Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reading :: Diffusion of Innovations, Fifth Edition

Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition
By Everett M. Rogers

In Bruno Latour's discussions of science and technology, he often contrasts two models by which new innovations spread: diffusion and translation. Roughly, diffusion is seen as a process by which people take up an innovation "as is" and apply it unaltered. Translation is a process in which people adapt the innovation for their own contexts. That is, as Latour likes to say, there is no adoption without adaptation.

However, Latour is using a fairly crabbed understanding of what scholars mean by diffusion. In this thick and comprehensive book, Everett Rogers, whose name (according to the back cover) is "virtually synonymous with the study of the diffusion of innovations," gives us a much broader understanding of diffusion research. He acknowledges that diffusion research has had a pro-innovation bias in which researchers coded adoption as positive and adaptation as bad (p.106), but he also notes that diffusion scholars have critiqued this bias since the 1970s (p.110) and says that now "diffusion scholars no longer assume that an innovation is 'perfect' for all potential adopters in solving their problems and meeting their needs" (p.115).

I start out with this example for two reasons. One is that it helps me—and, presumably, long-time readers—to situate this book in relationship to the science and technology studies (STS) scholarship with which my own field is familiar. The other is that it illustrates the key advantage of this book: it offers a broad, wide-ranging, and thorough overview of diffusion research, including its history, contributions, and criticisms (Ch.2-3) as well as how innovations are generated (Ch.4), how people decide whether to adopt/adapt an innovation (Ch.5), what innovation attributes affect adoption rates (Ch.6), categories of adopters (Ch.7), diffusion networks (Ch.8), change agents (Ch.9), innovation in organizations (Ch.10), and consequences of innovations—good and bad (Ch.11).

Throughout this massive discussion (471pp, not counting end matter), Rogers overviews the field of diffusion studies, provides illustrative case studies, discusses failures as well as successes, and even discusses and critiques some of his early conclusions that he believes should be revisited. He discusses how various fields and strands (including social construction of technology) have contributed to diffusion studies (although he doesn't name-check Latour in particular). And he firmly connects this discussion to sociological studies and touchstones (he was trained as a rural sociologist).

Granted, I don't know a lot about diffusion studies, but my impression is that this book provides a strong introduction to the field. If you're studying innovations, diffusion, technology commercialization, or related concerns, please do pick it up.

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