what is cultural diffusion in geography

What is cultural diffusion in geography? Cultural diffusion is a fascinating geographical phenomenon that skillfully weaves the fabric of human cultures.

Cultures interact with one another in intriguing ways, creating a global symphony out of which new melodies and harmonies emerge.

But most people often ask, “What is cultural diffusion in ap human geography?”

Cultural diffusion is how cultures, ideologies, and innovations spread from one part of the world to another and enrich everyone’s lives. 

What is Cultural Diffusion in Geography?

what does "cultural diffusion" mean in geography

Cultural diffusion is a process that spreads cultural characteristics, knowledge and innovation between societies. 

Social diffusion theory posits that behavior change within a population can be initiated and diffused to others if enough influential members adopt and support the new behavior.

It prompts cultural change as elements of one culture diffuse into another.

Over the course of human evolution, social diffusion has been critical to the spread of languages, religions, and art and innovation.

It not only refers to adopting new ideas or behavior, but it can also mean abandoning them, as individuals re-evaluate their practices in light of the practices around them.  

Types of Cultural Diffusion

types of cultural diffusion

Philosophical ideas, inventions, fashions and technologies, for example, can spread within a culture or trans-culturally across them.

The ways cultures spread and intermingle, that is, diffuse, happen in different ways using the mechanisms of trade, technology, migration and colonization.

How fast an innovation spreads depends on how favorably it is perceived. 

To understand the answer to, ” What is cultural diffusion in human geography?” it is essential to learn about different types of cultural diffusion.

There are two basic types of cultural diffusion, such as:

  • Expansion Diffusion
  • Relocation Diffusion
Fact: The spread of the world religions like Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism is an example of cultural diffusion. 

Expansion Diffusion

expansion diffusion

Expansion diffusion describes how innovation spreads but remains strong in its original place.

The spreading culture is usually more dominant than those it comes into contact with.

It typically has an advantage, perhaps a technology, that allows them to impose their culture on others to expand in the following ways. 

Contagious Diffusion

Contagious diffusion happens when an innovation or concept spreads rapidly through a population such as in a school or workplace like an epidemic.

Contagious diffusion accounts for fads, a shared enthusiasm for something widespread in the community for a while.

But, usually, it is just a short-term craze, relying on direct person-to-person contact to spread information and knowledge.

There are many examples including the spread of the coffee culture, religious ideas, and lately, viral memes. 

Hierarchical Diffusion

Hierarchical diffusion is the spread of an idea from persons in authority to other places and new people.

The authority is usually a small influential group that might diffuse fashion, religious or political doctrine or these days, through celebrity tweets.

hierarchical diffusion

It is a unique kind of diffusion because it refers to the cultural spread by the most influential people within the culture.

It is particularly within social media, although it can take a while for some things to catch on.   

Stimulus Diffusion

Stimulus diffusion refers to a situation where a certain element of the culture no longer remains the same after spreading to new areas.   

The concept or innovation is adopted by a new culture although the adopters give the concept a new unique form.

 It is a feature of the arts where new styles and genres are adopted by artists after exposure to other cultures, as the Beatles did with The White Album.

The artists added their own cultural influences and created a new style. 

Relocation Diffusion

Relocation diffusion happens when migrants move from one location to another taking favored aspects of their culture with them.

Blues, for example, characterized by call-and-response, originated with African slaves working on American plantations.

relocation diffusion

Ideas, religions, cuisines and customs are spread as people relocate

However, it is worth mentioning that the cultural elements they come share in the new place eventually diminish or disappear in their place of origin.

Essentially, the culture has shifted from one place to rise to prominence in another.

Fact: Pizza, originally from Italy but now a worldwide phenomenon, is one example of how cultural exchange has resulted in a truly global cuisine. 

Factors Influencing Cultural Diffusion

factors influencing cultural diffusion

Cultures are not static but constantly change and evolve because of their interactions with other cultures.

It can happen indirectly, or directly through close contact when trading or in migration.

Several factors influence cultural diffusion but acculturation occurs when a culture adopts the customs and ideas of another culture. 

Technology and Communication

technology and communication

Because of modern technological advances, the speed at which cultures diffuse has increased.

Communication technology has enabled the instantaneous sharing of ideas and information globally with goods and I.T based services distributed with ease around the world.

There has always been debate on whether the internet should be regulated, and governments, like Russia and China, already regulate it to maintain control over information.

Sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned and replaced with local monitored social media.

However, here too there is control since all the media outlets are owned by just a few multinational corporations.

Fact: Another aspect of cultural diffusion is language, with various languages borrowing words and phrases from one another to expand their vocabularies. 

Migration and Mobility

migration and mobility

Migration has always impacted cultural dynamics, not only in the country of migration but in the source country too.

Migrants not only bring themselves to new societies but also their moral and religious codes.

They seek a cultural divergence, a familiarity between their lives in their former location and their lives somewhere new.

Although people have always migrated, mainly for economic reasons, modern technology has made travel faster and less permanent.

Worries by right-wing nationalists that migration leads to the dilution of culture and values is a recurring but misguided theme when evidence is that diversity makes it richer.  


factors such as globalization

Technological globalization is accelerated in large part by technological diffusion, or the spread of technology across borders, one example is mobile phones.

There has been a dramatic rise in their use in poorer nations demonstrating how people willingly take on the advantages offered by innovation from other cultures if it will improve their lives in some way.

There is the idea that globalization will result in new hybrid world culture. A global village where big co-corporations dominate consumer markets.

In theory, this spatial diffusion will mean anyone, anywhere can have a McDonald’s but there will be variations in its presentation. 

Social and Cultural Barriers

social and cultural barriers

Factors that are typically social and cultural barriers to diffusion include religion, politics, and language. 

Such psychological barriers are known to influence the diffusion of an innovation that spreads from individual acceptance.

Historically, the barriers to social and cultural diffusion were more topographical, people were confined by deserts, high mountains, and oceans.

The Great Silk Road meeting no such barriers stretched 4000 miles from China. It was a transcontinental trading route with many tributaries.

Its area of influence was massive and it played a central role in sharing of new technology, art, literature, language, religious, mathematical, and philosophical ideas between countries. 

Implications of Cultural Diffusion

implications of cultural diffusion

Cultural diffusion is the spread of elements of a culture via the interactions of people from different cultures but there are implications.

There will be a change in the nature of the cultural element and it will influence the receiving culture in some way. One instance is the impact of tourism.

As it becomes easier to travel, the speed of diffusion between hosts and guests increases.

It is an impact that can be both positive and negative.

The local economy benefits from the trade until the location gets so popular it attracts multinational investment and globalization steps in.

Fact: Japanese art's influence on European Impressionism is a good example of how cultural exchange has shaped the aesthetics of different art genres. 


What is cultural diffusion in geography? Cultural diffusion is a fascinating phenomenon.

It is because of this that human communities become intricately intertwined, resulting in a thriving worldwide symphony of ideas, customs, and innovations.

This dynamic process is influenced by a wide range of variables, including access to information and communication technologies, ease of travel, and the degree to which societies are integrated into global markets.

Overall, cultural dispersion plays a crucial role in molding our world, helping to create a more diverse and interdependent global community.

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