Stimulus diffusion is a type of cultural diffusion that occurs when an element of culture changes as it spreads to new areas.
Examples of stimulus diffusion include the change of Pizza after it spread to the United States, evolutions in Hindu practices through South Asia, localized differences in musical tastes, and the development of different football codes around the world.
The concept of stimulus diffusion is studied in AP Human Geography exams.
Stimulus Diffusion Definition
Stimulus diffusion occurs when culture changes as it spreads to new areas. The term was first introduced in the first half of the twentieth century (Kroeber, 1940).
The further a culture or a cultural item spreads, the more it changes. This type of cultural diffusion can be seen as the foundation for the theories of hyperdiffusionism. Hyperdiffusionism postulates that all major inventions and cultures can be traced back to a single culture (Fritze, 1993, p. 70).
For example, Grafton Elliot Smith asserted that knowledge concerning copper production spread from Egypt to the rest of the world.
He claimed that all major inventions originated in ancient Egypt (Gaillard, 2004, p. 48). This theory has since been abandoned.
Sometimes a specific trait is rejected, but the underlying idea is accepted, resulting in stimulus diffusion. An example would be the domestication of reindeer by the Siberians.
The Siberians domesticated reindeer only after they observed that other cultures had domesticated cattle.
They had no use for cattle, but the idea of domesticating herds of animals appealed to them, and they began domesticating reindeer, an animal they had long hunted (Domosh et al., 2011, pp. 11-12).
Stimulus Diffusion Examples
- Glocalization: Globalization leads to the spread of cultures around the world. But cultures don’t just spread whole cloth. Local cultures take what they like and reject what they don’t from other cultures. We can see this, for example, in Indian curries being served in McDonald’s in India.
- The development of football in different parts of the world: Soccer in led to Rugby among the elute classes in England, which turned into Australian Rugby League, Australian Football, and American Football, which each have their own unique rules.
- Spread of rock music: Different types of rock music emerged throughout the world and evolved from previous iterations. For example, grunge in Seattle emerged out of punk and rock influences in Los Angeles, New York, and England.
- Pizza: When Italians moved to the United States, they adapted their dishes, leading to distinct types of pizza such as New York and Chicago deep pan pizza.
- Spread of hip hop and rap: Hip hop and rap started in New York and spread westward, leading to two different flavors: East Coast and West Coast rap.
- Development and spread of porcelain: The invention of porcelain in Europe. Porcelain first came to Europe from China, but the technologies were developed in eighteenth-century Europe to locally produce it.
- Development and spread of Cherokee syllabary: The invention of the Cherokee syllabary in 1821 by Sequoya, a Native American polymath of the Cherokee Nation. Some symbols resemble Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, and Glagolitic letters. Some are modified and others are invented.
- Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems: The connection between Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems. The time-space relation of these two civilizations is so close that according to some scholars it is inevitable that they influenced and changed each other (Kroeber, 1940, p. 5).
- Spread and development of algebra: The development of algebra in thirteenth and fourteenth century China. Algebra which arose in China during this period, largely thanks to Zhu Shijie (1249-1314), differed from its predecessors but was influenced by them.
- Animal domestication: The domestication of reindeer by the Siberians after they observed that other cultures managed to domesticate cattle.
- Japanese Daoism: The development of Daoism in Japan. Daoism first developed in China and was significantly modified when it spread to Japan (Sekimori, 2018).
- Chinese and Japanese writing: The Japanese writing system was significantly influenced by Chinese characters, as is evident from the use of Kanji in Japanese.
- French influence on English language: The influence of French vocabulary, syntax, grammar, orthography, and pronunciation on English.
- Monasticism: It is believed that the practice of monasticism – living a quiet, separate, religious life through self-imposed segregation – spread from Buddhism to other religions and changed its flavor in each religious tradition.
- Hindu Practices: Hinduism refers to a range of dispersed religious and cultural practices that are believed to have originated in India. Its spread was accompanied by changes in practices, such as the use of special daily blessings in Bali, Indonesia, not found elsewhere in Hindu cultures.
Stimulus Diffusion Case Studies
1. Porcelain in Europe
Chinese porcelain had been coming to Europe for almost two hundred years before the Europeans decided to produce it themselves to circumvent the heavy expense of importing it. The necessary kaolin deposits were discovered after considerable effort.
Technically, Europeans were not the first to invent technologies for producing porcelain, but they did it relatively independently. Nevertheless, the goal of developing porcelain was set because the achievement was observed in another culture. The originality for the Europeans was in the development of techniques for producing porcelain.
If it were not for the existence of Chinese porcelain, there is no reason to think that Europeans would have invented it when they did.
2. Algebra in Asia
In the thirteenth century, a unique form of algebra developed in China. The principles were different from those of Greek, Arabic, or European algebra, despite being influenced by other forms of algebra around the world.
Its development continued roughly between 1245 and 1305 (Kroeber, 1940, p. 10). It later dropped out of scholarly mention. After 1800, the Chinese were able to recover the works of Zhu Shijie, a Chinese mathematician and writer of the Yuan Dynasty, partly from Korean sources.
The development of algebra in Japan started a little later, sometime between 1300 and 1600. Seki Takakazu, also known as Seki Kowa, developed algebra during the Edo period in Japan. It seems that the Japanese were influenced by the Chinese, who developed algebra through stimulus diffusion themselves.
It is believed that the practice of monasticism – living a quiet, separate, religious life through self-imposed segregation – spread from Buddhism to other religions and changed its flavor in each religious tradition.
Monasticism is an institutionalized religious practice or movement. Monastics attempt to live by a rule that requires separation from society and celibacy.
Monastic individuals usually separate themselves from society by living as hermits, anchorites, or members of an ascetic community.
The term monasticism can denote practices in Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Daoism, and other religions (Bharati & Johnston, 2022).
Ascetic communities developed in India. In the west, monastic communities appeared in Palestine in about 150 BCE.
Christian monastic organizations became prominent in fourth-century Egypt. The connections of space and time are such that some amount of stimulus diffusion is likely to have taken place (Kroeber, 1940, p. 13).
Kanji refers to the adopted Chinese characters used in written Japanese.
The use of Chinese characters in Japan first began to take hold around the 5th century CE and has since influenced Japanese culture, language, literature, and history (Miyake, 2003). One individual, Wani, helped introduce Chinese characters into the Japanese language.
The adoption of Chinese characters gave Japan access to texts about science, religion, art, and philosophy. These characters have different pronunciations, and written Japanese also has other syllabic scripts.
Some have similar meanings, while others differ. So the use of Kanji in written Japanese is an example of stimulus diffusion.
5. French and English
The influence of French language on English language pertains to its vocabulary, syntax, grammar, orthography, and pronunciation.
Most of the French vocabulary in English entered the language after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 when Old French became the language of the new Anglo-Norman court, the government, and the social elites. English continued to be influenced by the French language.
If you’ve ever tried to learn French as an English speaker, you would’ve recognized many of the words used, sometimes with slight modifications.
The influence of the French language was gradual. According to some scholars, this process never stopped (Baugh & Cable, 2002, p. 163).
Terms relating to government, social class, the church, law, war, fashion, food, and learning are all mostly borrowed from French.
These words and their pronunciations usually change slightly in English. The influence of French on English is an example of stimulus diffusion.
Other Cultural Diffusion Examples
Cultural diffusion (from Latin diffundere – “to pour out, to spread”) was first introduced in anthropology and sociology by the German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in his work Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis (Frobenius, 1897).
It refers to the spread of cultural items between individuals within a single culture or between different ones (Domosh et al., 2011, pp. 10-11).
Examples of diffusion include the spread of iron smelting in ancient times and the use of automobiles in the 20th century.
Anthropologists typically define three categories of diffusion mechanisms: (1) direct diffusion, (2) forced diffusion, and (3) indirect diffusion. The six major types of cultural diffusion are (1) expansion diffusion, (2) relocation diffusion, (3) hierarchical diffusion, (4) contagious diffusion, (5) stimulus diffusion, and (6) maladaptive diffusion.
Cultural diffusion denotes the spread of cultural items within or between cultures. Such items include ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages, fashion, etc. Social scientists generally identify three mechanisms through which cultural diffusion happens and six types of cultural diffusion. Stimulus diffusion is a subcategory of cultural diffusion which occurs when a cultural item changes as it spreads to new areas.
Baugh, A. C., & Cable, T. (2002). A History of the English Language. Prentice Hall.
Domosh, M., Neumann, R. P., Americas Before 1492: An Encyclopedia of Visitors, Explorers, and Immigrants. ABC-CLIO.
Frobenius, L. (1897). Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Mitteilungen.
Gaillard, G. (2004). The Routledge Dictionary of Anthropologists. Psychology Press.
Heidemann, F. (2011). Ethnologie: Eine Einführung (1. Aufl.). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Kroeber, A. L. (1940). Stimulus Diffusion. American Anthropologist, 42(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1940.42.1.02a00020
Miyake, M. H. (2003). Old Japanese: A phonetic reconstruction. Routledge. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/enhancements/fy0701/2002154804-d.html
Price, P. L., & Jordan-Bychkov, T. G. (2011). The Human Mosaic: A Cultural Approach to Human Geography. W. H. Freeman.
Sekimori, G. (2018). Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture ed. by Jeffrey L. Richey (review). The Journal of Japanese Studies, 44(1), 181–186. https://doi.org/10.1353/jjs.2018.0018
Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.
Chris Drew (PhD)
This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.