culture diffusion


noun Anthropology, Sociology.

the spreading out of culture, culture traits, or a cultural pattern from a central point.

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Origin of culture diffusion

First recorded in 1965–70
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

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What is cultural diffusion?

Culture diffusion, also often called cultural diffusion or transcultural diffusion, is a term from anthropology, specifically cultural anthropology, a subfield that focuses on how cultures vary among the human population.

Cultural diffusion describes the spread of one culture’s practices, beliefs, and/or items, like food, music, or tools. This spread can be among members of the same culture or to completely different cultures around the world.

Cultural diffusion is why many cultures around the world share similarities.

Why is cultural diffusion important in society?

The word culture has a pretty complicated origin story. It comes from the French word culture, which in turn comes from the Latin cultūra, which means to cultivate. And starting in the 1400s, culture was used in exactly that sense—in the context of agriculture to refer to the cultivation of land, plants, and animals.

In the 1500s and 1600s it began to be applied to human beings, used in the sense of the cultivation or development of minds or intellectual pursuits. Only in the 1800s did culture gain the meaning that is used in the phrase cultural diffusion; that is, a distinct way of life of a particular group of people characterized by unique ideas, customs, behaviors, and products.

OK, what are these ideas, customs, and products, you ask? Well, culture tends to encompass the food people eat, the religion people practice, the language people speak, the music people listen to, the arts people enjoy, and their shared values, morality, traditions, behaviors, etc. It is essentially the shared identity of a group of people, learned through socialization. Culture can be broad, such as Western or Eastern culture, or it can be narrow, such as the company culture of a specific workplace.

Now on to diffusion, or the act of spreading. Diffusion is used in a lot of different academic fields in addition to anthropology, such as physics, meteorology, and cinematography, all to describe the act of spreading, transmitting, or migrating.

Put the two elements together and we see that cultural diffusion is the movement of parts of a unique culture in between individuals, locations, and amongst other cultures.

Here’s an example: the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a route of land and sea travel that connected China to Japan and Korea, Central Asia and India, as well as Turkey and Italy from about 130 BC to AD 1450  for trading purposes. Thanks to the Silk Road, art, ideas, inventions, and religion diffused amongst various countries and cultures. For example, Buddhism spread from its country of origin, India, by way of the Silk Road, to other countries such as Tibet, China, and Japan, where it is still practiced quite frequently today.

The act of cultural diffusion, the actual spreading of ideas and practices, can occur in a few different ways. Five, to be exact.

First, expansion diffusion: this describes ideas that develop in a culture of origin, remain strong there, and also spread outward. The next three types of diffusion can also be included in the large umbrella category of expansion diffusion.

Hierarchical diffusion is something that spreads from larger to smaller areas—think cities to rural areas. Contagious diffusion is something that rapidly spreads from person to person, like viral videos or memes. Stimulus diffusion is the spread of something which gets altered in the process. For example, yoga in the United States is a form of exercise, but originally in India it was and is considered more a holistic form of meditation.

The last type, relocation diffusion, describes something losing popularity after its spread. This spread (typically by the physical movement of people) makes the cultural aspects less popular or irrelevant in their place of origin, think Puritanism after Puritan settlers left Europe for North America.

What are real-life examples of cultural diffusion?

Cultural diffusion is used in academic spheres, for example, among anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers, to discuss the movement of certain aspects of a culture. Anthropologists use cultural diffusion to study and explain similarities that may occur in different cultures.

Cultural diffusion is also often taught in history, social studies, or geography curriculum for middle schoolers and high schoolers.

Among us regular folk, people will reference cultural diffusion to explain, reason, or joke as to why something considered different or odd is occurring.

There has been a debate as to whether cultural diffusion is just another form of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation refers to the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of culture from one group, typically a disadvantaged or minority group, by another, typically more dominant, group. Some people choose to think that borrowing aspects of another group’s culture is simply cultural diffusion and is therefore not problematic.