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Relocation Diffusion

Relocation Diffusion

Going on a vacation? Don't forget to pack your socks, toothbrush, and...cultural traits? Well, you might want to leave the last bit at home, unless you are not planning on coming back. In THAT case, maybe you should hold onto your culture. It might not be very useful for everyday survival where you're relocating to, since the language, religion, food, and just about everything else will be different there. But it will help you keep the traditions of your ancestors alive.

Check out some of the cultures we mention in this article, who through relocation diffusion have managed to keep their cultures alive in new places for hundreds (the Amish) and even thousands (Mandeans) of years!

Relocation Diffusion Definition

When you travel, some of your culture travels with you. If you are a typical tourist, your own cultural traits may have little to no impact on the people and places you visit, but if you migrate and move permanently somewhere else, it can be a different story.

Relocation Diffusion: the spread of cultural traits (mentifacts, artifacts, and sociofacts) from a cultural hearth through human migration that does not changes cultures or cultural landscapes anywhere except at the destinations of the migrants.

Process of Relocation Diffusion

Relocation diffusion is quite easy to understand. It starts with that aspect of human society known as culture, the combination of traits ranging from language and religion to the arts and cuisine that human societies create and perpetuate.

All cultural traits begin somewhere, whether created in a 21st-century corporate viral marketing campaign or by villagers thousands of years ago in China. Some cultural traits die out over time, while others are passed on from generation to generation. Of these, certain innovations spread via diffusion to other places. In some cases, they reach all ends of the planet, as the English language did.

The two main ways culture spreads are via relocation and expansion. The difference is discussed in the next section and is critical for AP Human Geography students to understand.

In relocation diffusion, people carry cultural traits with them but do not spread these to others until they reach their destination. This is either because

  • they used a mode of transportation with few or no intermediate stops (sea or air)


  • they were not interested in spreading them to local people along the way, if they went by land.

Such traits could be religious beliefs and associated cultural practices that the migrants keep to themselves because they are not attempting to proselytize anyone (seek converts) but rather spread their religion only within their own group, by passing it on to the next generation.

When the migrants reach their destination, however, they alter the pre-existing cultural landscape. They may put up signs in their own language, erect centers of worship, introduce new ways of farming or forestry, make and sell their own foods, and so forth.

Relocation diffusion Mandeans StudySmarterFig. 1 - Members of the Finnish Mandean Association. The world's last surviving Gnostic ethnoreligious group, the Mandeans fled southern Iraq in the early 2000s and now have a global diaspora. As a closed society, their endangered culture spreads via relocation diffusion only

The cultural traits they have brought with them are often mentifacts, meaning their ideas, symbols, histories, and beliefs. They also bring artifacts, or create these once they arrive, based on their mentifacts. Finally, they often recreate sociofacts: the institutions that underpin their culture. For many migrants, these have been religious institutions.

If migrants make intermediate stops, some traces of their presence may be left there after they move on.

Seaports often bear the imprint of the cultures of seafarers who relocate constantly and may spend certain amounts of time in certain places without ever moving there permanently.

Endogamous vs Exogamous

Endogamous groups, in which people marry within their own society, like the Mandeans, diffuse culture in a different way than exogamous groups that marry outside of their society.

Say a group of people relocates from Asia to the United States but maintains strict rules regarding religious cuisine, food taboos, who its members can marry, and so forth. This society will stay culturally apart from other societies in the migration destination even if it has economic and political interactions with them. This is because cultural traits are at the core of social identity, and if these become diluted, the culture can be eroded and lost.

This is not to say that an endogamous group will not have some effect via the diffusion of its culture to others in the place to which it has migrated. The group will have its own, easily-recognizable cultural landscape, which may look similar wherever populations in the group's diaspora are located in the world, but quite unlike the rest of the cultural landscape. Because of tourism and economic interactions in these landscapes, endogamous groups may find that some of their artifacts are copied by other cultures.

Exogamous groups tend to relocate and then their cultural traits diffuse via expansion, as there is little to no barrier to the acceptance of their culture among others, and few or no rules against spreading their culture. Indeed, those who make no intermediate stops may travel halfway across the globe and immediately begin to diffuse their culture in the new place. This has been one of the major ways that religions such as Christianity have spread.

Difference between Relocation Diffusion and Expansion Diffusion

Expansion diffusion happens through person-to-person contact across a space. Traditionally, this has been via physical space as people move across land areas. Now, it also happens in cyberspace, which you can read about in our explanation on Contemporary Cultural Diffusion.

Because relocation diffusion of cultural traits can also happen when people move over land, it is important to understand when, how, and why one happens rather than the other. Basically, it comes down to the nature of the trait itself and the intent of both the person carrying the trait and the people who potentially will adopt the trait.

Endogamous groups with no interest in spreading their culture may actually be fearful, sometimes with good reason, of revealing their culture to those in the areas they are passing through.

When Jews and Muslims were forced out of Spain in 1492, many became crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims, keeping their true culture secret while pretending to be Christians. It would have been dangerous for them to reveal any aspect of their culture during their out-migrations, so no expansion diffusion would have happened. Eventually, some of them reached places where they could openly practice their faiths again.

Relocation diffusion Jews in Mexico StudySmarterFig. 2 - Inauguration of the Centro de Documentación e Investigación Judío de México, a research center dedicated to the history of Jews, including crypto-Jews, who have relocated to Mexico since 1519

Some groups may have no cultural innovations of interest in the places they are passing through on the way to their destination. Agricultural people passing through the Sahara on caravans, from the humid farming zones of West Africa north to the Mediterranean, or vice versa, may have little of value to diffuse to nomadic desert cultures, for example.

In expansion diffusion, the opposite is true. This is best seen in the conquests and mission trips made by Christians and Muslims as they swept outward from places of origin. Both faiths were universalizing, meaning everyone was a potential convert. Muslim and Christian proselytizing and thus the expansion diffusion of these religions was only halted by active resistance or by local laws prohibiting it (though even then, it might continue in secret).

Relocation Diffusion Example

Amish culture is a classic example of relocation diffusion. In the early 1700s, disaffected Anabaptist farmers from German-speaking Switzerland decided that the colony of Pennsylvania would be a good choice of migration destination. It was famous in Europe for its fertile soil and tolerance of religious beliefs, no matter how strange these beliefs seemed to established churches in the Old World.

Amish Beginnings in Pennsylvania

The Amish took their strict interpretations of Christian doctrine with them to the New World. By 1760, they founded a congregation in Lancaster, one of the many minority ethnoreligious groups from Europe to settle in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the 13 colonies. At first, before their rejection of technology, what set them apart from non-Amish farmers was their strict adherence to cultural traits such as pacifism. Even when attacked, they "turned the other cheek." Otherwise, their farming methods, diets, and large families were similar to other Pennsylvania German groups of the time.

Meanwhile, traditionalist, pacifist Anabaptist cultures such as the Amish disappeared from Europe.

Amish in the Modern World

Fast-forward to 2022. The Amish still speak old German dialects as their first languages, while the descendants of others who migrated at that time have lost their languages and now speak English. The Amish have split into dozens of subgroups based on differing interpretations of Christian doctrine. In general, this is based on their central cultural values of humility, lack of vanity and pride, and of course, peacefulness.

For most of the "Old Order" Amish, technology that makes life "easier" but allows people to labor without coming together in a community is rejected. Famously, this includes motor vehicles (though most can hitch rides and take trains), motorized farm machinery, electricity, in-home telephones, running water, and even cameras (it is considered vain to have one's image captured).

Relocation Diffusion Amish StudySmarterFig. 3 - Amish horse and buggy behind a car in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

The Amish continue traditions once the norm but now choices for the rest of the population. They do not practice birth control and thus have very large families; they live only in rural areas; they only go to school through the 8th grade. This means that socioeconomically they remain working-class laborers by choice, surrounded by a modern society that limits family size, uses technology without question, and generally does not practice non-violence.

Because of their strict adherence to doctrine and shunning or even ex-communication of transgressors, most aspects of Amish culture do not diffuse through expansion to non-Amish cultures nearby. This is not to say that this endogamous society avoids outsiders; they actively engage with "English" (their term for non-Amish) in commerce as well as in the political realm. Their cultural artifacts are often copied, particularly their foods and furniture styles. But culturally, the Amish remain a people apart.

Nevertheless, their culture continues to rapidly diffuse, via relocation. This is because, with one of the highest fertility rates in the world, Amish in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere are running out of available local farmland for young families who have to move elsewhere, including to Latin America.

The Amish have among the highest fertility rates, birth rates, and population growth rates in the world, with an average number of children per mother as high as nine in the most conservative communities. The total Amish population, now at over 350,000 in the US, increases by 3% or more a year, higher than the fastest-growing countries in the world, so it doubles every 20 years!

Relocation Diffusion - Key takeaways

  • Populations that relocate via migration take their culture with them but do not spread it during the course of their journey from their original homes to their destinations.
  • Populations with cultural traits that they keep to themselves, and endogamous groups in general, tend to limit the spread of their culture via expansion diffusion, often to keep their own cultural identities intact, or to avoid persecution.
  • Universalizing religions such as Christianity and Islam spread via expansion diffusion as well as relocation diffusion, whereas ethnic religions tend to spread solely via relocation diffusion.
  • Though the Amish are Christian, their strict adherence to certain cultural practices based on Christian doctrine has allowed them to keep their identity intact since the 1700s, but it also means that their culture spreads almost entirely via relocation diffusion and not via expansion.


  1. Fig. 1 Mandeans (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suomen_mandean_yhdistys.jpg) by Suomen Mandean Yhdistys licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 3 Amish buggy (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lancaster_County_Amish_01.jpg) by TheCadExpert (https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utente:TheCadExpert) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Relocation Diffusion

Relocation diffusion is important because it is one of the principal ways that cultural identities are preserved even when people migrate to places where their culture doesn't exist. It has helped preserve many ethnoreligious communities.

The Amish, who relocated to Pennsylvania from Switzerland in the 1700s AD, took their culture with them and are thus an example of relocation diffusion.

Relocation diffusion is the spread of cultural traits from one place to another without any effect on culture at intervening locations.

An example of relocation diffusion is the spread of Christianity by missionaries who travel from their homes directly to faraway places to seek converts.

Migration involves relocation diffusion because migrants typically transfer their culture with them when they relocate from their home places to their destinations.

Final Relocation Diffusion Quiz


Migrants never have an effect on cultures anywhere between their origin and their destination.

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This modern society is the last surviving Gnostic ethnoreligious group in the world.

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The following is NOT a reason the Amish continue to spread via relocation diffusion:

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They actively seek to convert non-Amish.

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A Jewish person who had to practice their faith in secret after 1492 is referred to as a _______.

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Ethnic religions tended to spread primarily by _______ diffusion whereas universalizing religions spread by both _______ and _______ diffusion.

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Relocation; relocation and expansion.

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Which is the true statement?

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All cultural traits start somewhere.

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Which is the true statement?

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Amish rigidly adhere to nonviolence.

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Which is the most accurate synonym of the verb "to proselytize"?

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To seek converts.

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The following is a reason culture might not diffuse during a migration:

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Migrants have nothing of value to offer residents.

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Amish are a(n) _______ sect.

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