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Diffusion: past and present reconsiderations
David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute)
History of Anthropology and Geography
Thursday 17 September, 14:30-16:00

Short abstract:

This panel invites a reconsideration of the idea of 'diffusion' as a theoretical tool within anthropology and geography, looking at these issues from both a present, past and future point of view.

Long abstract:

The aim of this panel is to reconsider the idea of 'diffusion', both as it has been treated in the past, and today. 'Diffusion' has long been a problematic concept, certainly one largely excluded from the anthropological tool-kit, only to make a partial come-back in our day through the rubric of 'globalisation'. However, clearly ideas and objects do often diffuse across the world. It would seem a pity that the word itself should be excluded from our vocabulary just when, arguably, we have more sophisticated tools than ever before to realise how diffusion comes about in multiple contexts, for example through phylogenetic analysis of language, network theory, contemporary breakthroughs in our understanding of Ancient DNA and prehistorical population movements, or through the novel possibilities of analysis thrown up by large comparative data-sets, such as bibliographic catalogues which list comprehensively the gradual rise and geographical spread of printing. We invite reconsiderations of the way that the disciplinary conflicts of the 1920s led to its occlusion, the subsequent formation of disciplinary boundaries that mitigated against the use of diffusion as an idea, and also contemporary approaches to this question, all with an eye as to the possibilities and implications of welcoming 'diffusion' back into our common endeavour. Papers that argue that its return is unnecessary or too disruptive, are as welcome as those which argue that the time is ripe for its return.