Cultural diffusion is a term we use to explain the ways cultures spread and intermingle around the world. For example, it refers to the spread of American culture into Asia and the spread of Asian fast food in the United States.
It occurs through the spread of cultural items during times of conflict, migration, and trade. Examples of cultural items include philosophical ideas, inventions, fashions, religious beliefs, technologies and languages.
These items can spread within a culture or across cultures. You may hear the specific phrase ‘trans-cultural diffusion’ to refer to the spread across rather than within cultures.
There are six types of cultural diffusion:
- Relocation Diffusion
- Expansion Diffusion
- Contagious Diffusion
- Hierarchical Diffusion
- Stimulus Diffusion
- Maladaptive Diffusion
It is a term invented by Leo Frobenius in 1897, but remains relevant to this day. This article will explain each type of diffusion and the differences between them!
The 6 Types of Cultural Diffusion
1. Relocation Diffusion
Relocation diffusion is the spread and mingling of cultures that occurs when people migrate around the world. Migration has been a dominant reason for the spread of cultures around the world.
For example, emigration of the Irish from Ireland to the United States en masse in the 19th Century led to the growth of American Irish culture in cities like Boston.
When cultures move from one nation to a next, they often assimilate, meaning their culture doesn’t spread. Rather, people adapt to the new culture.
It’s usually only when there is a sufficient number of immigrants from one place that they can establish their own culture in the new place they have moved to. In these cases, we say they integrate rather than assimilate. This means a culture has become part of a new society and interacts with the new society while still keeping their own unique identity.
If a culture that has relocated manages to get their culture to rub-off onto the locals, then you will start experiencing ‘expansion diffusion’, which is what’s discussed next.
See here for 7 examples of relocation diffusion.
2. Expansion Diffusion
Expansion diffusion refers to when a cultural idea spreads from where it originated but also stays strong where it started. For example, Hollywood films are still popular in the United States but have also spread to Europe and other nations.
The term ‘expansion’ or ‘expand’ is used to talk about something getting bigger. So when we refer to expansion diffusion, we are talking about a cultural item (which might be an idea, a way of dancing or a fashion style) that is expanding in popularity within your society. Consider, for example, the rise of bell bottom jeans in the 70s and skinny jeans in the early 2000s. Each of these fashions came about as a result of expansion diffusion – growing popularity!
Contagious, hierarchical and stimulus diffusion are all sub-types of expansion diffusion.
3. Contagious Diffusion
Contagious diffusion is a type of expansion diffusion that refers to the spread of ideas through one-to-one interactions between individuals. As people interact, they take on the culture of the people they are interacting with, and the culture spreads. This is analogous to a virus which spreads though contact between people.
An example of contagious diffusion is when videos go viral on the internet. One person sees a video, watches it, then shares it. The people they share it to also watch it and share it – and the video spreads around the globe as one person shares it with another.
See 10 more examples of contagious diffusion here.
4. Hierarchical Diffusion
Hierarchical diffusion occurs when famous or influential people in society share a cultural idea. The culture is spread from the top of society down. In the past, the fashion preferences of the kings and queens would spread throughout polite society. Similarly, today, brands often employ ‘influencers’ who can spread their ideas or products to make them ‘fashionable’ within society.
A historical example of hierarchical diffusion is the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile. Their marriage united the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon into a single kingdom. As they were influential people at the top of society, and successfully managed to unite both kingdoms into one kingdom with a shared cultural identity.
See 10 more examples of hierarchical diffusion here.
5. Stimulus Diffusion
Stimulus diffusion occurs when a culture changes as it spreads from its original point. It may or may not stay the same in the original location, but the further it spreads, the more it changes.
For example, football culture has changed dramatically over the years in different parts of the world. Traditional ‘soccer’ football merged into Rugby Union in the upper classes of England, Rugby League in the lower classes of England, and American Football in the United States.
Another example is the spread of rock music. Heavy metal became the dominant type in Scandinavia, country music became dominant in rural America, and grunge rock in the pacific north west of the United States. All are sub-types of rock music, but different regions came up with different versions the more it spread.
Interestingly, a group of theorists called the hyperdiffusionists believe that there was originally just one culture and as people spread around the world culture merged and changed over time in different spaces.
6. Maladaptive Diffusion
Maladaptive diffusion occurs when a culture spreads to new areas where it doesn’t seem as useful or relevant, and yet it does not change. It may have worked well in one region, but it doesn’t seem to be suitable in another situation.
An example is when you see people in snowy regions playing football in the snow – it seems to be the wrong sport for the weather (perhaps they should be skiing), but they embrace the sport out of enjoyment despite its impracticality.
Go Deeper: 15 Examples of Cultural Diffusion
How Cultural Diffusion Happens
It’s also worth looking at how cultural diffusion takes place. According to Savage (2016, p. 1) there are three key ways it takes place:
“The diffusion of cultures has been most facilitated by the institutions of colonialism, religion, and education.” (Savage, 2016, p. 1)
However, others have theorized three ‘mechanisms’ of cultural diffusion that explain three other ways it might take place:
1. Direct Diffusion
Direct diffusion occurs when two cultures intermingle and influence one another out of their own volition, without any coercion. This occurs naturally, for example when two people of different cultures fall in love and get married, or when a friend introduces you to their traditional ways of cooking.
2. Forced Diffusion
Forced diffusion occurs when someone makes you take up the traits of another culture against your will. For example, this occurred in Barcelona in the 20th Century when the locals were forced to speak Spanish instead of their local language of Catalan.
3. Indirect Diffusion
Indirect diffusion takes place when a culture is shared by a ‘middleman’ who spreads it from one place to another. An example of this is if you were to start doing Buddhist meditation. You may not be a Buddhist or have ever been to a part of the world where Buddhism is a dominant religion. But, there’s a meditation studio down your street. Here, you’re being influenced by Buddhism indirectly.
- Examples of Cultural Adaptation (For AP Human Geography)
- 19 Examples of Culture
- 21 Examples of Cultural Contexts
- Examples of Cultural Capital
- Examples of Cultural Taboos
- The 4 Stages of Cultural Adaptation
- Examples of Ethnocentrism
- A List of Cultural Taboos
Cultural diffusion has been going on since the beginning of time. Humans have always been migrating around the world in search for better opportunities.
As globalization has sped up in recent years, so too has cultural diffusion. With the rise of the internet, cultures can now spread virtually (which begs the question – do we need a new type of cultural diffusion to define this?)
In essence, there really are only three types of cultural diffusion: relocation, expansion and maladaptive. But under ‘expansion’ come three sub-types: expansion, contagious and hierarchical.
References in APA Style
Xu, W. W., Park, J. Y., Kim, J. Y., & Park, H. W. (2016). Networked cultural diffusion and creation on YouTube: An analysis of YouTube memes. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 60(1), 104-122.
Biotto, M., De Toni, A. F., & Nonino, F. (2012). Knowledge and cultural diffusion along the supply chain as drivers of product quality improvement: The illycaffè case study. The International Journal of Logistics Management.
Xu, W. W., Park, J. Y., & Park, H. W. (2015). The networked cultural diffusion of Korean wave. Online Information Review.
Savage, V. R. (2016). Cultural diffusion. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, 1-2.
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.