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ANR funded project

Emergences et évolutions des cultures et des phénomènes culturels (CULT) 2013

Sources of cultural variations

Sources of cultural variation

This project arose from the observation that there may exist only three models of cultural differentiation. For the classical diffusionist model, an innovation arises and, little by little, spreads around, but its appeal decreases and comes close to nil as the distance from the source grows. For the model of logical transformation, put forward by Lévi-Strauss (in Mythologiques), a polarity emerges in a field (which is both semantic and geographical) and brings about fully inverted forms, as well as intermediate figures which somehow synthetize the opposition between the two extreme poles. The third model is transactional: it refers to the symbolic economies of creation and acknowledgement of forms where originality and normativity represent two opposing forces of expression. Ethnography and history teach us that the three models fared differently on the surface of the Earth and across time. The classical diffusionist model appears more suitable to the description of Ancient cultures, the model of logical transformation may be more successful in regard to the New World, whereas the transactional model seems to be unrelated to geography. The aim of the present project is to further our understanding of these three models of cultural variation, to gain a better insight into how they complement each other, and how they apply to specific regions. Do they describe the same reality? How should we explain their relative accomplishments depending on geography?

To this end, we scheduled five field studies to be conducted in Europe (incorporating Minor Asia) and in North America. The fields in question encompass: the alpine architecture, improvised poetry (ottava rima) in Italy, internal transformations of coins in Minor Asia, Sprachbund in North-West America holding for genetically unrelated languages, and a systematic comparative analysis of autochthonous North-American art forms. The advantage of this set of fairly diverse fields is that they sample the issue of cultural variation with respect to the above-mentioned three models, and may enable us to evaluate their explanatory power. At the same time, it is not always clear how and whether the models apply to the fields in question. For instance, both the alpine architecture and the improvised ottava rima appear be well captured by logical transformation, yet the variations in the latter may not be incompatible with a transactional analysis, which also appears quite natural with respect to the diversity of Ancient coins from Minor Asia. Finally, art forms and linguistic diversity in autochthonous North America may potentially admit each of the three models.

Although our project is primarily concerned with basic research, certain field studies (especially in the Alps and in Italy where the relevant documentation is scarce) and the documentary search may give way to the creation of rich corpora. In this sense, the program has also a dimension of conservation of cultural heritage, which exceeds its temporal span. Thus, the expected results, beyond the usual scientific outcome in terms of publication, colloquia and teaching, should also enable us to organize exhibitions, and to create a web site providing a window to these cultural corpora and documentation.



LIAS-IMM Institut Marcel Mauss UMR 8178, CNRS-EHESS

ANR grant: 213 999 euros
Beginning and duration: février 2014 - 48 mois


ANR Programme: Emergences et évolutions des cultures et des phénomènes culturels (CULT) 2013

Project ID: ANR-13-CULT-0002

Project coordinator:
Monsieur Emmanuel DESVEAUX (CNRS-EHESS )


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The project coordinator is the author of this abstract and is therefore responsible for the content of the summary. The ANR disclaims all responsibility in connection with its content.