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Henry Buckle and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations May 30, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry Buckle (24 November 1821 – 29 May 1862), much like the semi-acknowledged French sociologist Alfred Espinas, was among the ‘universal citations’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The economist Alfred Marshall makes great use of him.  Much like Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, Buckle had the unfortunate fate of being labeled a “geographical determinist” by historians of geography, sociology, and anthropology.

Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862)

Ted Porter and Ian Hacking have accused him of “historical determinism.”  He was neither. He also tragically died far too early for his ideas to be sufficiently clarified.  While Buckle in his History of Civilization in England ascribed great power to climate or “physical causes,” he nonetheless did so only with respect to “savage” or “rude” nations.

While leaving a role for climate in civilized nations, Buckle nonetheless argued that progress was indeed possible in Europe as well as in England due largely to the advancement of scepticism.  By ‘scepticism,’ Buckle meant the, “spirit of inquiry, which during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every possible subject; has reformed every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation….”  What Buckle says here is actually quite significant when placed in the context of the history of ideas.  Buckle was both last in a long line of those who conjoined civilizational progress with the spread of rationalism and the decline of superstition and barbarism in England, beginning with the philosophy of David Hume and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and also within the rising tide of authorial monuments to the progress of philosophy and manners, as exhibited in the early works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl and W.E.H. Lecky’s History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe.

Although it is quite easy to dismiss these works as Orientalist and ‘Whiggish,’ which of course they were if you believe them to be discussing the easy progress of science and the backwardness of Eastern and African locales, it is easier to take them seriously if you consider them not as chauvinistic exemplars of nineteenth-century confidence, but rather sophisticated examinations of what precisely it was that allowed some civilizations to advance and others to remain static.  This is the same impulse behind the work of David Landes, who may merely be described as “old-fashioned.”

Placing Buckle within these discussions of the advancement of civilization not only allows for linkages between his work and that of Montesquieu and Alfred Marshall, but also allows for a recovery of what I consider to be Buckle’s actual argument: the importance of the  distribution of wealth to the development of the intellect and national character of a people.  Buckle’s consideration of economic factors, based upon a sensitive reading of David Ricardo’s theory of rents and wages, finds that intellectual and civilisational progress depended upon the factors governing the production and distribution of wealth.

Perhaps as importantly, Buckle exemplifies the type of thinker, beginning with Auguste  Comte (Marx and Weber are other examples,) who was interested in the dynamics governing the transition of one economic state into another.  Lastly, Buckle’s writing points to the mania of the nineteenth century, whereby any number of theorists, convinced that there were causal laws governing the course of civilization wished to, given the avalanche of data recently available, prove the existence of these laws through the use of statistical evidence.  One should think of Emile Durkheim’s Suicide in the same light.  Laws certainly existed; the problem was proving them empirically, rather than as Montesquieu did, using anecdotal evidence from the accounts of travelers.

Why, according to Buckle do some nations become rich, while others stay poor?  Buckle begins with climate, noting that Asiatic civilization, India especially, grew around a particularly fertile and warm area where it was quite easy to grow cereal crops (rice.)  While good for some Indians- the Brahman elite- the warm weather has condemned the mass of Indians to grinding poverty.

Poverty, which Buckle thought as always existing in India, was the result of the vast inequalities of wealth from an “always redundant” labor market.  The inequalities in wealth mirrored the inequalities in the social structure, with Indian society continually reflecting the domination of a patrician elite.  Buckle reasoned, from Ricardo and James Mill’s History of India, that since food has always been easy to get and the land abundantly fertile, population has been consistently high, wages low, and rents astronomical, since the vast majority of Indian land is under agriculture due to the conditions of the soil.  As a result of all this “the reward of laborers was very small in proportion to the reward received by the upper class.”

Buckle then  formulated a  system of general laws concerning non-European nations: “the force of those physical laws, which, in the most flourishing countries outside of Europe, encouraged the accumulation of wealth, but prevented its dispersion; and thus secured to the upper classes a monopoly of one of the most important elements of political and social power.”   As importantly, in uncivilized nations the climate bred fanaticism and superstition in the population, thus undoing any work of the progress of reason and scientific investigation.  Buckle, after much narrative, formulates his version of a Comtean law: “Hence it is that, looking at the history of the world as a whole, the tendency has been, in Europe to subordinate nature to man; out of Europe, to subordinate man to nature.”

This was more Montesquieu’s idea than Francis Bacon’s.  European civilization’s flight from nature into a regime of laws of its own making had to do  with the distribution of wealth.  The distribution of wealth, of course, has its roots in climate. Climate only provided Europe with the push it needed  to get away from the influence of climate.   Buckle’s rational is as follows.  As the climate is colder, food is hard to get.  That food which is procured tends to be “carboniferous,” following Justus Liebig and others.  The population, as a result, tended to not only be less numerous, but also healthier and stronger.  Unlike nations outside of Europe, those in Europe depend upon livestock and hunting, with less land given to agriculture.  In Europe, the food is of better quality; those that find it successfully tend to be more intelligent, able to plan better than their fellows unable to secure food.    The cold climate, moreover, was good for the development of reason, toughening up nerves and muscles; men worked longer and harder in cold climates than in warmer ones, and were better planners (incidentally,  the idea that savages could not plan has a long history in anthropology until the mid-twentieth century. )  Men, consequently, were more reasonable in Europe than elsewhere, and less prone to superstition. All of this had profound consequences for the economic development of European nations.

As there was less food in the country and less of the land given over to agriculture, the population of European countries was consequently lower than in countries outside of Europe.  Rents were then lower and wages higher than in Asia.    With lower rents and higher wages, there was a greater distribution of wealth and greater mobility among the social classes in Europe.  Since laborers were able to work less in order to meet subsistence, they consequently have more free time.  “Leisure” for Buckle was the key to scientific progress; the absence of an entrenched, moneyed elite was key to the stability of a society.  It was leisure which allowed human beings to depart from the rule of nature and to be governed according to the separate laws of society. It was leisure which allowed for the development of the virtue of scepticism.

As with many in the long nineteenth century, Buckle considered despotic government or a government of too many laws and too diffuse privileges to specific guilds or individuals, antithetical to progress.  A nation was better if its people were free, within limits, to do as they please without the imposition of government (or the Inquisition.)  As with many members of the English enlightenment (and in a slightly different way, Tocqueville)  there was a deep skepticism of religion (particularly Roman Catholicism) on Buckle’s part, and its corrosive effects on the progress of the intellect.   What mattered most of course, was the distribution of wealth.  And while climate mattered initially to the distribution of wealth, it was  the growth of the intellect and the supremacy of science which truly, for Buckle and many eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers, counted.

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1. simon - June 3, 2012

Christopher,

Good to see you posting again!

I found this post particularly illuminating. I’ve recently written a lecture on Marshall’s ideas on race and nationality (which, together with the accompanying powerpoint, I’ve put temporarily, in case you would like to see, here: http://www.yemachine.com/Petersburg%20Blanqui.docx; http://www.yemachine.com/Cook%20Blanqui%20Presentation2.pptx).

Simply put, the result of an intensive investigation of Marshall’s published and unpublished historical writing suggested that he came to understand ‘race’ in terms of physical (including cerebral) characteristics of the body, and as something of the primitive and ancient worlds, but ‘nation’ as something to do with choice and freedom, and a defining feature of the modern world. All of this was wrapped up in Marshall’s rather idiosyncratic reading of Hegel and early study of psychology.

But if I understand your post aright, basically the same kind of division is to be found in Buckle. For sure, Buckle formulates things differently, but the basic message seems identical.

I wonder how widespread this idea was? Maybe it originated with Buckle, or maybe in Buckle’s day it was already wide-spread…

Thanks again for the post, which, as with all your posts, merits reading again.

Simon

2. Christopher Donohue - June 4, 2012

Simon- Many thanks for your kind comments. You have read it correctly. I’ve been reading your talk with great interest, having noticed Marshall’s invocation of the Aryan myself.

The developmental dualism between ‘race’ and ‘nation’ which you have written about in Marshall and which I have written about in Buckle is pervasive in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is in, among others, Tocqueville, Bagehot, William Robertson Smith, many of the early historians of the United States, such as Bancroft and Channing. It is certainly operating in the political economy of Friedrich List, Richard Whately, Nassau Senior, among others. It is also present in some popular works, such as William Elliot Griffis on the Japanese.

Of course, this opposition is never quite as clean as one might like. Savages in the present are frequently referred to as “nations,” but it is made clear by the authors that they are not to be considered modern “nations” with economies and systems of manufactures. Just as frequently, if not more so, the savage is in a “state” or a “tribe” defined by race and static custom. This is hierarchically opposed to nations (or countries) whose “citizens” have parliaments and other systems of limited interference which allow for the good things of the modern world: conversation, science, rationalism, the growth of knowledge.

In any case, I was wondering if I could send along an e-mail in the next few days concerning a few research questions I’ve been putting together over the last few months which I think would benefit from your input.

Christopher

simon - June 5, 2012

Christopher – thanks for the above, which provides me much food for thought. I look forward to receiving your email.
Simon

simon - June 17, 2012

In what ways, and to what extent, do you think that this race/nation opposition fits into the rural/urban contrast that you write about on some other posts (e.g. on Edward Ross)?

Such a question arises in part from reading your various posts (by the way, it would be good to have a list of all of them) and in part from looking at John Beddoes’ 1885 book on the races of England, which seems to identify race on a very local level in that in his preface he suggests that the effect of the railways will, within a generation, generate a complete inter-mixing of the various local races of the nation.

Simon

PS. I’m still waiting for your email…

3. Will Thomas - June 17, 2012

All of Chris’ posts can be filtered by clicking on his name under Contributors on the right side of the page — or just click here:

https://etherwave.wordpress.com/author/cdonohue/

Thanks, by the way, for fostering such great dialogue here,

Will

Christopher Donohue - June 18, 2012

Simon- Thank you for getting back to me so quickly and I look forward to your follow-up email. A bit of context (if you would indulge me) and then I will answer your question directly.

1. John Beddoe is one of a number of late nineteenth century ethnologists and physical anthropologists (Paul Topinard, William Ripley, Joesph Deniker, Raffaele Garofalo, Paul Broca) who historians find difficult to classify (if they have even heard of them) since they do not fit within the standard narratives of the history of anthropology or the social sciences. None of these figures can be said to draw unambiguously or directly from the “commerce and manners school” of the enlightened historians, nor is theirs an ethnology of the virulent racism of Robert Knox and Thomas Carlyle in Britain or Josiah Nott in the United States.

There are many connections between this group of anthropologists and the early ethnography and physical anthropology of Franz Boas and Aleš Hrdlička, but historians of the social sciences have been much more concerned with the emergence of the “culture” concept and how Boas and his students finally beat back biological reductionism and hierarchical thinking, thereby enabling anthropology to become “scientific” rather than merely existing as a “racial science.”

The more interesting story, and I have not read anything in the historical or the social science literature which approaches this topic with a modicum of sensitivity are the connections (first) between late century ethnography and the “golden age” of cultural anthropology and (second) between the work of Beddoe, Ripley, and physical anthropology after the First World War, especially among the physical anthropologists inhabiting Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

Having read Beddoe’s preface you will notice a particular emphasis on measuring anthropological heads before the disappearance of racial types. This is in a significant manner quite like Boas and his students later (but not much later) articulating the importance of culture through reference to cataloging “cultural survivals” before their disappearance.

Now Boas and his ilk were carrying on the study of “survivals” in the manner of E.B. Tylor and R.R. Marrett. I would argue that Boas’ project as well as those of his students was guided in large part both in terms of methodology (their view of anthropology as a science concerned with measurement, generality, classes of facts, observation from an exterior point) and in terms of content (language, material culture, patterns of settlement, the impact of the environment, nutrition, pollution and urban spaces) by this earlier generation of physical anthropologists and ethnologists.

One need only look at Boas “Mind of Primitive Man” or his “Report on Immigrants” to see how indebted he was to the physical anthropology and ethnography of a generation previous, even at a very basic level for concepts and terms which enabled him to situate his own project as well as differentiate his project from those of others working in the past or along side him.

2. To answer your question directly, Beddoe as well as William Ripley, Ross, Boas and many others believed that there was an emerging need for a science of society (sociology) which studied contemporary transformations of individuals in nations and was particularly concerned with the trans-formative effects of urban life on migrating country populations. The exact mechanisms and effects were hotly debated under the rubric of “urban selection.”

Physical anthropology, ethnology, and archaeology, not only bequeathed tools to the sociologist to measure the effects of modernity upon individuals but were inquiries explicitly concerned, even for a terribly long time in the twentieth century, of detailing the racial past. Ethnology and archaeology were also considered, as the study of a science of race, to be a science of the country, where the past of peoples was readily observable, while political economy, politics, and sociology, were sciences of the future, of industry, technology, commerce, importantly, of the city.

Ripley, Beddoe, Ross, Tonnies, and even early Boas, were very concerned that such was the revolutionary stress of the cities was that it was undoing the careful work that race and instinct had undertaken to given peoples and tribes definite attributes. Nor were they particularly enthused about all of these races, which had remained separate within their tribes and geographic strata for eons, were mixing together within the confines of cities.

I hope this is not too long and answers you question

Chris

simon - June 19, 2012

Wow.

What you write fits well with the book I happened to be reading yesterday – Adam Kuper’s ‘Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account’. Kuper takes issue with George Stocking and insists that the modern idea of culture was invented in the generation after Boas.

For that matter, it also fits well with recent revisionist work on Weber that I have encountered (by, for example, Keith Tribe) which insists that ‘Weber the sociologist’ was an invention of Talcott Parsons, and that Weber should really be understood as continuing the tradition of German historical economics.

But simply put, the picture that you begin to sketch (and the emphasis needs to be placed on ‘begin’ because it would be good to hear a /lot/ more on this) is extremely interesting and makes a lot of sense.

Two initial thoughts:

1. I wonder at the place of diffusionist archaeoly in all this. Is there simply one idea – that progress is disseminated by population movements of various races – that is then projected onto prehistory (as diffusionist archaeology) and the modern world (as sociology)? (And what is the intervening historical equivalent?)

2. The picture you sketch looks obviously correct for North America. How different are the stories elsewhere going to look? John Seeley’s ‘Expansion of England’ (1883), for example, makes the sending of the English race /out/ into the colonies to be the primary fact of modern (i.e. C18th and C19th) English history – thereby reflecting a British migration experience very different from that of America. And what would one find written, for example, in Australia at this time?

4. Christopher Donohue - June 24, 2012

Simon- I offer two considerations of your thoughts. These may or may not answer your questions. Or perhaps they will lead to new ones.

As to (1) the idea of diffusion and cultural migration, that material, cultural, and technological progress, flows from more advanced civilizations to less developed ones is one of the more continuous tropes from nineteenth century archaeology (John Lubbock) to V. Gordon Childe. Childe in the twentieth century was one of the personages responsible for the articulation of a theory of an evolutionary (even organismic) theory of social change that spread from the enfants terribles of post-war anthropology (Leslie White, Julian Steward, Marvin Harris) to the sociology of Parsons, Gerhard Lenski, Niklas Luhmann, and Jonathan Turner. It is really only in the 1960s that the mere idea occurs among British archaeologists that, contrary to Niebuhr’s conclusion, civilizations were possible of civilizing themselves.

Diffusion as being responsible for the propagation of customs, technology, and racial vices and virtues (as in the “Aryan controversy” in nineteenth and early twentieth century social theory demonstrates so nicely) was also key to often long-winded discussions, lasting into the twentieth century as well, of the psychical and racial unity of mankind (this begins, at least in ethnology, with Prichard.)

While there seems in every archaeologist from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century I have read to be a notion of progress in primeval antiquity, what is very clear, at least by the 1870s forward is that to be in the present means that progress is not guaranteed. This comes across most clearly in Moisey Ostrogorsky or James Bryce’s pessimistic accounts of American government. What really possessed sociology (and the other social sciences) around the turn of the century was how modernity in all of its trappings was a serious impediment to the progress of which was so apparent in primeval Europe. This is really what is working at bottom in discussions of “race suicide” or much of the pro-natalist discussions in France and Germany (Leplay, for example.) Devolution and degeneration were serious topics of conversation among Pareto, Spengler, Nordau. There was a great discussion among art historians about the superiority of the Gothic or the Renaissance. Archaeology, then, while uncovering evidence of progress, gave ample evidence for social theorists (or historians of the rise of liberty or feudal law) to sniff distastefully at the modern world.

(2) One of Seeley’s principle arguments in his “Expansion of England” is, if I recall, not only the epochal importance of colonies and sending the English race out into the world, but also the importance of oceanic trade and commerce for the singularity of the British economic position in the nineteenth century. Seeley also has a interesting account of the declining importance of Central Europe after the Reformation and the migration of intellectual energy from the center to the coasts. Seeley’s narrative regarding the importance of commerce and “sea power” was a fixation also of numerous American, British, German, and French geographers, beginning with Ritter (its most famous exponent being Alfred Thayer Mahan.) The fields of “commercial” and “industrial geography” dealt with these topics explicitly.

In the American case, there are two elements of social theory that I have not emphasized but should: the importance of slavery in American social theory and the importance of immigration. Regarding the importance of slavery, there was a huge tradition, which has not been sufficiently studied, of pro-slavery political economy (such as that of Fitzhugh and Dew) as well as examinations of slavery from an International position such as John Elliott Cairne’s “The Slave Power.”

As regards American discussions of immigrants, there is certainly an argument to be made that the American writing on this subject was more explicitly racial (with a special emphasis on the evils of racial mixing, such as the lovely 1922 “America’s Race Heritage,” by Clinton Stoddard Burr;) this fear of race-mixing coming from both the legacy of slavery and from a wide-spread conjecture in the nineteenth century that the American predominance was due in large part to an existing Anglo-Saxonism or Germanism. This is the main sentiment behind most of the writings of Theodore Roosevelt.

As to the Australian case, I haven’t reviewed my folders on that country in some time, but I will get back to you. I am also composing a response to your email, but a few events have unfortunately intervened this week.

Chris

simon - July 11, 2012

Chris,

Apologies for my slow response, and I hope DC has returned to normal.

It has taken a while for me to reply because I realized, first of all, that my earlier comment about archaeological diffusionism and John Seeley had been a bit obscure and unhelpful, and then secondly, that I did not have much clue about how to be less obscure, and this because of a profound lack of knowledge. So since your last post I have spent sometime at http://www.archive.org tracking down and looking through various British books published in the decade between 1905 and 1915 (not dates that I selected in advance).

What I now think that I want to say, in response to your marvellous revelations concerning the origins of sociology in turn-of-the-century concerns with urban migration (and much else) is that: (i) I think there is a British component to this story, (ii) the social context of this British component is going to be distinctive, (iii) I think the intellectual features of this British component are going to be distinctive; and (iv) I suspect that (ii) can go a long way to illuminate (iii).

But in order to even begin to clarify these four points I cannot see any other route than writing a very long comment about British diffusionism. I apologize in advance for this textual profligacy.

So, from a British perspective, diffusionism is an interlude between late Victorian evolutionary anthropology (e.g. Tylor) and Malinowski’s functionalist idea of culture, on the one hand, and on the other hand, late Victorian evolutionary archaeology (e.g. Lubbock) and Gordon Childe (although Childe adopts a basic Middle-East to Europe diffusionism). Diffusionism is thus an episode that is often written out of standard accounts, which go directly from evolutionary to early C20th archaeology and anthropology.

The three key diffusionists are W. H. Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, and William Perry. Rivers is accorded a lot of respect today for his contributions, not only to ethnology but also to psychology. The other two, however, are usually dismissed as crackpot ‘hyper-diffusionists’ who held that all archaic cultural innovation derived from ancient Egypt.

In their own terms, Rivers, Elliot Smith and Perry were contributing to the ‘historical school of ethnology’, which they saw as having developed in Germany (particularly with Ratzel), and which they contrasted with the orthodox evolutionary school with its assumption of psychic unity and, therefore, similar inventions and patterns of development in different locations. The historical school of ethnology (note that here archaeology and anthropology are combined) posited so-called ‘primitive culture’ as, more often than not, complex rather than simple, that is, the product of the meeting and blending of two (or more) peoples as opposed to isolated evolution.

I initially raised the diffusionists because my attention was caught by the place of migrations in your comments about American (and wider) sociology. Your emphasis was on migration from the countryside (within or without America) to the cities, and in some way such migratory flows, together with the subsequent mixing of peoples within the city, because a/the hallmark of modernity. I was struck by the fact that, just about the same time that this modern migration becomes a key object of scholarly attention, so migration is also posited as the basic motor of historical and prehistorical progress, replacing (at least for the likes of Rivers, Elliot Smith and Perry) evolution.

Subsequent reading, I might add, has suggested that around 1905-1914 (perhaps also earlier and later) the concept of migration was very much at the fore of social thought. Thus, for example, A. C. Haddon (Cambridge don and leader of the Torres Strait expedition) writes a 1911 book titled ‘The Wonderings of Peoples’, which presents a migratory view of history and in this way explains the contemporary location of the various racial strains, while in the same year the Oxford geologist W. Sollas publishes his extraordinary ‘Ancient Hunters and their Modern Representatives’, in which the succession of paleolithic cultures is tied to an invasion-migration model in which progressively more advanced peoples invade Europe and push out the existing occupants, who disperse to become the present-day Australian aborigines (Neanderthals), South African bushmen (Grimaldi), Native Americans (Cro Magnon), and so on.

This reading has also led me to realize that cultural diffusion and migration are connected in these works in a variety of different ways. Sollas’s model of the paleolithic contains a one-to-one correlation or the ‘migrating horde’ model, in which a migrating race carries with it a particular culture. But Rivers and his colleagues looked to much more subtle relationships. The supposed archaic culture, for example, was supposedly spread by small groups of migrants who settled peacefully within the wider primitive world – the explicit model here being British colonialism in Africa and Oceana.

As I noted above, Rivers and his colleagues did take inspiration from German ethnology, and there are clearly some parallels with the work of Boas in North America. Nevertheless, my sense here (and it is no more than that as I am very ignorant of the German tradition in anthropology) is that there is much that is very local about this British ‘historical school of ethnology’ and the wider British preoccupation with migration at that time.

And I cannot but suspect that much of what was distinctive about the British diffusionists could be explained in terms of a British social context. Here colonialism and the idea of ‘native assimilation’ within the empire must play a part (as it does indeed with River’s model of archaic diffusion). At the same time, I am struck by the fact that the first modern immigration legislation was passed in Britain in 1905 (in response to the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia). Thus, at just that moment that migration becomes an object of British political debate and policy so it becomes a seminal concept within the (pre-)historical dimension of British social thought.

So, this exceedingly long comment does at least allow me to return to my earlier comment about archaeological diffusion and Seeley on the British Empire. What I take to be the (likely) case is that: (a) the account of British diffusionism must form a part of the wider picture that you have been presenting in your various posts and comments; but (b) my guess is that there are going to be a number of particularities of the British story, but (b) there are likely to be a whole array of distinctive elements of the British story, both in terms of context (the kinds of modern population movements generating concern and interest) and in terms of intellectual specifics (the kinds of models posited to explain prehistory and history).

And finally, I am still very uncertain how much the British intellectual scene circa 1900-1920 that I have pointed to above posits migration as the motor of all history, or as the motor primarily of prehistory and modernity (with history as a settled agricultural interlude).

Thanks for your patience,

Simon

Christopher Donohue - July 16, 2012

Simon-
I will comment first about James Bryce’s “The ancient Roman Empire and the British Empire in India: The diffusion of Roman and English law throughout the world.” This text points to some of the particularities of the British experience you mention, notably the Empire and its governance, perhaps also the established tradition of historical jurisprudence and the comparative inquiry into forms of government that Bryce so nicely exemplifies. Bryce uses “diffusion” here in the broadest possible sense, which includes the niceties of “civilization” through the British lens. This, of course, is a different genre of intellectual work than the “diffusionist” controversy in archaeology.

Bryce begins, “There is nothing in history more remarkable than the way in which two small nations created and learnt how to administer two vast dominions,” both of which were “conquering and ruling powers, acquiring and administering dominions outside the original dwelling-place of their peoples, and oppressing upon these dominions their own type of civilization.” Bryce continues, “Europe has annexed the rest of the earth, extinguishing some races, absorbing others, ruling others as subjects, and spreading over their native customs and beliefs a layer of European ideas which will sink deeper and deeper until the old native life dies out.” This process requires the agencies of “migration, conquest, commerce, and finance.”

What I find quite interesting about discussions of diffusion is how at root they are considerations of generality and particularity. A major trope of early twentieth century is the idea among some anthropologists that notwithstanding cultural differences, there are extensive commonalities between all cultures, such as language, habitation, clothing, some means of transportation, due to a “psychic unity.” Anthropologists and ethnographers drew a great deal of evidence from similar technologies and crafts for the evidence of diffusion (ex. Wissler and Ankermann on garments and types of huts.) Students of primitive culture by the opening decades of the twentieth century also used evidence of diffussion to contend for the mixture of independent discovery and migration of cultural and intellectual properties (such as totemism, the lack of pottery in Australia, methods of making pottery, and various types of agriculture.) Diffusionism then branched into theories of art, genius, and creativity.

I think an interesting project would consist in the following: diffusion as you describe is a British tool or methodology (perhaps a research project,) adapted from German generalities (Ratzel and more dogmatically by Graebner,) but appropriated in a very specific way by American anthropologists. Specifically, the culture of the American Indian, the Melanesian, as well as the Australian was used by Boas, Radin, and others to argue against the idea of white supremacy or stewardship of African Americans. Rivers, who I really don’t think has gotten the attention he deserves, was put to quite American uses. Added to this is the complexities with how “diffusion” was appropriated by a number of differing disciplines in England and America (economics, historical jurisprudence, and psychology stand out as replete with examples) from quite technical senses to quite broad ones, as Bryce illustrates. Narrating these intricacies would, I think, be novel and quite worthwhile.


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