Cultural Comparisons Ethnocentrism

.. ermine culture change.

The Fuegians living at the southern tip of South America, as viewed by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle, lived in a very cold, harsh environment but were virtually without both clothing and dwellings. Diffusion Culture is contagious, as a prominent anthropologist once remarked, meaning that customs, beliefs, tools, techniques, folktales, ornaments, and so on may diffuse from one people or region to another. To be sure, a culture trait must offer some advantage, some utility or pleasure, to be sought and accepted by a people. (Some anthropologists have assumed that basic features of social structure, such as clan organization, may diffuse, but a sounder view holds that these features involving the organic structure of the society must be developed within societies themselves.

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) The degree of isolation of a sociocultural system–brought about by physical barriers such as deserts, mountain ranges, and bodies of water–has, of course, an important bearing upon the ease or difficulty of diffusion. Within the limits of desirability on the one hand and the possibility of communication on the other, diffusion of culture has taken place everywhere and in all times. Archaeological evidence shows that amber from the Baltic region diffused to the Mediterranean coast; and, conversely, early coins from the Middle East found their way to northern Europe.

In aboriginal North America, copper objects from northern Michigan have been found in mounds in Georgia; macaw feathers from Central America turn up in archaeological sites in northern Arizona. Some Indian tribes in northwestern regions of the United States had possessed horses, originally brought into the Southwest by Spanish explorers, years before they had ever even seen white men. The wide dispersion of tobacco, corn (maize), coffee, the sweet potato, and many other traits are conspicuous examples of cultural diffusion. Acculturation Diffusion may take place between tribes or nations that are approximately equal in political and military power and of equivalent stages of cultural development, such as the spread of the sun dance among the Plains tribes of North America. But in other instances, it takes place between sociocultural systems differing widely in this respect.

Conspicuous examples of this have been instances of conquest and colonization of various regions by the nations of modern Europe. In these cases it is often said that the culture of the more highly developed nation is imposed upon the less developed peoples and cultures, and there is, of course, much truth in this; the acquisition of foreign culture by the subject people is called acculturation and is manifested by the indigenous populations of Latin America as well as of other regions. But even in cases of conquest, traits from the conquered peoples may diffuse to those of the more advanced cultures; examples might include, in addition to the cultivated plants cited above, individual words (coyote), musical themes, games, and art motifs. One of the major problems ofethnology during the latter half of the 19th and the early decades of the 20th centuries was the question How are cultural similarities in noncontiguous regions to be explained? Did the concepts of pyramid building, mummification, and sun worship originate independently in ancient Egypt and in the Andean highlands and in Yucatn or did these traits originate in Egypt and diffuse from there to the Americas, as some anthropologists have believed? Some schools of ethnological theory have held to one view, some, to another. The 19th-century classical evolutionists (which included Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis H. Morgan, among others) held that the mind of man is so constituted or endowed that he will develop cultures everywhere along the same lines. Diffusionists–those, such as Fritz Graebner and Elliot Smith, who offered grand theories about the diffusion of traits all over the world–maintained that man was inherently uninventive and that culture, once created, tended to spread everywhere.Each school tended to insist that its view was the correct one, and it would continue to hold that view unless definite proof of the contrary could be adduced.

The tendency nowadays is not to side categorically with one school as against another but to decide each case on its own merits. The consensus with regard to pyramids is that they were developed independently in Egypt and the Americas because they differ markedly in structure and function: the Egyptian pyramids were built of stone blocks and contained tombs within their interiors. The American pyramids were constructed of earth, then faced with stone, and they served as the bases of temples. The verdict with regard to the bow and arrow is that it was invented only once and subsequently diffused to all regions where it has been found.

The probable antiquity of the origin of fire making, however, and the various ways of generating it–by percussion, friction, compression (fire pistons)–indicate multiple origins. Evolution Evolution of culture–that is, the development of forms through time–has taken place. No amount of diffusion of picture writing could of itself, for instance, produce the alphabetic system of writing; as Tylor demonstrated so well, the art of writing has developed through a series of stages, which began with picture writing, progressed to hieroglyphic writing, and culminated in alphabetic writing. In the realm of social organization there was a development from territorial groups composed of families to segmented societies (clans and larger groupings). Sociocultural evolution, like biologic evolution, exhibits a progressive differentiation of structure and specialization of function.A misunderstanding has arisen with regard to the relationship between evolution and diffusion.

It has been argued, for example, that the theory of cultural evolution was unsound because some peoples skipped a stage in a supposedly determined sequence; for example, some African tribes, as a consequence of diffusion, went from the Stone Age to the Iron Age without an intermediate age of copper and bronze. But the classical evolutionists did not maintain that peoples, or societies, had to pass through a fixed series of stages in the course of development, but that tools, techniques, institutions–in short, culture–had to pass through the stages. The sequence of stages of writing did not mean that a society could not acquire the alphabet without working its way through hieroglyphic writing; it was obvious that many peoples did skip directly to the alphabet. Sociology Issues.