claimed that Egypt was the source of culture and that every other culture in the world diffused from there, but that a dilution of this civilization occurred as it spread to increasingly greater distances. His theoretical scheme claimed that man is uninventive, so culture only arises under favorable circumstances. These favorable circumstances only existed in ancient Egypt (Lowie 1937: 161).


Lewis Henry Morgan claimed that diffusionism was one of the “mechanisms by which the substantial uniformity of sociocultural evolution was made possible” (Harris 1968: 177).

In the United States diffusionism resulted in the creation of the concept of culture areas, which were contiguous cultural elements and complexes in relatively small, geographical units (Harris 1968:373). It also resulted in another methodological tool – the age area. Clark Wissler, a contemporary of Boas, formulated both of these concepts. The culture area is a tool to be used for classifying clusters of culture traits and, early on,  benefited museums as a way of arranging cultural data. Later the culture area concept was used as a tool for historical studies (Beals and Hiojer 1959:670-671).

Even though diffusion, as a school of thought, was replaced with a more holistic approach during the mid-twentieth century, the concept of diffusion still has value in ethnological studies (Winthrop 1991:84). Studies involving the diffusion of ideas and how they affect and motivate innovations have been of great value in many other fields, such as agriculture business studies, education, economic geography, history, political science, and rural sociology (Hugill 1996:343).

Acculturation studies about European immigrants coming to the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have helped to give insight into problems encountered when people from diverse cultures come into a dominant culture. At the same time, studies about minorities already living in the United States show how some groups are resistant to assimilation, and, in some cases, acculturation (Thompson 1996:113-14).  Studies such as these could identify where the problems are for the acculturation and assimilation of a minority individual or group and how to establish better relationships between various groups and the dominant society. An understanding of the cultural processes can be gained from such studies (Titiev 1959:196-200).


The diffusionist approach was slowly replaced by studies concerning acculturation, patterns of culture, and the relation between culture and personality. Boas wrote the article, “Methods of ethnology,” in which he discussed how the “impact of one society upon another could not be understood merely as the addition or subtraction of discrete culture traits, but as a potentially major transformation of behavior, values, and mode of adaptation” (Winthrop 1991:4).

By World War I, diffusionism was also being challenged by the newly emerging Functionalist school of thought lead by Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. They argued that even if one could produce evidence of imported aspects of culture in a society, the original culture trait might be so changed that it served a completely different function than that for the society from which it diffused (Kuklick 1996:161).

In the 1920s, Boas and other American anthropologists, such as Robert Lowie and Ralph Linton, argued that cultural change had been influenced by many different sources. They argued against “the grand reconstruction of both evolutionists . . . and diffusionists” (Winthrop 1991: 84).

James M. Blaut (1993) believed that the concept of ‘extreme diffusionism’ is racist. However, he did believe that as a process, diffusionism was important. He criticized extreme diffusionism because he believed that it contributed to the prevalent belief that “European-style societies” were more innovative than non-European societies and that the proper form of development would progress according to whether or not these culture traits had diffused from European societies (Hugill 1996: 344).

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