Follow up to diffusionism

Follow up to an earlier discussion, by Haines Brown, 28 October 2003


Surprise! You may recall that we had a LONG discussion back in 2001 regarding diffusion theory. You gave me permission to use some of it, and now that I go over it I realize that we never really did focus on diffusionism.

So indulge me if I set forth briefly the points I would have made had we not become exhausted. I don't send you these points to invite further debate, but simply to provide closure. I've no doubt you are able to find fault with many points in what follows, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm just trying to get in the last word.

1. Without elaborating the point here, I assume that our historical arguments must be naturalistic, and my appeal to thermodynamics was meant to illustrate that this assumption does not at all denigrate the possibility and importance of human creativity. I don't think diffusion theory can be meaningfully discussed without such axioms being clearly stated in advance, for diffusion (as historical explanation, anyway) involves assumptions that do not represent a scholarly consensus.

2. A supernaturalistic argument that assumes humans have a mysterious inner creative capacity (a Promethean spirit), impoverishes explanation by evading the actual mechanism of development, it leaves a door wide for the entry of pernicious ideologies, and it represents a parochial avoidance of the intersubjective language so necessary in today's globalized world.

3. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to employ cultural diffusion to explain empirical change. There is no question that ideas developed by one group of people can diffuse to other peoples and affect their behavior. However, historians go further than this and appeal to cultural diffusion to explain human development, such as the rise of civilization. While many historians are entirely satisfied by a short-range explanation based on immediate causality (causal relations inferred from the proximity of events), some pursue a long-range explanation of development that necessarily goes beyond immediate causality.

4. The same point from a different angle is that while new value can be realized in the sphere of circulation, it cannot be created there. That is, social interaction is necessarily a zero-sum game with respect for development, although that relation can be its pre-condition. In terms of diffusion theory, the novel idea you learned from your neighbors offers you an opportunity to develop, but is not the cause of your development (see the Mokyr book, to which I referred earlier, which provides empirical evidence for this point).

5. Diffusion theory must be looked at more critically than most other theories because historically it has served to promote racism and imperialism. That is, the most notable instances of an appeal to diffusion theory tends to see the cultural stimulus as passing from white Indo-Europeans to backward peoples of color, despite migration (especially if “migration” is defined as an advancing wave of cultural advance rather than as social movement) taking place in quite the opposite direction. That is, in the case of the Eurasian steppe, the prevalent direction of cultural diffusion was toward the West, not toward the East.

Haines Brown