Kulturkreise (culture circle or culture center) is an early 20th-century German diffusion theory based on the belief that a cultural trait evolved in a specific area and then grew to encompass additional societies. According to this theory, the areas in which cultural traits evolved can be identified and the diffusion of the traits can be mapped. The work of Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) served as a motivating force for kulturkreise. Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), a student of Ratzel, developed the culture circle theory, and Fritz Graebner (1877- 1934), a German ethnologist, utilized this theory in many of his studies on societies throughout the world.
Graebner’s research and publications helped popularize this school of diffusionist thought. While working at the Berlin Ethnological Museum, Graebner wrote about culture circles in Oceania. Later, he used the kulturkreise theory in a study focusing on the entire world,. tracing the spread of an ancient culture’s traditions throughout the rest of the world in his best-known work on kulturkreise, Das Weltbild der Primitiven: Eine Untersuchung der Urformen Weltanschaulichen Denkens bei Naturvölkern (The World View of Primitive Peoples: An Investigation of Archetypal World Outlook Thinking of Aboriginal Peoples). The methodology outlined by Graebner served as a stimulus for later field research and led to the development of the culture-historical school of ethnology in Europe.
The goal of kulturkreise was to trace cultural traits from their specific origin through their spread to other cultures. It was believed that all cultural traditions originated within a few cultural centers, then spread through increasingly large circles to encompass additional cultural areas. The original cultural centers were thought to contain discrete characteristics referred to as a culture complex (Kulturkomplex). Once the culture complexes were identified, the spread of culture could be traced.
Kulturkreise contrasted with the British school of diffusion thought associated with G. Elliot Smith and William Perry. The British school believed that ancient Egypt was the site for the development of the primary characteristics of modern civilization, and that the modern cultures that retained the civilized traits of ancient Egypt were the most evolved.
German-born Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, brought ingredients of the kulturkreise theory to the United States; however, he and other American anthropologists recognized the failures of the kulturkreise theory as a whole and instead focused on the development and diffusion of cultural traits in their historical context to identify connections between different cultures and their traits.
Diffusionist theories gradually lost fashion in anthropology and were replaced by the development of functionalist and structuralist theories. These forms of diffusion are viewed as extreme and not used by scholars today; however, anthropologists do acknowledge diffusion as a source of culture change.
- Graebner, F. (1924). Das weltbild der primitiven: Eine untersuchung der urformen weltanschaulichen denkens bei. Munich, Germany: E. Reinhardt.
- Kluckhohn, C. (1936). Some reflections on the method and theory of the Kulturkreislehre. American Anthropologist, 38(2), 157-196.
- Sieber, S. A., & Mueller, F. H. (1941). The social life of primitive man. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder.