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Diffusionism: A Uniformitarian Critique

J . M. Blaut

Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60680

Abstract. Ditfusionisni assume5 that ( I ) inventiveness is rare and theretore diffusion accounts tor nearly
a11 sifniiicant culture change and ( 2 ) certain places arc permanent loci of invention and thus arc inore
advanced and iiiore progressive than other places. It. however. inventivenesb and innovativeiiess are
assumed to he uniibrnil y distributed di ffkrent spat i d models crnerpe , different diffusion proccsacs gain
saliencc. inadequacies of cui-i-ent diffusion-of-innovation theory become evident. and new hypothese\
about broad-scale culture change are uncovered. This paper cxaininea the structure of diffusionism, put&
forward a noncliflu\ioni~talternative structure. and employs thc alternative t o modify dilfu\ion-of-in-
novation thcory and t o a r g ~ i efive nondiffu~ionist hypotheha for culture history and present-day rural

lie) Words: diffusion. tliffusioni\ni. invention. innovation. culti.iral evolution. technological change.
colonialism. unifoi-mirariniii~iii.

IFFUSIONISM is a way of looking at the 1979, 16.1-7 1 ), and opposing viewpoints gained
D world that has long influenced thinking in ge-
ography and social thought. Its classical form was
favor, particularly among those cultural anthro-
pologists and cultural geographers who defended
described by Malinowski (1927. 31) as the belief the integrity o f folk culture and who understood
"that culture can be contracted only by contagion "tradition" t o be dynamic and rational (see. e , g , .
and that man i s an imitative animal." I n other Kniffen 1965). But Eurocentrisni rctained its he-
words. culture change docs not arise autwi(i- gemony over most social thought, arid the "folk-
mously in most human communities: it comes from urban continuum' ' remained in cssence a concept
without. via diffusion. But diffiision itself must of one-way diffusion.
have a source, and classical diffusionism postu- Diffusionism has become reinvigorated. pri-
lated that some places arc permanent, natural cen- marily because i t fits with the stance that progress
ters o f creativity and invention. Even the opponcnts for the Third World consists in accepting the
o f classical diffusionism tended t o accept its main "modernizing" diffusion of inultinational capital-
proposition that Europe is the world's sourcc o f ism and the material traits. ideas, and sociopolit-
culturally significant innovations. ical bchavior associated with it. The ideology of
Classical diffusionism was strongly though not modernization has received considerable scientific
thoroughly criticized. Its i n a t salient forin. the criticism. and some writers have
. ext re me d it'fu s ion is m ' ' that at tri bu tcd almost al I diffusionism (c.g., Blaikie 1978; Blaut 1970. 1977:
cultural origins to diffusion and claimed t o find a Brookfield 1975; Chilcote 1984; Frank 1969) . B u t
single fountainhead for civilization (see. e.g., Smith diffusionism in its modern form has not as yet
1933) was fairly disposed o f (see Childe 195 I : been systematically described and criticized. n o r
Harris 1968: Kroebcr 1937: Leaf 1979: Lowie has the full extent of i t s influence been rccog-
1937). A fcw geographers and anthropologists nizcd.
continued to accept parts of the doctrine. however, In this paper I describe diffusionism and outline
such as the claim that New World cultures did not an alternative structure, a way o f theorizing about
invent agriculture and other civilizing innovations culture change that takes account of spatial tlif-
on their own but received them via transoceanic fusion but does not succumb to diffusionism. I
diffusion (Carter 1968; Edmonson 1961).l h e vicu. also argue that the nondiffusionist alternativc has
that i i i ~ s cultures
t and most people are uninventivc useful implications for a wide range of geographic
was attacked by Radin ( 1905) and others (see Leaf theories. 1 suggest some ways to eliminate diffu-

Diffusionism 31

sionism from the part of spatial diffusion theory this one community, which thus bccomcs thc per-
that relates to agricultural developincnt in the Third manent center for invention and innovation for this
World, and I look at a few of the larger problems landscapc; thereafter. the appearance of new in-
in historical geography in which an explicitly non- novations elsewhere in the landscape would be the
diffusionist approach can be helpful. The project result of a diffusion process originating in our sin-
as a whole is best described as a critique of dif- gle inventive community.
fusioni\m, but it i s a schematic critique limited by This belief- that changes are produced by dif-
the space available in a journal article. In partic- fusion rather than (ordinarily) by independent in-
ular. I d o not criticize diffusionist writings except vention and that certain places are the permancnt
wherc thib cannot be avoided in the context of a centers of innovation - is diffusionism. Diffu-
theoretical argument. and I say little about the his- sionisrn at thc world scale usually considers Eu-
tory of diffusionism in geography o r in general. rope or thc West to be the permanent center of
invention and innovation, although this generali-
zation needs to be qualified as to historical epoch.
Structure of Diffusionism (Classical diffusionists conceived thc center,
“civilization.” to be Europe or northwestern Eu-
Diffusionism is a large and complex doctrine rope or. for racists, “the Lands ofthe White Race.”
that has intluenced inany disciplines and countless Modern diffusionists tend to view the center as the
arguments for the past IS0 ycars or s o . The es- developed capitalist countries, Japan having been
sential structurc of diffusionism is quite simple. recently admitted to the central sector, which is
From two axiomatic propositions it constructs two still called “the West” in line with diffusionism’s
interchangeable landscapes, one a two-sector space, theory of history and culture.) At the regional scale
thc othcr a space with a continuous gradient be- diffusionism considers the part of a region that is
tween two polcs. Finally, it describes thc prop- most “Europeanized ,” ‘ *Westernized,’’ “mod-
erties of the two sectors and o f t h e two poles (plus ernized.” or “cosmopolitan,” and perhaps most
gradations between) and the transactions that flow “progressive, ’‘ “innovative. ’’ o r “rational, ’ ’ to
in both directions, with a set o f elementary argu- be the center of invention and innovation. Inno-
nicnts, six of which are crucial and will be dis- vations then spread by diffusion to the ”traditional
cussed here. areas ,” the “folk societies ,” thc “backward re-
Assume a landscapc with many communities. gions,” and so forth. Note the implication that the
(1 usc the word c~~rnrnunity to designate a discrete permanent center is always more advanced than
social space at any scale, e . g . , a settlement o r a the other parts of the region (or of the world) as
culture region.) A novel trait appears in one com- it is always emitting innovations that are adopted
munity. Later, the same trait appears in a second only later elsewhere. Diffusionists often carry this
community. Thc second community either in- matter of comparative synchronic levels of devel-
vented the trait for itself ( a case of what is called opment one step further: the societies most distant
indcpcndent invention) or acquired it from the first lrom the center are the most backward and the
coinmunity ( a case of diffusion). Thereafter the most ancient; they are sometimes thought of as the
trait appears in other communities, and each ncw “contemporary ancestors” of the societies at the
appearance is explaincd as a further instance of center, as though t o travel outward in space is t o
indcpcndent invention or diffusion. So far so good. travel backward in time. Thus diffusionism i s in
But suppose now that we wish t o predict where a double sense elitist: the center is at all times
in this landscape sotnc other novel trait will make more progressive than is the periphery, and it is
its initial appearance. Is it reasonable to suppose at all times more advanced, that is to say, more
that thc community that invented the first trait will civilizcd. The classical position was enunciated by
invent all subsequent traits as well’?This would be Katzel (1896, 179): “How much more the inter-
likely only if two additional assumptions obtained: course between lands and islands has contributed
( 1 ) the role of diffusion is more important than is to the enrichment of men’s stock of culture than
that of independent invention (there is little inven- has independent invention . . . . It
tiveness in this landscape): and (2) the community seeins . . . correct to credit the intellect of ‘nat-
that invented the first trait has a greater capability ural races’ with great sterility in all that does not
than d o the other communities o f inventing traits touch the most innnediatc objects of life.” Here
in general. If both these assumptions hold true, explicitly are the two diffusionists assumptions that
then subscqucnt trait inventions should come from invention is rarc and that most peoplcs are unin-
32 Blaut

ventive. and here implicitly the double elitism: the myth of emptiness also asserts an actual emptiness
“natural races” are backward and they are unpro- of the landscape: there were n o indigenous people.
gressive. Today “natural races” would be re- o r their population was negligibly srnall (and sparse
placed by “traditional cultures.” enough to allow unimpeded settlement by foreign-
The elementary structure of diffusionisin i s a ers). o r they were “nomads” and thus had no real
two-sector space at any geographical scale and claim to land. resources, and territorial sover-
historical depth. Six arguments (possibly more) eignty.
describe the properties of each sector and the (4) The predominant forin of interaction be-
transactions between them. These six arguments tween core and periphery i s the outward diffusion
are developed from the two basic diffusionist as- of progressive ideas, intangible intellectual and
sumptions and are elaborated. in turn, into more moral products reflecting the core culture’s ration-
complex and specific propositions. In some con- ality and inventiveness. In classical diffusionism
texts of discourse diffusionism describes a simple this i s seen as the spread of “civilization” and
two-sector world with a boundary between the today as the spread of “modernization.” This cen-
sectors. In other contexts it depicts a space with trifugal diffusion is not really explained; it i s as-
small gradational changes, such that the six ar- sumed, rather, to reflect the automatic workings
guments describe srnall and local differences: e . g . , of what can be called (with a nod to Malinowski)
more innovative and less innovative, more tradi- the principle of ideological contagion: certain ideas
tional and less traditional. A further qualification diffuse for no reason other than their innate infec-
must be made t o distinguish the arguments of the tiousness and the inherent susceptibility-in this
classical and modern forms of diffusionism (about case, the imitativeness-of the recipients. Again
which more will be said shortly). For brevity, the there i s a variant for settler colonies: the progrcs-
discussion will focus on the world scale, contrast- sive ideas are distributed by their bearers. Clas-
ing a “core” sector and a “periphery,“ and on sical and modern diffusionism (see the brief
the classical form of the arguments. as follows: historical discussion below) differ in the formu-
lation of this argument. The classical argument
( I ) Progressive culture change that takes place tended to emphasize mass migrations (Adams. Van
in the core sector i s autonomous: that is, it reflects Gerven. and Levy 1978) and the transfer of cul-
inventions occurring within the core, and it owes tures and culture complexes. Modern diffusionism
nothing important to the periphery. tends to assert that diffusion proceeds “from per-
( 3 )The underlying force or cause of inventive- son to person. rather than from community to
ness in the core sector is some psychological or community or from culture to culture” (Rouse
spiritual factor such as rationality (Weber 1904- 1961, 96, commenting on Edmonson 1961), re-
0.5). technological inventiveness (L. White 1962), ducing cultural process to the level of individuals,
imaginativeness ( a s opposed to imitativeness) who are thought to be adopting new ideas freely
(Tarde 1903). a logical theoretical mind (Sack 1980 (the myth of “voluntarism”) and as a reflection
t k / e LCvy-Bruhl 1966), o r “Western economic mainly of cognitive processes and interpersonal
man” (Chisholm 1982). communication (Blaut 1977).
(3) The periphery is the traditional sector o r ( 5 ) There is a counterdiffusion of material things
“traditional world,” “tradition” here having two from periphery to core, things like raw materials,
meanings: low level of civilization and low rate plantation products, art objects, and workers.
of change. Therefore, allowing for exceptions (like Classical diffusionism saw this as one side of a
the archaic Asian civilizations that rose but then grand transaction embodied in colonialism: ma-
stagnated). progressive culture change in the pe- terial wealth in partial repayment-it could never
riphery i s not autonomous but is attributable to be full repayment-for civilization.
diffusion from the center. T h e argument about a (6) There i s a second kind of counterdiffusion
“traditional sector” takes a special form when it from periphery to core, consisting of precisely the
i s applied to settlement of the periphery by people opposite of civilization. Because the periphery i s
from the core. What i s invoked here can be called by definition archaic. it i s the locus of atavistic
the “myth ofemptiness.” The idea of tradition as traits that seep back into the core according t o the
used in diffusionism is basically an idea of ab- principle of ideological contagion.
sence-of-qualities. Usually the missing qualities
are psychological (e.g., “rationality”) o r institu- Embedded in the foregoing are a number of im-
tional (e.g.. “private property,” “the state”). The portant contrasts that distinguish core from pe-
Diffusionism 33

riphery in classical diffusionist ethnoscience: concern to Cold War strategists, who sought (not
inventivenessiimitativeness, rationality/irrational- always successfully) to kccp these states from
ity, intellect/emotion (or intellect/instinct), ab- turning to socialism. Both interests required the
stract thought/concrete t h o u g h t , theoretical creation and scientific validation of a modern form
reasoningiempirical (practical) reasoning, mind/ of the diffusionist model, a body of ideas that had
body, disciplinc/spontaneity , adultichild, saneiin- to persuade the now-sovereign Third World states
sane, and scienceisorcery . that economic and social advancement consisted
in acquiring so-called modernizing traits from the
developed capitalist countries - traits including
Functions and History of Diffusionism penetration by multinational corporations, spread
of commodity production and consumption, ac-
The diffusionist world model became explicit, ceptance of and reliance on external capital, mil-
powerful, and important as the scientific under- itary e quipm e nt, and personnel, and so o n .
pinning of colonialism. its classical form emerged Advancement also required the suppression of
soon after the Napoleonic period and flourished forces that would inhibit diffusion by, for in-

until about the time of World War 1. Colonialism stance, building self-reliant economies, encour-
itself was of course a diffusion process among aging labor organization, and investing social capital
other things, but classical diffusionism imposed a in research institutions rather than in diffusion
theoretical model over the real process to exhibit agencies engaged in propelling foreign traits into
colonialism and the phenomena related to it (such the countryside (see Blaikie 1978; Blaut 1973. 1977;
as the internal characteristics of the colonized so- Browett 1980; Chilcote 1984; Frank 1969; Yapa
cieties) in ways that would conform to the interests 1977, 1980; Yapa and Mayfield 1978).
of the colonizing societies and of the elite groups As with classical diffusionism, modern diffu-
within them that benefited directly from coloni- sionism as a world model needs to be distin-
alism. Diffusionism demonstrated, as it were sci- guished from actual diffusion processes and
entifically, that colonialism is normal, natural, agencies. Modern diffusionism is a theoretical
inevitablc, and moral (that is, a bestowal of civi- model in which diffusion from developed coun-
l ization). tries to Third World countries (along with the phe-
Classical diffusionism was appropriate to the n o m e n a re la te d to it suc h a s the inte rna l
epoch in which capitalism was expanding mainly characteristics of the Third World societies) are
by means of colonialism and related processes. depicted in such a way as to demonstrate, scien-
This epoch ended after World War I, to be fol- tifically, that diffusion is the only possible road to
lowed by a period characterized by a search for development, to “modernization” (the Modewort
stability, normalcy, and peace, hence equilibrium, of modern diffusionism). Diffusion, therefore, is
and characterized in social thought by models of still normal, natural, inevitable, and moral. And
equilibrium, not of expansive diffusion: Keyne- this is demonstrated with arguments grounded in
sian models in economics, regionalism in geog- the two diffusionist assumptions and six basic dif-
r a p h y , f u n c t i o n a l i s m a n d r el at i v i s m i n fusionist propositions. Modern diffusionism is, if
anthropology, and the like. Diffusionism was in anything, more important in our own time than
eclipse during this period, although some diffu- classical diffusionism was in the last century. This
sionist schools ( e . g . , the Kulturkreislehre of is so because persuasion has now replaced naked
Grdebner and Schmidt and the migrationism of force -though not everywhere -and the evident
Huntington and Taylor) remained active and naive failure of the diffusion process to produce real
diffusionism still prevailed in children‘s school- development thus far means that ever greater em-
books (see Harris 1968; Kroeber 1937; Lowie 1937; phasis must be placed on theories that prove con-
Voget 1975). clusively that diffusion must lead to development
A new and modern form of diffusionism gained sooner or later.
prominence after World War 11, in the period of The foregoing discussion of the structure of dif-
collapsing colonial empires and an emerging ‘‘Third fusionism and its history and changing functions
World” of undcrdeveloped but sovereign coun- is of course schematic and incomplete. What is
tries. These countries were of great economic im- perhaps most obviously missing is an explanation
p o r t a n c e t o c a p i t a l i s m in its n ew e r a o f of the fact that most social scientists who today
expansionism and were of equally great political put forward diffusionist ideas - all must do so to

one extent or another - arc unaware of the tlif- sionism because it seems to carry with it the as-
fusionism in their (our) thinking. 1 have addressed sumption that people in general are imitative. not
this problem elsewhere (Blaut 1979, 1-6). inventive. and that ordinary pcoplc ;ire stupid. But
in fact. as 1 outline below. it i s not necessary to
give an important role to independent invention in
A Theoretical Alternative order to build a nondiffusionist, uniformitarian
schema for diffusion theory. The critique of dif-
Let us return now to an abstract landscape and iusionism docs not have to draw LIS into the tra-
begin to construct ;I theoretical alternative t o dif- ditional and often futile debates labeled “diffusion
fusionism. In fact there arc at least two alterna- vs. independent invention.” Let us first assume
tivcs. both o f which eliminate the diffusionist that independent invention is indeed important and
assumption that one place has more inventiveness see where this takes us.
than all other places. Instead we In the limiting case. an invention occurs simul-
mitnrianisni - that all communities have equal taneously in all communities throughout a land-
potential for invention and innovation, regardless scape. If these communities were. say. villages
of Lvhcther for the landscape as a whole the overall not very distant from one another. it would be
propensity t o invent is low o r high. The original extremely unlikely that all communities would ac-
d o c t r in c c a 1 I e d ‘ .u n i f o r i n i t a r ian isin ’ ‘ w a s t he quire a trait simultaneously through indcpendent
methodological principle used by nineteenth-cen- invention. ( I assume that the trait i s in some de-
tur? science to counter the claiins of theologians finable sense useful for the population as a whole.)
and others that physically similar forms across the But if the communities were major culture re-
earth‘.; surface are to be explained as unique in- gions. then the scenerio of simultaneous indcpcn-
terventions of God o r the Devil (see Harris 196X: dent invention i s not necessarily unrealistic. (Think.
Vogct 1975). L‘niformitarianism asserted, in es- for instance, of parallel reaponscs t o widespread
sence. that a common set o f physical laws operates drought. epidemic. o r invasion.) At a given time
everywhere, and wherever we find similar physi- all places would lack the trait: at the end of ;I
cal lacts we should look lor similar physical causes defined interval all places would possess the trait.
and vice versa. A logically related doctrine, called
_I he
. landscape would thus go through a sequence
the principle of the “p. hic unity of mankind” of stages, each representing the acquisition of one
(“psychic” here meaning “psychological”), was novel trait, and at each stage the landscape would
used some decades later to oppose the diffusionist be a uniform region.
argument that independent invention cannot be in- It would obviously be inore realistic tu assume
voked to explain trait adoption by most of the that diffusion occurs along with independent in-
world’s peoples because most peoples are not in- vention. (Nobody has ever questioned the signif-
ventive. Underlying the principle of psychic unity icance of diffusion, merely its claim to hegemony.)
was the simple proposition that all human beings In this case. the first novel trait would appear in
share the same basic psychological attributes and a number of communitics randomly distributed
capabilities (Harris 1968; Koepping 1983; Lowie across the landscape. and the trait would spread
1937). We can take this part of thc doctrine, call to the communities surrounding them. The sub-
it “psychological uniformitarianism” o r simply scqucnt diffusion process would not necessarily
“uniformitarianism,” and define it for our pur- lead to spatial differentiation. and. after a given
pose as follows: in all human communities we number of defined intervals, the region would again
should expect to find the same capacity for crea- be uniform. having changed state irom trait ab-
tion and invention; hence invention and innovation sence to trait presence. We can complicate the
should have an equal probability of occurring in process by assuming that new innovations are ap-
all places. Note that what we are assuming here pearing while the prior innovations are diffusing.
i s not uniformity but equality. and recall that dif- ‘The overall picture would remain one in which
fusionism assumcs inequality. diffusion plays a role, yct no part of the landscape
A uniformitarian landscape can change in either acquires characteristics that arc not alsci acquired
of two ways. depending on whether we choose to by all other parts.
retain o r discard the diffusionist assumption that Next assume a situation in which independent
diffusion is more important than independent in- invention plays only a minor role, a case that m a y
vention because invention i s rare. This assumption have been overlooked in the classical arguments
has tended to be re,jected by opponents of diffu- against diffusionism. Here a trait i s invented i n
Diifuaioniwi 35

one community and subscqucntly diffuses to other landscape. If there is environmental variation in
communities. At this point we may pause to con- the landscape, then trait modifications would most
sider the properties of what I have been calling likcly occur in those environmental contexts where
“traits.” One problem in studies of culture change the original trait proves least useful. Hence it might
by anthropologists and cultural gcographers has bc that the farther one goes from thc originating
bccn the difficulty of isolating a single empirical community, the greater is the probability that the
event of the sort called a “culture trait.” Every trait will be modified. Nonetheless. we are sat? if
trait is in principlc made up of componcnt traits. we merely assume randomness in the process o f
Sometimes wc do reach a definite limiting point modification. This scenario again produces a uni-
below which everything seems t o be a part of a form region.2
trait. particularly when we are dealing with func- This is the base case for uniformitarianism. It
tional itenis of material culture like bows. houses, denies that some places o r people arc inore invcn-
and so o n . But, in general. the efforts to reduce tive than others, and it denies that innovation is
culturcs to “trait lists” proved unworkable, and rare. It assumes only the level of inventiveness
the concept of “trait” remained imprecise (see needed to produce modest modifications of exist-
Harris 1968. 3 7 6 7 7 ; Leaf 1979, 167; Voget 1975, ing traits. It gives t o diffusion, not to independent
372-82). Modern diffusion research tcnds t o ig- invention, the main causal role in culture change.
nore this issue and to employ what can be called But this kind of diffusion is very different from
the “patent office” notion (or the “commodity” the diffusion of diffusionism. It produces spatially
notion) of what constitutes a diffusing trait, the uniform or randomly varying ,changes, not the
notion that it is in some ontological sense whole building up of centcrs of invention and innovation.
and different from any existing trait. In the present It thus draws our attention away from the evolving
discussion a fruit refers to any distinguishable bit pattern of a spreading diffusion, what I have de-
or quality of culture, whether or not it is ontolog- scribed elsewhere as the transitional phase in a
ically object-like. holistic. of systemic. I t must, diffusion process (Blaut 1977). and toward differ-
howevcr. be invented. put to use as an innovation, ent kinds of problems.
and then diffused to other communities. Defining
trtrir in this way has some interesting implications.
Thc invention and diffusion of definite, whole, Diffusion Processes
rccognizable things is much less significant in the
real world than is the addition by invention or W e can now identify seven diffusion processes
diffusion of improvements, modifications. or ad- that become salient in a uniformitarian approach
aptations made to already existing pieces of cul- to diffusion theory.
ture. Though well known, this has surprising 1 , Cdlukir tlj(firsion. In a theoretical landscape
implications. Consider again the trait invented in into which we have not introduced any empirical
one community and then diffused to others. Let basis for spatial differentiation (such as hill-val-
us assume that some other community, after ac- Icy, town-country, sovereign state-colony. core-
quiring the trait, modifies i t . Generically, this is periphery) o r in which it cannot be assumcd a
independent invention, though modest modifica- priori that such empirical differences will produce
tions might not be called inventions. The now- spatial variations in the invention and diffusion
modified trait appears in the landscape and begins patterns, the effects of both invention and diffu-
t o diffuse in its own right. Later a new modifi- sion will lead to a uniform region. This is because,
cation is made by one of the communities, and as we have seen, invcntions will occur in ran-
the now twice-modified trait begins to diffuse. As- domly distributed communities and diffusion will
sume that a sizable proportion of the diffusion have n o greater tendency to move in one direction
events in the landscape consist of the emission of than another. Thus in the real world we would
traits in a modified form, as compared to the form have a uniform region changing from the one state
in which thcy were originally received and adopted. to another as a whole. At higher levels of aggre-
All of this is going on simultaneously throughout gation we would have a pattern of cellular regions,
the landscape. in a process that can be called - each uniform and separated from all others by a
I will define the term more precisely later - boundary defined by the fact that diffusions d o not
“crisscross diffusion.” W e continue to assume that cross it within a defined epoch. In this situation
the communities that initiate each invention and the problem of major interest would no longer in-
modification are randomly distributed across the volve the spatial transition from trait absence to
36 Blaut

trait presence but would relate to why the trait ifications will be generated, transmitted, and re-
either does or does not diffuse in the region - ceived frequently and will diffuse quickly. At all
problems thus of entry conditions and boundary times novel traits will be crisscrossing the land-
breaching between regions (Blaut 1977, 349). All scape. For large cultural transformations like the
of this may be callcd “cellular diffusion.” Neolithic Revolution and the transition from feu-
2. Ultra-rapid dijfusion. Consider three cases: dalism to capitalism, the effect of crisscross dif-
( 1 ) a trait diffuses through a region with great fusion would be simultaneous changes throughout
rapidity - almost instantly; (2) a trait diffuses at a landscape as a whole. Consider a landscape
some moderate, measurable rate; (3) a trait does composed of just two communities, 1 and 2. Com-
not diffuse in the region at all. Cases ( 1 ) and (3) munity 1 invents a trait or modifies an existing
have received little attention in Third World rural trait. The invention reaches community 2 by dif-
contexts (but see Blaut 1977, 345-47; Yapa and fusion. Community 2 adds a modification of its
Mayfield 1978). 1 think the neglect of both cases own, which then diffuses to community 1 , which
reflects, in part, an unperceived influence of dif- may at the same time be transmitting another mod-
fusionism, specifically its assumption that people ification to 2. Both communities are simulta-
are not very innovative (Bowen-Jones 1981, 79- neously inventing, transmitting. and receiving novel
82: Chisholin 1982, 155-63) and that change rc- traits, which thus are crisscrossing the space be-
flccts the arrival of traits diffused from elsewhere tween them, and both comrnunitics are going
(Lentnek 1969; 1971, 163; Hoyle 1974, 5 ) . A large through an ordered sequence of changcs simulta-
diffusionist mythology has been built up on the neously. If the bundle of novelties adds up to a
basis of “extensionism” in rural sociology (Rog- major cultural transformation, a “revolution,” we
ers 1962) and “modernization” theory elsewhere cannot say that the revolution started in one com-
(McClelland 1961; Foster 1962; Hagen 1962) to munity and diffused to the other: it occurred in
support the idea that Third World people can be both sumultaneously. For the same scenario in a
made on empirical evidence that diffusion tends landscapc with many communities, we would not
to proceed either remarkably rapidly or not at all. be able to point to one place as the source or hearth
If a trait is information-dependent, if it is patently of the revolution and describe other places as re-
useful, and if resources to adopt it are present, cipients-by-diffusion. If we were studying such a
then it will diffuse nearly at the rate information transformation empirically, we would assume that
spreads. This is almost instantaneously in most the entire landscape participated in the transfor-
social systems, unless information is a commodity mation by crisscross diffusion unless we were to
or is held oligopolistically by power groups and uncover empirical evidence to the contrary.
not allowed to diffuse (see Blaikie 1978; Blaut 4-6. Dependent, disguised, and phantom dif
1977). If human beings are highly inventive and ,fusion. Diffusionism, as noted previously, asserts
prone to receive and transmit innovations rapidly, that progressive ideas and their consequences -
trait diffusion if not inhibited by extraneous forces civilization, modernization, development - tlow
(c.g.. economic or political) should proceed at rates from the developed capitalist “core” to the more
so rapid perhaps that modeling the transition is backward and slowly progressing “periphery.”
either impossible or uninteresting. By the same Modern diffusionism, for reasons discussed al-
token, howcver, inhibiting forces will often - ready, strives to show that it is just this spreading
and in most Third World areas typically - pre- of modern knowledge and ways that characterizcs
vent the diffusion of useful, development-induc- the present-day relationship between capitalist me-
ing innovations from taking place at all. As to the tropolis and Third World and strives to argue con-
intermediate case, of moderate, measurable, niod- vincingly that receptivity to flows of all sorts from
elable diffusion, I will argue below that, at least the metropolis is the only way for peripheral so-
in the Third World. cases of this sort usually re- cieties to achieve development and “modernity.”
flect processes other than the autonomous diffu- Emerging from this is a concrete model in which
sion of innovations. Note that this stop-or-go there is asserted to be a steady flow of infornia-
diffusion pattern - ultra-rapid diffusion or none tion. “modern” social attitudes, and wealth-gen-
at all - is consistent with the cellular model dis- erating material things likc productive farm inputs
cussed previously. glissading down from metropolis to periphery. This
3. Crisscross difusion. In a uniformitarian model has been deployed in one form or another
landscape, diffusion will proceed rapidly in the in a number of studies, empirical and theoretical,
absence of inhibiting factors. Traits or trait mod- and claims are made that it has been empirically
Diffusionism 37

validated (see e.g., Gould 1969; Rogers and Shoe- an explanatory schema is invoked for the diffusion
maker 1971; Pedersen 1970; L. Brown 1981). in of a trait y whereas the appropriate explanation
fact, it is merely self-validating, because it fails would have to account for the diffusion of the
to distinguish traits generating development from independent trait x, with y then being seen as a
traits doing quite different things, such as increas- trait that, so to speak, rides piggyback on x . In
ing poverty and landlessness; in effect the model the case of disguised diffusion, the independent
treats all diffusing traits as “modernizing inno- trait x is simply not observed. This occurs most
vations.” frequently when the observed trait, y, seems to be
The foregoing critique leads us to recognize three an expression of ‘‘the diffusion of modernizing
specific erroneous argument structures that I will innovations,” while the x is some economically
refer to respectively as (4) dependent diffusion, or socially corrosive process. One further type of
(5) disguised diffusion, and (6) phantom diffu- disguised (and dependent) diffusion deserves no-
sion. In dependent diffusion, assume the diffusion tice. This is the case where the truly significant
in the same space-time of two traits, x and y; y is spatial flow is outward from a region (as in the
dependent on x if the diffusion of x is an auton- marketing of farm commodities or the draining of
omous process, explainable in terms of a definite wealth from periphery to core) whereas the spatial
causal model, and if the diffusion of y is wholly flows info the region (the diffusion processes nor-
explained by the fact that wherever we find x we mally studied) are nothing more than a preparation
tend to find y (for whatever reason). Trait y may of infrastructure: capital investment, road build-
covary spatially with x, or it may simply be an ing, and the like. (On the historical importance of
adventitious attachment to x. In such cases we diffusion from periphery to core see Lattimore
would be in error if we explained the diffusion of 1980.) Most colonial diffusions consisted of in-
\ with a model postulating an autonomous cause frastructure of this sort, designed for profit not
of the diffusion. As an example, consider the case development, and leading often to the opposite of
of a region in which there is a progressive erosion development. Yet a number of geographers, e .g.,
of farm tenure, with farms tending to slide down Riddell in his study of Sierra Leone (Riddell 1970,
what is often called the “tenure ladder,” from 3-7, 13-14, 40-65. 70-72, 86-93, 95-101, 129-
farm ownership to tenancy to sharecropping to 3 I ) , treat all such colonial infrastructural diffu-
landlessness and sale of labor. As tenure erodes, sions as though they were truly “modernizing,”
there may well be a change in crops, productive thereby suggesting that colonialism was itself a
inputs, and equipment. A novel crop may spread modernizing process, rather than, as in Sierra
because it provides the same food value on smaller Leone, a process of destroying the pre-existing
acreage. Another may spread because it can be social-political, economic, and spatial structure of
sold as a commodity to pay rent demanded in cash. precolonial development, including roads, schools.
Another crop. often a “modern” export crop, may and medical institutions.’
spread because landlords force its growth on share It can also happen that a diffusion is inferred t o
tenants and may spread even more dramatically have taken place when none in fact did, a case of
when farmers have been evicted and the land is what can be called phantom diffusion. This error
cultivated in large plantations. In these two cases is easier to make than may seem apparent and is
(increased sharecropping and conversion to plan- most easily made if the trait is ephemeral (like
tation or “kulak” agriculture) we often find an information) or abstract (like modernization it-
impressive diffusion into the countryside of agri- self); but it happens also with concrete material
cultural machinery and expensive inputs. If we traits whose actual diffusion was not observed. A
were to claim here that there is an autonomous classic case is the mythic spread of modern med-
diffusion of “modernizing” traits - innovative icine in colonial India.4 Equally classic is the ar-
crops. tractors, and the like - we would be mis- gument that early Americans did not invent the
taken: these are the y’s, traits whose diffusion is innovative traits of civilization but received them
dependent on the diffusion of x, in this case land- from some original hearth in the Old World (Carter
lordism. Yet diffusion researchers often make this 1968, 538-63) and the related attempt by Edmon-
mistake in their studies of Third World rural land- son (1961) to trace the diffusion of pottery to the
scapes, falsely characterizing the diffusing y’s as New World using a form of the principle of ide-
innovations that are part of “modernization” and ological contagion and neglecting material evi-
development (e.g., Lentnek 1969; Riddell 1970). dence.
In this case there is a misreading of causality: An important case of- phantom diffusion is the
iX Blaut

inference-based o n evidence of known diffusion administration and control, as a typical case of

of certain material traits-that dcvclopmcnt-in- voluntary diffusion of innovations. with “dem-
ducing information has spread through a region. onstration effects,” “information.” a pattern of
The spread of such traits in the rural Third World “acceptance“ nicely suited t o trend-surface map-
often retlects processes in which inforrnation (as ping and the like (see Riddell 1970. 4X-55. and
th;it term is used in diffusion research) was either supporting coninients in Gould 1969, 66 and in L.
irrelevant o r absent: there was no voluntary ”de- Brown 19x1. 267-69: comparc Kup 1975. Ch. 6
cision to adopt” made after the receipt of infor- and Fyle 19x1, 116-17).
mation: rather. the decision was forced on farmers A rnore concrete and interesting case comes from
( e . 9 . . by landlords o r creditors) o r it took place in Could ( 1969. 1970) and some others (including
;I different economic space. such as that of plan- Riddell) who make the following argument: The
tation\. “kulaks.” or merchants (Blaut 1977, 3 4 6 colonial powers built roads: roads imply accessi-
3 7 ) . Thus. inferring that the diffusion of traits like bility: iind accessibility is an adequate surropate
iicu crops o r iliachincry was based upon the dif- for development o r modernization. This argument
fusion of information is often unwarranted. This is invalidated on three counts. First, accessibility
is ;I crucial point for theory and policy because it existed in precolonial routes of movement and trade.
cuts the chain o f reasoning by which the diffusion usually elaborate and often as rnodern as one can
o f new ideas is judged to be the crucial component expect for the pre-automobile era. Kiddell (1970.
o f devclopmcnt-that it has some role to play is 3) asserts that precolonial Sierra Leone had only
not at issue-and by which technical assistance “bush paths and riverine routes.” whereas it had
nnd the encouragement of external dependence and two intcrdigitating transport networks, one leading
control literally takes the place of land reform and to the Sudanic economic hearth. the other (Creole)
p i u i n e social change. In this connection we might one to Freetown (Kiddell 1970. 3. 10:compare
.ic instance of information dif- Hopkins 1973: Howard 1975. 263-64; K ~ i p1975.
fusion in a process of agricultural iiioderniration, 71:Ncwbury 1969, 60; Fyle 1981, C h . I S ) . In
the case of extension services to United States ag- the casc of Ghana, Could writes o f “total inac-
riculture from the 1930s to the IYSOs, calls for cessibility” prior to British road building for an
sonic reinterpretation. Farmers, acting through the area which also had a complicated network of prc-
political process (particularly the “farm bloc” in colonial (prcmotor) roads, in fact a well-dcvel-
Congress). demanded that they be provided with oped hierarchy of central places (Could 1969. 64:
such services in an environment in which the fam- compare Kea 1982 on road networks and central
ily farm was gravely threatened by the growth of place systems of precolonial Ghana). Second, co-
giant markcting and supply corporations. Hence lonial road networks are oriented t o European eco-
the critical inforrnation diffused f i . 0 ~ 7 the farmers nomic concerns. mainly of export, and they are
r o the government. and the reply came back via not always of much use in transportation planning
cxperiment stations. county extension agents, and today; indeed. they reinforce ( as they were in-
the rest. tended to do) the external economic dependency
Another form o f phantom diffusion is where the for which the country may wish t o substitute iiu-
abstract substance, development, is inferred t o have tonomy. Third. road systems do not necessarily
diffused into a Third World region when it has not provide development. In inany colonies and in
clone so. Often this involves a fusing of classical semicolonies (like China), complex road and rail-
and modern diffusionism in the argument that Eu- road systems were developed but they did not bring
ropean colonialism was innately a process o f de- development. Today, development does not au-
vclopmcnt and modernization and that this process tomatically tlow down these networks because of
is the only route to development today. Given this accessibility (Stevens and Lee 1979: Wilbanks
inodcl. many colonial traits can be seen a s con- 1972). lJnder certain sociopolitical conditions. they
crete indicators of “modernization. ’ ’ Thus. for in- provide accessibility for flows which arc antidcv-
stance. Riddell describes a relatively unimportant elopinent.
change i n local administration that the British im- 7. Most diffusions are also di.~~~/trc~cmellrs,~7f.s
in that
posed essentially by force on Sierra Leone in the one trait displaces another or one population dis-
1930s as a voluntarily adopted, “modernizing” places another. The distinction between displacing
change. He depicts the change, which was i n - and nondisplacing diffusions is not often made,
posed mainly over a six-year period by the British and this leads to theoretical and empirical errors.
in a spatial process accordant with their pattern of One source of this problem is the diffusionist ar-
Diffusion i s tn 39

gurncnt that I have called thc myth of emptiness. agricultural development in the present-day world.
Classical colonialism argued that the sprcad of Eu- I n each case I put forward a gcneralization and
ropean populations. cultural facts, and political just enough supporting evidence t o render it plau-
control was scicntifically natural and morally jus- sible.5
tifiable because (among other things) the land-
scapcs into which these things were inserted were Hypothesis 1. The Old World agricultural rev-
in one sense or another empty. Aboriginal popu- olution may have happened everywhere at oncc.
lations were sparse o r virtually nonexistcnt. Thc More prcciscly, we should not look for onc or two
people were nomads. They had n o state, no prop- original and autonomous centers but should cxpcct
erty, n o commerce. At most they had "traditional to find that large portions of Asia, Africa, and
society" into which everything tnodern would tlow Europe were participating simultaneously in the
as if into a vacuum. Modern diffusionism reduces process. however lengthy it may have been. The
its focus mainly to the case of "traditional soci- process niay have worked in the following way.
cties" and the tlow into thcm of "modernizing First. we make the familiar, though not univer-
innovations. ' ' sally accepted, assumption that a transformation
It would take us far afield to discuss the many from a preagricultural to an agricultural economy
ways in which the myth of emptiness still affects was advantagcous for people over most (not all)
geography and social thought. but I shall offer a of the reasonably warm and nonarid portions of
few exainples of this type 0 1 thinking. Nostrand thc Old World.' Second. we assume that human
underestimates earlier Hispanic population in the settlement was essentially continuous over most
Southwest (Nostrand 1975: criticized in Blaut and of this area, with discontinuities spanned by land
Rios-Bustamante 1984). McEvcdy has depicted and watcr routes of movement. Third. we intro-
southern Africa as largely empty o f Africans other duce the uniformitarian assumptions that all set-
than Bushmen and Hottentots prior to European tlements and cultures were simultaneously
settlement (McEvedy 1980. 20-1 I?: in a similar inventing, sending, and receiving agricultural in-
vein. sec Guelke 1976). Reichman and Hasson novations. Fourth, the effects of the foregoing were
(1984. 6 2 ) map the Palestinian West Bank circa transmitted by crisscross diffusion throughout the
1910 as an area of "nomad population." (For an entire rcgion at a rapid rate, rapid enough to pcr-
extreme view see Rowlcy 1983, 188). Various rnit innovations to pass back and forth throughout
theoretical studies employ models that improperly thc region (which stretched at least from West Af-
define prediffusion spaces as empty, thc most in- rica and Central Europe to China and New Guinea).
tluential example being the depiction by Taaffe. and thus gradually to build up an agricultural land-
Morrill, and Could (1963) of transportation dc- scape.
vclopnicnt in a hypothetical underdcveloped coun- W e should take note of recent evidence pointing
try (see cotnmcntary in L. Brown 1981, 267-69). toward a convergence of dates for earliest agri-
Such models diffuse into pedagogy, where they culture in the ncighborhood of 9,000-1 1.000 B.P.
bupply realistic-seeming models. images, games, for regions distant from one another and very dis-
and "simulations" of empty-seeming Third World similar in environment: northern Nigeria and var-
spaces ( e . g . . French and Stanley 1974; Haggett ious Saharan sites (c. 9,000 B.P.: Wendorf and
1983. 5 15-21 ; Haggett and Chorley 1969, 296- Schild 1980). southeastern Europe (c. 8,000 B.P.:
298). In the case of diffusions that displace. it Kabaker 1977). Southwest Asia (c. 10,000 B.P.:
seems unlikely that theoretical models (or games) Kabaker 1977). northeastern India (c. 7.000 B.P.:
can be of much help unless they take account of Vishnu-Mittre 1978), lhailand (9,000 B . P . or ear-
conflict. coercion. and political power. lier: Gorman 1977). highland New Guinea (c. 9,000
B . P . : Golson 1977). and China (c. 7,000 B . P . : H o
1977). Further research niay shift the specific space-
Hypotheses time pattern, but n o longer will single-center the-
ories be able to assert the hegemony of Middle
Diffusionism has so pervaded social thought that East antiquity. Various theories of agricultural
it seems reasonable to suppose that a nondiffu- origins ( e . g . , Cohen 1977; Rindos 1984) are con-
sionist perspective will lead us to rethink some of sistent with the hypothesis of a nearly continental-
our larger hypotheses. By way of concluding this scale agricultural revolution. Some of these the-
paper. 1 shall discuss five such hypotheses. Four ories posit a number of sites that either shared a
have to d o with culture history and the fifth with common environmental character ( e .g.. maximal
40 Blaut

biomass-production potential) o r were cnviron- autonomous. Innovations in material culture and

mentally diverse ( e . g . , Vavilov’s (1951) long list social organization of production diffused both into
of domestication hearths), but such sites can be and out of Europe. An agricultural revolution of
viewed as nodes in a network and these theories sorts was indeed taking place but on a hemispheric
are not inconsistent with our hypothesis. scale (Blaut 1976). and the changes that took place
within Europe cannot be woven into a separate
Hypothesis 2. A number of important theses causal theory of progress.
about agricultural evolution are influenced by as-
sumptions about selective ignorance, noninven- Hypothesis 3. The rise of capitalism occurred
t i v e n e s s , and a primordial directionality o f in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe at the
diffusion-assumptions that are sometimes diffu- same time. This hypothesis is a simple denial of
sionist and sometimes given momentum because the thesis that capitalism arose autonomously in
they arc conformal to diffusionism. Withdrawing Europe and nowhere else and arose because of
these assumptions should change o u r thinking in attributes (e.g., progressiveness, rationality. mod-
significant ways. 1 shall suggest two. ( I ) Why ernity) unique t o Europeans. 1 defend this hypoth-
should we believe that irrigation i s an evolutionary esis elsewhere (Blaut 1976, in press) but briefly
advance over drained- and dry-field farming sys- the argument is as follows: First, every attribute
tems o r that sedentary systems are an advance over of medieval Europe that played a causal role in
shifting systems? When we deal with situations the subsequent rise of capitalism was also present
that are not complicated by class pressures for sur- in a number of other Communities across the Old
plus delivery, all of these different farming sys- World at the same time, and these communities
tcnis should be capable of providing about the same were not less progressive, more rigid, more “tra-
returns to labor over many different environmental ditional.” nor were Europeans uniquely “inven-
situations. There i s nothing about small-scale ir- tive” (Weber 1904-05. 1916; L. White 1962.
rigation that i s more esoteric than the way farmers 1968). Second, emerging proto-capitalism was
manage moisture supply in drained-field and dry- seated mainly in mercantile-maritime urban cen-
field farming systems. And we are supposing now ters (with small hinterlands), stretching from west-
that inventiveness and rapid cri ern Europe t o eastern Asia and southern Africa (to
are the normal state of affairs. It seems reason- Sofala and perhaps southward). These centers were,
able. therefore, to suggest that drained-field ag- on the one hand, peripheral to and partially in-
riculture and shifting agriculture are neither more dependent of the surrounding feudal states and, o n
nor less ancient than irrigated agriculture and that the other, were themselves interlocked in a hem-
the systems vary for reasons that have nothing t o isphere-wide network of trade and communica-
do with selective technological ignorance o r cog- tion. a network through which innovations of all
nitive p r i ~ i i i t i v i t yAnd
. ~ it does not seem reason- sorts were transmitted to all parts of the system
able t o believe, a priori, that an “irrigation by rapid crisscross diffusion with the result that
revolution” or “hydraulic revolution” occurred the character of mercantile capitalism. of urban
separate from the primal agricultural revolution production, and of much else besides was basi-
and created centers of social evolution. Large-scale cally common to all nodes in the network. Thus
irrigation systems must have been the effect, not all centers were participating in a common evo-
the cause, of class processes and the state: the lution toward a fully capitalist society and polity.
logic of such systems i s that they can provide more an evolution that was taking place at a rapid, per-
surplus product per unit of area and facilitate the haps ultra-rapid, rate during the fifteenth century
division o f labor. Thus the popular causal model in parts of Europe but also in parts of Africa and
for “hydraulic civilization” i s stood on its head, Asia. Third, it was the conquest and plunder of
and the notions of “oriental despotism” and an the New World-carried out by Europeans be-
“Asiatic mode o f production” arc denied their cause proto-capitalist centers of Europe were thou-
principal means of support. ( 2 ) The belief that an sands of miles closer to the New World in 1491
autonomous, internally generated agricultural rev- than were any other major proto-capitalist cen-
olution occurred in medieval Europe (see. e . g . , L. ters-that provided the resources enabling Euro-
White 1962) must lose credibility when we with- pean merchant capital to rise toward political power
draw from it the diffusionist assumption that evo- in Europe and t o begin the process of destroying
lutionary change within the European sector is competing groups elsewhere. T h u s capitalism
Diffusionism 41

ceased to rise in Africa and Asia while it was environment. Typical diffusion rates for exoge-
advancing toward a bourgeois and thcn industrial nous agricultural innovations that are clearly ben-
revolution in Europe alone. eficial to farmers tend to be rapid or ultra-rapid
where inhibiting political and class conditions arc
Hypothesis 4. Nationalism did not arise as an absent. This is the casc, for instancc. where an
innovation in Europe and then appear in other parts egalitarian political environment limits or elimi-
of the world as a result of diffusion from Europe. nates the ability of nonfamily-farming groups or
This hypothesis, like the preceding one, 1 have classes to prcvent family farmers from adopting
dcfcndcd elsewhere (Blaut 1980, 1982, in press) innovations freely. This is also the case where
so here 1 will merely summarize the arguments family farmers, because of farm size and tenure
and the issucs. Thc body of theory about nation- security. have power to make decisions. On the
alism (1.e.. national conflicts, the “national qucs- other hand, innovations tend to diffuse slowly or
t i o n ” ) is d o m i n a t e d by t w o v i e w p o i n t s , a not at all in political cnvironmcnts that favor power
mainstream theory that is diffusionist and a form groups (e.g., landlords, merchants) that can pre-
of Marxist theory that is only slightly less so. The vent family farmers from making decisions or in
mainstream theory derives national processes from political cnvironments in which farmers are pow-
a primordial European idea, the “idea of nation- erless because of poor tenure, small size of farm,
alism,” which is supposed to have arisen auton- and the like.
omously in northwestern Europc as the idea of. The influcncc of social conditions upon diffu-
and urge to create, the nation-statc. This idea then sion rates is not often disputed. But what this hy-
diffused outward toward the rest of the world. pothesis asserts is that these conditions play the
eventually arriving in colonies and sparking na- critical role in matters relating to agricultural change
tional liberation movements. The comparable in underdeveloped areas; the factors traditionally
Marxist theory identifies the nation-state as the emphasized by diffusion theorists (in geography
most suitable political form for youthful capital- and elsewhere) are of secondary importance in some
ism and thus the goal of political struggle by the situations and irrelevant in most others. If thc hy-
bourgeoisie in its rise to power. Capitalism dif- pothesis is valid, then the effort to explain. pre-
fused out across the world, and therefore, quite dict, and generate agricultural change should
naturally. there emerged everywhcre a local class proceed in a fundamentally different way. To make
of “rising bourgeoisie” and. in its wake, “bour- this argument I will have to say a word about the
geois nationalism.” Neither theory givcs a real evolution of diffusion theory and the way it be-
causal role to conditions of cxploitation and came entangled with diffusionism.
oppression in the colonies and semicolonies or ex- When diffusion-of-agricultural-innovations the-
plains either the kind of nationalism that struggles ory began to crystallize, mainly in the 1940s and
against colonialism in order to create a socialist 1950s, the crux of the theory was the information
state or the kind that struggles to restore a prccap- postulate-the notion that the communication of
italist state. A nondiffusionist alternative to both information about innovations is central to the
theories argues that national struggle is struggle process of change. There was important confirm-
for state power, under conditions where control of ing evidence from landscapes with strong and sta-
the state is in the hands of foreign groups and ble peasantries: indeed, agricultural extension had
produces suffering (economic, political, or cul- much to do with the survival of family farming in
tural) for the inhabitants. This can occur in many North America during and after the Depression.
circumstances and many forms of society. It may The argument that information flows would be im-
reflect colonial oppression, or power struggles in portant predictors of change made good sense in
early capitalism, or other circumstances, some set that context (see HHgerstrand 1967; Tiedcmann and
in motion by diffusion processes, others internal Van Doren 1964). But the context did not extend
to an area, or culture, or state. to politically disenfranchised peasantries suffering
under landlordism and debt peonage.
Hypothesis 5. In present-day rural landscapes In the 1950s geographers, rural sociologists, ag-
of underdeveloped countries, the main variables ricultural economists, and their colleagues began
that determine diffusion rates are not spatial or a truly massive effort to apply information-based
psychological and are not matters of distance, ac- diffusion theory to this larger and fundamentally
ccssibility, or so-called adopter attributes: the main different context. The motor force, as discussed
variables have to do with the political and class earlicr in this paper, was the effort to generate
42 Blaut

economic development in the Third World. but to Another i s “locus of control.” in essence the be-
do so by means of strategies that would not lead lief that one can control events: this pscudo-vari-
to dramatic social a n d political upheavals like nil- able i s a part of the explanatory model used by G .
tionalization of foreign holdings, land reform and White and some o f his associates in studies of
related attacks o n local elites. socialist revolution, natural-hazard adaptability by Third World, mainly
and in some areas decolonization. Scholars were rural, people (see G . White 1974. 5-10: Bauniann
enlisted in this campaign in various ways that need and S i m s 1974, 2 - 3 0 : Burton, Kates. and White
not concern us (although it should be noted that 1978, 107: Dupree and Roder 1974. I 17; for sche-
all these research workers were convinced that their matic critiques from differing perspectives see Bluut
(our) work was directed against poverty and suf- 1984, 150-51: Mitchell 1984, 57; Waddell 1977).
fei-ing). What is crucial hcre is the fact that the Still another pseudo-variable. already discussed
diffusionist model was axiomatic for most of the here, i s “traditionalism” or ‘.the traditional mind.”
resulting s c h o l a r s h i ~ m p i r i c a l theoretical.
. and a notion deployed in diffusion research (see. e . g . .
applied. ‘The axiom asserted in essence that de- L. Brown 1981. 27iC75; Riddell 1970. 6) and
velopmcnt results from the tlow of inodemizing elsewhere in geography to explain lack (if dcvcl-
innovations from the center t o the countryside. opniental progress in particular landscapes or in
that development results troni not much more than general. At the niwt general level. f o r instance.
the diffusion of innovations plus a sinall line of Sack ( 1980) constructs an elaborate theory pro-
credit. ( I iun over\implifying. J posing to explain the evolution and cross-cultural
The in fornia t ion pos tulatc itse If became d iffu- variation of human abilities to conceptualize space.
sionist in this intellectual environment. Informa- both concrete (political. economic. physiographic)
tion-based diffusion theory assumed a two-sector and abstract, grounding the entire theory i n the
landscape, one part informed and incrementally diffusionist dichotomy between the traditional ( o r
developed. the other part uninformed and unde- “prirnitivc”) mind and the modern mind, the lor-
veloped. Information and development spread nier being childlike, ancient, superstitious. suh-
spatially from one o r another kind of center. Dis- .
j ec t ive . unsophisticated , non ra t ional pract ic a I
tance. accessibility. and the psychological condi- (nonthcorctical). and characteristic generally of non-
tion o f being informed or uninforrncd are the Western societies (although peasant societies ap-
essential variables. (For examples o f this approach parently admix the two forins of mentality) (see
see Lentnek 1969; Taaffe. Morrill and Gauld 1963: Sack 1980. 22-23.27. 117-38, 142-.57, 167-93.
Wilbanks 1972. A critique i s given in Blaut 1977). construction is close t o classical
But this. overall, was a mild sort of diffusionism. diffusionism in its view of the h
troublesome mostly foi- its ingenuous disregard of it is also a typical example of a
culture (and cultural geography). Rather quickly porary statements in which the traditional-mind-
a inore serious form o f diffusionisin t o o k hold in modern-mind dichotomy is used as an explanatory
diffusion research and some other schools of geo- schcina for cultural evolution. economic devel-
graphic research concerned with rural Third World opment. and. not incidentally. Third World rural
development. c . g r . ,the “natural hazards” school. modernization.
1raditionalism in these theories i s stubborn trii-
I .

Distance and accessibility remained as operant

variables. But in place of the information variable dition. not cherished tradition. The presumption
there emerged a complex psychological variable, i s that some groups resist change when change is
described in diffusion research as “adopter attri- beneficial or necessary. while other groups. in other
butes,” which postulated that rural Third World places, are not so stubbornly traditional. I t is be-
people have some fundarncntal (though curable) yond the scope of this paper to attempt a critiquc
psychological disability that limits o r inhibits their of this view. F:ive comments must suffice. First.
propensity t o develop. it is not iiictliodologically proper hcre to argue that
Personality traits d o of course vary among hu- individual subjects resist change irrationally until
ni;in groups. but diffusionism asserts incorrectly we have establishcd that change i h feasible and
that some groups possess crucial traits that permit that change will benefit the sub,iects: psychologi-
positive change (development) and other groups cal limitations are properly invoked hcre only when
luck such traits or possess them in smaller mea- external limitations have been discountcd. Scc-
sure. One of these pseudo-traits is “achievement ond, instruments do not yet exist for confirming
mitivation” (McClelland 196 I : discussed sup- the existence of. much less measuring. these pos-
portivcly in 1.. Brown 1981. 235, 252, 254. 274). tulated mental attributes o r pseudo-attributes. 1‘01-
Dilfusionism 33

getting past those barriers of status. power, C L I I - mainly matters of class and politics. These forces
tural distance, and the like, which contaminate all inay vary across the landscape, but spatial (process)
studies (from the outside) about the psychology of diffusion is not usually a central issue. The hy-
rural Third World people. This skeptical view was pothesis thus speaks of tendencies toward uniform
perhaps the majority view among cultural anthro- regions in cellular landscapes. regions in which
pologists three decades ago. when many culture- diffusion either covers all possible adopters very
an d -per s o n a I i t y the o r i st s questioned even the quickly or does not penetrate the space at all. There
seemingly culture-neutral Rorschach protocols as is some empirical evidence in support of the hy-
valid cross-cultural instruments (see Bock 1980, pothesis: for instance, ultra-rapid diffusion has been
134-37). But the opposing thesis gained popular- observed when inhibiting conditions were not
ity because, in my view, it was conformal to mod- present.’ Much better evidence, though difficult
ern diffusionism and the belief that, in the rural to quantify and uninteresting to map, comes from
Third World. poverty i s at least partly the fault of the innumerable cases in which the inhibiting con-
the poor. Third, the emerging critique of modern- ditions were present and there was no diffusion
izationism. developmentism. and diffusionism and n o development.
brings with it a new perspective on the role of the To explain such cases of nondiffusion in rural
individual mind in development (see for instance spaces we tend, conventionally, to blame the
Freirc 1973: Giroux 1981; Pinar 1974; Stea 1980) farmers themselves: their inaccessible locations,
and the role of technological knowledge in that their traditionalism, their ignorance, their lack of
process (Hansis 1976; Johnson 1077; Pearsc 1980; “achievement motivation,” and the like. But the
Wisner 1977: Yapa 1980). Fourth, to argue that farmers will tell us that we are wrong, and they
members of different cultures have equal perccp- will tell us why if we listen.”’
tual and cognitive (“intellectual”) capabilities is
not t o deny the fact that personality varies cross-
culturally.x And fifth, in agreement with Marx and Conclusion
Engels ( 1 8 4 5 4 6 ) and G. H. Mead (1938). I see
the self is essentially a social product. Why. in the last analysis, should we assunie
Accessibility is a real variable in some circum- that the natural state of affairs in any region is t o
stances, and distance inay also be significant as a have a center from which innovations emanate and
(surrogate) variable. Both, however. are usually a periphery toward which they diffuse’! Surely all
functions o f political and class forces. L. Brown of us share the belief that all human communities
( 198 1 ) tries in essence t o add socioeconomic var- possess the same underlying potential to create, t o
iables t o the variables of classic spatial diffusion invent. t o innovate. Communities are distributctl
theory-name1 y . psychological adopter attributes, alongside one another across a landscape, so the
information, distance. and accessibility-while premise of human equality i s at the same time a
epting certain of the criticisms that have been premise of spatial equality. Spatial inequality i s
made about that theory. His discussion of the role not something normal, natural, inevitable, and
of diffusion agencies (public and private) is help- moral. Diffusionism makes it appear to be so. But
ful. but it neglects the difference between theories diffusionism i s just a thought-style, and we can
that predict and those that propose strategies and put it out of our minds.
it gives little new support to spatial diffusion the-
ory as a predictor. At the same time he pays in-
adequate attention to the variables of culture (and
cultural geography). His perspective is not diffu-
sionist. but the diffusionism of earlier perspectives I . The ultiinate origins of classical Eurocentric diffu-
remains unrecognized and uncriticized. M . Brown sionism are to be sought long before the beginning
( 198 1 ) suggests better ways t o measure innova- of the nineteenth century. I argue that the world
model became explicit, powerful, and important in
tion-adoption behavior. but she does not solve the the post-Napoleonic era because of a confluence of
problems discussed in the present paper. In gen- the following historical circumstances, among oth-
eral, diffusion theorists have not succeeded in pre- ers: ( I ) Science was becoming sufficiently free of
dicting or generating the diffusion of agricultural religious strictures to begin the serious inquiry into
origins; e.g., to search for ancient humans and their
innovations in the Third World.
cultural effects and to consider the earth’s history
Our hypothesis calls attention to causal forces, in a uniformitarian methodological framework. (2)
and development strategies, that are systemic: The rapid expansion of’ formal and informal colon-
44 Blaut

ial empires ineant the systeinatic gathering. for the 6. It docs not matter for our purpose (.judging the tcr-
first time. of information (no matter how biased) rain over which the original Old-World Agricultural
about non-Europeans. (3) The expansion of colon- Revolution took place) whether the advantages oi
iali\tn. and. beyond that. the great increase i n the agriculture over hunting-gathering-fishing-shell-
importance of coloninlisiii to European econoniies. fishing resulted from a hemisphere-wide deteriora-
led to efforts to formulate specific theories about tion i n l i v i n g c o n d i t i o n s r e s u l t i n g f r o m t h e
not only the nature and history of non-Europeans environmcntal changes. whether the period was
but the overall process by which European culture witness to an epochal advance in an uninterrupted
was spreading through and conquering the rest of process of cultural evolution. or whether some other
the world-that is. the theories of classical diffu- ca~isalprocess was at work. s o long as the process
sionism. On the general doctrines of affected all of the reasonably warm and moist por-
fusionism. see. for example. Cesaire 1972: Galeano tions of the hemisphere or its effects were trans-
1073: Panikkar 1959; Rodney 1972: Said 1979: mitted throughout this zone. e.g.. by evening out
Turner 1978: Venturi 1963. O n diffusionism in its stresses through human migration. Also embedded
specific influence on anthropology, geography, and in this model is the assumption that the advantages
other emerging disciplines. and on the schools known of agriculture were roughly comparable (or became
a s “extreme diffusionists“ (principally the “British so because of stress-evening population move-
Ditfusionists” and the German-Austrian KuI/ur- ments) across many ecological zones, from tropical
Xwi., school). see. e . g . . Asad 1973: Blaut 1970: forest to warm-winter inidlatitude forest. and from
Childe 1951: Harris 1968: Hudson 1977: Koepping moderately sloping land to swamp edges and nat-
1983: Kroeber 1937: Lowie 1937: McKay 1943: iiral levees.
Radin 1965: Voget 1975, 339-59). 7 . See Golson (1977) for evidence of 9,000-year-old
2. This abstract landscape contains no regions that arc drained-field farming in New Guinea. and see De-
politically dominant and thus would be able to with- neviin (1966) on the antiquity of raised-field fariii-
hold innovations from diffusion. Although it is the- ing in the New World. Today, when suitable land
oretically possible that an innovation might give is available, a given farming group usually practices
one conitnunity such an advantage over others that some complex mixture of systems, which may range
it would thereby become a permanently dominant from extensive shifting agriculture to intensive
center. this would be a realistic possibility only if drained-field or wet-field o r natural-levee agricul-
additional attributes were inserted in the model. one turc.
of these being a definition of the individual trait as 8. There exists a diffusionist tendency (criticized in
a truly revolutionary innovation lacking the ante- Blaut 19x4) to apply culturally biased tests to Third
cedents that would have already diffused in our model World peoples and find them to be inferior to Eu-
(and in the real world). another being a tooth-and- ropeans in terms of perceptual and intellectual traits
fang conception of culture in which boundaries are indicating innovativeness, cognitive development
in effect barricades. (hence inferentially inventiveness). and the like. That
3. See Amin (1973. xvi-xvii) for comparison: “[Sierra this is normal paradigmatic science can be seen,
Leone‘s] ’creole’ bourgeoisie . . . spread along the e . g . . from the fact that nearly 10 percent ofempir-
whole of the western coast in the nineteenth century ical studies in the Journcd of (‘ros.s-Cirlturci/ Ps\-
and filled the role of a cwriprtrdor bourgeoisie for chology are reports by white South Africans and
British capital. But this class disappeared at the end Europeans purporting to show such psychological
of the last century. when the English executed their inferiority in black Africans.
main creole trading rivals on the pretext that they 9 . The most dramatic cases involve literacy and adult
had taken part in the Tcrnne and Mende revolts. education programs in some Third World countries.
Isolated from the rest of the Empire and relatively Often success reflects the use o f an approach i n
:ibandoned. the colony fell into a doze from which which people come to understand the inhibiting
it has not yet emerged.” Also see Howard 1975: conditions and the need to struggle against them
Kup 1975: Osae. Nwabara, and Odunsi 1973; Fylc and then literally demand the innovation and strug-
1981. gle to acquire i t (see Freire 1972). A cahe of ultra-
4. On this myth. see Hhatia (1967) and Klein (1973). rapid diffusion of an agricultural innovation in Ven-
On the related myth that there was an unchanging ezuela is discussed in Blaut (1977).
“traditional” demographic pattern of high birth rates 10. We can listen. for instance, to folksongs like the
and high death rates. which diffusing colonial med- widely diffused Populist song. “The Farmer Is the
icine broke open (leading to a fall in death rates Man”: “buys on credit ‘ti1 the fall/ Then they take
and-hecause of ”traditionalism”-a sustained high hiin by the hand/ And they lead him from the land/
birth rate and thereafter overpopulation), see Klein And the middleman’s the man who gets it all.”
( 1973) on death rates and the work of Nag ( 1980)
showing that birth rates increased substantially iin-
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