Mechanisms of Cultural Change: Invention, Diffusion & Innovation

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  • 0:01 Cultural Change
  • 0:29 Diffusion
  • 1:46 Types of Diffusion
  • 3:16 Invention
  • 4:19 Innovation
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the concept of cultural change. In doing so, it will highlight the change mechanisms of invention and innovation. It will also explain the different types of diffusion.

Cultural Change

You definitely don't need to be an anthropologist to understand that cultures change. In fact, all you really need to do is pick up an old high school yearbook or watch an old movie to understand that with time comes change. However, if you wanted to speak shall we say 'academically' about the mechanisms of cultural change, you'd probably need to be familiar with the terms diffusion, invention and innovation. Lucky for you, that's exactly what today's lesson is about!


We'll get the ball rolling with one of the most common mechanisms of cultural change, diffusion. Diffusion is defined as the borrowing by one society of a cultural trait belonging to another society as the result of contact between the two societies. In really simple terms, it's what happens when one society comes into contact with another society and ends up adopting some of the culture of that society as their own.

Diffusion encompasses the notion that societies throughout time have borrowed from one another. For example, as I type this, I happen to be wearing a silk shirt. Now, when I take a look at the tag, I'm not at all surprised to read that it was made in China. Yes, I'm an American, but here I sit wearing a silk shirt whose materials come from a land I've never set foot on. However, years and years ago, my Western European ancestors (who, on a side note, way back then would never have called themselves European) did visit China, and they liked the idea of clothing made out of silk!

Now, it's not like someone created a grand edict stating all Europeans must wear silk. Instead, a few explorers saw it, liked it and brought it home with them, allowing it to diffuse into European culture. Now here I sit, centuries later, donning it.

Types of Diffusion

When speaking of diffusion, there are different types of this mechanism for cultural change. For instance, there is direct diffusion. As the name implies, this occurs when societies come in direct contact with one another. Again using the example of my silk shirt, direct diffusion occurred when my European ancestors came across China's famous Silk Route.

However, there is also indirect diffusion, which occurs when the culture of one society is transmitted to a second society, then through the second society to other societies. Again using the silk shirt idea, I'm wearing silk due to indirect diffusion. Generations and generations ago, several different groups of Europeans wearing silk landed in the Americas. After many, many years of both war and peace with each other, these Europeans got together and created the beginnings of a culture that would help to define American society, and in this society, you guessed it, people wear silk.

Upon hearing this example, you may be thinking, 'Well, what about the poor Native Americans who sort of got trampled on in the whole discovering the Americas thing?' Excellent thought, and quite serendipitously, a great lead into our last form of diffusion, forced diffusion.

Forced diffusion occurs when one culture overpowers another culture and forces its culture onto the conquered group. In our example, I think we'd be safe to say that the Native American populations back then came to wear silk through forced diffusion.


Our next mechanism for cultural change is invention. Speaking anthropologically, invention is defined as the process of creating new ideas to solve cultural problems. Now, it's important to note that when speaking of invention, anthropologists don't limit the term to just tangible objects, like wheels. They also use it in reference to the creation of intangible things, like government systems, languages and even aspects of science, since all of these things are ways that man has come up with to make life easier or more controlled.

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