Diffusionism, Knowledge Networks & Civilization


Vintage photograph from circa 1898 shows European tourists enjoying a meal inside a temple with a backdrop of hieroglyphics while a local waits on them with a bottle of wine

Anthropological thought and methods can be traced to the earliest times in the travel literature in which various cultures and customs were described. When anthropology defined itself as a separate and distinct discipline, it went through different approaches and methodologies. Many of the early anthropologists were also sociologists so the theories and approaches of the two usually match. One of the earliest anthropological thoughts was evolutionary anthropology - these early anthropologists, who were still enchanted by Darwin's theory of evolution, thought that cultures go through evolutionary stages just like organisms do. The specifics may differ from one thinker to another, but in general, they separate it into three stages - stage of magic, superstition, totemism, simple polytheism, stage of monotheism and organised religion, and finally the stage of science and scienfitic thought. They believed that all humans share the single psychic unity and that inventions happen in every culture once the culture reaches certain stages. These thinkers embraced an approach characteristic of the faith in progress in Europe at the time. As knowledge expanded, however, this simplistic perspective came to be challenged - complex economic and even legal systems were found in cultures that did not even practice written law. Many of those who followed animism, did not always think that the object itself was spirit but that the object was "filled" with the spirit from above. Hinduism is incorrectly assumed to be polytheistic. This religion is more accurately described as henotheism - deities are just manifestation of the single, supreme God who is formless, and boundless, often referred to as the Brahman - God is both in the world and beyond it. But Hinduism, despite its long existence, has never "killed" its many gods for the sake of Brahman, something that according to evolutionary perspective, was supposed to happen.


Diffusionism was a theory that was developed in an attempt to correct the errors of simplistic evolutionary perspectives. Within this school there are also different perspectives - heliocentric diffusion which believes that all cultures originated from the single center, the perspective of culture circles believes that cultures originated from a specific number of culture centers, and finally the perspective which claims that each culture is influenced by other cultures and that the process is both arbitrary and contingent. Diffusionists believed that a cultural item spreads from one place to another and that this is how civilizations and societies were made. Expanding on this perspective, this theory claims that certain cultural items and structures do not appear in every culture after that culture has been through its evolutionary path, what they claim is that the item or structure is produced in a single place and then spread to other cultures. An example would be that invention of a computer, of the internet, or of the cultivation of coffee, was not something that every culture, in its evolution would come to - but that invention of the computer or cultivation of coffee happened in one place, and then from that one place, spread to others. Humans spread these through trade, migration, war, or other contact.

Knowledge Networks

Great Buddha, 175 Feet High, Bamian, Afghanistan, 1931. Photo by Maynard Owen Williams

"If techno-science may be described as being so powerful and yet so small, so concentrated and yet dilute, it means it has the characteristics of a network. The word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places – the knots and the nodes – which are connected with one another – the links and the mesh: these connections transform the scattered resources into a net that may seem to extend everywhere." - "Science in Action", Bruno Latour


Anthropologist Franz Boas was one of the most significant thinkers within the Diffusionist school. He developed a somewhat genetic perspective of the process of cultural traits - he observed that some societies have a similar combination of traits. He claims that culture is not something to be viewed as existing in vacuum but as a part of a unique historical process. In this historical process, the trait is first introduced and then, slowly, its origin becomes unclear. The processes that happen within culture, diffusion and modification are that which bring foreign elements and eventually change them, modify them, before they include them within own network of cultural items, creating a whole new cultural context.


A more contemporary sociologist and anthropologist, Bruno Latour, brings a similar idea in his "Science in Action". Just as Boaz claims that the origin of certain cultural item becomes unknown, so does Latour argue that which we consider facts come to be facts through the process of competition that involves networks of references until people eventually come to see some theory as a fact and use it as such. With such a construction of scienfitic thught, Latour also builds his geography of science. Latour tries to think about how science comes to be. He does not see only people as the actors in the network, but other objects too. Eleanor Robson, Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at UCL, uses this reference to Latour in her book "Ancient Knowledge Networks" when she speaks of "non-human objects" that were part of the Mesopotamian knowledge network at the time. The objects she speaks of were divinities and spirits who were invoked at the time. In the same book, she brings David Livingstone's ideas, which once again, are close to those of Boaz: "Scientific theory evidently does not disperse evenly across the globe from its point of origin. As it moves it is modified; as it travels it is transformed. All this demonstrates that the meaning of scientific theories is not stable; rather it is mobile and varies from place to place. And that meaning takes shape in response to spatial forces at every scale of analysis – from the macropolitical geography of national regions to the microsocial geography of local cultures."

Print of Yvonne as Astarte, the Goddess of the Moon, Dalys Theatre

Humans spread and modify all kinds of knowledge, and whatever is considered science at the given time. Our knowledge is at the same time part of the cultural context and network we live in. To illustrate how a cultural item is both spread and modified, I shall use the example of the goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite is believed to be imported from the Near East, or at least her cult was heavily influenced by the cults of the Levant. Aphrodite's name is also generally accepted to be of a Semitic and not Indo-European origin. Pausanias, the Greek traveler claimed how Assyrians were the first to have her cult, probably as Ishtar, the same cult among Sumerians was Innana, Phoenicians knew her as Astrate and Syrians as Atargatis or as Lucian calls her "Dea Syria". From Phoenicia, she came to Cyprus, from where begins the Greek cycle of the goddess - she was considered to be born in Cyprus or from its seas. Her early depictions were very similar to Ishtar, Innana and Astrate, and just like them, she was a warrior goddess - in Sparta, Aphrodite Areia, the warrior side of the goddess was worshiped. With the famous Syrian goddess, she shared her association with fish, constellation of Pisces and doves. All of these goddesses, are goddesses of fertility, love, sexuality and eros. While the cult of the goddess spread from one place to another, every place also gave the goddess unique expression, a new genesis. She was accommodated to the new climate, new culture, new context in which she was to be worshiped. She eventually reached Rome as Venus and then the Empire spread her influence all over again. We can find figurines of Isis-Aphrodite, a blending of the Greco-Roman and the Egyptian goddesses (See the figurine). Aphrodite continued to be present in Western culture even after the ancient times. Renaissance artists portrayed her in accordance to their ideals, for Baroque artists, she was lush and voluptuous. Astrate, the Phoenician Aphrodite, took a form of a pin up, burlesque femme fatale in the postcard shown above. One simple cultural item, such as the goddess, spread and took countless forms, modified every time to fit the given cultural and historical context, yet at her core, remaining the same. It is pointless to argue whether Aphrodite is Cypriot or Syrian or Phoenician, or where she appeared first. She spread within certain cultural circle, and just like Boaz said, at one point, her first appearance was forgotten.


Many other items and many other pieces of knowledge took grandiose journeys - Ancient Greeks had close bonds to the Near East and Egypt, the Silk Road did not spread only trade, but also culture and knowledge, Alexander's penetration into India saw unique Greco-Buddhist tradition and art, Ottoman Turkish language had a significant amount of Persian influences, which had significant amount of Arabic influence. Ottomans brought many of these words into Balkan languages. These words often have Persian or Arabic origin, yet in the South Slavic languges they are called "turcizmi" or "Turkish loanwords", as they were brought by the Ottomans.

Greco-Buddhist statue of standing Buddha, Gandhara - Pakistan (1st–2nd century), Tokyo National Museum.

Knowledge Networks & Civilization

Damascene Shop, Syria, 1920s

We are at the stage where both vulgarism and puritanism appear in the culture - everything is exposed and visible, yet, at the same time, certain natural tendencies within humans are demonised. One can see cultural puritanism on either side of political spectrum - one that insists on cultural appropriation, the colonial studies and the other that tries to reconstruct the history in order to find the "pure" culture, free of any foreign influences. Both oppose to any universalist notion and to any notion of diffusion. One because they believe that universalism as such was shaped by Western cultural thought and the others because they believe that a religion that is divorced from ethnic and racial identity allows for these identities to disappear. And yet, it is exactly contact between the peoples and cultures that gave birth to civilisations.


Civilisation cannot happen in isolation - the high culture of Greece and Rome, that the West sees as its first foundations, could not have happened in the isolated lands of Iceland or north Sweden, it happened on the Mediterranean that was deeply connected which allowed for the knowledge and cultural items to spread. But unlike the homeless and uprooted individuals of the modern day multiculturalism, they were each rooted in rich cultures with clear principles and values. While the ancient religions did not have universalist character Christianity, Islam and Buddhism do, they also lacked dogma so it was easy for them to "interchange deities". Even these universalist religions do see a specific expression. I have read about stories of Islamic prophets in Indonesia that involve tigers and monkeys - of course that there were no Indonesian tigers in the Middle East at the time, but that is exactly how a certain universal concept, finds a particular expression. A dogmatist may argue that it is an innovation, or a "folklorisation" of religion, and it might be, but it is also often how universal, impersonal concept finds home within a personal place. Rather than being a foreign, distant concept that exists in pure abstraction, it comes to be something close to the people and something people live in their daily lives and not only when they visit places of worship. That way, cultural items become rooted and cannot easily be uprooted, just like Aphrodite as an ideal, as an archetype, still exists, despite the many particular forms she had taken.

Links "Ancient Knowledge Networks", Eleanor Robson

"Science in Action", Bruno Latour

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