Contagious diffusion is a kind of cultural diffusion that relies on direct person-to-person contact for the spread of ideas, information, and knowledge.
Contagious diffusion examples include: the spread of tea and coffee culture, viral internet memes, and oral spread of religions.
The word ‘contagious’ is derived from the Latin contagio which means touch. Thus, direct contact (though not necessarily physical) is needed for contagious diffusion.
This is one of six types of cultural diffusion often taught in geography courses (including AP Human Geography).
Examples of Contagious Diffusion
1. Viral Internet Content
Internet content that spreads rapidly is described as ‘viral’, to denote both the speed of its transmission and the nature of its transmission, which, like viruses, spreads through person-to-person contact.
Direct physical contact may not be necessary in this case, but it still requires the act of one person sharing the content with their contacts on social media or through messenger apps such as WhatsApp.
2. Missionary Religions
Religions spread through a variety of means. However, missionary religions, in particular, involve intimate person-to-person contact with populations where the religion may not have had any previous presence.
Before the arrival of broadcast technology and the internet, the geographical spread of an idea or ideology was dependent on how far it could be physically carried by its proponents, whether they be missionaries, traders, or conquerors.
For instance, the manner in which Christianity spread across much of Africa, Latin America, and Asia involved efforts by Christian missionaries to travel to far-flung, remote areas that were inaccessible to most people.
Propagating the gospel then required prolonged presence in often inhospitable climates ( for Europeans) and becoming a part of the lives of natives.
The determination and absolute faith with which the Christian missionaries of the late medieval period persevered at their task in the face of obstacles and opposition gave rise to the phrase ‘missionary zeal’.
In the absence of such physical contact, the spread of Christianity to these remote regions would never have occurred.
3. Oral Scriptural Traditions
In many societies, scriptures and other sacred texts were transmitted orally for centuries, even though writing was known and widely practiced.
This was done because, in such cultures, the oral was considered a superior mode of transmission and preservation than the written, as the oral necessitated a transmission of the scripture from one person to another in close physical proximity.
A written text on the other hand was an impersonal interaction between the transmitter and the medium (pen and paper).
A classic example of this is Hinduism in which its sacred texts, the Vedas, were transmitted orally from one person to another for nearly 2 millennia before they were written down (Doniger, 2014).
Even then, it was only the orally transmitted texts, passed down from teacher to student in an intricate and intimate ritual of learning lasting many years, that were considered authoritative.
This makes the Vedas distinct from other religious texts. It also meant that, unlike major religions, the spread of Hinduism remained confined to a limited geographic region, viz. South Asia.
Other religions such as Islam and Christianity could spread farther as their holy texts could be written down and reproduced, first by hand, and later by the printing press, and then widely disseminated, obviating any need for prolonged, intimate person-to-person contact as in the case of Vedic Hinduism.
Cricket is a sport, that, outside of England, is played only by a handful of countries all of which have one thing in common – a history of being colonized by England.
In countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, cricket is the only sport followed by much of the population.
The sport was first introduced to these countries by colonial officers and administrators, who encouraged locals to play the sport as a part of their efforts to spread English culture to the colonies.
Cricket, in its original and most prestigious form called test cricket, is a peculiar sport, in that it does not easily lend itself to being a spectacle sport like soccer or baseball.
It is often compared to be being a cross between chess and golf, on account of the languid pace at which a game of test cricket unfolds, and the clever strategizing that each cricket move requires.
A typical game of test cricket lasts 5 days at the end of which one may or may not have a result (many matches end up in draws).
The spread of cricket is thus a person-to-person phenomenon – people are introduced to the sport by other people, they take time to understand its rules and appreciate its finer nuances, they get involved in it, and finally develop an appreciation for it.
In short, it is only through participation in the act of playing cricket that it spreads most effectively.
This is evident from the fact that despite the commercialization and broadcast of the sport through mass media in the 21st century, its spread still remains limited, for the most part, to the handful of former colonies where the sport was physically introduced by the British over 2 centuries ago.
This is in contrast to other sports such as soccer, professional wrestling (WWE), or basketball (NBA) that have been to build a global audience through being broadcast on mass media and being promoted by big businesses.
The constant media coverage and glamorization of soccer stars such Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and David Beckham, the sale of merchandise featuring NBA teams like Chicago Bulls by sports retailers such as Adidas or Nike, and the marketing of professional wrestlers such as Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, John Cena, and “the Undertaker” by Hollywood, have, for instance, allowed soccer, basketball, and professional wrestling to spread to varied geographies without any physical contact.
Similar levels of marketing and brand building have not done much for the spread of cricket outside its core region of former British colonies.
While there exist international cricket teams in the USA, Germany, Italy, etc., these are composed almost entirely of the South Asian diaspora, thus once again underscoring how cricket only seems to spread to newer geographies through direct person-to-person contact.
5. Tea Drinking
Tea is one of the world’s most consumed beverages. However, until the 17th century, tea drinking was widespread only in China and some parts of East Asia to which the plant was native (Sen, 2004).
It was only after the British smuggled the tea plant from China, cross-bred it with native tea grown in the Indian Himalayas and began exporting it on a large scale, that the culture of tea drinking spread to the rest of the world. (Rose, 2011)
Much like cricket, the spread of tea drinking in the 19th and early 20th centuries was tied intimately to the colonial enterprise, and like cricket, it relied largely on person-to-person contact to find more consumers.
Products like coffee, for instance, can be promoted through a visual medium such as print or video advertising operating at a distance.
Coffee is promoted as a cool, yuppie drink that urban professionals consume (and hence those aspiring to be successful urban professionals must too).
To “meet up for a coffee”, or “work out of a coffee shop” are all expressions that define the social and professional lives of young urban professionals in the start-up culture of the 21st century.
“Caffeine dependent life-form” is one of the most popular phrases that Gen Z youth use to describe themselves on social media apps.
A “coffee shop” carries with it certain connotations that “tea room” does not. The first has an air of something casual, chic, and relaxing located on a cobbled street in a popular part of town. The second carries with it an air of gravitas, oriental mysticism, something that demands involvement and commitment to appreciate; in short something that sounds like work.
Tea, then, is not something that people would become addicted to after seeing it advertised on a billboard or television. For people to become habituated to tea drinking, it requires them to be physically in contact with other tea drinkers, to taste the beverage themselves, and acquire a taste for it.
6. Localized Crafts and Cottage Industries
Crafts and economic activities of a cultural nature, especially those which are endemic to certain regions, also spread through contagious diffusion.
This is because culture, in general, is embodied and performative. What this means is that culture survives only if it is displayed on the body – either through speech, dress, appearance, etc., and if it is performed and practiced on a daily basis.
Think of Persian carpets, Cashmere Shawls, Japanese Origami, French Wines, Spanish Flamenco Luthiers (guitar makers), Italian marble and blown glass workers, and many other crafts. Each of these crafts is emblematic of the culture of the region it represents.
The finest exponents of each of these are craftsmen located only in certain geographies.
Often, one finds entire communities spread across a region engaged in the practice of the craft.
However, the practice stays limited to a certain geography and does not spread in a major way beyond it. (though one may be able to purchase factory-produced imitations elsewhere).
This is because the art of making such artifacts is transmitted from one person to another, often in a centuries-old tradition of master and apprentice. One cannot simply learn the art of making fine Persian carpets by taking a course on Udemy.
It requires years of learning the craft from a master. This also ensures that it does not spread far and wide and remains confined to certain geographies and communities.
- Cultural Adaptation Examples (for AP Human Geography)
- Globalization Pros and Cons
- Types of Globalization
Contagious diffusion is a type of cultural diffusion that requires close interaction between people for its propagation. This interaction need not be of a physical nature, as is witnessed in the case of viral internet content. But it does require one person transferring the content being spread on to another.
Barr, S. (2019). Endorsements from celebrities may put teenagers at higher risk. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/
Doniger, W. (2014). On Hinduism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Rose, S. (2011). For all the tea in China: How England stole the world’s favorite drink and changed history. Los Angeles: Penguin.
Sen, C.T. (2004). Food Culture in India. New Delhi: Greenwood Press.