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Meetings of People: Rivers & Diffusionism December 12, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
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Another stellar Grote Club post by Simon Cook—this time on psychologist and anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers and his ‘conversion to diffusionism’, explained through the decisive influence of the writings of H. M. Chadwick and those of the archaeologist William Ridgeway. Simon rightly contends that in order to explain anthropology at Cambridge c. 1910s we have to cast aside our anachronistic notions of anthropology as a modern discipline in order to admit the contributions of Chadwick and Ridgeway, whom by modern definitions of anthropology are not anthropologists at all.

The Grote Club

W.H.R. Rivers was a key figure in the development of both psychology and anthropology in early twentieth-century Cambridge. Consequently, much of what is distinctive in the development of one discipline in this period relates directly to the other. Nevertheless, the pivotal event in Rivers’ anthropological career – his ‘conversion to diffusionism’ around 1911 – was not directly related to his psychological research.

Rivers announced his conversion in his 1911 Presidential Address to the Anthropology Section of the British Association. He explained that in writing up the results of  his 1908 expedition to Melanesia he had come to see that “the change I had traced was not a spontaneous evolution, but one which had taken place under the influence of the blending of peoples”. Quite why Rivers came to see social change in this new way has mystified modern scholars.

In this post I explain Rivers’ 1911 ‘conversion’. The explanation is extrapolated from several published articles (details…

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