HomePractices and Theories of Diffusionism in the Study of Religion (1850–1950)

HomePractices and Theories of Diffusionism in the Study of Religion (1850–1950)

Practices and Theories of Diffusionism in the Study of Religion (1850–1950)

En quête des pratiques diffusionnistes en histoire des religions (1850–1950)

*  *  *

Published on Wednesday, June 14, 2023


This conference seeks to explore the many facets of diffusionism as it was practiced in the academic study of religion between 1850 and 1950. What were the main theoretical and methodological orientations of this analytical model? Where did they find their origins? What were their distinguishing features ? What did it mean to be a diffusionist historian of religions? What were the guiding principles, the underpinning worldviews, and the scientific values at stake for those who propounded diffusionist theories? 



Diffusionism exists in a myriad frameworks and theories. Often condensed into three main schools – English, German-Austrian, and American –, this elastic analytical model relies on the premise that the creation and transformation of human societies (in short: the process of civilization) are linked to the spatial interconnectedness of those societies, and to the geographical distribution of the material traces of a given culture, producing processes of hybridization. The central starting point is that a technical, intellectual, or religious invention spreads from its society of origin to other societies by means of mobility, commercial trade flows, or other exchange networks.

Once dominant in cultural studies, the explanatory model of diffusionism contributed to a more complex understanding of our world and its history, and to a progressive blurring of the traditional 19th century boundaries between the “civilized” and the “primitive”. Diffusionism, however, was much more than just a way to investigate cultural data based on the spatial and historical distribution of purportedly “elementary” ideas. Encompassing highly distinct sets of questions, practices, and methods, some of its theories have had far-reaching political implications, for example by giving rise to the development of new cultural hierarchies. One, if not the most important ensuing idea, was that Europe had been one of the most essential theaters of human progress. There, it was argued, were “invented” such key notions as democracy, science, the modern state, and industry. And only here had monotheism transformed into a true “religion of humanity”.

The aim of this conference is to explore the many forms diffusionism assumed in the academic study of religion between roughly 1850 and 1950. What were its features and its cultural and scientific roots? Which ideas did they convey? What did it mean to be a diffusionist historian of religions? What were the guiding principles, the underpinning worldviews, and the scientific values at stake for those who defended diffusionist ideas? 

As the sciences of religion rose to academic prominence in the 19th century, their pioneering representatives enthusiastically engaged in a quest for the origin(s) and history of religious cultures, replacing theological accounts of divine revelation by new comparative and historical approaches to religion. Theories bearing on the historical emergence of specific religions in well-determined cultural settings clashed with the evolutionary explanations of independent development which were put forward by advocates of the anthropological postulate of uniformity of the human mind and culture. In addition to the epistemological gulf between these two rivaling approaches, the first diffusionist models and approaches also gave rise to intense methodological debates between the proponents of this framework, some of whom for instance favored a textual-philological approach like the one developed by Friedrich Max Müller, while others preferred to focus on the material cultures of indigenous peoples. But the debates did not only revolve around methodological issues. Also at stake were highly personal questions and dilemmas as scholars tried to make sense of the rapidly changing religious landscape of their own time.

In part, the variety of diffusionist approaches can be explained by the emergence of “national schools”, each with its own modi operandi, like the constant recourse German scholars took to historical geography, to give just one example. The scholars’ confessional identities constituted another determining factor for their preferred scholarly practices and research questions, and for the ways they perceived, defined, classified, and hierarchized cultures. Recent developments in the history of scholarship and knowledge allow us to investigate and complexify what it was, exactly, that diffusionists wanted to accomplish when they sought to demonstrate that similar religious traits feature in different geographically dispersed civilizations.     

We invite contributions that focus on one or more of the following research axes:

  1. The materiality of diffusionist scientific writing

What is the logic of inventory that drives this kind of research? Participants may for instance concentrate on the use of index cards, on the position and the modalities of cartography, on the linguistic/philological techniques, or the role assigned to artifacts and their display in museums. The exhibition of certain collections of cultural objects has, indeed, helped to raise historical awareness about societies that were erroneously deemed to be non-historical. Another subject of inquiry may be the use of atmospheric sounding (aréologie) which seeks to group spatialized cultural settings (areas of culture, originally isolated spaces, or border regions). From this particular perspective, diffusionism has sought to take into account both the diachronic and spatial dimensions of cultural phenomena, sometimes referring to intersecting variables that conceive of geographical distance as a marker of historical precedence.   

  1. Diffusionist scholars and field investigation

How did diffusionists feel about fieldwork ? Did they use the concepts of the peoples they studied, did they allow themselves to be immersed in their languages and modes of representation? What kind of ambivalences did scholars experience and express in their on-site encounters with local cultures? How did they deal with the complexities encountered on the field, which more often than not forced them to abandon their claims of uncovering general historical laws of cultural development?  

  1. Scholarly practices of comparison, classification, and collection

Is it possible to detect distinctive uses of comparison among diffusionists? Was there, for instance, a transition from a comparative discourse of “likeness” to one of difference? And what about those scholars who moved from evolutionary models of comparison to diffusionist paradigms? How were the popular early nineteenth-century approaches drawn from comparative Indo-European linguistics and their methods of word lists impacted by such epistemological changes? An interrelated point of reflection may be the present-day success of some hyperdiffusionist interpretations which on the basis of superficial analogies maintain that the roots of all knowledge of ancient societies lead back to one highly advanced primal society.

  1. Confessional allegiances

Confessional identities played a quintessential yet complex role in the scholarly choices for a specific diffusionist model. Can we detect any differences between the ways Roman-Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Catholic, or Jewish diffusionists thought? Were they explicit about their confessional allegiances? Can we say that these identities show in their scholarly practices and theories? Did the pioneering scholars of the history and of sciences of religions reflect on such possible bias? To what extent were (often apologetic) confessional agendas instrumental in the development of the political and ideological discourses that shaped the conceptualization of the inferior other and the superiority of the European peoples and cultures?

Submission guidelines

We kindly invite interested scholars to submit an abstract of no more than 500 words (excl. bibliographical references), preferably in French or English

by November 1, 2023.

Please also mention the affiliation of the author(s) and their e-mail addresses.

Email address : jean-francois.bert@unil.ch

Decisions on acceptance or rejection of proposals will be communicated in December 2023.

It is our intention to publish a special issue of a (still to be determined) journal or an edited volume with selected contributions. More information on the publication will follow in due time.

Organizing committee

  • Jean-François Bert (Université de Lausanne)
  • Nicolas Meylan (Université de Lausanne)
  • Annelies Lannoy (FNS, Université de Lausanne)


  • Université de Lausanne
    Lausanne, Switzerland

Event attendance modalities

Full on-site event


  • Wednesday, November 01, 2023


  • diffusionnisme, histoire des religions, science des religions, anthropologie, comparaison, ancrage confessionnel


  • Jean-François Bert
    courriel : jean-francois [dot] bert [at] unil [dot] ch

Information source

  • Jean-François Bert
    courriel : jean-francois [dot] bert [at] unil [dot] ch


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Practices and Theories of Diffusionism in the Study of Religion (1850–1950) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, June 14, 2023, https://doi.org/10.58079/1bcj

Archive this announcement

  • Google Agenda
  • iCal
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search