A Systemic Approach to Cultural Diffusion and Reconstruction

Part of the Annals of Theoretical Psychology book series (AOTP, volume 11)


This chapter explores the conditions and processes through which culture is reconstructed and diffused within and between social groups. It revisits the ideas of early diffusionist anthropology, in particular, the framework developed by Frederic Bartlett in his unjustly neglected book Psychology and Primitive Culture. In his framework, culture is conceptualized as heterogeneous, systemic and changing patterns of activity mediated by both individual and group processes. Furthermore, any society must be conceptualized in time, existing in a state of tension between stability and change, conservation and construction. A major catalyst for change is ‘culture contact’, whereby new cultural elements are introduced into a social group from outside, simulating constructive efforts to integrate them into its ways of life.

The chapter begins by providing some background in Cambridge anthropology between 1890 and 1912. It then proceeds to outline Bartlett’s framework for exploring cultural dynamics, according to which the investigator should focus on the systemic conditions that shape individual and group responses; these conditions include a whole individual, belonging to a particular social group and acting in a particular social and material environment. This framework is then applied to the study of cultural contact (where groups are in intimate contact with one another) and cultural borrowing (where foreign cultural elements are carried by single individuals to a receipt group). The results of these intercultural contacts will depend on a number of factors, including the symmetry of relationship between the groups concerned and the social organization particular to them. Finally, a discussion is made of how this framework can be extended so as to apply it to contemporary society.


Cultural change Diffusionism Construction Contact of cultures Bartlett Rivers Primitive culture Modern culture Propaganda 


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Communication and PsychologyAalborg UniversityAalborgDenmark

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