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III. Cultural Diffusion

Diffusion of Cultural Traits and Innovations

Debbie Lange, College Station, Texas

Key Terms:
acculturation, cultural region, cultural trait, culture, culture complex, culture realm, diffusion, geographic realms, geographic regions, regional variation, spatial distribution, spatial interaction

Time Needed:
One week. (The number of days needed will vary depending on how many of the student activities, extensions, and alternate lessons are done in class.)

Readings and Sources
Lecture Notes for the Teacher
Discussion, Student Activities, Extensions

Readings and Sources

de Blij, H. J., Human Geography Culture, Society, and Space. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996, pp. 217-257 and 339-342.

_____, and Peter O. Muller. Geography: Regions and Concepts. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1992, pp. 6-9 and 348-351.

_____, et. al. World Geography: A Physical and Cultural Study. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1989, pp.93-106.

Espenshade, Jr., Edward B., ed. Goode's World Atlas. USA: Rand McNally & Company. 1995.

Norton, William. Human Geography. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 295-298.

Knox, Paul and Sallie Marston. Human Geography: Places and Regions in Global Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.1997, manuscript pp. 1.45-1.47 and 5.1-5-11.

Rubenstein, James M. An Introduction To Human Geography. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., pp. 31-38, 101, 198, and 247-250, 1996.

Ford, Larry. 1971. The geography of rock and roll music. Journal of Geography.70 (8): 455-464.

Fredrich, Barbara E. 1991. "Food and culture: Using ethnic recipes to demonstrate the post-Columbian exchange of plants and animals". Journal of Geography. 90 (1): 11-15.

Hemmasi, Mohammed. 1992. "Spatial diffusion of Islam: A teaching strategy". Journal of Geography. 91 (6): 263-72.

Ormrod, Richard K. 1992. "Adaptation and Cultural Diffusion". Journal of Geography. 91 (6): 258-62.

Rice, Gwenda H. 1995. "AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa: A diffusion simulation". Journal of Geography. 94 (1): 317-22.

Rogers, Jim. 1990. "Using popular music to teach global education". OAH Magazine History. 4 (4): 43-45.

Additional Sources:
To view the following Web sites, please go to "See also" below.

The Teachers' Corner contains links to suggested Web sites. The College Board neither endorses, controls the content of, nor reviews the external Web sites included here. Please note that following links to external Web sites will open a new browser window. If you discover a link that does not work, please let us know by sending an e-mail to apctechsupport@collegeboard.org.

CIA World Factbook. CIA's Directorate of Intelligence produces the World Factbook. The Factbook is a comprehensive resource of facts and statistics on more than 250 countries and other entities.

Shere, Jeremy. "A very holy cow". Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post Daily Internet Edition. Sunday, May 25, 1997. (Article can be downloaded for a fee.)


This lesson introduces students to terms used when discussing and identifying cultures and cultural traits. Students are encouraged to identify their own cultural traits. It also introduces the idea of diffusion and the fact that as traits are spread from one culture to another differences will sometimes occur. The student activities are suggested as ways to encourage students to research a particular trait backward from its development to its point of origin. Another approach is to track the point of origin of a particular trait to various parts of the world. Optional activities are also included to encourage the use of various source materials, provide opportunities to map and interpret various types of maps, and to transform raw material into a choropleth map.


The student will be able to:

  • Define cultural terms and concepts.
  • Identify and evaluate cultures and cultural traits.
  • Identify and analyze the diffusion of cultural traits and innovations across space.
  • Interpret and map origins of cultural traits and distributions.
  • Create a choropleth map.

Lecture notes for teacher (see Preparation):
  • Overhead of the distribution of languages or religions around the world or atlases showing the distribution of cultural traits.
  • Photographs of various types of buildings in your community.
  • An outline map of the Eastern Hemisphere on paper or on the computer.
  • Information on the total number of Muslims in countries. One source is a World Almanac and Book of Facts. (I have given you the 1993 information from the Internet in attachment C.)
Extensions and Alternate Lessons will need additional materials.


The teacher and students need to define and discuss the key terms and concepts of this unit either in a class discussion or through individual exploration.

Key Terms and Concepts (See Lecture Notes): acculturation, cultural hearth, cultural region, cultural trait, culture, culture complex, culture realm, diffusion or cultural diffusion, geographic realm, geographic region, regional variation, spatial distribution, spatial interaction

Lecture Notes for the Teacher

The teacher needs to read the texts and become familiar with the following terms and concepts: (Definitions may vary slightly from text to text and some terms may not be included so I have provided some possible definitions.)

Culture: way of life developed by people. Or, as anthropologist Ralph Linton defines culture, it is the sum total of the knowledge, attitudes, and habitual behavior patterns shared and transmitted by the members of a society. (Some recent sociologists and others believe that some cultural traits may be instinctive rather than learned. See the discussion on page 218 in H. J. de Blij's text, Human Geography: Culture, Society, and Space.) Rubenstein refers to culture as a body of customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a group of people. He does not discuss whether it is learned or not. Others have defined culture as a shared set of meanings that are lived through the material and symbolic practices of everyday life (Knox and Marston, 1997, p 1.45).

Cultural trait: a single element of normal practice in a culture. The teacher can talk about what identifies a culture. These traits can be classified into four parts of culture: beliefs, institutions (government, economic systems, education, etc.), language, and technology. (Culture is learned and therefore it is "BILT".) Rubenstein categorizes cultures into three areas: Customary Beliefs, Social Forms and Institutions, and Material Traits.

Cultural hearth: place of origin of a culture.

Cultural region: the area where a particular culture system prevails.

Culture complex: a combination of traits followed by a culture.

Geographic region: some geographers refer to geographic rather than cultural regions because their definition is often based not only on cultural traits but on location and environmental factors as well.

Culture realm: a combination of cultural or geographic regions in which related characteristics occur, such as Latin America and Southeast Asia. The size of these realms varies. You can discuss a European cultural realm, a Western European cultural realm, a Scandinavian or Nordic cultural realm, or even smaller realms.

Geographic realm: Again, some geographers refer to geographic rather than cultural realms because of location and environmental factors.

Diffusion: the process of spreading an idea or an innovation from its cultural hearth to other cultures. (It is also referred to as Cultural Diffusion and sometimes Spatial Diffusion.) De Blij and Rubenstein both refer to two basic types of diffusion -- relocation and expansion diffusion. They further divide expansion diffusion into three processes -- hierarchical, contagious, and stimulus diffusion.

    Relocation diffusion: the spread of a trait through the migration of people from one region to another. People take their cultures with them.

    Expansion diffusion: the spread of a trait from one area to another.

    Contagious diffusion: the widespread movement of a cultural trait throughout a culture.

    Hierarchical diffusion: the spread of a trait from one person or center of innovation to another. It often bypasses some people, cultures, or regions.

    Stimulus diffusion: the spread of a principal even though the actual cultural trait may not be accepted by a culture.
Spatial interaction: the movement of people, goods, or ideas across an area.

Regional variation: because not all places are easily accessible (either physically or culturally), ideas will spread differently across space. Distance and time also play a roll in the fact that cultural traits spread differently. (This concept was formerly known as Spatial Differentiation.)

Spatial distribution: the spread of cultural traits across space. (You can discuss the elements of distribution such as density, concentration, or dispersion, as well as pattern.)

Acculturation: the process by which a culture is substantially changed through interaction with a more powerful culture. (See the discussion of acculturation and transculturation on page 225 in de Blij's text, Human Geography: Culture, Society, and Space.)

Discussion, Student Activities, Extensions
  1. Discuss the concepts of culture and cultural traits. Have the students list cultural traits that make up their own culture, their community's culture or the "American" culture. Possible concepts can include beliefs, language, music, institutions (systems of education, government, or law), technology, architectural styles, food preferences, modes of dress, layout of fields and farms, urbanization, etc. Are they the same set of traits? Why or why not? Show various photographs of cultural traits from your community. Have the students identify the cultural message seen in each photograph. They should also speculate about the origins of those traits and how they have entered the culture. A follow-up activity to this discussion would be for the students to take pictures or gather items which they feel identify their own culture. Have them write a caption for each picture or a label for each item commenting on the cultural message each trait conveys. Discuss how all of these traits relate to each other. An extension to this exercise is to contact schools around the United States (AP Summer Institute members or Geographic Alliance members) to discuss and compare other students' cultural identities, i.e., is there a Typical American Teenager or even a Typical American? Can you identify subgroup identities at the local, national, and global scales?

  2. After the traits are identified, the students need to identify origins -- the cultural hearth. Have each student choose a cultural trait, identify its origin(s), and then determine how its differences and similarities in other cultures. The student then needs to theorize on why these differences or similarities occur. They may choose to present the information to the rest of the class through comparing distribution maps, writing a news release, or in other ways. An extension to this activity would be to discuss how cultures are created and maintained -- why do certain traits last when others are considered "fads?"

  3. An Alternate Lesson: Students read and discuss the journal article "The Geography of Rock and Roll Music," from The Journal of Geography. What other types of music are considered part of the American culture? Classical, hip-hop, reggae, county and western, jazz, pop? What are their origins? Discuss the way in which they listen to music -- do they play an instrument, listen to the radio or to CDs, watch MTV or CMTV? What does this indicate about the culture? Where did other cultural traits originate? For example, the architectural style of a building in your community? (see Attachment A)

  4. An Alternate Lesson: In The Journal of Geography, Barbara E. Fredrich suggests an activity that uses recipes to show the origins of foods. Students choose a recipe from a variety of sources (family recipes, cookbooks, magazines, etc.) The student presents a report with a copy of the recipe, including a complete source of ingredients. The student then identifies the origins of each ingredient. Several other suggestions are made on how the students can analyze the distribution of foods. The article includes the list of ingredients, including origins, for a Big Mac and fries, with can be used to demonstrate the activity. (see Attachment B)

  5. An Alternate Lesson: Have the students look at diaries of people who have migrated from one place to another. What did they consider important enough to take with them? As they traveled, did they sell or leave behind any items? How did their cultural identities change? How did they stay the same?

  6. After the students have identified some cultural traits and their origins, discuss how cultures differ and why. Remind the students of a game played in elementary school - the "Rumor Game." Everyone gets into a circle, one person starts a rumor and whispers it to the next, and so on. When the whispering is over, what happened to the original rumor? It changed! This is what happens in real life. Ideas spread across space (spatial interaction), but change occurs (regional variations) due to physical or cultural barriers. For example, look at the use of the cow. The cow was domesticated in South Asia [de Blij, p. 339], and the idea spread from there. It is thought that humans originally domesticated the first cows for religious purposes (maybe because the shape of their horns resembled the crescent moon). In some cultures, such as Hindu, the cow is still considered a holy animal, but in others, the use of the cow has changed. Various cultures use cows the following ways:
    1. as a sacred animal. In addition to Hindu religion, you might want to discuss the concern people had during the peace talks in Israel during the spring of 1997. When a red cow was born in the country, many were afraid the calf would bring about a resurgence of religious identity and endanger the peace process. This fear was rooted in the ancient Jewish belief that a red cow harbingered the coming of the Son of God. (see Attachment C)
    2. as a draft animal
    3. as a source, via dung, for fuel
    4. as a source of milk to drink, or to process into cheese, butter and yogurt. In India, 80 percent of the population has some physical intolerance to milk and milk products, and in China that percentage may be higher (de Blij, p. 181).
    5. as a source of meat
    6. as a symbol of wealth, and/or:
    7. as a source of blood to drink. The Masai in East Africa include the blood of the cow in their diet. Though they bleed the cow, they would rarely slaughter it for meat unless it was for a celebration, because the animal is a sign of wealth. Can you think of any European dishes that include blood in the recipe?

    Another example could be the chicken. Cultures have different uses for chickens. Some use the eggs, others don't. Some cultures use the chicken as a fighting animal, while others view this as barbaric. The chicken is also used for religious purposes in some cultures and not in others.

    What factors would cause a cultural trait to spread differently across space (regional variations)? What are some possible physical factors -- distance, deserts, mountain ranges, oceans? What are some possible human factors -- languages, beliefs, history of conflicts, history of cooperation, etc.? How have technological changes influenced the diffusion of cultural traits and innovations? For example, how has television changed the "American" culture and the existence of ethnic cultural enclaves found across the United States? What influence has it had on our language and dialectical differences?

  7. Once you have discussed the diffusion of cultural traits and innovations, you need to discuss the concept of spatial distribution. Where are certain characteristics found? What is the frequency of occurrence (density)? How are those traits or innovations spread over an area (concentration)? Is there a geometric or regular arrangement across the area (pattern)? Use specific distribution maps, such as the spread of languages and religions found on page 29 of the Goode's Atlas.

  8. Give the students a map showing the historical stages of the diffusion of Islam across Europe, Africa, and Asia [Hemmasi, 1992, p. 267]. Then either provide or have the students obtain the most recent information available for countries with more than 10 percent Muslim populations. Gather the total number of Muslims and the percentage of the total population for each country. Have the students construct two choroplethic maps. One will map the total population and the other will map the percentages of Muslims found in those same countries. Once they have completed their maps, discuss the findings. (see Attachments D and E)

Objective Questions:
  1. All of the following are an example of expansion diffusion EXCEPT:
    1. the spread of Islam into neighboring countries
    2. the spread of AIDS in the United States
    3. the spread of the Buddhist religion from India into Southeast Asia *
    4. the spread of the use of the cow in the Masai culture
    5. the spread of the use of the FAX machine in Georgia

    C is the correct answer. See the discussion on p. 206 in Rubenstein or p. 310 in de Blij.

  2. A cultural hearth is
    1. a region from which a cultural trait originates *
    2. the process by which a cultural trail spreads
    3. an area defined by one or more cultural traits
    4. the modification of a culture by contact with a more powerful culture.
    5. the extent of the spread of a cultural trait

    A is the correct answer. See p. 32 in Rubenstein or p. 222 in de Blij.

    Use the following map to answer questions 3 and 4.

  3. The cultural hearth of Islam was located in what area(s)?
    1. in the western portion of the Arabian Peninsula *
    2. in the Fertile Crescent from Israel through Iran
    3. in the central part of the Sahara in Timbuktu
    4. in the western and eastern coastal areas of the Red Sea
    5. in Europe and now into the Middle East

    A: The area around Medina and Mecca was settled the earliest. The arrows show diffusion out of this region.

  4. This map shows all of the following information EXCEPT:
    1. The diffusion of the Islamic religion through military force across northern Africa between 632 and 750.
    2. The diffusion of the Islamic religion into the Iberian Peninsula and then the loss of that territory.
    3. The diffusion of the Islamic religion through non-military means into Indonesia between 1250 and 1991.
    4. The diffusion of the Islamic religion through military force into the Sudan and Sahel between 1250 and 1991. *
    5. The diffusion of the Islamic religion into the area that is today Kazakhstan during the same time period as it moved into India.

    D: This diffusion occurred through non-military means, not military force.

    Use the following map of Africa to answer question #5.

  5. Using the map of Africa showing the number of cases of HIV infection, which of the following statements can be determined?
    1. Approximately 50 to 67 percent of infected Africans are in East and Central Africa, even though this region has only 16 percent of the population.
    2. The distribution of HIV infection throughout the African population is equally distributed between men and women.
    3. Many AIDS cases go undiagnosed since only 30 to 35 percent of the people in this region can be reached by modern health services.
    4. There appears to be two epicenters (cultural hearths) of the virus in Africa, the Great Lakes region in East Africa and the Congo region in Central Africa.
    5. Of the most affected African countries, HIV rates are estimated to be 10 to 20 times higher in urban areas than in rural areas.

    All of these statements are true. However, the only one which can be determined by the map is answer "d."

  6. Because not all places are easily accessible, cultural traits and innovations will spread differently across space. The term which best defines this concept is:
    1. regional variation
    2. spatial interaction
    3. acculturation
    4. spatial distribution
    5. cultural complex
    A is the correct answer.

    Short Anwers:
    Use a map showing the spread of languages (pp. 150-151 in Rubenstein or pp. 264-265 in de Blij) to answer question #1.

    1. The Indo-European language has spread around the world. Using the language map, discuss how this spread relates to the migration of people.

      Discussion: Answer should include a discussion of the location of the cultural hearth (proposed to be just south of the Caucasus Mountains) and the movement into Europe and across southern Asia. It should also include a discussion of the migration of Europeans into North America, South American, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and across Russia. People tend to take their language with them as they migrate.

    2. Diffusion has been the cause of political conflict in recent times. Explain what diffusion is and discuss the validity of the previous statement.

      Discussion: Diffusion is the spread of a cultural trait across space. Cultural differences are one of the reasons for conflict. As people or ideas move into areas which are different from the existing culture, conflicts can arise. Conflicts in Bosnia, Burundi, Northern Ireland, Southwest Asia, and in other places, erupt, in part, over cultural differences.

    3. Television has diffused from North America and Europe to other regions of the world. Compare the choropleth maps showing the number of televisions per 1,000 inhabitants in 1954, 1970, and 1991 (found on p. 273, Rubenstein). Theorize how the spread of television impacts cultures around the world.

      Discussion: Between 1954 and 1970, the number of televisions increased primarily in Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Africa and Asia (excluding Russia and Japan) had very few. Even on the 1991 map, Africa still had few TVs. The number of televisions found within a country is one of the indicators of a country's level of development. Information spreads almost instantaneously in Anglo America, Europe, and Australia. It also tends to eliminate isolated communities within developed communities. We are becoming more and more like the cultures found on television as it standardizes our language, dress, and leisure time.
    Essay Questions:
    1. Analyze the role of transportation and communications in the diffusion of popular customs in the United States today.

      Discussion: As our transportation system improves, the movement of people across space increases. With the invention of the automobile and the development of the highway system, very few places are isolated by distance or time in the United States. Air traffic has decreased distance and time even more. People travel around the United States daily for economic and personal reasons. With the invention and development of the telephone, communication became very easy in the United States. The television has become one of the most important ways of diffusing popular culture, not only as a way to report news and events around the United States, but through programs and commercials for products. The most recent development in communication is the Internet, providing immediate access to information and yet another form of interaction.

    2. Cultural traits have spread differently over the globe. Analyze the factors that have caused regional variations to occur. Use Africa as an example of regional variation.

      Discussion: There are both physical and cultural barriers to diffusion. Depending on the levels of communication and transportation, some places are more isolated by physical barriers. These could include oceans, mountain ranges, or even large deserts. Distance and time are also decaying agents. Cultural barriers could include language barriers, religious barriers, and histories of conflict.

      Northern Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa are very different in many ways. Most of the people living in Northern Africa are Muslims and speak Arabic languages. In Sub-Saharan Africa, however, there is a greater influence from the European colonial period. Indo-European languages and religions are much more visible in these cultures. Sub-Saharan Africa is also more influenced by traditional religions. The languages are mostly within the Niger-Congo Language Family, as well as some in the Khoisan Family. Many customs and traditions are also very different. Why did they develop differently? The Sahara is one factor which divides the northern region from the rest of Africa. Another factor is the spread of the Islamic religion. Regional variations occur.

      Performance Event:
      Given the following table of information on the number of Muslims found in countries, construct a choropleth map showing the distribution of Muslims. You will need to decide on the best way to divide the numbers of Muslims into five categories and then construct the map. Don't forget the elements of the map as you complete this activity.

      Portfolio Item:
      Take 20 pictures and/or gather items that you feel identify your own culture. Make a display of those cultural traits. Write a caption for each picture or a label for each item identifying the cultural trait and commenting on the cultural message each conveys. Indicate which items reflect an American or more universal culture and which items you consider are personal or individual traits which only apply to you. In a written paper discuss how these traits compare to a "typical American" culture.

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