The Diffusion of Innovations theory is concerned with the manner in which a new technological idea, product, technique, or a new use of an old one, moves from creation to use.
According to this theory, technological innovation is communicated through particular channels, over time, among the members of a social system.
The concept, first studied by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde (1890) and by German and Austrian anthropologists such as Friedrich Ratzel or Leo Frobenius, had its basic epidemiological form described by H. Earl Pemberton. Pemberton provided examples of institutional diffusions such as postage stamps or compulsory school laws. Ryan and Gross published r a study on the diffusion of hybrid corn in Iowa.
It was the book, Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers in 1962, which popularised the idea. Rogers defines diffusion as “the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system”. He also defines an innovation as “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption”.
A communication channel is “the means by which messages get from one individual to another”. The innovation-decision period is “the length of time required to pass through the innovation-decision process”. Rate of adoption is the relative speed with which an innovation is adopted by members of a social system. A social system is defined as “a set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem solving to accomplish a common goal”.
Innovation decisions may be optional (where the person or organisation has a real opportunity to adopt or reject the idea); collective (where a decision is reached by consensus among the members of a system); or authority-based (where a decision is imposed by another person or organisation which possesses requisite power, status or technical expertise).
Rogers initially categorised the five stages as: awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. Rogers used the terms knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation. However, the descriptions of the categories have remained similar all through.
The stages through which the diffusion of an innovation occurs are:
i. Knowledge or awareness:
Exposure to its existence, and understanding of its functions;
ii. Persuasion or interest:
Seeking more information and forming of a favourable attitude to it;
iii. Decision or evaluation:
Taking the concept of the innovation and weighing the advantages/disadvantages of using the innovation and deciding whether to adopt or reject the innovation;
iv. Implementation or trial:
Putting it to use; and
v. Confirmation or adoption:
Reinforcement based on positive outcomes from it.
Characteristics of Innovations:
Innovation is not to be confused with ‘invention’—the creative act or process involving new ideas, new products, and new technologies. Innovation is the acceptance and use of inventions in areas other than the centres of invention after the invention has taken place.
Innovations have several characteristics that influence an individual to accept or reject an innovation. How far improved an innovation is over its previous generation is known as the relative advantage. How far an innovation is consistent with existing values, past experiences, and needs is called the compatibility. The complexity of an innovation is important: how difficult it is to understand and use (the greater the difficulty, the less likely its adoption). The degree to which an innovation can be experimented with in the course of adoption is called trialability. Finally, an innovation is characterised by observability or the extent to which an innovation and its results are visible.
Categories of Adopters:
How fast an innovation is adopted by the members of a social system is determined by an adopter’s category.
Innovators are the first to adopt an innovation. They are venturesome, and young, belong to higher social classes with financial lucidity, and have close contact with scientific resources and interact with follow innovators. The early adopters are generally of the same age group, are ‘respectable’, ‘ advanced in education, and of higher social status and upward social mobility. They are usually opinion leaders.
They have greater empathy, less dogmatism, a greater ability to deal with abstractions, greater rationality, greater intelligence, a greater ability to cope with uncertainty and risk, higher aspirations, more contact with other people, greater exposure to both mass media and interpersonal communications channels and they engage in more active information seeking. Early majority is formed of individuals who take more time than the early adopters to adopt an innovation.
These individuals are ‘deliberate’ and willing to adopt innovations after peers have tried them. They are above average in social status and are in contact with the early adopters. Individuals in the category of late majority are ‘sceptical’ about innovations; they generally have low social status, little financial fluidity, and little opinion leadership. Then come the laggards who are typically averse to change-agents, and tend to be of advanced age. They are focused on ‘traditions’, have lowest social status, low financial fluidity and little or no opinion leadership, and are social isolates.
The views on adopter categories have drawn criticism. It is pointed out adoption is determined mainly by an individual’s economic assessment of an innovation; if the innovation is likely to increase profit or be of greater use, it will be adopted. Also, a well developed means of communication (media) is bound to reduce the information lag.
Diffusion: Types and Process:
Diffusion is a function of communication. Diffusion processes may be expansionist or relocational in character.
Diffusion may involve expansion, i.e., when innovation spreads through a population from one region to another. Expansion may be contact-based (‘contagious’) or it may proceed by leaps through locations linked by information flows (‘cascading type’). Relocation indicates the transportation of innovation from one place to another. It is the movement of people itself that is responsible for the movement of information.
All innovations cannot diffuse to all places or fit into any specific geographical milieu or socioeconomic system. Acceptance of an innovation depends on the geographic environment. Heavy woollen garments would not be geographically feasible in tropical climes, so such a fashion would not be adopted there. Adoption of an innovation also depends on economic feasibility, i.e., the cost and maintenance involved. Technologically simple innovations are likely to be adopted more quickly than something involving complicated operations.
It is also necessary that an innovation is socio- culturally compatible for it to readily diffuse. An innovation that is flexible enough to allow experimentation to adapt it to different circumstances is likely to find wider acceptance and thus diffuse quickly.
The innovation needs to be easily communicated through contact, mass media, and advertising if diffusion is to be wide. Mass media channels are relatively more important at the knowledge stage, whereas interpersonal channels are relatively more important at the persuasion stage. Above all, the innovation has to be reliable if it is to be accepted on a large scale.
Throughout the diffusion process there is evidence that hot all individuals exert an equal amount of influence over all individuals. In this sense there are opinion leaders, leaders who are influential in spreading either positive or negative information about an innovation.
Important roles in the innovation process thus include: opinion leaders (who have relatively frequent informal influence over the behaviour of others); change agents (who positively influence innovation decisions, by mediating between the change agency and the relevant social system); and change aides (who complement the change agent, by having more intensive contact with clients, and who have less competence credibility but more safety or trustworthiness credibility).
The functions of the change agent are: to develop a need for change on the part of the client; to establish an information-exchange relationship; to diagnose the client problems; to create intent to change in the client; to translate this intent into action; to stabilise adoption and prevent discontinuance; and to shift the client from reliance on the change agent to self-reliance.
Barriers to Diffusion:
The diffusion of innovations is not at the same rate at all times or over all space. A number of factors—physical, social and economic—influence them. These are called ‘barriers’ when they obstruct the flow of information or the movement of people, thus slowing down or preventing the acceptance of an innovation.
Distance is one such barrier: interaction decreases with increase of distance between two areas. Physical features, such as uncrossable mountains or swamps, can act as barriers. A boundary between two antagonistic societies unable or unwilling to communicate with each other can be a barrier to the movement of innovations. Difficult terrain and oceans have also acted as barriers of diffusion, but they often deflect the path of diffusion rather than completely obstruct it.
Another impenetrable barrier is due to cultural factors: where innovations are simply not accepted or allowed to spread because customs and rigid social / religious controls forbid it. Linguistic barriers can hinder communication and slow down or even prevent diffusion of innovations. Governments too can act as barriers by banning or discouraging interaction with the ‘foreign’ world, and controlling media and literature flow.
Physical barriers such as water bodies, deserts, swamps are in most cases—especially in the present days of easy communications—permeable barriers. International boundaries, similarly, inhibit easy diffusion of innovation due to considerations of economy and socio-political factors. Diffusion is a selective process: receiving cultures may accept some and reject other innovations coming from another cultural area, depending on their own cultural system.
Hagerstrand, a Swedish geographer, was a professor of Geography at Lund University, where he received his doctorate in 1953. His doctoral research was on cultural diffusion. In 1969, he presented a paper entitled What about People in Regional Science? To the European Congress of the Regional Science Association in Copenhagen, Denmark.
This paper developed two concepts:
(i) The need to study the individual in order to understand social and group practices: modern cultural geographers commonly now study everyday practices on an individualistic basis, in order to understand larger scale patterns. The study of just groups creates a homogenisation of reality and hides the truth,
(ii) A link between space and time that had previously been poorly developed: historically, social scientists had treated time as a relevant but external factor to spatial features, but Hager-strand’s early work on innovation diffusion (studying the geographical spread of new technologies) made him realise that the two, though separate, were not independent of each other; they have what Lefebvre would call a dialectical relationship.
Hager-strand discovered that innovations of all kinds tend to diffuse from their points of origin in a similar, fourstage wave. In the primary stage an innovation occurs and gains acceptance at its point of origin. In the second stage, its dispersal begins to widen rapidly. In the tertiary stage adoption begins to slow.
In the final saturation stage, the innovation approaches its maximum dispersal and its rate of acceptance declines or stops altogether. The simplicity of the Hager-strand model allows its terms to be precisely specified, simulated mathematically, and measured empirically. Such studies confirm that the diffusion and adoption of an innovation over time tends to form the S-shaped curves predicted by the model: slow initial acceptance, followed by rapid dispersal that slows to an asymptotic increase.
The Hager-strand model has been refined to include such factors as the level of Communication between innovators and adopters, the complexity of both the innovation and the sociocultural system of the adopting group, the degree of congruence between the innovation and existing system, real or perceived advantages of the innovation, even individual and societal attitudes toward change.
Criticism of the Theory:
The Diffusion of Innovation theory is at its best a descriptive tool. There is doubt about the extent to which it can give rise to readily refutable hypotheses. Many of its elements may be specific to the culture in which it was derived (viz. North America in the 1950s and 1960s), and hence less relevant in, for example, East Asian and African countries, and as time goes on. Nonetheless, it provides one valuable base on which research and practice can be placed.