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Diffusion: a reappraisal of the concept

December 29, 2008

ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future, Bristol, UK, 6-9 April 2009

Panel 23: Diffusion: a reappraisal of the concept
Convenor: Maxime Brami (University College London)

Short Abstract

This panel aims to spark off a discussion about the concept of diffusion and its potential for cross-disciplinary dialogue between anthropology and archaeology. Participants should consider the historical background of diffusion in the two disciplines, as well as more theoretical issues.

Long Abstract

Diffusion has often been opposed to independent invention in the explanation of cultural change, which perhaps helps to explain its dismissal. Nevertheless, a renewed interest in diffusionary explanations has become apparent, particularly in archaeology; now, diffusion and independent invention can be seen to be two facets of the same issue. Exploring the significance of these developments we invite reconsideration of famous historical episodes, including Boas’ critique of social evolutionism, the debate between Smith and Malinowski, and the transition from Culture-history to Marxism in Childe’s writings, which paved the way for Processual archaeology. This should lead us to a more general discussion of the concept of diffusion, giving particular attention to the distinction between “demic” and “cultural” diffusions (Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza 1984). It is also worth exploring the distinction between the diffusion of techniques and symbolic ideas, which may imply different practices of social embodiment. Key to our debate is whether diffusion is only relevant to specific shifts, for example the spread of farming, or whether it can be used in larger explanatory frameworks (eg. world systems). All papers that consider these, and related issues are warmly welcome.

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