In its simplest form, cultural diffusion is the borrowing of cultural elements from one culture by another. Aspects of material culture include clothing styles, musical structures, medicine, and agricultural practices, whereas normative traits such as ideas, behavioral patterns, religion, language, and values are another component of culture. Borrowing occurs either between two different cultures (intercultural) or within the same cultural grouping (intracultural). For example, in the case of intercultural borrowing, a non-democratic developing country can borrow the political processes and structures of democracy and feminism to change tyrannical rule. Intercultural diffusion is a result of patterns of involuntary and voluntary migration. On the other hand, an example of intracultural borrowing would be baby boomers adopting iPod technology from the MySpace Generation. Ideas and material culture can also spread independently of population movement or direct between the inventor and receptor cultures.
Process of Cultural Diffusion
Borrowing from one culture to another is common although the donor culture is not necessarily the original inventor. For example, of the many new academic books and articles published every year, an analysis of these “new” texts and themes will reveal few ideas that can be labeled “original.” The history of thought and creativity must thus be taken into consideration while exploring the parameters of cultural diffusion. Does the borrowing culture fuse or merge with the contributing culture wherein both cultures lose their single identity? Why, in fact, do cultures have a need to borrow from other cultures? Is it out of necessity? An underlying assumption is that borrowing makes a culture better, stronger, more evolved as in adapting to constantly changing physical environments, more modern, and hence, more civilized. This assumption leads to the observation that some cultural elements do not diffuse.
Several social issues are important when considering the process of diffusion. Is the borrowed cultural element a basic need, such as technology that harvests food crops for human consumption? Does it enhance the quality of life, as in the case of people who use in vitro fertilization as a family planning option? Just because the scientific community argues the importance and immediate use of stem cell research, does it mean that a culture’s normative structure needs rules on sanctions for this technology? What has happened to individuals’ civil liberties around the world in a post-9/11 world surveillance culture? Also, when religious institutions televise their services, are these efficient means to reach and shepherd larger congregations? Perhaps an even more fraught argument to technological intervention in social institutions would be the tenuous use of teaching social science classes online or offering them through televised satellite centers. What happens to the affective, effusive, volatile, provocative, soul searching, compassion, and empathy building in both of these cases? The impulse for efficiency is positive, but an arguable consequence is the loss of accountability and a diminished sense of human connectedness. Guiding the adaptation of the imported cultural element are evaluative considerations, the mechanics of implementation, and the terms of transfer decided upon by the receptor culture.
If the cultural element under consideration is not compatible with the values of the dominant culture, key decision makers, or gatekeepers, its importation is unlikely. This power elite can also force change on groups not in agreement with the imported practice. Obliging elderly people not computer literate to order their medication online and have it delivered to their homes is a good example of borrowed cultural elements forced on receptor cultures. Although this process may eliminate the need to pick up medicine in person, the reality that the elderly are more familiar with typewriters than with computers suggests that there are some overlooked details in implementation. Subcultures thus can retain their identity, while losing their autonomy, with a borrowed element used as a social control mechanism.
Cultural diffusion occurs quickly, given the speed and reach of telecommunications. For example, other countries as well as U.S. cities addressed post-9/11 security strategies through cultural borrowing facilitated by the immediacy of ubiquitous mass-mediated communication. Instant communications also enable inventor cultures to advertise and market their ideas to receptor cultures who feel compelled to borrow so they can keep apace with swiftly changing world trends in a competitive post-9/11 global economy.
The Politics of Cultural Appropriation
Cultural diffusion is not devoid of political ramifications. For example, when a dominant group steals from a minority through diffusion and still controls and oppresses the subordinate group, this is exploitation. Consider the case of white rappers in America borrowing from the black hip-hop culture. With its cultural elements stolen, co-opted, appropriated, and uncredited, the contribution of the subordinate (inventor) culture becomes diminished and diluted to the point of lacking social significance. However, it could also suddenly have social meaning because the dominant group now engages it.
The appropriating culture can take the borrowed element and apply new, different, and insignificant meanings compared with its intended meaning, or the meaning can be stripped altogether. Examples of cultural appropriation through diffusion are naming athletic team mascots, musical subcultures borrowing or stealing from one another, and baggy clothing in urban culture becoming mainstream in suburban America. Once again, this also raises the issue of how original the culture of invention is and who owns certain cultural elements. Some practices are transcontinental, and no one should own or claim them as exclusive and profit from them, although these things do, indeed, happen.
Cultural diffusion is not always political. When cultures borrow from one another, they can develop and refine the element that they are adopting. They can also fall on new discoveries as they customize elements for use within their own culture. Creative development becomes a part of invention and is a result of serendipity rather than of calculated intent and design. For example, labanotation is a system of notation for dance movement, but architects can borrow elements of this system to design spatial models for creative urban architectural design. Whether it is U.S. football borrowing from British rugby by allowing players to touch the ball, Impressionist musical composers borrowing from medieval modal scale structures, Elvis Presley or Eminen borrowing from black musical subcultures, or cotton developed and refined from one culture to another, the idea and politics of borrowing from cultures is not new and will continue.
- Power, Dominic and Allen J. Scott, eds. 2004. The Cultural Industries and the Production of Culture. London: Routledge.
- Rogers, Everett. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th ed. New York: Free Press.
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