Cultural diffusion is the spread of cultural beliefs and social activities from one group of people to another. Through cultural diffusion, horizons are broadened and people become more culturally rich.
For example, a woman living in Manhattan might purchase mala prayer beads used by Buddhist monks to focus on a breath or mantra. Her use of those beads, incepted halfway around the world, is now positively impacting her daily practice of meditation. Had she only ever walked the streets of Manhattan, never engaging with any product or activity outside her borders, life would be very different. Also, if it weren’t for cultural diffusion, that same woman wouldn’t be able to enjoy sushi night every Thursday evening with her friends!
The mixing of world cultures through different ethnicities, religions, and nationalities has only increased with advanced communication, transportation, and technology. Folks living in Australia can communicate daily via Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram with someone living in Russia. This enrichment allows us to open minds, and learn as much as we can from every corner of the earth.
Common Cultural Diffusions
Let’s expand our horizons beyond those sushi dinners and daily tweets with some examples of cultural diffusion in society today:
- In New York City’s Chinatown you’ll meet the largest concentration of Chinese people in the Western hemisphere. Here, you’ll find some of the most delicious and authentic Chinese cuisine in America.
- The spread of music throughout the world also illustrates cultural diffusion. For example, jazz started in the US as a blend of African and European musical traditions. Now, it’s enjoyed across the globe, taking on many different variations within the genre.
- Southern cities in the United States, especially border towns, have signs in both English and Spanish acknowledging the spread of people between neighboring countries.
- Many people in European cities and former colonies speak both their native tongue and English. In fact, almost 80 percent of English speakers in the world are non-native speakers due to the spread of the language through imperialism and trade.
- Japanese culture has often fascinated foreigners. The popularity of sushi around the world, a traditional Japanese dish, exemplifies the spread of Japanese culture and cuisine.
- Around 300 years after it was founded, the French Quarter in New Orleans still displays an array of French culture through its architecture and cuisine.
- Due to its large Mexican population people in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates Mexico’s victory over the French Empire. In fact, the day is probably a bigger celebration in the US now than in Mexico itself.
Religion and Cultural Diffusion
For many cultures, religion has always been an integral part of life. (You’ll find a number of remarkable studies examining parallels between Buddhism and Christianity.) And this is the true beauty of cultural diffusion, that expansion of the mind. Through a friend or acquaintance from another faith, we stand to learn a lot more and live our best lives yet.
Let’s take a look at cultural diffusion at work in religious circles.
- Christianity started in Israel but is now practiced all over the world, initially spread far and wide by the Roman Empire.
- During the Han Dynasty, Buddhism spread from India to China via the march of Emperor Wu’s armies and the opening of new trade routes.
- Like Christianity, Islam is no longer contained to one region of the world following immigration.
- An example of forced diffusion is the Spanish, French, English and Portuguese forcing the native population of the Americas to become Christian.
Cultural Diffusion in Technology
They say knowledge is power. And, when one group of people develops an important element of technology that can benefit people across the globe, it’s nice to see that information-sharing take place. Of course, in today’s world that can happen at lightning speeds.
Let’s take a look at technological diffusion through the years.
- Paper was first made in China, eventually spreading to the Middle East and Europe.
- Gunpowder also originated in China. Of course, nations all across the globe went on to produce gunpowder, too.
- The fax machine was invented by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain, but certainly didn’t remain in the UK alone.
- The anti-lock brake system was developed in the United States, despite many claims that the German manufacturer, Mercedes, got there first. The Germans then perfected it.
Economics and Cultural Diffusion
Even before the Middle Ages, when merchants traded their goods by traveling from region to region, the benefits of cultural diffusion were apparent. If one region didn’t have the climate to produce one crop, another did, and those goods were diffused across countries and nations. One good was traded for another and communities enjoyed the benefits of varied products. Sure enough, that benefit remains today, as world trade continues to boom.
Let’s take a look at the economics behind cultural diffusion.
- Trade has been a means of cultural diffusion for centuries, dating back to the Silk Road and beyond, when caravans would travel and exchange goods between Europe and Asia.
- Today, we can apply tuition money to various study abroad programs. Students are able to spend semesters anywhere, from Ireland, to Greece, to Japan. As you immerse yourself in another culture, you’re sure to bring various components of that lifestyle back home with you and perhaps inspire someone else to go spend their money abroad.
- People learn of new products in other countries, like personal computers or cell phones, demand increases, the product becomes more affordable, and the product is spread around the world.
Exchanging Ideas, Increasing Knowledge
In the end, cultural diffusion can be life-changing. When an American woman in Wisconsin enrolls in salsa classes taught by an Argentinian man, they might forge a lifelong friendship that would’ve never happened if cultural diffusion wasn’t a part of our reality.
As a man living in Los Angeles watches YouTube videos on how to make his own sushi, he reaps the benefits of a healthy lifestyle offered by the Japanese culture. One remark in the comments section might introduce him to a Japanese chef, and there you have it. A new friendship is formed and added morsels of knowledge are exchanged.
They say travel expands our minds and introduces us to undiscovered worlds. Cultural diffusion, however, is a little more permanent and steadfast. The learning opportunities continue, as entire communities of people exchange ideas, goods, and knowledge. If America’s a melting pot, then we’re sure to be on the winning side of cultural diffusion.