Unit 5: Sociocultural Exchanges

Cultural Diffusion: The Process

What is culture?

Culture refers to the way a certain group’s of people lead their life.  It includes various aspects of life such as language, customs, beliefs, dress, images, music, food and technology.  Cultural traits provide an identity for groups.

Cultural Hearths

Cultural hearths are the starting points from which most of the current dominant cultures established themselves.

Examples of these are:

  • The Nile River Valley
  • The Indus River Valley
  • West Africa
  • Mesopotamia

Cultural Diffusion

There are many distinct cultures existing around the world which have often established themselves over thousands of years.  Globalisation, migration and tourism are increasingly diffusing many distinct cultural identities. Cultural diffusion is the spread of cultural traits from one culture to another, or to people within cultures.


People and population have been migrating for thousands of years and as they move they take with them cultural traits.  In their new location they are likely to be surrounded by different cultural traits.  Often, over time, they will take on some of the new traits and possibly transfer some of theirs to their new community.

Example: British cultural diffusion through Indian immigrants.

There have been several periods of significant immigration to the UK by Indian migrants (Early sea trading, East African refugees, Post-war workers).  Many of the migrants & their descendants have kept many of their cultural traits such as food, religion, music and dress.  There has been some diffusion of the British culture though as Indian cuisine has become a regular part of many peoples diet and Indian restaurants are a common feature of most British settlements.  Supermarkets stock Indian cuisine ingredients.  These do not just cater for local Indian communities but have become part of the wider British culture.  The chicken tikka masala is often mentioned as one of Britons favourite dishes.


Tourism has rapidly expanded in the last century in terms of the number of people travelling, but also the number of destinations that they can access.  Tourism often involves experiencing aspects of other cultures, the cuisine in local restaurants, styles of dress of the local populations, learning parts of the language.  There tends to be a diffusion of the destinations culture as tourists bring with them different music, language, dress styles.  This is enhanced through the media images portraying certain styles as fashionable.


Globalisation is undoubtedly leading to a large scale diffusion of most cultures and many people claim that we are heading towards one large global culture.

TNCs are establishing themselves in most parts of the world and selling similar products around the world:

Clothing: GAP, Nike, Addids.

Food: McDonalds, Subway, KFC

Drink: Coca Cola, Pepsi, Guiness, Stellar Artois

Services: HSBC, Visa, DHL.


Technology is very rapidly diffusing cultures as images, films, music and news can accessed online almost anywhere with an internet connection.  Services such as itunes allow users to access new genres of music and choose what they would like to listen to rather than being limited to the selection in traditional shops.

Google and other search engines enable rapid spreading of images, news and information around the world.

Consumerism & Culture

Many branded commodities have spread to numerous countries and become part of their culture.  Examples include brands such as McDonlads, Apple (ipod, iphone etc).


The first Starbucks coffee house was established in Seattle,  Washington in 1971.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Starbucks started expanding.  It opened its first store outside the US in 1996 (Tokyo, Japan).  Since then it has spread to more than 55 countries.  It has a strong presence in North America, Europe and  South East Asia.  It quickly established itself in the UK by buying an existing coffee house chain and re branding them as Starbucks.  It currently operates in over 18 000 locations worldwide.

The spread of Starbucks has been an integral part of the emergence of a new coffee culture in many countries.  Lattes, mochas, frappuccino, in different sizes and with different flavourings & toppings are now common purchases on many high-streets, train stations & airports.  It has managed to make coffee a fashionable product and one which transcends age groups (among adults) and sexes.

The significance of the emergence of a new coffee culture in many countries can be seen in the establishment of McCafes in most McDonalds.


Established in 1940 McDonalds focuses on selling burgers, fries/chips, soft drinks & shakes.  Its success is rooted in its adoption of factory production line principles which allowed fast service and low costs. It business model of franchising restaurants has seen it rapidly expand worldwide, currently in over 100 countries and with over 30 000 outlets.

It retains its initial key products and is still marketed as low cost fast food.  It has adapted some of its menu to accommodate changing perspectives of healthy food and introduced McCafes in most stores.

Its expansion worldwide has seen it respond to local cultures and adapt its products to suit these tastes.  In this sense McDonalds is a good example of glocalisation (see later chapter).

McDonalds is often cited as one of the most obvious symbols of globalisation and diffusion of culture, occupying high street locations and having distinctive branding.

Sociocultural Integration

Diasporas: the dispersal of a population away from their homelands.  It may be forced or voluntary.

case-study-buttonIndians in the UK

Strong colonial ties led to the migration of skilled Indians in the 18 & 19th centuries.

This was followed by a comparatively large migratory movement in the 1950s & 60s of industrial workers.  There has been continued migration into the UK by skilled, English speaking Indians.

People of Indian origin are the largest ethnic minority in the UK.

The majority of Indians in the UK live in or around London, but there are also large concentrations in the Midlands (Leicester) and Greater Manchester.  Indian communities exist in virtually all the major urban areas in the UK.

Visible symbols of the Indian culture are evident in most urban areas with temples, mosques and gurudwaras having been established.  Many local shops are indian run.  Indian doctors proliferate the NHS health system and more recently ICT industries.  The Indian community has a higher than average per/capita income in the UK.

Various TV channels and radio channels exist throughout the country that broadcast information about India, play popular Indian music and show Indian shows/films.  This helps keep the diaspora connected with India.

case-study-buttonCultural Diffusion of the Maasai

Location: East Africa (Tanzania & Kenya)

Indigenous Culture

Strong traditional culture based around nomadic pastoral farming in the savannah. Males would travel with herds of cattle & goats over vast distances each day looking for good grazing.

Distinct cultural dress with the men typically wearing a brightly coloured checked blanket & the women wearing beaded jewellery.

Maasai men had a tradition of being goods warriors and carry a spear with them when tending the herds.  Many young Maasai look to prove their manliness through defending the herd from wild cat attacks (lions, cheetahs, leopards).

Cultural Diffusion

Colonisation by the British & the Germans brought some of the first significant cultural changes.  Modern agricultural practises drastically reduced the land available for the traditional Maasai nomadic farming.

This was then followed by the creation of National Parks such as the Serengeti (Tanzania) which banned the Maasai from living in them.

Tourism is a major contributor to both Tanzania & Kenyas economy.  Much of it is based on safaris through the savannah to see the wildlife (elephants, lions, giraffes, rhinos etc).  This is also the homeland of the Maasai.

One of the big attractions of the African safari experience is getting to experience the Maasai culture & this has brought vast numbers of foreign tourists & cultures into touch with the Maasai.

This has inevitably brought with it changes to the Maasai way of life.  Money can be made through putting on cultural shows (dancing, traditional village tours) and selling souvenirs (beaded jewellery, spears, Maasai blankets).  This has created a more permanent Maasai settlements, increased the use of money.  Linked with provision for tourists in the form of drinks & food, the Maasai diet has changed and many now live close to, or in urban areas.

Many Maasai have chosen to become tour guides, using their natural fitness to lead teams up Mt. Kilimanjaro & Mt. Kenya, or to take walking tours through savannah lands to see wildlife.

The latest significant change in their lifestyle is the provision of mobile phone signals throughout most of the savannah (even surrounding the Serengeti) prompting the adoption of the cell phone as a method of communication.

Cultural Homogenisation

With increasing gloablisation, migration and tourism there are many arguments suggesting that we are slowly progressing towards cultural homogenisation.  Undoubtedly, many distinct cultures are becoming diluted and changing.  Inter-cultural marriage is much more common now, the media allows to learn about and adopt cultural traits, cuisines have been shared and adapted.

The spread of certain brands to commercial areas through out the world and the promotion of english language film & song throughout the world symbolise the homogenisation of culture and are examples of cultural imperialism.

Cultural Imperialism: The practice of promoting the culture/language of one nation in another.  It is usually the case that the former is a large, economically or militarily powerful nation and the latter is a smaller, less affluent one.

In many sense though cultural homogenisation is not the case.  Multi-cultural centers such as London have developed communities with distinct cultural traits where people from the same culture have concentrated.  Rather than create one blend, places can host many areas of different cultural traits that can be enjoyed and experienced by many.

Cultures have also had to change and adapt.  Technology & higher incomes have allowed communities and people to replace traits such as dress, with more functional and comfortable alternatives.  The empowerment of women has meant that their role has changed & so their cultural practises have changed as well.