Understanding Diffusion in Sociology

Definition, Theory, and Examples

People practicing yoga, based loosely on Buddhist teachings, in multi-cultural New York

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Diffusion, also known as cultural diffusion, is a social process through which elements of culture spread from one society or social group to another, which means it is, in essence, a process of social change. It is also the process through which innovations are introduced into an organization or social group, sometimes called the diffusion of innovations. Things that are spread through diffusion include ideas, values, concepts, knowledge, practices, behaviors, materials, and symbols.

Sociologists and anthropologists believe that cultural diffusion is the primary way through which modern societies developed the cultures that they have today. Further, they note that the process of diffusion is distinct from having elements of a foreign culture forced into a society, as was done through colonization.

Social Sciences Theories

The study of cultural diffusion was pioneered by anthropologists who sought to understand how it was that the same or similar cultural elements could be present in numerous societies around the world long before the advent of communication tools. Edward Tylor, a British anthropologist who wrote during the mid-nineteenth century, posed the theory of cultural diffusion as an alternative to using the theory of cultural evolution to explain cultural similarities. Following Tylor, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas developed a theory of cultural diffusion for explaining how the process works among areas that are close to each other, geographically speaking.

These scholars observed that cultural diffusion happens when societies that have different ways of life come into contact with each other and that as they interact more and more, the rate of cultural diffusion between them increases.

In the early 20th century, American sociologists Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, and Canadian sociologist Roderick Duncan McKenzie were members of the Chicago School of sociology, scholars in the 1920s and 1930s who studied urban cultures in Chicago and applied what they learned elsewhere. In their now-classic work "The City," published in 1925, they studied cultural diffusion from the standpoint of social psychology, which meant they focused on the motivations and social mechanisms that allow diffusion to occur.


There are many different theories of cultural diffusion that have been offered by anthropologists and sociologists, but the elements common to them that can be considered general principles of cultural diffusion are as follows.

  1. The society or social group that borrows elements from another will alter or adapt those elements to fit within their own culture.
  2. Typically, it is only elements of a foreign culture that fit into the already-existing belief system of the host culture that will be borrowed.
  3. Those cultural elements that do not fit within the host culture's existing belief system will be rejected by members of the social group.
  4. Cultural elements will only be accepted within the host culture if they are useful within it.
  5. Social groups that borrow cultural elements are more likely to borrow again in the future.

The Diffusion of Innovations

Some sociologists have paid particular attention to how the diffusion of innovations within a social system or social organization occurs, as opposed to cultural diffusion across different groups. In 1962, sociologist and communication theorist Everett Rogers wrote a book titled "Diffusion of Innovations," which laid the theoretical groundwork for the study of this process.

According to Rogers, there are four key variables that influence the process of how an innovative idea, concept, practice, or technology is diffused through a social system.

  1. The innovation itself
  2. The channels through which it is communicated
  3. How long the group in question is exposed to the innovation
  4. The characteristics of the social group

These will work together to determine the speed and scale of diffusion, as well as whether or not the innovation is successfully adopted.

Steps in the Process

The process of diffusion, according to Rogers, happens in five steps:

  1. Knowledge: awareness of the innovation
  2. Persuasion: interest in the innovation rises and a person begins to research it further
  3. Decision: a person or group evaluates the pros and cons of the innovation (the key point in the process)
  4. Implementation: leaders introduce the innovation to the social system and evaluate its usefulness
  5. Confirmation: those in charge decide to continue using it

Rogers noted that, throughout the process, the social influence of certain individuals can play a significant role in determining the outcome. In part because of this, the study of the diffusion of innovations is of interest to people in the field of marketing.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Understanding Diffusion in Sociology." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/cultural-diffusion-definition-3026256. Crossman, Ashley. (2021, February 16). Understanding Diffusion in Sociology. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-diffusion-definition-3026256 Crossman, Ashley. "Understanding Diffusion in Sociology." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-diffusion-definition-3026256 (accessed April 2, 2023).