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In cultural anthropology and cultural geography, cultural diffusion, as conceptualized by Leo Frobenius in his 1897/98 publication Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis, is the spread of cultural items—such as ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages etc.—between individuals, whether within a single culture or from one culture to another. It is distinct from the diffusion of innovations within a specific culture. Examples of diffusion include the spread of the war chariot and iron smelting in ancient times, and the use of automobiles and Western business suits in the 20th century.
Five major types of cultural diffusion have been defined:
Inter-cultural diffusion can happen in many ways. Migrating populations will carry their culture with them. Ideas can be carried by trans-cultural visitors, such as merchants, explorers, soldiers, diplomats, slaves, and hired artisans. Technology diffusion has often occurred by one society luring skilled scientists or workers by payments or other inducement. Trans-cultural marriages between two neighboring or interspersed cultures have also contributed. Among literate societies, diffusion can occur through letters, books, and, in modern times, through electronic media.
There are three categories of diffusion mechanisms:
Direct diffusion was common in ancient times, when small groups of humans lived in adjoining settlements. Indirect diffusion is common in today's world because of the mass media and invention of the Internet. Also of interest is the work of American historian and critic Daniel J. Boorstin in his book The Discoverers, in which he provides an historical perspective on the role of explorers in the diffusion of innovations between civilizations.
- Expansion diffusion: an innovation or idea that develops in a source area and remains strong there, while also spreading outward to other areas. This can include hierarchical, stimulus, and contagious diffusion.
- Relocation diffusion: an idea or innovation that migrates into new areas, leaving behind its origin or source of the cultural trait.
- Hierarchical diffusion: an idea or innovation that spreads by moving from larger to smaller places, often with little regard to the distance between places, and often influenced by social elites.
- Contagious diffusion: an idea or innovation that spreads based on person-to-person contact within a given population.
- Stimulus diffusion: an idea or innovation that spreads based on its attachment to another concept.
Direct diffusion occurs when two cultures are very close to each other, resulting in intermarriage, trade, and even warfare. An example of direct diffusion is between the United States and Canada, where the people living on the border of these two countries engage in hockey, which started in Canada, and baseball, which is popular in American culture.
Forced diffusion occurs when one culture subjugates (conquers or enslaves) another culture and forces its own customs on the conquered people. An example would be the forced Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by the Spanish, French, English and Portuguese, or the forced Islamization of West African peoples by the Fula or of the Nuristanis by the Afghans.
Indirect diffusion happens when traits are passed from one culture through a middleman to another culture, without the first and final cultures being in direct contact. An example could be the presence of Mexican food in Canada, since a large territory (the United States) lies between.
Migrationism, the spread of cultural ideas by either gradual or sudden population movements
Culture circles diffusionism (Kulturkreise)—the theory that cultures originated from a small number of cultures
- "Kulturkugel" (a German compound meaning "culture bullet", coined by J. P. Mallory), a mechanism suggested by Mallory to model the scale of invasion vs. gradual migration vs. diffusion. According to this model, local continuity of material culture and social organization is stronger than linguistic continuity, so that cultural contact or limited migration regularly leads to linguistic changes without affecting material culture or social organization.
Hyperdiffusionism—the theory that all cultures originated from one culture
- Frobenius, Leo. Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Mitteilungen 43/44, 1897/98
- Kroeber, Alfred L. (1940). "Stimulus diffusion." American Anthropologist 42(1), Jan.–Mar., pp. 1–20
- Rogers, Everett (1962) Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, Macmillan Company
Sorenson, John L. & Carl L. Johannessen (2006) "Biological Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages." In: Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Ed. Victor H. Mair. University of Hawaii Press, pp. 238–297. ;
"Diffusionism and Acculturation" by Gail King and Meghan Wright, Anthropological Theories, M.D. Murphy (ed.), Department of Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences, The University of Alabama.
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