Category Archives: Cultural Diffusion


Jon Witt defines a dominant ideology as “a set of cultural beliefs and practices that legitimates existing powerful social, economic, and political interests” (SOC 2012, 62). It is often thought of in contrast to the smaller subcultures and counter-cultures that exist within them. A dominant culture generally will be a body that assimilates the smaller cultures around it, taking in little bits of the surrounding cultures, but making the adherents of the other cultures lose their former cultural identities. It affects every aspect of human life: social issues, the economy, politics, religion, education, language, et cetera.

One can find examples of dominant cultures throughout human history. Some examples include the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) in America, the British Empire in the 1600s-1800s, Communism in the 1900s, the “Culture of Death” talked about by Bl. Pope John Paul II, Jim Crow and Segregation in the American South, the Roman Empire in Europe and North Africa from 100 BC to 400 AD, and the “Dictatorship of Relativism” talked about by Pope Benedict XVI. All of these examples, while they have major differences (some are cultural trends, some are groups within a society, others are the societies themselves), are good examples of a dominant culture.

Alexander the Great

One example I would like to look more in depth at is the Hellenizing cultures of the Seleucid Kingdom (one of the nations that split from Alexander the Great’s Kingdom after his death.) Hellenization (a reference to Homer’s character in The Iliad: Helen of Troy) is the name given to the cultural diffusion that would take place whenever Alexander’s armies would take over a new country. It would happen in two primary ways: the Greek armies would adopt some of the local customs (exs: Alexander became King of Persia and Pharaoh of Egypt [instead of just simply saying these places were part of the Kingdom of Macedon], foreign deities were added to the Greek Pantheon [not the building, but a general term for their religious system], and the religious/cultural texts of the various peoples taken over were translated into Greek and collected at Alexandria [like the Jewish Scriptures being collected in the Septuagint]) and the peoples that were taken over were also expected to take on different aspects of Greek culture (adopting the Greek gods as their own, learning Greek language and philosophy, using Greek currency [drachmas, denarii, et cetera], having deference to Alexander in varying degrees, among other things.) Most took to the change pretty well, but Helenization effected different peoples differently.

After the death of Alexander, his Kingdom (which stretched from Italy to India) was split up by his generals in a civil war, in the end leaving four Greek Kingdoms. The Seleucid (centered in Syria) Kingdom is especially interesting. Sitting right on the border of the Seleucids and the Ptolemys was a small area called Palestine. This was one of the smaller areas that Alexander had allowed to retain a certain degree of cultural identity (not requiring them to adopt Greek religion, being partially governed by their priesthood). Because this area was on the border of the two nations, it was often fought over by them and changed hands a lot (cf. Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 11.8-13.16).

The inhabitants of Palestine were mainly Abrahamic Monotheists who followed the Torah (Law) of Moses. There were Samaritans to the North (Samaria) and Jews to the South (Judaea) and the East (Galilee). To generalize, the Samaritans had been more assimilating than the Jews (some even accepting a looser form of Monotheism which believed the God of Israel was the God, while the gods of other nations were lesser gods), and the Jews held more steadfastly to their ancestral beliefs (strict Monotheism, keeping certain dietary laws). Though there were more moderate forms of diffusion that retained cultural traditions yet also learned from Greek culture (like the author of the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, the sage Yeshua ben Sira, the philosopher Philo, et cetera); some even leaving Palestine for other parts of the Greek Kingdoms.

Antiochus IV

Because of the various subcultures found in the area, when Antiochus IV (Epiphanes “[God] manifested”, “called Epimanes, ‘madman,’ by his enemies” [note on 2 Maccabees 4:7 in NOAB]), a Seleucid King, came to power in the area he pushed for Hellenization to be hurried up (for greater unity/social cohesion in the kingdom). He encouraged people to worship the Greek gods, and reject their ancestral traditions. The Samaritan Temple was rededicated to Zeus Hellenius and the Jewish Temple rededicated to Zeus Olympius (Antiquities 12.5). Antiochus also established a gymnasium in the city of Jerusalem and required the breaking of the Jewish Dietary Laws (Antiquities 12.6). The Bible records it like this, “Then the king [Antiochus] wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs…whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die” (1 Maccabees 1:41-42,50 NRSV). Because of the varying levels of diffusion and accepting of Greek culture among Palestinians, there were a couple of different reactions to this. Samaritans and more Hellenized Jews tended to support such moves. Jews more faithful to their way of life ended up doing one of two things: they were either martyred for not following the King’s orders or they violently fought against it. One can see from an account of the martyrdom of Eleazar the priest, that pressure to conform to Hellenization came not just from the Greeks, but often from their Jewish country men (“Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh [considered unclean in Judaism]…Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside because of their long acquaintancewith him, and privately urged him…to pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal that had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them” [2 Maccabees 6:18,21-22 NRSV]). In the examples of Eleazar and of Mattathias (the original leader of the Hasmonean/Maccabean Revolt), one can also see that the government authorities often would go to the elders of the community first, to try to help lead the rest of the people to follow suit, but often these elders would end up becoming examples for the people to be deviant in response to the king’s demands. (cf. 1 Maccabees 1:15-28, 2 Maccabees 6:18-31, Antiquities 12.5-6). Both martyrdom and the military responses clearly exemplify what we mean by a counter-culture that rebels against the dominant ideology of the time. Eventually the rebellion was successful and took back Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple (the root of the feast of Hanukkah), and established the Hasmonean line of kings/priests (cf. 1 Maccabees 4, 9-16).

As Sociologists and Historians today, we constantly must look back on Dominant Ideologies of the past, and then take a look at our culture, and pick out the similarities and differences, to try to avoid the inevitable (or at least become aware of whatever we find.)

Works Cited

Josephus, Flavius. JOSEPHUS: The Complete Works. Trans. Whiston, William. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Ed. Michael Coogan. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. New Revised Standard Version.

Witt, Jon. SOC 2012. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.


Cultural diffusion is a process by which cultural traits are spread from one society to another.  Cultural diffusion has become common in current society, and it happens all over the world from food restaurants to new technologies. Crossing societal boundary lines leads to having interactions with each other, and these interactions lead to cultural diffusion.  Cultures can use new ideas from foreign countries to suit their own need. Cultural diffusion is important to the development of culture because it allows cultures to improve based on what they learn from the others.  Cultural diffusion can lead one country to influence another’s culture through trade, travel, or immigration. The first influence on culture is through trade. When different areas of the world trade their goods, these goods can be incorporated into different cultures, and they can be adopted in new areas. In current society, we often use planes, trips, trucks to transport the goods around the world. The second influence on culture is though travel or immigration. When people want to travel or migrate to another country, they often bring their custom with them.

One example is the cultural diffusion of Chinese food into American society. As the Asian population grows throughout the United States, more and more Chinese restaurants have also expanded. One reason Chinese food has become so popular is that Americans love the taste of Chinese food, such as stir fry, lo mien, fried rice, and especially egg rolls.  Another reason is they enjoy how quickly the food is prepared in Chinese restaurants. Also, many Americans believe it is healthier to eat out in Chinese restaurants than American fast food.


As Chinese food expands in America, American food also expands to other countries in the world. An example is McDonald’s expanding in Vietnam. When I was young, I never ate hamburgers at McDonald’s. Nowadays, my nephews and nieces eat food in McDonald’s all the time. Vietnamese love McDonald’s because it helps them save time from having to make breakfast for their family and children.


Cultural diffusion can have both positive and negative effects on both cultures. Many cultures have benefited from cultural exchange. One advantage is cultural diffusion causes Americans to become more aware of diversity in society. The knowledge and understanding of other cultures help people to stray away from cultural discrimination. When people are informed about cultural diffusion, they interact with one another with more tact and respect. Another advantage of cultural diffusion is new technologies around the world, such as computers, the internet, transportation, and scientific technologies (microscopes and telescopes), have a big impact on how people live in every area of the world. Now more than ever, people have used technologies, such as laptops, I-pads, smart phones, and Blu-Tooth, as a communication device and change the idea of socialization forever. However, cultural diffusion also has disadvantages on culture such as loss of cultural identity, traditions and languages. One example was when cultural diffusion spread to Vietnamese teenagers by foreign countries’ movies. Couples in Vietnam began living together before they got married. The living together of Vietnamese couples never happened in Vietnamese culture before. Here’s another example, from a long time ago.  Vietnamese men often wore long dresses called “Ao Dai” on their wedding day. Nowadays, they wear suits to wedding celebrations.  The spread of diseases from visitors when they travel to other country is also negative effect of culture diffusion. Diseases such as AIDS, smallpox, and bubonic plague have killed millions of people as they spread from one to another. Cultural diffusion occurs every day, and will continue to happen due to the fact that new technology has caused our world to become completely interdependent.