Hierarchical diffusion is one of six ways cultures can spread around the world (what we call ‘types of cultural diffusion’). What makes hierarchical diffusion unique is that it involves the spread of culture starting from the most powerful and influential people within the culture.
Once the influential people embrace a certain culture, the rest of the culture are more likely to follow, although there is likely an element of cultural lag as the changes catch-on.
It can occur both within a culture (such as the spread of a trend within the United States) as well as between different cultures (such as spreading elements of US culture to Asia).
Some examples of hierarchical diffusion include:
- Parisian Fashion Diffusion
- Royal Fashion Trends
- Hollywood Trend Diffusion
- Music Genres (rap, etc.)
- The Spanish Inquisition
- Religious Doctrine
- Celebrity Tweets
Hierarchical diffusion is a very common type of diffusion in the 21st Century. Companies and brands will often pay influential people (such as ‘Instagram Influencers’) to wear their clothes or use their products to try to influence entire youth subcultures. But it was also common in the past, especially in European monarchies, where the kings and queens would be the trendsetters for everyone else to follow.
Below are some of the best examples of hierarchical diffusion.
Hierarchical Diffusion Examples
1. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain – The Spanish Inquisition
The example most commonly used in AP Human Geography courses is that of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon. These two separate kingdoms were united by the marriages of Ferdinand and Isabella and led to the de facto unification of Spain. We say ‘de facto’ because the unification did not become official for a long time later. Nonetheless, through their marriage, they brought together the two kingdoms culturally and socially.
Some reforms they implemented including the Reconquista, which involved the forced conversions of Jews and Muslims to Christianity. This type of ‘forced diffusion’ was common in Medieval Europe, and particularly in Catholic Spain.
Because these (rather brutal) cultural reforms were enforced from the top in society, we consider this to be a quintessential example of hierarchical diffusion.
2. Schoolyard ‘Cool Kids’
The easiest way to explain hierarchical diffusion is to relate it back to when you were in school. You may have seen the ‘cool kids’ in your class adopt a trend. Because they were cool, you may have wanted to imitate them and copy the trend.
If it was a not-so-cool kid in the class who adopted a trend you might not have been as interested in doing it. That’s because people with high social regard (what we often call ‘social capital’) will often be the trendsetters in a society. You want to be seen as being more like the cool kids and less like the uncool kids.
3. Hollywood Films
Hollywood films will often be used to spread culture around the United States and the world. There are two ways they do this.
First, Hollywood films often depict internationally famous actors like Brad Pitt and Zac Efron wearing the newest fashion trends. This can be the trendsetter for distributing those new fashions to the masses. By starting ‘at the top’ with the famous actors and spreading the culture from those influencers down, this is a classic example of hierarchical diffusion of culture.
Second, Hollywood films are a super-spreader of US culture around the world. A Hollywood film will make its way to cinemas around the globe more than any others. We often call the spread of US culture in the age of Globalization “Americanization”, which is something many anti-globalists rail against.
(Note that this second example also has strong elements of expansion diffusion).
4. Religious Doctrine in the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church is a notoriously centralized institution. All changes to Catholic doctrine must come from the top. They hold authority over interpretations of scripture as well as positions on controversial issues like sexuality and abortion.
When the Church makes a change to their doctrine, it ‘trickles down’ throughout the entire culture of the Catholic Church. It affects the conversations and even actions of priests and laypeople throughout the world. This hierarchical way in which culture is diffused is one of the most regimented examples because it’s non-organic. For the Church, there are explicit rules and instructions on how culture is policed and changed.
5. Talk Back Radio Hosts
For politicized talk back hosts, they have the ability to inspire entire movements for and against cultural issues like gay marriage (in the early 2010s).
Talk back radio hosts such as the late Rush Limbaugh revolutionized political culture in the United States. For Limbaugh in particular, he vocalized many populist right-wing views that emboldened many people in the United States to become politically active in movements like the Tea Party and Trump Republicans.
The power talk back radio hosts have – to talk to millions of people every morning – makes them oversized influencers. When they say something, they will be able to influence large groups of people across a culture.
6. Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the US national anthem in 2016 in protest against the treatment of black people by police. At the time he was widely criticized by the conservative establishment within the NFL as well as many fans. He was not signed to any football teams in subsequent years, potentially due to his political views.
However, Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the anthem also led to a groundswell of support and was an influential moment in pushing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. This footballer used his position as a powerful cultural influencer to bring about cultural change from the top down.
7. Parisian Fashion
Paris is known as a fashion capital of the world. The fashions that come out of Paris influence the Western world and have done so for centuries. Paris Fashion Week occurs twice per year where influential fashion designers release their new designs. These designs can filter down to yearly fashions and influence other fashion shows around the world.
8. Royal Fashion
Similarly, the fashion of royals spread throughout the world. Marie Antoinette is famous for being a French fashion icon who changed up fashion in her time. She embraced the chemise á la Reine (fashion of the Gaulle) which upset the traditional fashion of the nobility. Many nobles copied her fashion, but it also led to widespread criticism from the French people and lesser nobility that her fashion sense was excessive and even too sexualized for the times.
Today, royal watchers continue to observe the fashions of royalty closely. This is mostly the case with the British royalty who remain the most eminent Western royal family of the 21st Century. However, in republics such as the United States, it is often celebrities such as Beyoncé who are the new royalty and are looked upon for their fashion trends.
9. Paid Celebrity Tweets
Today, there is an enormous industry built up around celebrity ‘influencers’ sending out tweets and Instagram photos of themselves using their favorite brands. The use of the brands by high-powered social icons is clearly seen as paying dividends for brands given that they pay extraordinary sums of money for a single tweet or photo. According to inc.com Chloe Kardashian can attract up to $8,000 for a single tweet of a brand or product.
10. Government Laws and Decrees
Another prominent way cultural diffusion occurs is through government laws. In this case, it’s a form of ‘forced hierarchical diffusion’. The powerful people in society demand cultural change through outlawing certain behaviors. This is similar to the Spanish Inquisition example earlier in this piece.
But today there are many examples of this. One might be the widespread legalization of gay marriage in the early 2010s in the Western world. Nations like Canada, the UK and the USA legalized gay marriage, partially due to a bottom-up groundswell (the opposite of hierarchical diffusion). But once the government went about legalizing the practice, a return hierarchical effect was seen within instructions. For example, in some countries health insurance providers were no longer allowed to discriminate based on sexuality.
Through government laws, cultural change can be normalized both in legal and business institutions as well as the behaviors of people over time. Things that were once considered outside the norms can become mainstream if the government legalizes and accepts those behaviors within a culture.
These examples of hierarchical diffusion can overlap with other examples, like expansionist and forced diffusion. So, they’re not mutually exclusive. But if you’re using one of these examples, I’d recommend mentioning that it could also be considered another type of confusion at the same time if you feel this is the case. That will show the person grading your work that you’ve got a thorough understanding of cultural diffusion and related concepts like cultural adaptation.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.