Cultural Diffusion in Sociology: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published June 16, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Cultural Diffusion is the process by which knowledge, innovation, language, or cultural characteristics are spread within or between cultures or communities.

In other words, it is the process of cultural change in which elements of one culture are adopted by members of another culture. Diffusion can occur through various means including trade, war, migration, and communication.

The English language is one example of cultural diffusion. The language was first introduced to the British Isles by Germanic invaders in the 5th century. However, it was not until the Norman Conquest of 1066 that the language began to diffuse throughout England.

The Normans were French speaking and their influence on the English language can still be seen today — in fact, about 45% of modern English vocabulary originates from the French language (Whiten, Caldwell, & Mesoudi, 2016).

Key Points

  • Cultural diffusion is the spread of culture through contact with other cultures.
  • There are four main types of cultural diffusion: contagious, hierarchical, stimulus, and relocation diffusion. The first three of these fall under the larger category of expansion diffusion.
  • Diffusion can happen through the mechanisms trade, technology, migration, and colonization.
  • Cultural diffusion has played a role in the spread of language, religion, and art, as well as other major social institutions.

  • Food:  One of the most obvious examples of cultural diffusion is the spread of food items and cuisine around the world. For instance, Italian pasta and pizza, Chinese stir fry, and Indian curry have all become popular in the United Kingdom and other countries (Whiten, Caldwell, & Mesoudi, 2016).

  • Clothing: Another example of cultural diffusion is the way in which clothing styles have been adopted by people in different cultures. For instance, jeans were originally designed for American cowboys but are now worn by people all over the world. Similarly, traditional Japanese kimonos are now sometimes worn as fashion items in the West (Whiten, Caldwell, & Mesoudi, 2016).

  • Music: Music is another form of culture that has undergone diffusion. For instance, Hip-Hop music originated in African American communities in New York City but has since become mainstream across all races. Hip Hop artists have spread from the United States to locales as far as France and South Korea (Whiten, Caldwell, & Mesoudi, 2016).

Types of Cultural Diffusion

Expansion Diffusion

Expansion diffusion is when innovations spread to new places while staying strong in their original locations.

An example of this would be the spread of the English language to different parts of the world.

Religions can also undergo expansion diffusion — for example, Christianity was originally only practiced in the Middle East but eventually diffused to Europe and other parts of the world.

Expansion diffusion can be caused by various factors including trade, migration, and colonialism (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

Contagious Diffusion

Contagious diffusion is when an innovation or concept spreads rapidly throughout a population, like an epidemic.

Contagious diffusion usually happens when people are in close contact with one another, such as in a school or workplace.

This type of diffusion is often seen with fads — for example, so-called "mom-jeans" or the popularity of dance challenges (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

Hierarchical Diffusion

Hierarchical diffusion, meanwhile, is The spread of an idea from persons or nodes of authority or power to other persons or places. This authority can be seen as either a small group or a society.

The diffusion of "Parisian" fashion, royal fashion trends, religious doctrine, and celebrity tweets can all be attributed to hierarchical diffusion (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

In the 21st century, companies and brands often pay influential people to use their products in an attempt to influence youth subcultures.

This mirrors the hierarchical diffusion of the past in European monarchies, where kings and queens would set trends for affluence.

For example, Queen Victoria's wedding in the early 1800s set off a global trend of brides wearing white wedding dresses in an attempt to project the affluence of the royal family (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

Stimulus Diffusion

Stimulus diffusion is when an idea or concept is adopted by a culture after being exposed to another culture. In this adoption, the adopters give the concept a new and unique form.

The concept of zero, for example, was first developed by the Mayans and later diffused to India, where it was integrated into a greater system of math.

Similarly, the game of chess is believed to have originated in India before being diffused to Persia and then Europe, but not without fundamental changes.

Stimulus diffusion is often seen in the arts, where new styles and genres are adopted by artists after being exposed to other cultures, but are mixed by that artist's own influences to create a novel style (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

Relocation Diffusion

Finally, relocation diffusion is a unique form of cultural diffusion that happens when migrants move from one location to another.

This type of diffusion is differentiated from contagious diffusion or hierarchical diffusion in that it is not a type of expansion diffusion (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

Blues, for example, is a genre of music that originated from African slaves working on American cotton plantations. It is characterized by a style known as call-and-response.

Songs are composed in a two-phrase pattern, with the second phrase being a direct response or commentary on the first. This is a distinctive element of West African music — the region of the world where many slaves came from (Pitzi & Pitzi, 2004).

Mechanisms: How Does Culture Spread?

There are several theories that attempt to explain how and why cultural diffusion occurs:

Direct vs Indirect

One of the most fundamental explanations is the distinction between direct and indirect diffusion. Direct diffusion happens when two cultures have close contact with one another, such as through trade or migration.

This close contact allows for a more immediate and unmediated exchange of ideas, and  is often the cause of contagious diffusion. Indirect diffusion, on the other hand, happens when there is no direct contact between cultures, but ideas are exchanged indirectly through a third culture.

The spread of Islam to Indonesia, for example, happened indirectly through Indian traders who introduced the religion to the archipelago — despite the fact that islam had originated in the Middle East (Fort, Crema, & Madella, 2015).

Interaction of cultures

The interaction of cultures is another popular theory that attempts to explain how cultural diffusion happens.

This theory posits that cultures are not static, but are constantly changing and evolving through their interactions with other cultures. This can happen through trade, war, migration, and other forms of contact. The interaction of cultures leads to a process of acculturation (Fort, Crema, & Madella, 2015).

Acculturation is  the process by which a culture adopts the customs and ideas of another culture. This can happen on an individual level, such as when someone moves to a new country and adopts the customs of their new home.

It can also happen on a larger scale, such as when a country is colonized by another country and adopts its customs (Fort, Crema, & Madella, 2015).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, June 16). Cultural Diffusion in Sociology: Definition & Examples . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/cultural-diffusion.html

References

Fort, J., Crema, E. R., & Madella, M. (2015). Modeling demic and cultural diffusion: An introductionHuman biology87(3), 141-149.

Kaufman, J., & Patterson, O. (2005). Cross-national cultural diffusion: The global spread of cricketAmerican sociological review70(1), 82-110.

Levitt, P. (1998). Social remittances: Migration driven local-level forms of cultural diffusion. International migration review32(4), 926-948.

Pitzl, G. R., & Pitzl, J. (2004). Encyclopedia of human geography. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Whiten, A., Caldwell, C. A., & Mesoudi, A. (2016). Cultural diffusion in humans and other animals. Current opinion in Psychology8, 15-21.