In cultural anthropology and cultural geography, cultural diffusion, as conceptualized by Leo Frobenius in his 1897/98 publication Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis, is the spread of cultural items—such as ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages—between individuals, whether within a single culture or from one culture to another. It is distinct from the diffusion of innovations within a specific culture. Examples of diffusion include the spread of the war chariot and iron smelting in ancient times, and the use of automobiles and Western business suits in the 20th century.
Five major types of cultural diffusion have been defined:
- Expansion diffusion: an innovation or idea that develops in a source area and remains strong there, while also spreading outward to other areas. This can include hierarchical, stimulus, and contagious diffusion.
- Relocation diffusion: an idea or innovation that migrates into new areas, leaving behind its origin or source of the cultural trait.
- Hierarchical diffusion: an idea or innovation that spreads by moving from larger to smaller places, often with little regard to the distance between places, and often influenced by social elites.
- Contagious diffusion: an idea or innovation that spreads based on person-to-person contact within a given population.
- Stimulus diffusion: an idea or innovation that spreads based on its attachment to another concept.