Diffusionism V Evolutionism

Length: 1319 words

Compare any TWO of these theoretical perspectives: Evolutionism, Diffusionism, Boasian anthropology, Functionalism and Structuralism. What are their similarities and differences with respect to their explanations of culture or society? In contrast to the predominantly gradual changes historical societies experienced, the modern world is developing at a rapid rate. We are constantly adapting to quick and significant developments in the fields of technology, science, politics and warfare.

In order to understand how the world’s cultures and societies are evolving with these changes, Anthropologists continuously discuss and develop a number of contrasting theories and ideas. Two important theoretical perspectives anthropologists have established and debated are evolutionism and diffusionism.


Dominant in 19th century anthropology, evolutionism is a perspective which suggests that cultures develop in complexity through time.

Diffusionism, on the other hand, suggests that cultures, their ideas, objects and skills are transferred and spread from one area or society to another. Both are concerned with societies and their cultures changing through time yet they each provide contrasting ideas of how and why human development occurs. In this essay, I will provide a brief summary of these two theoretical perspectives before going on to compare their similarities and differences. Evolutionism, the anthropological perspective we now know began to

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emerge around the 1860’s.

Formerly a biological concept, the concept of evolution held that organisms, animals and humans alike were intrinsically destined to increase in complexity through time. In the middle of the 19th century, this belief grew to encompass both social and cultural evolution likening itself to the anthropological perspective we now speak of today. As defined by Alan Barnard, ‘Evolutionism is an anthropological perspective which emphasises the growing complexity of culture through time(Barnard, 2000/pg 8).

Some of the most influential thinkers concerned with evolutionism are Lewis Henry Morgan, Vere Gordon Childe and Julian H. Steward. Each believed and developed slightly different strands of evolutionism; unilinear evolutionism, universal evolutionism and multilinear evolutionism. Unilinear evolutionism, as it’s title suggests, states that all societies advance through the same states – experiencing equivalent events and changes in their development.

Universal evolutionism progressed on from unilinear evolutionism generalising many previous unilinear points to more ‘universal’ points. After problems in unilinear evolutionism were brought forward and universal evolutionism considered too vague, multilinear evolutionism came about adjusting the unilinear belief that cultures and societies across the globe follow the same pattern of events to the multilinear belief that societies do increase in complexity through time but that they do so individually and distinct from one another following different trajectories.

Diffusionism, the second theoretical perspective we will look at, assumes the spread of cultural ideas, objects and skills between individuals, communities and cultures – either within a single culture or between two or more separate cultures; It is ‘a perspective which emphasises the transmission of ideas from one place to another. ’(Barnard, 2000.

Pg8) Diffusionism first came into being in the eighteenth century after Sir William Jones noticed similarities in a number of languages in use in different parts of the world. Diffusionism is said to have properly entered anthropology later in the 19th century with German-Austrian diffusionists such as Friedrich Ratzel with his argument that whilst individual objects of culture diffused, whole cultures were moved and expanded through migration.

Since then, diffusionism has been a major point of discussion in anthropology and in the early 20th century became particularly apparent in British anthropology. The primary and perhaps most obvious similarity between Evolutionism and Diffusionism is in the explanations which they offer. While both perspectives differ in their answers, their similarities exist in the question they seek to answer.

They are based upon historical assumptions and are both to be considered ‘diachronic’ perspectives; ‘Sometimes, the larger perspective which embraces both evolutionism and diffusionism is called the diachronic one(indicating the relation of things through time)’(Barnard, 2000/pg 8) Unlike other theoretical perspectives such as structuralism, relativism and functionalism which explain cultures’ developments distinct from any scale of time, both evolutionism and diffusionism seek to explain how cultures and societies progress through time.

Evolutionists write of how societies become more complex within themselves. Over time, societies alter themselves to adjust to their current surroundings and adapt to enable their race to continue to thrive and exist in whatever situations they are up against. Evolutionists believe it is over time and time alone that societies realise the adaptions which need to be made and over time that societies develop in complexity. Similarly, Diffusionists consider the spread of cultural beliefs and objects between individuals as well as across cultures to be a process which may only occur over time.

If two distinct cultures have been developing in different areas with no access to one another it would, of course, take time for these cultures to grow and diverse. Migrations would have to happen or cross cultural communications would have to take place in order for cultural items to spread. In terms of diffusion of cultures within a society, time would inevitably have to pass in order for these cultures to spread and diverge with others. In both evolutionism and diffusionism, it is necessary for time to pass.

In recent years, the sudden developments in technology make travel and communication in the 21st century so much easier than in previous years. Walking down any urban street in a British city we can see the foreign influences in our restaurants and cafes. This is a relatively fast development but nonetheless one which has occurred with the passing of time. Being diachronic meant that evolutionists, in particular, unilinear evolutionists were concerned with order. They continuously strived to discover a linear sequence of events.

This was a restrictive way of looking at culture and society and veered it vulnerable to subsequent counter arguments brought about by new, often contrasting evidence. Also being diachronic in nature, diffusionists assumed a certain pattern of events throughout time but, unlike evolutionism, they accepted that simultaneous spread of cultures could happen in different parts of the world but at different times. As cultures spread from one to another with no order, Diffusionism was less restricted to a linear sequence of events.

So we have established the diachronic nature of both diffusionism and evolutionism. We will now consider areas in which these theoretical perspectives differ. Two contrasting assumptions were made by both diffusionists and evolutionists alike. As stated by Alan Barnard, ‘Anthropologists may assume wither human inventiveness or human uninventiveness…’(Barnard, 2000, pg 5). In terms of theoretical perspectives, those assuming human inventiveness would be akin to evolutionists and the latter to diffusionists.

Evolutionists, believing that societies increase in complexity independent from one another, assume that human beings are continuously inventing ideas, beliefs and objects. Unlike in diffusionism, where an item is invented, then spread across cultures, evolutionism states that items are invented and reinvented in all different cultures and societies across the globe and throughout history. Evolutionist thinkers believe that societies develop in such similar ways that they each, independently from one another go through parallel progressions.

Humans, in different cultures and areas invent these ideas and are capable of doing so. In Diffusionism, on the other hand, cultural ideas and objects are said to have been invented once only. Societies develop only through the spread of these ideas and values. In conclusion, Diffusionism and evolutionism aim to answer the same questions. How does society progress? Both perspectives take different views on the development of cultures and societies though they both explain how societies develop though a diachronic perspective.

They are both concerned with how societies progress through time and ages. Evolutionism assumes humans are inventive. It assumes that societies discover and create their own individual religions, tools, ideas and characteristics apart from other societies. Diffusionism differs from this as it assumes we are uninventive and all characteristics of cultures and societies are invented only once, only to be spread and diffused through populations and time to create the new cultures we see developing today.

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