Cultural Diffusion: Definition, Expansion & Popular Cultures

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  • 0:55 What is Diffusion?
  • 1:34 Contagious &…
  • 2:56 Stimulus Diffusion
  • 3:38 Relocation Diffusion
  • 4:29 Folk Vs. Pop Culture
  • 5:04 The Impact of the Internet
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we'll use the examples of viral videos, hip hop, and yoga to explore how culture is diffused and expanded. We'll also look at how the Internet impacts our understanding of popular culture.

Gone Viral

If you've spent some time online, you've probably run into Internet memes. These are concepts such as photos or videos that spread among users online, often repeating similar themes and styles. One example is Harlem Shake videos, which went viral in 2013. During this time, people from all over the world duplicated and expanded on themes that became a major sensation, at least in the short-term.

Geographers want to know how ideas like these are distributed across distances. In this lesson, you'll learn how culture gets diffused among people and what terms a geographer would use to describe viral videos and other trends.

What is Diffusion?

Cultural diffusion is the spread of cultural trends across locations. Beliefs, practices, and ideas get shared from person to person, and sometimes even around the world through this diffusion, as happens with viral videos.

Many cultural practices are spread by a type of cultural diffusion called expansion diffusion. This is when a trend is spread from its originating place, outward. There are several forms of this type of diffusion: contagious, hierarchical, and stimulus diffusion.

Contagious Diffusion

Harlem Shake videos are a great example of contagious diffusion, or when a cultural trend is transmitted from person to person from an original source to numerous others, similar to a virus. Even the name 'viral videos' speaks to the idea of a contagion, spreading an idea almost like an illness would spread through contact and interaction.

As cultural trends gain in popularity and draw our attention, profit may become a motive in perpetuating the trend. Think of how viral videos add advertising or companies pick up on Internet memes to sell more products as a result.

Hierarchical Diffusion

Another form of expansion diffusion is hierarchical diffusion, or when a cultural trend is spread from one segment of society to another, in a pattern. Consider how hip hop culture emerged from within urban areas, but is now known in all regions of society including suburban and rural areas, as well. When information is known by government officials before the public, hierarchical diffusion is the method the news is spread. Think of how information about a major event, Osama bin Laden's death, spread from the highest levels of government to eventually get shared with the public.

Stimulus Diffusion

Finally, stimulus diffusion is when a cultural trend spreads, but is changed by those adopting the idea. For example, many in the United States practice yoga, but make use of it in a different way than the regions where this activity originated. In fact, most of us associate yoga with a particular form of exercise involving poses, but these movements are only one dimension of the practice of ancient forms of yoga.

To help you remember the name of this type, think of stimulus as a stimulating new idea that sparks another culture to use it and also motivates them to adapt it for their own purpose.

Relocation Diffusion

Expansion diffusion and its various forms are not the only way that ideas and practices are passed along to others. Another way that culture spreads is by relocation diffusion, when a person migrates from their home and shares their culture with a new location.

Relocation diffusion accounts for much of the folk culture that can be seen in different regions based on migration patterns. If a person grows up in a large city, for instance, they may have lived near a neighborhood such as Little Italy or Chinatown. The community surrounding these cultural enclaves then have the opportunity to learn about and even participate in the cultural traditions of these groups. Traditions may also be passed on to family members, neighbors, and friends.

Folk vs. Pop Culture

Folk culture is viewed as retaining its connection to an original place. When you experience folk culture, you typically know it relates to a particular region or people.

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