Culture Hearths and Diffusion

The Source and Distribution of Cultural Ideas Around the Globe

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The word "culture" generally refers to a specific group's particular way of life. Culture includes the social meanings of various aspects of life, such as race, ethnicity, values, languages, religions, and clothing styles.

Though many distinct cultures are prevalent around the world today, those that are the most dominant have origins in one of a few areas called "culture hearths." These are the heartlands of various cultures and, historically, there are seven main locations from which the most dominant cultural ideas have spread.

Early Culture Hearth Locations

The seven original culture hearths are:

  1. The Nile River Valley
  2. The Indus River Valley
  3. The Wei-Huang Valley
  4. The Ganges River Valley
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Mesoamerica
  7. West Africa

These regions are considered culture hearths because such key cultural practices as religion, the use of iron tools and weapons, highly organized social structures, and the development of agriculture started and spread from these areas. In terms of religion, for example, the area around Mecca is considered the culture hearth for the Islamic religion and the area from which Muslims initially traveled to convert people to Islam. The spread of tools, social structures, and agriculture spread in a similar manner from each of the culture hearths.

Culture Regions

Also important to the development of early culture centers are culture regions. These are areas that contain dominant cultural elements. Though not everyone in the culture region has the same cultural traits, they are often influenced by the center's traits in some way. Within this system, there are four components of influence:

  1. The Core: the heart of the area that shows the most strongly expressed culture traits. It is usually the most heavily populated and, in the case of religion, features the most famous religious landmarks.
  2. The Domain: surrounds the Core. Though it has its own cultural values, it is still strongly influenced by the Core.
  3. The Sphere: surrounds the Domain.
  4. The Outlier: surrounds the Sphere.

Cultural Diffusion

Cultural diffusion is the term used to describe the spread of cultural ideas from the Core (in the case of culture regions) and the culture hearth. There are three methods of cultural diffusion.

The first is called direct diffusion and occurs when two distinct cultures are very close together. Over time, direct contact between the two leads to an intermingling of the cultures. Historically this occurred through trade, intermarriage, and sometimes warfare because members of the various cultures interacted with each other for long periods. An example today would be the similar interest in soccer in some areas of the United States and Mexico.

Forced diffusion or expansion diffusion is the second method of cultural diffusion and takes place when one culture defeats another and forces its beliefs and customs onto the conquered people. An example of this would be when the Spanish took over lands in the Americas and later forced the original inhabitants to convert to Roman Catholicism in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The term "ethnocentrism" is often related to forced diffusion. Ethnocentrism refers to the idea of looking at the world only from one's own cultural vantage point. As a result, people participating in this form of diffusion often believe that their cultural beliefs are superior to those of other groups and, in turn, force their ideas upon those they conquer.

In addition, cultural imperialism is usually placed into the category of forced diffusion as it is the practice of actively promoting cultural characteristics such as language, food, religion, etc., of one nation in another. Cultural imperialism normally occurs within forced diffusion because it frequently happens through military or economic force.

The final form of cultural diffusion is indirect diffusion. This type of diffusion happens when cultural ideas are spread through a middleman or even another culture. An example here would be the popularity of Italian food throughout North America. Technology, mass media, and the internet are all playing a huge role in promoting this type of cultural diffusion around the world today.

Modern Culture Hearths and Cultural Diffusion

Because cultures develop over time, new dominant areas of dominant culture have done so as well. Today's modern culture hearths are places such as the United States and world cities like London and Tokyo.

Areas such as these are considered modern culture hearths because of the prevalence of their cultural aspects now present throughout much of the world. Examples of modern cultural diffusion include the popularity of sushi in Los Angeles, California, and Vancouver, British Columbia and the presence of Starbucks in places like France, Germany, Moscow, and even in China's Forbidden City.

Direct diffusion has certainly played a role in this new spread of cultural values and products, and people are now moving around frequently because of today's ease of travel. Physical barriers such as mountain ranges and oceans no longer hinder people's movement, and there is a resultant spread of cultural ideas.

It is indirect diffusion, though, which has had the largest impact on the spread of ideas from places like the United States to the rest of the world. The internet and advertising through the many forms of mass media have allowed people worldwide to see what is popular in the U.S. As a result, blue jeans and Coca-Cola products can be found even in remote Himalayan villages.

In whatever ways cultural diffusion occurs now or in the future, it has happened many times throughout history and will continue to do so as new areas grow in power and pass on their cultural traits to the world. The ease of travel and modern technology will only aid in speeding up the process of modern cultural diffusion.

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Briney, Amanda. "Culture Hearths and Diffusion." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Briney, Amanda. (2023, April 5). Culture Hearths and Diffusion. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Culture Hearths and Diffusion." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).