Hierarchical Diffusion

Have you ever noticed how certain words and trends seem to start out of nowhere? All of a sudden, everyone is repeating a certain meme or wearing a certain brand of clothing. If you were paying attention, it probably wasn't that mysterious: an influencer millions follow on social media popularized the trend. This hierarchical marketing strategy probably started in a corporate boardroom. 

Hierarchical Diffusion Hierarchical Diffusion

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Table of contents

    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 three principal types of expansion diffusion, along with contagious diffusion and stimulus diffusion.

    Hierarchical Diffusion: Spread of culture (via mentifacts) vertically, downward from one or upward ("reverse") from many. It is a type 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.

    While "influencers" is a recent term from the age of social media, it describes a process predating states and agricultural civilization. In hunter-gatherer societies, influence diffused from individuals with outsized statuses, such as shamans and other religious figures.

    Hierarchical diffusion Shamans StudySmarterFig. 1 - A tableau of shamans from Alaska, Siberia, and elsewhere

    Here's how it worked. The shaman had an idea such as a vision, and it diffused to older and wiser members of a group (from one to few). These few accepted the vision and spread it to the rest of their group (few to many). In this simple example, the hierarchical diffusion had three tiers (levels).

    With the rise of sedentarism, the state, and complex urban civilizations around seven thousand years ago, hierarchies became rigid (fixed), with those who possessed military prowess, religious authority, inheritance (prominent families), wealth, and other factors typically at or near the top (the few). Power became concentrated there, under a single ruler (the one), and societies became organized in classes and castes (tiers comprising the many).

    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.

    Though in most modern societies, everyone is technically equal in the eyes of the law, hierarchies still exist because power is accumulated via capital (money), so those people and organizations with the most money have far more cultural, economic, and political power and voice than those with less.

    Hierarchical Diffusion Model

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

    Hierarchical diffusion diagram StudySmarterFig. 2 - A basic hierarchy with three tiers. Cultural power and influence can diffuse vertically in either direction: upward ("in reverse," from the many through the few to the one) or downward (from the one through the few to the many)

    Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

    A classic model of reverse hierarchical diffusion is the street protest that topples a dictator. During the French Revolution in 1789, a rigid hierarchy controlled by the French monarchy that had lasted for centuries came tumbling down as groups of peasants and others at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid began to organize to overthrow the entire system.

    The attempted reorganization of French society along non-hierarchical lines based on liberty, equality, and fraternity failed, however, as new hierarchies rapidly arose, which ended up with figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte. France, like many other modern states, eventually evolved into a democratic hierarchy with diffusion of culture and power upward and downward.

    The US's revolution, which preceded France's by a decade, replaced a rather rigid hierarchy with a more limited one. The "Founding Fathers" were a small group of white men who did not attempt a complete tear-down of the old system (infamously, they were not able and most were not willing to abolish slavery), but did establish a system that favored the gradual enfranchising of groups with minimal or no power in the hierarchy: African-Americans, Indigenous people, women, etc. Many of these changes were due to reverse hierarchical diffusion.

    Struggles for voting rights during the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s began with local groups of people who influenced local-level activists like Amzie Moore in Mississippi. Higher-tier leaders such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. propagated local ideas upward thanks to their greater power and reach.

    Difference between Hierarchical and Reverse Hierarchical Diffusion

    The difference between hierarchical and reverse hierarchical diffusion is sometimes unclear because both can happen together. Even more confusingly, those at the top may take credit for what starts at the bottom, or vice versa! Let's see how this works.

    Say an agricultural innovation happens in a rigid hierarchy. It's ancient Egypt, and a farmer figures out a more effective way to harness Nile flooding in his village. Local administrators take notice and alert their superiors, who alert their superiors. Eventually, the amazing invention reaches the ears of the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh then mandates that this innovation be incorporated across all of Egypt. Is an example of reverse hierarchical diffusion followed by hierarchical diffusion?

    Hierarchical diffusion Great Pyramid and sphinx StudySmarterFig. 3 - The famous monuments of ancient Egypt were attributed to pharaohs such as Khufu and Khafre, but in reality, like the control of annual Nile flooding, were the result of complex processes of hierarchical diffusion that included many innovations made by the "common people" lowest on the hierarchy

    Not necessarily! The Pharaoh cannot have it look like a mere peasant was responsible for something this important, so the Pharaoh has his scribes write history a little differently. In the "official" account, Pharaoh had the idea in the first place, perhaps after a chat with the gods.

    A similar dynamic is at work in the US. Telling a story by evoking solely the person at the top, whether a CEO, a billionaire, or a president, is common but can hide contributions from all tiers of a hierarchy that made the top level's actions possible.

    History books tell us "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves" via the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 or that President Lyndon Johnson was responsible for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Technically, elected leaders do indeed sign landmark legislation. However, telling it in a traditional way masks the fact that these acts are often the result of reverse hierarchical diffusion.

    Examples of Hierarchical Diffusion

    You can find hierarchical diffusion in politics and government, economics, and culture. It is in political geography and economic geography, not just cultural 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

    Governments hierarchically diffuse laws and decrees. The process of making laws ideally diffuses in a reverse hierarchy (voters form lobbies), but once lawmakers pass them, laws are enforced from the top down.

    Emergency situations often rely on hierarchical diffusion. This is because, for efficiency, governments take emergency powers to stop some of the reverse diffusion that occurs in a democratic hierarchy. Orders filter from the top down.

    In US states, emergency decrees related to COVID-19 were based on federal government guidelines but were the responsibility of governors to pass and enforce. Governors mandated business closure; business owners had to make their employees obey. Mandates involving social distancing, vaccines, and other pandemic-related practices propagated downward in the social hierarchy through messaging and enforcement.

    Hierarchical Diffusion in Economic Geography

    Despite terms such as "trickle-down economics," money and fiscal policy do not always move hierarchically in a market-based system. There is some hierarchy, though: a few institutions with more (i.e., banks) rely on a single central government-associated group such as the Federal Reserve Board or a central bank, and in turn banks loan to many borrowers. But more relevant to the propagation of mentifacts is the marketing of products.

    Commercial marketing is partly a cultural activity because it relies on messages and (usually) the use of images and even videos. Word-of-mouth marketing does happen, which is contagious diffusion, but it is more cost-effective as a corporate marketing strategy to also use hierarchical diffusion.

    A hierarchy with various tiers isn't technically necessary, because any person or company today wishing to market a product can reach millions instantaneously (in theory) via the Internet. In reality, though, effective marketing targets different geographic markets and demographics with different ads in a multi-tiered strategy and utilizes intermediaries (intermediate nodes) such as social media influencers to do so.

    Consider a book publisher that wants a state education authority to adopt its new 10th-grade social studies textbook. The company will likely appeal to the education hierarchy by attempting to influence the high-up decision-makers so that they will mandate the use of the book. "Word will go down" the hierarchy and the new textbook will be adopted. However, the company may also employ reverse hierarchical diffusion tactics, starting with individual teachers who receive sample copies. The teachers, if they like the text, will mention this to their principals, who will talk to their superintendents, and in this way, word will travel up the hierarchy until it reaches the people or person who can mandate the textbook adoption.

    Hierarchical Diffusion in Cultural Geography

    Culture, via mentifacts, is always the medium for diffusion even if what is diffusing involves the government or the economy. But what about artifacts and sociofacts? Where do they come in?

    Artifacts are propagated after mentifacts or together with them, often with the help of sociofacts.

    The marketing of a textbook is a mentifact, while the textbook itself is an artifact. One gets the idea to acquire a textbook first (mentifact), then acquires the textbook (artifact), and all this is made possible by the sociofact of the school system, a cultural institution.

    Sociofacts themselves also sometimes diffuse hierarchically. This happens when someone high up in the hierarchy has the power to propagate a new type of institution. This can be seen happening in a country that has transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy (which might have started after reverse hierarchical uprisings, you may recall). New leaders are responsible not only for new laws but also for entire institutions such as democratic government bodies that might not have existed before.

    Many cultural mentifacts diffuse hierarchically. The foods you eat, the music you like, and even the architecture of your home may have become popular via a government or corporate promotional campaign. The modern cultural landscape itself is largely a result of the influence of tastemakers over the centuries, rather than a purely vernacular (local and contagiously diffused) phenomenon.

    The challenge in AP Human Geography is understanding the differences between the main types of diffusion, and then how to apply them to cultural phenomena ranging from language to religion (StudySmarter has many explanations on these more specific examples of diffusion) as well as to economic and political examples.

    Hierarchical Diffusion - Key takeaways

    • Hierarchical diffusion involves the spreading of culture via mentifacts from one or a few people to many people, sometimes through tiers; the system can be visualized as a pyramid.
    • Reverse hierarchical diffusion is from the many "upward" in a hierarchy to the few; a lot of hierarchical diffusion involves movements both up and down.
    • An example of hierarchical diffusion in government is the propagation of emergency decrees and enforcement measures downward.
    • A type of hierarchical diffusion economic geographers study is marketing using social media influencers.
    • Tastemakers have influenced cultural landscapes for a long time by hierarchically diffusing knowledge and ideas about everything from food and music to architectural styles.


    1. Fig. 2 Model (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hierarchisches_Datenbankmodell.png) by Stern (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benutzer:Stern) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Hierarchical Diffusion

    What is hierarchical diffusion in human geography?

    Hierarchical diffusion is the spreading of culture via a hierarchy, "vertically," either from the top to the bottom or vice versa.

    What type of diffusion is hierarchical?

    Any diffusion process is hierarchical where certain people have more power and influence than others to spread a mentifact such as an idea or a style.

    What is a real life example of hierarchical diffusion?

    The dissemination of emergency orders and cultural practices (e.g. mask wearing) that characterized the COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly well-known recent example of hierarchical diffusion.

    How does hierarchical diffusion impact the changing cultural landscape?

    Many changes in the cultural landscape are due to the hierarchical diffusion of new ideas, tastes, and knowledge. Landscapes change due to this rather than through the contagious diffusion that characterizes vernacular landscapes.

    How is hierarchical diffusion used?

    Hierarchical diffusion is used for marketing of products, for dissemination and enforcement of laws and decrees, and in many other ways.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The primary means whereby culture diffuses hierarchically are _______.

    Social hierarchies began with _______ societies.

    In modern terms, ancient shamans might be called _______ because of their power to diffuse culture.


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