Figure Diffusion of an innovation over time

A simplified explanation is as follows: in the early stages of an innovation's life cycle, just a few highly adventurous and more inquisitive innovators are found to adopt. Once enough of these have set an example to others and the word has spread, the innovation takes off as the early adopters, of which there are many more in society, come forward to buy. They are then followed by the slightly more cautious, but just as plentiful, late adopters, and ultimately, bringing up the rear, are the most cautious, fewer in number 'laggards'.

However, Rogers (1983) also recognized that to try to explain everything by the relative 'innovativeness' of adopters and communication between them risked too much of an individual-blame approach for non-adoption and that it was important to be conscious of other processes. He cautioned that we must be careful to include 'system-level' explanations, such as social norms and conventions, particularly in many traditional societies.7

We must also be aware that certain people in a society have more influence than others. These are opinion leaders and they play a critical role in either approving or disapproving of an innovation, leading some analysts to describe their disproportionate influence as 'the law of the few'.8

We must also consider how the attributes of the innovation itself can also affect its progress.9 For example, Ryan and Gross felt that because farmers could simply try a little bit of hybrid corn without risking too much - what they called 'trialability' - this aided its diffusion.10 By contrast, Rogers found 'the perceived complexity' of computers was 'a negative force in their rate of adoption in the early 1980s'.11

And lastly, for 'high cost' or 'highly profitable innovations', the 'economic aspects of relative advantage may be the most important single predictor for the rate of adoption'. Although Rogers also states rather categorically that 'to expect that economic factors are the sole predictors of the rate of adoption is unlikely', since studies have shown non-economic factors to be equally relevant.12 And furthermore:

What really determines the rate of adoption of an innovation is the adopter's perception of profitability and not objective profitability. There is a vast tradition of social psychology research which indicates the importance of group interaction in determining the selectivity of perception, including perceptions of profitability.13

Relevant to the themes of this book, the communication perspective also recognizes the concept of agency. It identifies the role of the 'change agent', defining such a person as a professional who influences innovation decisions in a direction deemed desirable by a change agency.14 So, for example, change agents might be government agricultural extension officers or public health officers or door-to-door salespeople, and their influence is clearly recognized by the communication perspective: 'most change is not a haphazard phenomenon, but the results of the planned premeditated actions by change agents'.15 But the communication perspective ultimately fails to consider the role of individuals and organizations behind the agricultural extension officer or the door-to-door salesperson, and how these individuals or organizations ultimately determine, for instance, how many such agents are available to affect change, how well equipped they are to convince people to change, what exactly they have to offer to entice change or how well incentivized they are to affect change. As an analyst of innovation diffusion notes, 'major barriers to change ... lie in the structure and dynamics of innovating organizations', but 'unfortunately, methodologically and conceptually [this] has largely been taken for granted'. Needless to say, the same analyst finds this to be 'a major shortcoming'.16

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