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Book Review: Diffusion of Innovations, Part I

October 28, 2010

Well, here’s a book review for you nerdy types.  I’m taking a class right now called “Missiology and Applied Anthropology.”  A fancy name, but a class that basically looks at culture, how culture changes, how changes are introduced (and stick), and how the church and missions must be cognizant of these issues so that we can respond accordingly.  It’s an outstanding class!  🙂  We recently read the book Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, and were asked to do a book review, so here it is.  This type of review was very specific.  We were asked to state the purpose of the book briefly, list significant issues, choose at least one issue to interact with critically, and then explain how this book would impact our ministry endeavors.

Enjoy.

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Introduction

“Ideas have legs,” a professor of philosophy once wrote.  Yet, according to Everett Rogers, in his comprehensive study of diffusion theory, not all ideas “walk” successfully.  While some ideas or innovations radically change a culture, society, or organization, other ideas seem to fall flat or fail to achieve the desired change.  Diffusion of Innovation is an in depth look at the process of how innovations get “adopted” by systems, and by investigating this scientific theory (of diffusion), we, who are becoming innovators in our own right, may avoid pitfalls and adopt strategies for successful diffusion.

Significant Issues

As mentioned, this work is an incredibly in-depth look at the theory of diffusion.  Rogers, leaves no stone unturned as he discusses the breadth of scientific case studies, weaknesses in current research (e.g., the “pro-innovation bias”), what directions need to be pursued for further clarification, and above all, a breakdown of the multiplicity of elements involved in diffusion.  There are a number of significant issues worthy of discussion, however, four elements impacted me above the others:  the rate of adoption and the evidence of an s-shaped curve when graphed, the role of “opinion leaders” in the adoption of an innovation, the importance of “social networks” in the spread of an innovation,  and the need to study consequences of innovations.  These will be discussed presently.

Rate of Adoption

Simply put, the rate of adoption is the “relative speed with which in innovation is adopted by members of a social system” (221).  According to Rogers, there are five main factors that affect the rate of adoption.  First, there is the relative advantage of an innovation—what makes it a better change than had it not been adopted.  Second, there is an innovation’s compatibility with the preexisting system; innovations tend to be more successful when they are fairly compatible with what is already in place.  Third, there is the complexity of an innovation.  How difficult is a new idea to learn or implement?  Fourth, there is the trialability of an innovation, or whether or not people can try it on a limited basis.  Lastly there is the observability of an innovation.  Can we see the potential and actual effects of an innovation.  While there are certainly other factors that determine the rate (or the possibility) of an innovation’s adoption, these five issues are the result of empirical research.

There is one other significant issue in the rate of an innovation’s adoption—the fact that most innovation’s are adopted on a s-shaped curve when graphed.  This would mean that there is normally a slow rate of adoption in the beginning as a new idea is embraced.  When enough people in a system have adopted and shared their experience, a “critical mass” is reached, where the rate of adoption dramatically increases and becomes self-sustaining.  Once the majority of a system has adopted it, the innovation levels off.  The rate of adoption and the supporting data is important, primarily because it shows that there is an orderly process to the adoption of an innovation or idea.

Opinion Leaders

Innovators are typically on the outside of social systems.  This is quite logical when considered that those who innovate are usually seeing ahead of a system to locate its needs.  As such, innovators are typically limited in their ability to influence the adoption of an innovation (26).  Therefore, if an innovation is to be adopted, influential people in a social system must be incorporated into the spread of the innovation.  Called “opinion leaders” these are typically people who are well-connected socially and have an “influential position in their system’s communication structure” (27).  For an innovation to succeed, influential members of a social system must have an active part in its spread.

Social Networks

No man is an island, and this is especially true for the spread and adoption of innovations.  People in social systems often adopt ideas or innovations because they have been influenced by other members in a social system.  In fact, the subjective influence of “testimony” by those who have adopted an innovation is so strong, that often the “objective” analysis of the advantages of an innovation are not nearly as important to a potential adopter.  Rogers states the same idea like this:  “Diffusion investigations show that most individuals do not evaluate an innovation on the basis of scientific studies of its consequences…most people depend mainly upon a subjective evaluation of an innovation conveyed to them form other individuals like themselves who have already adopted the innovation” (18-19).  Though objectivity is important for those creating innovations and early adopters, the influence of those within social communities is the primary factor in whether or not an innovation will diffuse.  We are truly social beings.

Consequences

Lastly, because “ideas have legs,” innovations forever impact social systems and indelibly change them.  Rogers notes that though consequences are a vital part of an innovation (after all, innovations are so because they bring change), consequences are rarely studied in the research of innovations.  However, because innovations are so influential, those who innovate are responsible, as far as in them lies, to anticipate the consequences of the adoption of an innovation.  Though an idea may seem desirable, it is not always so, and can have disastrous effects.  This should urge caution in our thinking, creating, and implementing, because as social beings, we will affect our social systems with our innovations.

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