15 Cultural Diffusion Examples (Human Geography)

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Cultural diffusion refers to the spread of cultures around the world. It can happen through migration, media, trade, colonialism, and similar practices.

Common types of cultural diffusion include contagious diffusion, relocation diffusion, and hierarchical diffusion.

Real-life examples include the spread of iron smelting in ancient times and the use of automobiles in the 20th century.

Anthropologists typically define three categories of diffusion mechanisms: direct diffusion, forced diffusion, and indirect diffusion. The six major types of cultural diffusion are: expansion, relocation, hierarchical, contagious, stimulus, and maladaptive diffusion.

Cultural diffusion is a term commonly used in sociology and human geography (including the AP Human Geography course).

Cultural Diffusion Examples

  • Direct diffusion (such as during migration) occurs when two cultures are very close, resulting in trade, intermarriage, and possibly warfare. Examples include the cultural diffusion between the US and Canada, Sweden and Norway, England and Scotland, Argentina and Chile, and so on.
  • Forced diffusion (such as forced Christianization) occurs when one culture conquers another and forces its culture on the conquered people. An example would be forcing a subject population to accept Christianity, such as the forced Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. There is substantial cultural lag in this model.
  • Indirect diffusion occurs when traits are passed from one culture to another through a third, mediating culture. An example would be the spread of Spanish food to Germany through France.
  • Expansion diffusion occurs when a cultural item remains strong in the area it was conceived in while it spreads to other cultures.
  • Relocation diffusion occurs when a cultural item migrates into a new culture, leaving the original culture behind.
  • Hierarchical diffusion occurs when a cultural item spreads from larger to smaller places. Social elites often play a role in hierarchical diffusion.
  • Contagious diffusion occurs when a cultural item spreads through person-to-person contact within a given population without regard to hierarchies.
  • Stimulus diffusion occurs when one cultural item spreads because of its attachment to another cultural item.
  • Maladaptive diffusion occurs when a cultural item spreads to a new area but is not adapted for that area.

Case Studies of Cultural Diffusion

1. Expansion Diffusion

Expansion diffusion occurs when a cultural item remains strong in the area it was conceived in while it spreads to other cultures.

In expansion diffusion, cultural items spread through a population from one area to another so that the total number of users and the areas of occurrence increase. For example, French wine is one of the most important parts of French culture but has also spread across the globe.

Examples of expansion diffusion include the spread of smelting and war chariots in ancient times, the spread of Latin in medieval times, and the spread of new technologies in modern times.

This type of cultural diffusion can be further divided into three sub-categories: (1) hierarchical diffusion, (2) contagious diffusion, and (3) stimulus diffusion.

2. Relocation Diffusion

Relocation diffusion occurs when a cultural item migrates into a new culture, leaving the original culture behind.

The individuals or groups thereby bring the idea or practice to their new homeland. Religions typically spread this way. The spread of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism was often a result of relocation diffusion.

Relocation diffusion usually occurs when there is a large enough number of migrants. When the culture of the newly relocated population spreads in the new homeland, relocation diffusion occurs between the two cultures.

An example is the migration of Christianity with European settlers who came to America. Another example would be the relocation of diseases through the migration of disease carriers. For religions, another example would be Hinduism, which originated in central Asia but is now predominantly found in India.

3. Hierarchical Diffusion

Hierarchical diffusion occurs when ideas are transferred from one important person to another or from one urban center to another, bypassing other people or territories.

We can see hierarchical diffusion by observing the acceptance of new modes of dress or foods. The cultural item spreads from the social elites downward. We can see examples of hierarchical diffusion in all advertisements that involve celebrities.

An example would be the spread of sushi restaurants from Japan in the 1970s. In the United States, the first sushi restaurants appeared in the major cities of Los Angeles and New York.

Only gradually, during the 1980s and 1990s, did sushi become more common in the less urbanized parts of the country (Domosh et al., 2011, p. 11).

Another example would be the spread of fashion from Paris. Brands like Celine, Saint Laurent, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, Balzac, etc., all come from Paris. Brands like these, to a large extent, determine what becomes fashionable and when.  

4. Contagious Diffusion

Contagious diffusion differs from hierarchical diffusion because it is not a top-down process. It involves the spread of cultural items like a contagious virus, moving throughout society without regard to hierarchies.

Hierarchical and contagious diffusion often work together. It can be understood through the analogy of the spread of a virus. Some diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, can spread both hierarchically and contagiously.

That means they can first spread in urban centers, then move to rural areas, while at the same time having no regard for social hierarchies (Domosh et al., 2011, p. 11).

This type of cultural diffusion necessarily requires person-to-person contact. This can be physical or not, frequent or infrequent, and so on. Not being influenced by social hierarchies is not a necessary characteristic of contagious diffusion.

Examples of contagious diffusion include the spread of any cultural item where people often apply the term viral. Examples include viral videos, viral images, and viral memes.

Another example would be the spread of religion. As we saw before, religions can spread through relocation diffusion but can also be contagious. For example, when missionaries spread religion through face-to-face contact with others.

5. Stimulus Diffusion

Stimulus diffusion occurs when culture changes as it spreads to new areas. The further a culture or a cultural item spreads, the more it changes.

This type of cultural diffusion can be seen as the foundation for the theories of hyperdiffusionism. Hyperdiffusionism postulates that all major inventions and cultures can be traced back to a single culture (Fritze, 1993, p. 70).

For example, Grafton Elliot Smith asserted that knowledge concerning copper production spread from Egypt to the rest of the world. He claimed that all major inventions originated in ancient Egypt (Gaillard, 2004, p. 48). This theory has since been abandoned.

Sometimes a specific trait is rejected, but the underlying idea is accepted, resulting in stimulus diffusion.

An example would be the domestication of reindeer by the Siberians. The Siberians domesticated reindeer only after they observed that other cultures had domesticated cattle.

They had no use for cattle, but the idea of domesticating herds of animals appealed to them, and they began domesticating reindeer, an animal they had long hunted (Domosh et al., 2011, pp. 11-12).

Definition of Cultural Diffusion

Cultural diffusion denotes the spread of cultural items within or between cultures. Such items include ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages, fashion, etc.

The term (from Latin diffundere – “to pour out, to spread”) was first introduced in anthropology and sociology by the German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in his work Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis (Frobenius, 1897).

According to this theory, the evolution of human cultures does not follow a monolinear evolutionary logic but a multilinear one: cultures develop their separate sets of knowledge and then interact with each other.

A basic assumption of these research approaches is that cultural innovations are rarely invented everywhere at the same time.

Such innovations are typically born in one culture and then spread to other cultures. Accordingly, similarities between different cultures are typically a result of their contact with each other.

The theory of cultural diffusion developed in the nineteenth century as a reaction against evolutionism and played an important part in German-language ethnology. In the English-speaking world, this theoretical approach became known as the German School (Heidemann, 2011).

Conclusion

Cultural diffusion denotes the spread of cultural items within or between cultures. Such items include ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages, fashion, and so on. Social scientists generally identify three mechanisms through which cultural diffusion takes place and six types of cultural diffusion.

References

Domosh, M., Neumann, R. P., Price, P. L., & Jordan-Bychkov, T. G. (2011). The Human Mosaic: A Cultural Approach to Human Geography. W. H. Freeman.

Fritze, R. H. (1993). Legend and Lore of the Americas Before 1492: An Encyclopedia of Visitors, Explorers, and Immigrants. ABC-CLIO.

Frobenius, L. (1897). Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Mitteilungen.

Gaillard, G. (2004). The Routledge Dictionary of Anthropologists. Psychology Press.

Heidemann, F. (2011). Ethnologie: Eine Einführung (1. Aufl.). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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