Diffusionism Essay

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Diffusionismin the social sciences of anthropology and cultural geography is a theory about the spread of ideas, technologies, and practices from one culture to another. Human beings invent things or behaviors. It has been long noted that some cultures use similar tools, art techniques, or cultural practices. The question has naturally arisen whether these similarities are due to the spread (diffusion) of ideas, or whether they arose spontaneously as independent inventions in different locations. In diffusionism, features of one culture spread to another culture over geographic distances because of mutual contact. An example of cultural diffusionism is the use of the hammock. For centuries, European sailors slept on the decks, piles of ropes, or on whatever could be tolerated in the ships they sailed. Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World brought his sailors into contact with the use of the hammock. The idea spread to other European sailing nations and soon was a standard way to sleep.

Social scientists from the Heliolithic and culture-history schools of thought represent the most extremes advocates of the theory of diffusionism. Functionalists like Bronislaw Malionowski opposed their theories. In England, G. Elliott Smith was a leading English diffusionist. In Germany and Austria, the Kulturkreis School was an advocate of diffusionism among pre-Bronze Age humans. Cultures diffuse geographically as they spread things such as foodstuffs, music styles, items of clothing, and technological developments. Diffusion can also include the spread of religion. It is well known, for instance, that religions in India have spread along the Grand Trunk Road that runs from Calcutta along the Ganges River, through the Punjab to the Khyber Pass. Those who have spread their religions on this road include warriors, merchants and prisoners, as well as innumerable monks, priests, preachers, and other religious teachers.

Diffusionism is often described using biological models. The model of the spread of a disease can be used to describe the contacts needed to spread tools, technologies, and theories. For example, the spread of syphilis began with the return of Columbus from his First Voyage. Among the six Indians and sailors who returned, several carried the disease. Contact with prostitutes in Spain and then their contacts with a unit of French soldiers gave rise to the name French Pox. Tracing the vectors of many diseases is an exercise in medical detective work. Anthropologists conduct the same detective work to trace the spread of ideas from one culture to another. Types of diffusion include: relocation, expansion, hierarchical, contagious, and stimulus.

Relocation diffusion occurs when the same individuals or groups move from place to place spreading their culture. The Puritans of New England moved to spread their religion to a new land. Expansion diffusion describes the spread of a newly adopted cultural feature into an ever-growing population. The result is a dramatic increase in the number of people who have accepted the new cultural feature. Hierarchical diffusion occurs when cultural ideas leapfrog from elites in one central area to others in another city by passing rural or poorer areas. The spread of eating sushi in the United States has followed this pattern. Contagious diffusion spread like diseases. In fact, this is descriptive of the spread of diseases in cultures. The spread of HIVIAIDS has exhibited this pattern. Stimulus diffusion occurs when one culture applies the general idea(s) of one culture in a new way in their own environment. The adoption of reindeer by Siberian peoples is an example of stimulus diffusion. Diffusion can be slowed, delayed, or blocked by a number of factors. Time and distance have, until the advent of modern travel, often muted the spread of cultural factors. In some cases, cultures may outlaw the adoption of cultural changes in an attempt to prevent their spread.


  1. James Morris Blaut, Diffusionism: History Inside Out (Guilford Press, 1992);
  2. Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (Crowell, 1968);
  3. Kristian Kristiansen and Thomas B. Larrson, Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions, and Transformations (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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