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Theories of Cultural Growth

Anthropology as a modern science was born when the star of evolution was shining high. Under the impact of the evolutionary theorists, pioneers like Taylor and Morgan devoted themselves to the study of the evolution of human society and culture. There was the belief that from the point of view of psychic make-up man was everywhere the same. This was given expression in the phase –the psychic unity of the mankind. Consequently it was believed that given the same problems man would think out similar solutions. Thus culture was supposed to grow through evolution from simpler towards complex and differentiated types and culture parallels were explained to be the outcome of the psychic unity of mankind. Each institution was believed to be evolved independently within the setting of the local culture. If two cultures exhibited similar traits or institutions the same were referred as cases of convergent evolution.

Believing that human societies have evolved from lower into higher types Morgan postulated three stages- To begin with man lived in savage society which had an older period, a middle period and a later period. With an invention of pottery, man entered the older period of barbarism. Domestication of animals and cultivation of plants by irrigation ushered in the middle period of barbarism. The process of smelting iron ore and iron tools saw man lived in the later period of barbarism. Then came civilisation ushered in by the invention of alphabet and writing. Morgan while discussing the evolution of family writes that the evolutionary process to have started from a hypothetical stage of promiscuity and to have gone through stages of group marriage, polyandary, voluntary monogamy and polygyny.Corresponding to the changes in the nature of the marital bond, various types of family were also believed by him to have evolved out of the clan through stages of matrilineal and patrilineal into the bilateral family.

Tylor made a similar study of the growth of religions. He regarded animistic polytheism to have been the simplest form of religion. There must have an intermediary stage of a higher polytheistic ideology which gave way to monotheism.

Evidence for all these conjectural reconstructions was collected from various cultures spread over time and space without bothering too much about the significance of cultural context.

Various writers developed modified forms of evolutionism. There is a theory that social institutions do not develop in an upward straight line but along a parabolic curve.An institution starts in a particular form develops into its opposite and then further develops into its original form but a new higher level. Thus the earliest form of property ownership was communal ownership. Later on the institution of private ownership emerged.


The Kulturkreise School
Some German writers like Graebner,Ankermann and Schmidt presented a theory of diffusion. Their theory consists of a belief in evolution tempered with diffusion. They said that various culture complexes develop at various times in different parts of the world and later on diffuse over corresponding portions of the earth. Such diffusion is a continuous process and layers of diffused in culture traits may be identified in a culture. Kulturkreise means a culture-circle or a culture –district.

They depend too much upon the evidence of material culture and did not substiate all their schemes of diffusion of social institutions. According to Graebner when historical evidence is lacking, mere superficial resemblance is not enough to conclude that diffusion has taken place. Along with the similarity of form there should be the sameness of number and the arrangement of constituent elements of a trait or a complex. Thus if it is to be seen that the knowledge of the zodiac has diffused from one place to another, one must look for some signs ,same number of signs and same clockwise or anticlockwise way of reckoning distribution. This theory is an attempt at explaining diffusion in certain areas and is also known as culture-historical school.

Culture area approach
Franz Boas divided the study of diffusion into various stages. Firstly the facts of the situation much be described. Then analytical study may be started proceeding from the particular to the general making a map of actual distribution in a restricted area before covering continents and the world. The reasons for the dynamics of contacts must be sought in the psychic make-up of the individual.

Clark Wissler developed these basic viewpoints and defined the restricted area to which Boa refers as a culture area. He also pointed out the need which necessitates such narrowing down of ambitions. He pointed out that a culture trait particularly if it is non material cannot travel long distances without getting diluted en route partly by getting associated and mixed up with features that do not belong to it. He demonstrated that in each culture area consisting of a certain set of culture complexes a central point of dispersal could be located and boundaries fixed when the culture complexes involved become most diluted and the influence of a vague but distinctly alien culture is felt.

He also pointed out that long distances, mountains, oceans and deserts prove to be effective barriers to culture diffusion. Wissler substantiated his theory by mapping out various culture areas in the Americas. Each area of characterisation was defined by him in terms of technological, artistic and institutional features and he showed that a culture area might embrace several distinct populations. British diffusionists is a description which refers to Elliot Smith,W J Perry and their followers. They insisted on the universal spread of culture from Egypt but their data have been found to be inadequate and unreliable. They put forward the hypothesis that man is very unimaginative and uninventive and that only very favourable environmental stimuli may result in men making inventions. Those favourable circumstances were found only in ancient Egypt. Therefore the Egyptians were the chosen ones of history. These scholars tried to map worldwide distributions rooting them all in Egypt cradle of all human civilization.

Cultures grow and cultural parallelism arises from both independent evolution as also diffusion. There are no inexorable laws about sequential evolution or about the uninventiveness of man. Cultural borrowing will always make impossible growth stage by stage and upwards in the straight line. Likewise distance and resistance will always put checks on diffusion. Whether a particular case of growth is the outcome of evolution only or diffusion only is a misleading question as both the processes operate. A particular case of parallelism may be the outcome either of convergent evolution or diffusion.