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Four Major Factors of Cultural Diffusion in German Ethnology

Nikolas is interested in the history of ethnology. He is fond of the beginning of German discipline in this field.

The Founder of cultural diffusion

The Founder of cultural diffusion

The Concept of Cultural Diffusion

The theory of cultural diffusion as a new methodology in the study of cultures appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. In its essence it represented a scientific reaction to the evolutionary direction in ethnology. The concept of "diffusion", borrowed from physics, means "pouring", "spreading", "penetration". In the study of cultures, it denoted the spread of cultural phenomena through contacts between peoples - trade, migration, conquest. The representatives of this direction considered the main content of the historical process as diffusion, contact, collision, borrowing, transfer of cultures. An important feature of this theory was the analysis of the spatial and temporal characteristics of cultures in the first place. One of the main ideas of evolutionary science is autonomous emergence and development of similar cultural phenomena in similar conditions. Scientists countered to it the thought of a single emergence of cultural elements and subsequent distribution from the center of origin. In contrast to evolutionary theory, it did not become a comprehensive methodology, remaining predominantly a scientific school of German-speaking ethnology.

Geographical Location in the Theory of F.Ratzel

  • The founder of cultural diffusion is considered to be the German researcher F. Ratzel (1844-1904) - geologist, paleontologist and zoologist. Friedrich Ratzel graduated from the Polytechnic University in Karlsruhe, then from the University of Heidelberg, where he attended a course of lectures by Professor Ernst Haeckel (the author of the term "ecology"). He expounded his concept of culture in his multi-volume studies "Anthropogeography" (1882-1891) and "Natural History" (1885-1895).
  • The main subject of Ratzel's study is the geographical distribution of the objects of material culture ("ethnographic objects", in his terminology) and the corresponding distribution of the peoples who carry these objects. From the fact of the geographical location and movement of ethnographic objects a conclusion was made about the spatial distribution of cultures, about the kinship and origin of the latter.
  • F. Ratzel distinguished two ways of moving cultural elements: 1) complete and rapid transfer of not individual things, but the entire cultural complex; this option, using the terminology of American scientists, he called acculturation; 2) the movement of individual ethnographic objects from one people to another

Material Culture

Objects of material culture were chosen by F. Ratzel as the main object of study, because they retain their form for a much longer time. Also objects have a larger area of distribution compared to other elements of culture. Peoples, according to F. Ratzel, change, die, but "the object remains what it was", as he wrote in Classics of Geopolitics, XIX century. Regarding the peculiarities of borrowing, he noted that some objects, for example, jewelry, clothing, drugs, are easily transmitted from people to people, others (harness, metalwork) - with difficulty. For Ratzel, a generalizing concept that expressed the spatial characteristics of the spread of culture was the "cultural zone" or "cultural circle". The spread of cultural elements (beyond the "cultural zone") was supposed to go with the people, although exceptions were possible. F. Ratzel explained similar elements in the cultures of different peoples by their common origin belonging to a deep antiquity. He saw the main source of change in cultures in the mutual contacts between them.

Leo Frobenius

Leo Frobenius

Leo Frobenius and His Cultural Circle

  • Another famous scientist, Leo Frobenius (1873-1928), was a pupil and follower of F. Ratzel. He was educated at the University of Frankfurt, whose ethnological institute was later named after him. While working at the Bremen Museum, he became interested in the cultures of the peoples of Africa, and for several years he studied them from museum collections and literature. L. Frobenius was the biggest specialist in African cultures. He made 12 expeditions, devoted to research of material culture of African peoples.
  • In his most fundamental work, The Origin of African Cultures (1898) he was the first in ethnology to use the method of systematic mapping of cultural phenomena. L. Frobenius considered two forms of the movement of culture: the transfer of culture without a significant movement of people and the movement of culture with peoples. The individual in his theory occupied a subordinate place. The main concept of his concept "cultural province" ("cultural circle") was a certain set of material cultural objects with certain features, characteristics. L. Frobenius, for example, distinguished the "West African cultural circle" covering the Congo basin, the coast of Upper and Lower Guinea.
  • Signs of this cultural circle are as follows: rectangular houses with gable roofs, bow with plant strings, woven shield, multi-stringed musical elements with plant strings, drum in the form of an hourglass and some others. L. Frobenius argued that cultures are born, live and die like other living beings. Man, on the other hand, is a product of culture rather than its creator. "Culture grows by itself, without man, without people. Culture is born of natural conditions.
  • It needs nourishment, which is realized through the development of the economy. As an organism, culture can be transplanted to other "soil," and under new conditions it will acquire a different direction of development. New cultures are born out of the juxtaposition and interaction of old ones. At the same time, culture cannot do without man, as it has no "legs". Therefore, man is the carrier (in the literal sense) of culture.

Bow With Plant Strings of Bushmen

Bow with plant strings

Bow with plant strings

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String Plant African Instruments

String Plant African Instruments


For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How is an organized pattern of human habitation called?
    • Settlement
    • Rural area
    • Planned community
  2. Which of the following is the best example for culture’s study?
    • A song played on everyday radio station
    • Learning from your grandfather about the traditions in his native region
    • Visiting another region and learning the dialect of a local town
  3. How does the culture spread when a person migrates?
    • Through relocation diffusion
    • Expansion diffusion
    • Contagious diffusion

Answer Key

  1. Planned community
  2. Learning from your grandfather about the traditions in his native region
  3. Contagious diffusion


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