Diffusion  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The term 'diffusion' or diffusionism is used in cultural anthropology to describe the spread of cultural items — such as ideas, styles, religions, technologies, etc. — between individuals, whether within a single culture or from one culture to another.

The diffusion of innovations within a single culture applies, for example, to the acceptance of new technological products like the VCR and the internet, foods, music styles like disco and opera, dressing styles like the mini skirt and blue jeans, ideals like democracy or feminism, and so on.

Diffusion across cultures, too, is a well-attested and uncontroversial phenomenon. For example, the practice of agriculture is widely believed to have diffused from somewhere in the Middle East to all of Eurasia, less than 10,000 years ago, having been adopted by many pre-existing cultures. Other established examples of diffusion include the use of cars and Western business suits in the 20th century.

Contents

Mechanisms for inter-cultural diffusion

Inter-cultural diffusion can happen in many ways. Migrating populations will carry their culture with them. Ideas can be carried by trans-cultural visitors, such as merchants, explorers, soldiers, diplomats, slaves, and hired artisans. Technology diffusion has often occurred by one society luring skilled scientists or workers by payments or other inducement. Trans-cultural marriages between two neighboring or interspersed cultures have also contributed. Among literate societies, diffusion can happen through letters or books (and, in modern times, through other media as well).

Diffusion theories

The many models that have been proposed for inter-cultural diffusion are

A concept that has often been mentioned in this regard, which may be framed in the evolutionary diffusionism model, is that of "an idea whose time has come" — whereby a new cultural item appears almost simultaneously and independently in several widely separated places, after certain prerequisite items have diffused across the respective communities. This concept has been invoked, for example, with regard to the development of calculus by Newton and Leibnitz, or the inventions of the airplane and of the electronic computer.

The theory applied to Middle Ages Europe

One of the most remarkable examples of diffusion theory is the massive technology addition into Europe in the period 1000 to 1700 AD. In the prior Dark Ages period, Byzantine and Asian cultures were far more advanced than Europe: however, this era beginning in the High Middle Ages reversed that balance and resulted in a Europe which greatly surpassed Asian, Byzantine and Muslim cultures in pre-industrial technology.

In the Dark Ages, many important basic inventions had their roots elsewhere, notably: gunpowder, clock mechanisms, shipbuilding, paper and the windmill; however, in each of these cases Europeans not only adopted the technologies, but improved the manufacturing scale, inherent technology and applications to a point clearly surpassing the evolution of the original invention in its country of origin. For example, by the late fourteenth century, European fleets. armed with advanced cannons, decimated Arab and Chinese fleets, paving the way for unfettered domination of the seas that led to the colonial era.

Diffusion disputes

While the concept of diffusion is well accepted in general, conjectures about the existence or the extent of diffusion in some specific contexts have been hotly disputed.

An example of such disputes is the proposal by Thor Heyerdahl that similarities between the culture of Polynesia and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Andes are due to diffusion from the latter to the former — a theory that currently has few supporters among professional anthropologists.

Attempts to explain similarities between two cultures by diffusion are often criticized for being ethnocentric, since they imply that the supposedly "receptors" would not be capable of innovation. In fact, some authors made such claims explicitly — for example, to argue for pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact as the "only possible explanation" for the origin of the great civilizations in the Andes and of Central America.

Those disputed are fueled in part by the overuse of cultural diffusion, starting in the late 19th century, as a blanket explanation for all similarities between widely dispersed cultures. The most famous proponent of this theory was William Graham Sumner, who argued that civilization first formed in Ancient Egypt and then diffused to other places.

Diffusion theories also suffer from being inherently speculative and hard to prove or disprove; especially for relatively simple cultural items like "pyramid-shaped buildings", "solar deity", "row of standing stones", or "animal paintings in caves". After all, the act of diffusion proper is a purely mental (or at most verbal) phenomenon, that leaves no archaeological trace. Therefore, diffusion can be deduced with some certainty only when the similarities involve a relatively complex and partly arbitrary collection of items — such as a writing system, a complex myth, or a pantheon of several gods.

Another criticism that has been leveled at many diffusion proposals is the failure to explain why certain items were not diffused. For example, attempts to "explain" the New World civilizations by diffusion from Europe or Egypt should explain why basic concepts like wheeled vehicles or the potter's wheel did not cross the ocean, while writing and stone pyramids did.

Theory contributors

Major contributors to inter-cultural diffusion research and theory include:


Adoption rate

Relative advantage is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being better than the idea it supersedes (Rogers, 1995).� � �

An individual may perceive an innovation to have a relative advantage if the price drops for a new and higher quality product. For example, according to Rogers, the cost of a VCR dropped in price in 1993 to $200 from an initial price in 1980 of $1,200. This made adoption favorable and increased its relative advantage.� �

For others, the opportunity to raise one's social status may increase its relative advantage. A fad is an example of an innovation which diffuses rapidly and is fueled by an attempt to gain social status. It is difficult to assess just how important social status is because most people will not admit to adoption strictly for that reason. --http://66.102.9.104/search?q=cache:LVvjtwv4qkYJ:www.arches.uga.edu/~bhummel/6200Project/ROA_RelAdv.html+vcr+adoption+rate+diffusion&hl=en [Oct 2004]� �

Adoption rate

In the last century, the adoption rate of new technologies into mainstream society took 30 years. (Think radio, TV and cable) The rapid adoption of the Internet has been unprecedented — taking only about seven years --http://www.mediacenter.org/content/1520.cfm?print=yes [Oct 2004]� � � � Penetration (business) In business, penetration is often short for market penetration, the degree to which a product or service is known and/or used among potential customers. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penetration [Oct 2004]� �

Memes [...]

meme: (pron. 'meem') A contagious idea that replicates like a virus, passed on from mind to mind. Memes function the same way genes and viruses do, propagating through communication networks and face-to-face contact between people. The root of the word "memetics," a field of study which postulates that the meme is the basic unit of cultural evolution. Examples of memes include melodies, icons, jokes, fashion statements and phrases.� � �

VCR [...]

1987: VCR penetration passes 50% --http://www.wsiu.org/digitaltv/timeline.shtml [Oct 2004]

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Diffusion" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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