Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.
by Emily Ball Cicchini
One glance at the table of contents of this venerable text on an interdisciplinary research tradition and it’s clear why it has reached a 5th Edition. It’s laid out in perfect rational order, indicating a mature, well-tested theory, and peppered with intriguing case studies reflecting the author’s broad scope of interests and compassionate awareness of human diversity. Coming to this book nine years after it was published—fifty years since the original edition in 1962—is rather like a case study for a laggard (as opposed to the early adopter) for whom these ideas are at once familiar and re-invented (or re-discovered) by considering them in their original context. But it also reveals the degree to which the ideas in this book truly are innovations.
Showing rates of adoption depicted as an ‘S’ curve, a modified bell curve that also reflects change over time and cumulative quantity of adopters, demonstrates a symmetry and grace that resonates with practical experience. It’s hard not to fall into the rhetoric of this book without wanting to buy fully into Rogers’ and associates’ approach. How could one not, after fifty years of widespread adoption, embrace the perspectives on innovation that Rogers presents in this book?
The language of diffusion has already succeeded. It permeates the institutional worlds of education and public policy, and is present in many types of research in any number of fields that aim to create sociological or technical change. From personal experience, I attest that the applied efforts of disability rights, educational reform, public funding for the arts, humanities and foreign languages have borrowed heavily from these ideas, which originate in sociology and anthropology, to attempt to make their cases for faster, better, deeper intervention. Other social endeavors, such as agricultural extension and public health programs and others that Rogers’ details in the book have used these ideas to help study and shape large-scale interventions designed to eradicate AIDS, reduce infant deaths due to pediatric diarrhea, and introduce “miracle” rice crops. The idea of diffusion informs the project and program planning processes of local, state, and government funding agencies under the guise of “dissemination;” and any government grant writer is familiar with the notion of “sustainability;” even if she might not have considered that another word for the holy grail of keeping the program afloat long-term is “institutionalization.” The book itself could be reduced to a “checklist” for more thoughtful program dissemination management, and no doubt many programs and projects could benefit from using this book in this way. (I intended to attempt this a project I’m managing immediately!) One underlying implication, at the risk of pro-innovation bias, is that a more considered approach to “diffusion of innovations” will increase the public Good (note that Rogers capitalizes this concept himself). What’s unexpected is the author’s critical admission that when driven solely by profit or ego, or laced with carelessness or fanaticism, innovation can utterly fail, doing more damage than its worth.
As evidence of the excellent methodical framework of this book, one needs to only glance at how widely its contents are available by Googling:
with major sections, charts and graphs posted in numerous places (hurrah to the author and publisher for openness with the work). Often, they are subject to the re-invention that Rogers speaks of, in a way that I think would please him, such as this snapshot from a Google image search:
Because of this, I will keep my observations and comments relatively selective. The book is already so well covered by other sources, I fear that all I can contribute are some quirky observations that come from personal experience, bolstered by knowledge of some of the technological developments that have occurred in the time gap since this latest edition went to print. Criticisms of his knowledge of the internet must be taken with a grain of salt, because considering the rate of innovation over the past nine years (this book was published the year before Facebook was launched), Rogers did a fine job in keeping up with current technology, trends, and thought…even referencing the trendy journalist Malcolm Gladwell in several places.
That said, there are a few quick nuggets to point out from his text. On page 111, Rogers begins to introduce the concept of studying failures, and he is increasingly revealing about the failures of some of the case studies that he weaves very deftly through the text. This point is well taken, particularly for those who might undertake such work on behalf of a private company or large institution which might not be so open to addressing failure. On page 125, he questions quantitative social science methods by quoting Barton’s metaphor of “the survey as sociological meat grinder,” which (besides being funny) is great support for the qualitative, narrative approach currently being pursued in the communication field. Without making the connection directly, he paves the way for the study of networks through story, rather than the individual; as story can say much about the social networks of both the storyteller and the organizations they create and maintain.
Even in 2003, Rogers was hip to the potential for interactive internet communication to help address the recall problem of earlier qualitative researchers. He talks about the pros and cons of virtual organizations (p. 405) and also about the “unobtrusive” logging of activity on an early implementation of Blackboard at Temple University (p. 433) as a potential new way of gathering data. The complexities of privacy, identity, and ownership in digital and virtual innovations isn’t dealt with in much detail. However, Rogers continues to surprise by his in-depth coverage of decentralized vs. centralized diffusion, a topic of tremendous resonance with studies of the internet and the World Wide Web.
The final chapter on the consequences of diffusion of innovation rings like the musings of a humble sage who has been to a cultural battlefield and back. Some of the projects that were models of reaching aggressive quantitative diffusion goals clearly disrupted the social systems in very negative ways. Rodgers admits there is no way to fully avoid the undesirable, indirect, and unexpected consequences of an innovation. Change agencies may have a sense of the form and function of their innovation going into an endeavor, but they can’t know or control the meaning attributed to the innovation by those who will use it, their clients, their audience, their target market. It is in this chapter that Rogers’ strongly humanistic bias comes clean, with a last-minute pitch for efforts at reducing the a widening the socioeconomic gap between laggards and innovators, the inequality that innovations can often introduce into a social system. His advice on how to avoid this might best be reduced to: “Go slow, be mindful.”
All in all, this exceedingly well-organized book help a reader better understand how to get ideas, products, services, or even ideologies to reach “critical mass,” so that they become unstoppable, diffusing throughout the intended audience in a self-sustaining way. With a scope of experience that allows him to generalize common features about such activities with parable-like clarity, it has many uses, both practical in the field and as a theoretical model, and in the commercial private and public government sectors. It provides mechanisms for reaching individuals, as well as changing organizations. While there might still be new methods and elements and factors to explore through further research, and deviations in certain applications to document, with luck, readers and researchers will heed his advice to let go of the question “What are the variables related to innovativeness, (p. 440)” and think more deeply about the “effects” of each innovation. For shouldn’t the ultimate measure of success not be the number of adoptees, but the quality-of-life outcomes for all? Does an innovation, overall, support or subvert the greater Good? Rogers points out in the case of technology, when a new innovation is found, it will change the whole system; both those who adopt, and those who choose not to adopt. Diffusion of innovations provides a terrific structure through which to analyze innovation as it is happening, and through it, perhaps we all can learn to maximize the social benefits of technology, and reduce the social costs, through observation, reflection and communication.