Special series on innovation theory: 1: Everett Rogers and the diffusion of innovations

Welcome back to A Cultural Policy Blog. As regular readers will know,  I’ve been offline lately, busy with research on a new paper on cultural innovation theory. This week, I’m going to bring you the fruits of my labours with a special series of posts on innovation theory as it applies to arts and culture.

Today we begin with the classic text in the field, by one of the most important figures in cultural sociology of the later 20th century: Everett Rogers.

Rogers’ book ,The Diffusion of Innovations (5th edition cover shown above), is both the standard text and the best introduction to the field of innovation diffusion. It boasts an astonishing 27,331 citations on Google Scholar, which by some reckonings makes it one of the most-cited works in the social sciences.

Everett Rogers’ intellectual biography helps us understand one of the important features of this field, which is that it has emerged from agricultural science. Rogers studied at Iowa State University and became interested in rural sociology; his doctoral supervisor was George Beal.

A key early paper in the field was by Bruce Ryan and Neal Gross, whose famous 1943 paper on the uptake of a special type of hybrid seed corn in two rural mid-west farming communities is described by Rogers as the “paradigmatic” text in the field:

Ryan came to Iowa State with a intellectual interest in nonrational aspects of economic decision makin, influenced by the work of Vilfredo Pareto, and by [the now largely forgotten US anthropologist] R.B. Dixon and other scholars of cultural change, through what he refers to as a quasi-minor in anthropology at Harvard (Ryan interview, 17 May 1991). Ryan did not have a farm background, and was somehwat ill at ease in the Iowa State environment of studying down-to-earth agricultural problems. Ryan designed the hybrid corn study so as to accomdodate his theoretical interests in sociology, with the practical concerns of boosting agrifucltural production at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture. Ryan chose hybrid seed corn as an innovatiojn of study because “the development of a geneticallly and economically superior seed type was a scientific achievement of great economic consequence” (Ryan and Gross 1950, 667). Hybrid corn was the most important innovation then diffusing among midwestern farmers, and it had spread very rapidly in the previous ten years.

Below is the original graph from Ryan and Gross’ paper, in all its analogue glory:

The original "Figure 1" from Ryan and Gross' 1943 paper on the diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa farming communities. The original caption reads: "Percentages of Farm Operators First Hearing of Hybrid Seed Corn and Percentages First Accepting It, by years"

As you can see, while some farmers were what would be known today as “early adopters” (a term which, as far as I can determine, was actually coined by Rogers and then taken up by marketing academics), some decided to use the hybrid corn after seeing it in  use on their own community; others held to their old ways and never adopted the innovation at all.

The result of combining the two bell curves you can see above, and rotating the axis, is the famous “S”-shaped curve of innovation diffusion, which has been found to characterise the adoption of innovations generally, from mobile phones to oral rehydration therapy.

Rogers himself went on to perform many diffusion studies, as well as synthesizing much of the discipline in his reviews and texbooks as diffusion research itself diffused out to fields such as marketing, communications, public health and political science. Innovation diffusion is a five stage process, Rogers tells us, with feedback loops at all stages that help to decide whether and how quickly a particular innovation spreads.  This idea and many others that Rogers developed, including the concept of “opinion leaders” (highly networked and influential individuals in a particular community, an idea Rogers took from Paul Lazarsfeld‘s seminal studies of voting patterns in US presidential elections) and the role they play in helping innovations to catch on, have rapidly become some of the most important in contemporary social science, even making their way into hugely popular works by writers like Malcolm Gladwell.

In an important 1995 paper for Science Communication, Rogers both describes the development of the field and relates it to seminal texts from what is now often known as science and technology studies, most notably Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Communities and Diana Crane’s Invisible Colleges (in which Crane examined the development of rural sociology and performed an early network analysis of the important authors in the field).  This gives us a clue as to where Rogers looked when he examined the sources of innovations – something I’ll dive into tomorrow.


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