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Otis T. Mason on Technology and the Progress of Civilization May 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Otis Mason (April 10, 1838 – November 5, 1908) was at the turn of the century one of the premier theorists  of primitive evolution.  He was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. Anthropologists remember him chiefly for his use of the “culture area concept” and for his contribution to “diffusionist studies.”   A “culture area” is a “region of relative environmental and cultural uniformity, characterized by societies with significant similarities in mode of adaptation and social structure.”

Diffusionism, as argued by the American anthropologist Clark Wissler, contended that cultural traits (gift-giving, technology, language, etc) moved from a given center, which implied that the “center of the trait distribution is also its earliest occurrence.” Wissler contended that cultural areas and geographic traits were “broadly congruent, implying a mild environmental determinism” (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan J. Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, 61-62.)*


Fustel de Coulanges May 31, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889), according to the brief but sufficient biography supplied by Reinhard Bendix in State and Society: A Reader in Comparative Political Sociology (1973,) was “Professor of History at Strasbourg and at the Sorbonne in Paris.”  Coulanges’ The Ancient City (1864), Bendix declared, was  “a pioneering analysis of the role of religion in classical antiquity.”  Coulanges was the author of a number of other works on early French history but is remembered, if at all, as a persistent influence on Emile Durkheim.

According to Steven Lukes, Durkheim praised Coulanges, along with the French historian Gabriel Monod, for his rigorous historical method, but criticized the former for his lack of attention to the “comparative method” (Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work, 58.)

Lukes is quick to point out that Durkheim’s criticism only referred to Coulanges’ account of the Roman family or gens in The Ancient City, as Coulanges’ 1889 essay, “The Origin of Property in Land,” has a section entitled “On the application of the comparative method to this problem.”  This essay contains an interesting summation of the status quo of economic sociology in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.  Coulanges’ notes Henry Maine’s use of the Indian village to inquire into the original constitution of Western property as well as Emile de Laveleye’s theory of the original communal ownership of the soil.