Cross-cultural diffusion: what it is, types and characteristics

Cultures are not hermetic, so they often acquire elements from the outside or it is they who share theirs with the rest. Cross-cultural dissemination is an example of this.

We will delve into the anthropological phenomena that explain these contacts between cultures in which one acquires customs or concepts from the others. We will also see the types that can occur and the theories that try to offer models for this phenomenon.

What is cross-cultural dissemination?

Cross-cultural diffusion is a concept referred to anthropology, specifically its cultural aspect, which refers to the propagation of the elements of a culture, either internal, by contact between individuals of the same culture, or external if instead the phenomenon takes place between two people of different cultures.

Through this mechanism, a culture can contribute to others from simple customs to differentiating elements such as a language, a religion or even complex technological developments that can be the catalyst for a change of era in said civilization, so we are talking about an extraordinary process powerful for cultural enrichment.

The first to speak of cross-cultural diffusion, and therefore the author who coined the term, was Leo Frobenius, a German ethnologist. It was in his work The culture of West Africa, where the concept initially appeared and from then on it was established in the anthropology glossary as one of the fundamental terms to be able to talk about these changes in cultures.

It is important do not confuse cross-cultural diffusion with the diffusion of innovations, another very important phenomenon used in anthropology and sociology but with a different meaning. In the case of the second term, it refers to how ideas about technological improvements pass from one culture to another. One of the most classic examples is the mastery of metallurgy that allowed societies to enter the Iron Age.

Types of cross-cultural diffusion

Cross-cultural dissemination can take place through different methods. We are going to review all of them to know all the possible types that can occur.

1. Diffusion by expansion

The first way for an element to be transmitted between (or within) cultures occurs through expansion. What does it consist of? In which the specific characteristic has been generated in a specific place, which would be the nucleus, and from there it has begun to be transmitted geographically, first to the neighboring areas and later to others more distant.

2. Diffusion by migration

The second type to generate cross-cultural diffusion is that of migration. As in the previous case, we would be talking about a cultural unit that has arisen in one place and from there has been transmitted to another location. The difference is that in this case, said cultural element is transferred, not copied, so it is no longer in its original location to permanently migrate to the new one.

3. Diffusion by hierarchy

Yet another form of cross-cultural diffusion is that which occurs in a hierarchical manner. It is a form of geographic expansion with a peculiarity, and that is that the place from which the new cultural element starts has a higher hierarchy than those areas to which it will be exported, which in some way would be subordinate and would assimilate the concept by obligation.

4. Diffusion by imitation

In other cases, cross-cultural dissemination is carried out through a process of imitation, so that an individual observes another make use of the cultural element in question and this is the case when he suffers the contagion of this, starting to take it as their own and therefore expanding its use.

5. Diffusion by association

Finally we would find cross-cultural diffusion by association. How does this happen? It is a special case in which there is a main cultural element, which is the one that is being transmitted, by any of the methods we have seen before, but also There are other elements that are associated with the first in some way and when it is transmitted, they accompany it in the process in an indirect way.

Different origins of cross-cultural diffusion

We have made a journey through the types of cross-cultural diffusion in terms of the process that the cultural element takes to move to another place. Now let’s get to know the mechanisms by which a culture can spread so that its components are assimilated by another.

1. Direct broadcast form

The first form of cross-cultural diffusion is that which occurs directly between one culture and another due to their proximity. We can visualize it on a large scale, between two contiguous human populations that interact, either peacefully (trade routes, tourism, etc.) or also aggressively, through wars and other conflicts.

But it can also occur on a small scale, between two people of different cultures that due to their friendship or partner relationship they exchange elements of their respective cultures that in the end end up being collected and integrated by the other party as their own.

2. Indirect way of diffusion

When we talk about the form of indirect diffusion we are referring to members of two different cultures that, in this case, they do not have direct contact, so the exchange of elements is carried out through a common denominator, which would be a third culture, which would be acting as an intermediary between the two.

Therefore, in this cross-cultural diffusion mechanism, culture A would transfer some of its elements to culture B, which in the future would also be diffused from culture B to culture C. In this way, culture A would have exported some of its elements. of its characteristics to culture C without any direct contact between them.

3. Form of diffusion imposed

But not all cultural exchanges occur naturally. There are many examples of dominant cultures that have forced other less powerful to assume characteristics that did not correspond to them in order to standardize with it. This is the case of the peoples and nations that throughout history have invaded other territories and have forced the inhabitants to abandon practices that conflicted with their customs.

This is the imposed or forced diffusion mechanism. The differentiating element would be the one of the imposition in front of the voluntariness of the other methods.

Theories about cross-cultural diffusion

There are different theoretical models that try to explain the phenomenon of cross-cultural diffusion. Let’s take a closer look at each model.

1. Migrations

One of them refers to the migratory processes of human populations. The migratory model affirms that it is through these movements that cultures manage to expand and penetrate others, sometimes overlapping and sometimes mixing.

2. Cultural circles

On the other hand, the model of diffusionism in cultural circles proposes the idea that originally there was a very small group of cultures and it was through relationships between them, including cross-cultural dissemination and splits as the large number we have today was reached.

3. Bullet of culture

Another of these theories is that of the culture bullet or Kultur-kugel, with its original name in German. This idea, proposed by archaeologist James Patrick Mallory, claims that cross-cultural diffusion is more frequent as language elements than for other cultural elements such as those of a material type or those that affect the social structure of the group in question.

4. Evolutionary diffusionism

A theory called evolutionary diffusionism has also been proposed. The approach of this model speaks of a form of cross-cultural diffusion that does not actually imply that one culture spreads one element over another, but rather that said element arises at the same time in separate cultures because both have reached an evolutionary stage that provides the necessary conditions for this new element to emerge.

5. Hyperdiffusionism

Finally we would find hyperdiffusionism, which takes the theory of cultural circles to its extreme, indicating that in reality, at first, there were not even a few primal cultures, but there was only one. It was through migratory processes that human groups were populating other corners, taking that culture to those places and experiencing changes from then on.

Authors such as Antonio de León Pinelo believed in this theory to the point of affirming that humanity had originated in what would now be South America and more specifically in the area of ​​Bolivia, and then began to expand to the rest of the globe. It would be one of the first hyper-diffusionist approaches that would attempt to explain cross-cultural diffusion.

Bibliographic references:

  • Chevedden, PE (2000). The invention of the counterweight trebuchet: A study in cultural diffusion. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. JSTOR.
  • Levitt, P. (1998). Social Remittances: Migration Driven Local-Level Forms of Cultural Diffusion. International migration review.
  • Whiten, A., Caldwell, CA, Mesoudi, A. (2016). Cultural diffusion in humans and other animals. Current opinion in Psychology. Elsevier.


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