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  • Hierarchical Diffusion Definition in Geography

  • Hierarchical Diffusion Model

  • Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

  • Hierarchical Diffusion versus Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

  • Examples of Hierarchical Diffusion

Home > Resources > What Is Hierarchical Diffusion: Differences & Examples

What Is Hierarchical Diffusion: Differences & Examples

Have you ever observed how specific words and trends appear to emerge suddenly? Suddenly, everyone is echoing a particular meme or sporting a specific clothing brand. If you were observant, it likely wasn't that enigmatic: an influencer with millions of followers on social media propagated the trend. This top-down marketing approach likely originated in a corporate meeting room.

If you want people to learn about and buy your product, hierarchical diffusion is the way to go!

Hierarchical Diffusion Definition in Geography

Hierarchical diffusion is one of the three main types of expansion diffusion, in addition to contagious diffusion and stimulus diffusion.

Hierarchical Diffusion: Transmission of culture (via ideas) moving vertically, cascading from one or spreading upward ("reverse") from multiple sources. This is a form of expansion diffusion.

A (Very) Brief History of Hierarchies

Hierarchical diffusion has existed as long as humans have organized their societies into hierarchies, a process known as stratification.

In hunter-gatherer societies, influence spread from individuals with significant statuses like shamans and other religious figures, despite the term "influencers" being a modern term from the era of social media, in this case describing a phenomenon that existed before the concept of states and agricultural civilization.

This is the process: The shaman conceived a vision, which then passed on to the more experienced and wise members in the group (from a few to several). These select individuals embraced the vision and disseminated it to the remainder of the group (from several to many). In this basic instance, the hierarchical diffusion comprised three levels.

Around seven thousand years ago, as sedentary lifestyles, states, and advanced urban civilizations emerged, hierarchies solidified, with individuals holding military strength, religious influence, familial status, riches, and other key attributes commonly positioned at or near the apex. Authority centralized under a sole leader, and communities structured themselves into social strata and caste systems.

A Pyramid Scheme

At the bottom of the social pyramid were people such as small farmers and laborers, most of the population in most societies until modern times. They possessed the least power.

With the rise of modern democratic systems and representative governments in the 1700s AD, reverse hierarchies began to evolve based on the idea that those at the top, who govern the many and organize society's affairs, only do so with the consent of the governed.

In many contemporary societies, while legal equality is upheld, hierarchies persist due to the accumulation of power through capital (money), enabling those individuals and institutions with greater financial resources to wield significantly more cultural, economic, and political influence and representation than their less affluent counterparts.

Hierarchical Diffusion Model

Using a basic diagram, it is easy to conceptualize how diffusion works in a hierarchy.

Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

In 1789, during the French Revolution, a traditional example of reverse hierarchical diffusion occurred when a street protest led to the downfall of a dictator. The long-established and controlled hierarchy under the French monarchy, which had endured for centuries, collapsed as lower-class individuals such as peasants started to unite and plan the overthrow of the entire system.

French society attempted to reorganize itself along non-hierarchical lines based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, new hierarchies quickly emerged, leading to figures like Napoleon Bonaparte. Eventually, France evolved into a democratic hierarchy with the diffusion of culture and power in both upward and downward directions.

The American revolution, which preceded the French revolution by a decade, replaced a rigid hierarchy with a more limited one. The "Founding Fathers," a small group of white men, did not completely dismantle the old system (notably, they did not abolish slavery), but they did establish a system that gradually empowered marginalized groups such as African-Americans, Indigenous people, and women. Many of these changes were the result of reverse hierarchical diffusion.

The struggle for voting rights during the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s began with local groups influencing activists at the local level, such as Amzie Moore in Mississippi. Leaders at higher tiers, like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., spread these local ideas upward due to their greater power and influence.

Hierarchical Diffusion versus Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

Differentiating between hierarchical and reverse hierarchical diffusion can pose a challenge as both processes may occur concurrently. Additionally, individuals in higher positions could attribute ideas originating from lower levels to themselves, and vice versa. Let's explore how this scenario develops.

In ancient Egypt, when a farmer discovers a more effective method to utilize Nile flooding, the innovation spreads through reverse hierarchical diffusion before transitioning to hierarchical diffusion as it reaches the Pharaoh who decrees its implementation nationwide.

The Pharaoh must avoid any implication that a commoner was behind such a significant matter, thus the Pharaoh instructs his scribes to record history in a revised manner. According to the "official" version, the Pharaoh conceived the idea initially, possibly following a divine consultation.

In the US, a comparable situation exists. Narrating a tale by focusing only on the individual at the helm—whether a CEO, a billionaire, or a president—is prevalent but may obscure the efforts of every level of a structure that enabled the actions of the top tier.

History books inform us that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed the slaves through Abraham Lincoln or that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was attributed to President Lyndon Johnson. While it is true that elected officials typically endorse significant laws, presenting it conventionally obscures the reality that these measures frequently stem from reverse hierarchical diffusion.

Examples of Hierarchical Diffusion

Hierarchical diffusion can be seen in politics, government, economics, and culture, expanding beyond cultural geography to encompass political and economic geography.

As we said earlier, cultural mentifacts such as ideas, words, statements, symbols, and memes are propagated "downward" or "upward" in a hierarchy. In modern hierarchies, electronic media are the primary means for the diffusion of mentifacts.

Hierarchical Diffusion in Political Geography

Laws and decrees are hierarchically disseminated by governments. The creation of laws ideally spreads in an inverted hierarchy (voters create lobbies), but once legislators approve them, laws are enforced top-down.

Hierarchical diffusion is frequently relied upon in emergency scenarios. This is because, to enhance effectiveness, authorities assume emergency powers to prevent certain aspects of the backward diffusion that takes place within a democratic hierarchy. Directives flow downward from the highest level.

Emergency orders in US states concerning COVID-19 were established following federal government protocols; however, it was up to the governors to implement and ensure compliance. Governors issued directives for shutting down businesses, and business owners were tasked with ensuring their employees adhered to these orders.

Mandates on social distancing, vaccinations, and other COVID-19 protocols trickled down the social hierarchy through communication and enforcement mechanisms.

Hierarchical Diffusion in Economic Geography

Money and fiscal policy do not always flow hierarchically in a market-based system, despite concepts like "trickle-down economics." While there is a degree of hierarchy where certain institutions, like banks, depend on a central government-associated entity such as the Federal Reserve Board or a central bank, and then provide loans to numerous borrowers, what is more crucial for the spread of mentifacts is the promotion of products.

Commercial marketing is partially a cultural undertaking as it depends on messaging and typically involves the utilization of visuals and sometimes videos. While word-of-mouth marketing occurs through contagious diffusion, incorporating hierarchical diffusion is a more cost-efficient approach for corporate marketing strategies.

In practice, however, successful marketing involves targeting distinct geographic markets and demographics with varied advertisements in a multi-level approach, utilizing intermediaries like social media influencers.

To persuade a state education authority to approve its new 10th-grade social studies textbook, a book publisher can pursue various strategies. One tactic is to convince senior officials in the education hierarchy to require the book's usage. This method entails swaying pivotal figures empowered to render the ultimate verdict.

Another tactic is reverse hierarchical diffusion, where the company starts by providing sample copies to individual teachers. If the teachers like the textbook, they may recommend it to their principals, who in turn may discuss it with superintendents. This bottom-up approach allows word to travel up the hierarchy until it reaches those who have the authority to mandate the textbook adoption.

Exploring Hierarchical Diffusion in Cultural Geography

When it comes to cultural diffusion, mentifacts serve as the medium through which ideas spread. Whether it involves government policies or economic practices, culture plays a central role in the diffusion process. But what about artifacts and sociofacts? How do they fit into the picture?

Artifacts are often disseminated alongside mentifacts, sometimes with the support of sociofacts. For example, the marketing of a textbook is a mentifact, while the textbook itself is an artifact. The idea to acquire the textbook (mentifact) precedes the actual acquisition of the textbook (artifact), facilitated by the sociofact of the school system as a cultural institution.

Sociofacts themselves can also undergo hierarchical diffusion. This occurs when individuals in positions of power within the hierarchy introduce new institutional practices. For instance, in a transition from dictatorship to democracy, new leaders not only establish new laws but also create democratic government bodies that may not have existed previously.

Many cultural mentifacts experience hierarchical diffusion. Whether it's the food we eat, the music we enjoy, or the architectural styles we admire, these cultural preferences are often popularized through government or corporate promotional efforts.

The modern cultural landscape reflects the influence of tastemakers over the centuries, shaping our cultural preferences in a hierarchical manner rather than through purely vernacular (local and contagiously diffused) means.

In AP Human Geography, it's essential to grasp the distinctions between different types of diffusion and apply them to various cultural phenomena, from language and religion to economic and political contexts. Vaia offers detailed explanations on specific examples of diffusion in these areas.

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