ELEMENTS OF DIFFUSION
There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things....Whenever his enemies have the ability to attack the innovator they do so with the passion of partisans, while the others defend him sluggishly, so that the innovator and his party alike are vulnerable.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Getting a new idea adopted, even when it has obvious advantages, is often very difficult. Many innovations require a lengthy period, often of many years, from the time they become available to the time they are widely adopted. Therefore, a common problem for many individuals and organizations is how to speed up the rate of diffusion of an innovation.
The following case illustration provides insight into some common difficulties facing diffusion campaigns.
Water Boiling in a Peruvian Village: Diffusion That Failed
The public health service in Peru attempts to introduce innovations to villagers to improve their health and lengthen their lives. This change agency encourages people to install latrines, to burn garbage daily, to control house flies, to report cases of infectious diseases, and to boil drinking water. These innovations involve major changes in thinking and behavior for Peruvian villagers, who do not understand the relationship of sanitation to illness. Water boiling is an especially important health practice for villagers in Peru. Unless they boil their drinking water, patients who are cured of infectious diseases in village medical clinics often return within a month to be treated again for the same disease.
A two-year water boiling campaign conducted in Los Molinas, a peasant village of 200 families in the coastal region of Peru, persuaded only eleven housewives to boil water. From the viewpoint of the public health agency, the local health worker, Nelida, had a simple task: to persuade the housewives of Los Molinas to add water boiling to their pattern of daily behavior. Even with the aid of a medical doctor, who gave public talks on water boiling, and fifteen village housewives who were already boiling water before the campaign, Nelida's diffusion campaign failed. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at the culture, the local environment, and the individuals in Los Molinas.
Most residents of Los Molinas are peasants who work as field hands on local plantations. Water is carried by can, pail, gourd, or cask. The three sources of water in Los Molinas include a seasonal irrigation ditch dose to the village, a spring more than a mile away from the village, and a public well whose water most villagers dislike. All three sources are subject to pollution at all times and show contamination whenever tested. Of the three sources, the irrigation ditch is the most commonly used. It is closer to most homes, and the villagers like its taste.
Although it is not feasible for the village to install a sanitary water system, the incidence of typhoid and other water-borne diseases could be greatly reduced by boiling the water before it is consumed. During her two-year campaign in Los Molinas, Nelida made several visits to every home in the village but devoted especially intensive efforts to twenty-one families. She visited each of these selected families between fifteen and twenty-five times; eleven of these families now boil their water regularly.
What kinds of persons do these numbers represent? We describe three village housewives -- one who boils water to obey custom, one who was persuaded to boil water by the health worker, and one of the many who rejected the innovation -- in order to add further insight into the process of diffusion.
Mrs. A: Custom-Oriented Adopter. Mrs. A is about forty and suffers from a sinus infection. The Los Molinas villagers call her a "sickly one." Each morning, Mrs. A boils a potful of water and uses it throughout the day. She has no understanding of germ theory, as explained by Nelida; her motivation for water boiling is a complex local custom of "hot" and "cold" distinctions. The basic principle of this belief system is that all foods, liquids, medicines, and other objects are inherently hot or cold, quite apart from their actual temperature. In essence, hot-cold distinctions serve as a series of avoidances and approaches in such behavior as pregnancy, child-rearing, and the health-illness system.
Boiled water and illness are closely linked in the norms of Los Molinas; by custom, only the ill use cooked, or "hot" water. Once an individual becomes ill, it is unthinkable to eat pork (very cold) or drink brandy (very hot). Extremes of hot and cold must be avoided by the sick; therefore, raw water, which is perceived to be very cold, must be boiled to make it appropriate to consume.
Villagers learn from early childhood to dislike boiled water. Most can tolerate cooked water only if a flavoring, such as sugar, cinnamon, lemon, or herbs, is added. Mrs. A likes a dash of cinnamon in her drinking water. The village belief system involves no notion of bacteriorological contamination of water. By tradition, boiling is aimed at eliminating the "cold" quality of unboiled water, not the harmful bacteria. Mrs. A drinks boiled water in obedience to local norms, because she perceives herself as ill.
Mrs. B: Persuaded Adopter. The B family came to Los Molinas a generation ago, but they are still strongly oriented toward their birthplace in the Andes Mountains. Mrs. B worries about lowland diseases that she feels infest the village. It is partly because of this anxiety that the change agent, Nelida, was able to convince Mrs. B to boil water.
Nelida is a friendly authority to Mrs. B (rather than a "dirt inspector" as she is seen by other housewives), who imparts useful knowledge and brings protection. Mrs. B not only boils water but also has installed a latrine and has sent her youngest child to the health center for a checkup.
Mrs. B is marked as an outsider in the community of Los Molinas by her highland hairdo and stumbling Spanish. She will never achieve more than marginal social acceptance in the village. Because the community is not an important reference group to her, Mrs. B deviates from village norms on health innovations. With nothing to lose socially, Mrs. B gains in personal security by heeding Nelida's advice. Mrs. B's practice of boiling water has no effect on her marginal status. She is grateful to Nelida for teaching her how to neutralize the danger of contaminated water, which she perceives as a lowland peril.
Mrs. C: Rejector. This housewife represents the majority of Los Molinas families who were not persuaded by the efforts of the change agents during their two-year water-boiling campaign. In spite of Nelida's repeated explanations, Mrs. C does not understand germ theory. How, she argues, can microbes survive in water that would drown people? Are they fish? If germs are so small that they cannot be seen or felt, how can they hurt a grown person? There are enough real threats in the world to worry about -- poverty and hunger -- without bothering about tiny animals one cannot see, hear, touch, or smell. Mrs. C's allegiance to traditional village norms is at odds with the boiling of water. A firm believer in the hot-cold superstition, she feels that only the sick must drink boiled water.
Why Did the Diffusion of Water Boiling Fail?
This intensive two-year campaign by a public health worker in a Peruvian village of 200 families, aimed at persuading housewives to boil drinking water, was largely unsuccessful. Nelida was able to encourage only about 5 percent of the population, eleven families, to adopt the innovation. The diffusion campaign in Los Molinas failed because of the cultural beliefs of the villagers. Local tradition links hot foods with illness. Boiling water makes water less "cold" and hence, appropriate only for the sick. But if a person is not ill, the individual is prohibited by village norms from drinking boiled water. Only individuals who are unintegrated into local networks risk defying community norms on water boiling. An important factor regarding the adoption rate of an innovation is its compatibility with the values, beliefs, and past experiences of individuals in the social system. Nelida and her superiors in the public health agency should have understood the hot-cold belief system, as it is found throughout Peru (and in most nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia). Here is an example of an indigenous knowledge system that caused the failure of a development program.
Nelida's failure demonstrates the importance of interpersonal networks in the adoption and rejection of an innovation. Socially an outsider, Mrs. B was marginal to the Los Molinas community, although she had lived there for several years. Nelida was a more important referent for Mrs. B than were her neighbors, who shunned her. Anxious to secure social prestige from the higher-status Nelida, Mrs. B adopted water boiling, not because she understood the correct health reasons, but because she wanted to obtain Nelida's approval. Thus we see that the diffusion of innovations is a social process, as well as a technical matter.
Nelida worked with the wrong housewives if she wanted to launch a selfgenerating diffusion process in Los Molinas. She concentrated her efforts on village women like Mrs. A and Mrs. B. Unfortunately, they were perceived as a sickly one and a social outsider, and were not respected as social models of appropriate water-boiling behavior by the other women. The village opinion leaders, who could have activated local networks to spread the innovation, were ignored by Nelida.
How potential adopters view the change agent affects their willingness to adopt new ideas. In Los Molinas, Nelida was perceived differently by lowerand middle-status housewives. Most poor families saw the health worker as a "snooper" sent to Los Molinas to pry for dirt and to press already harassed housewives into keeping cleaner homes. Because the lower-status housewives had less free time, they were unlikely to talk with Nelida about water boiling. Their contacts outside the community were limited, and as a result, they saw the technically proficient Nelida with eyes bound by the social horizons and traditional beliefs of Los Molinas. They distrusted this outsider, whom they perceived as a social stranger. Nelida, who was middle class by Los Molinas standards, was able to secure more positive results from housewives whose socioeconomic level and cultural background were more similar to hers. This tendency for more effective communication to occur with those who are more similar to a change agent occurs in most diffusion campaigns.
Nelida was too "innovation-oriented" and not "client-oriented" enough. Unable to put herself in the role of the village housewives, her attempts at persuasion failed to reach her clients because the message was not suited to their needs. Nelida did not begin where the villagers were; instead she talked to them about germ theory, which they could not (and probably did not need to) understand. These are only some of the factors that produced the diffusion failure in Los Molinas. Once the remainder of the book has been read, it will be easier to understand the water-boiling case.
This ease illustration is based on Wellin (1955).
What Is Diffusion?
Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. It is a special type of communication, in that the messages are concerned with new ideas. Communication is a process in which participants create and share information with one another in order to reach a mutual understanding. This definition implies that communication is a process of convergence (or divergence) as two or more individuals exchange information in order to move toward each other (or apart) in the meanings that they give to certain events. We think of communication as a two-way process of convergence, rather than as a one-way, linear act in which one individual seeks to transfer a message to another in order to achieve certain effects (Rogers and Kincaid, 1981). A linear conception of human communication may accurately describe certain communication acts or events involved in diffusion, such as when a change agent seeks to persuade a client to adopt an innovation. But when we look at what came before such an event, and at what follows, we often realize that the event is only one part of a total process in which information is exchanged between the two individuals. For example, the client may come to the change agent with a problem, and the innovation is recommended as a possible solution to this need. The change agent-client interaction may continue through several cycles, as a process of information exchange.
So diffusion is a special type of communication, in which the messages are about a new idea. This newness of the idea in the message content gives diffusion its special character. The newness means that some degree of uncertainty is involved in diffusion.
Uncertainty is the degree to which a number of alternatives are perceived with respect to the occurrence of an event and the relative probability of these alternatives. Uncertainty implies a lack of predictability, of structure, of information. In fact, information is a means of reducing uncertainty. Information is a difference in matter-energy that affects uncertainty in a situation where a choice exists among a set of alternatives (Rogers and Kincaid, 1981, p. 64). By differences in matter-energy we mean inked letters on paper, sound waves traveling through the air, or an electrical current in a copper wire. Information can thus take many forms, as matter or energy. A technological innovation embodies information and thus reduces uncertainty about cause-effect relationships in problem-solving. For instance, adoption of residential solar panels for water heating reduces uncertainty about future increases in the cost of fuel.
Diffusion is a kind of social change, defined as the process by which alteration occurs in the structure and function of a social system. When new ideas are invented, diffused, and are adopted or rejected, leading to certain consequences, social change occurs. Of course, such change can happen in other ways, too, for example, through a political revolution, through a natural event like a drought or an earthquake, or by means of a government regulation.
Some authors restrict the term "diffusion" to the spontaneous, unplanned spread of new ideas, and use the concept of "dissemination" for diffusion that is directed and managed. In this book we use the word "diffusion" to include both the planned and the spontaneous spread of new ideas.
Controlling Scurvy in the British Navy: Innovations Do Not Sell Themselves
Many technologists believe that advantageous innovations will sell themselves, that the obvious benefits of a new idea will be widely realized by potential adopters, and that the innovation will therefore diffuse rapidly. Seldom is this the case. Most innovations, in fact, diffuse at a disappointingly slow rate.
Scurvy control illustrates how slowly an obviously beneficial innovation spreads (Mosteller, 1981). In the early days of long sea voyages, scurvy was a worse killer of sailors than warfare, accidents, and all other causes of death. For instance, of Vasco de Gama's crew of 160 men who sailed with him around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, 100 died of scurvy. In 1601, an English sea captain, James Lancaster, conducted an experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of lemon juice in preventing scurvy. Captain Lancaster commanded four ships that sailed from England on a voyage to India; he served three teaspoonfuls of lemon juice every day to the sailors in one of his four ships. Most of these men stayed healthy. But on the other three ships, by the halfway point in the journey, 110 out of 278 sailors had died from scurvy. The three ships constituted Lancaster's "control group"; they were not given any lemon juice. So many of these sailors became sick that Lancaster had to transfer men from his "treatment" ship in order to staff the three other ships.
The results were so clear that one would expect the British Navy to adopt citrus juice for scurvy prevention on all its ships. But it was not until 1747, about 150 years later, that James Lind, a British Navy physician who knew of Lancaster's results, carried out another experiment on the HMS Salisbury. To each scurvy patient on this ship, Lind prescribed either two oranges and one lemon, or one of five other diets: A half-pint of sea water, six spoonfuls of vinegar, a quart of cider, nutmeg, or seventy-five drops of vitriol elixir. The scurvy patients who got the citrus fruits were cured in a few days, and were able to help Dr. Lind care for the other patients. Unfortunately, the supply of oranges and lemons was exhausted in six days.
Certainly, with this further solid evidence of the ability of citrus fruits to combat scurvy, one would expect the British Navy to adopt this technological innovation for all ship's crews on long sea voyages, and in fact, it did so. But not until 1795, forty-eight years later. Scurvy was immediately wiped out. And after only seventy more years, in 1865, the British Board of Trade adopted a similar policy, and eradicated scurvy in the merchant marine.
Why were the authorities so slow to adopt the idea of citrus for scurvy prevention? A clear explanation is not available, but other, competing remedies for scurvy were also being proposed, and each such cure had its champions. For example, Captain Cook's reports from his voyages in the Pacific did not provide support for curing scurvy with citrus fruits. Further, Dr. Lind was not a prominent figure in the field of naval medicine, and so his experimental findings did not get much attention in the British Navy. While scurvy prevention was generally resisted for years by the British Navy, other innovations like new ships and new guns were accepted readily. So the Admiralty did not resist all innovations.
This case illustration is based on Mosteller (1981).
Obviously more than just a beneficial innovation is necessary for its diffusion and adoption to occur. The reader may think that such slow diffusion could happen only in the distant past, before a scientific and experimental approach to evaluating innovations. We answer by calling the reader's attention to the contemporary case of the nondiffusion of the Dvorak typewriter keyboard.
Nondiffusion of the Dvorak Keyboard
Most of us who use a typewriter or who do word processing on a computer do not realize that our fingers tap out words on a keyboard that is called "QWERTY," named after the first six keys on the upper row of letters. The QWERTY keyboard is inefficient and awkward. This typewriter keyboard takes twice as long to learn as it should, and makes us work about twenty times harder than is necessary. But QWERTY has persisted since 1873, and today unsuspecting individuals are being taught to use the QWERTY keyboard, unaware that a much more efficient typewriter keyboard is available.
Where did QWERTY come from? Why does it continue to be used, instead of much more efficient alternative keyboard designs? QWERTY was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, who designed this keyboard to slow down typists. In that day, the type-bars on a typewriter hung down in a sort of basket, and pivoted up to strike the paper; then they fell back in place by gravity. When two adjoining keys were struck rapidly in succession, they jammed. Sholes rearranged the keys on a typewriter keyboard to minimize such jamming; he "anti-engineered" the arrangement to make the most commonly used letter sequences awkward. By thus making it difficult for a typist to operate the machine, and slowing down typing speed, Sholes' QWERTY keyboard allowed these early typewriters to operate satisfactorily. His design was used in the manufacture of all typewriters. Early typewriter salesmen could impress customers by pecking out "TYPEWRITER" as all of the letters necessary to spell this word were found in one row of the QWERTYUIOP machine.
Prior to about 1900, most typists used the two-finger, hunt-and-peek system. Later, as touch typing became popular, dissatisfaction with the QWERTY typewriter began to grow. Typewriters became mechanically more efficient, and the QWERTY keyboard design was no longer necessary to prevent key jamming. The search for an improved design was led by Professor August Dvorak at the University of Washington, who in 1932 used time-and-motion studies to create a much more efficient keyboard arrangement. The Dvorak keyboard has the letters A,O,E,U,I,D,H,T,N, and S across the home row of the typewriter. Less frequently used letters were placed on the upper and lower rows of keys. About 70 percent of typing is done on the home row, 22 percent on the upper row, and 8 percent on the lower row. On the Dvorak keyboard, the amount of work assigned to each finger is proportionate to its skill and strength. Further, Professor Dvorak engineered his keyboard so that successive keystrokes fell on alternative hands; thus, while a finger on one hand is stroking a key, a finger on the other hand can be moving into position to hit the next key. Typing rhythm is thus facilitated; this hand alternation was achieved by putting the vowels (which represent 40 percent of all letters typed) on the left-hand side, and placing the major consonants that usually accompany these vowels on the right-hand side of the keyboard.
Professor Dvorak was thus able to avoid the typing inefficiencies of the QWERTY keyboard. For instance, QWERTY overloads the left hand, which must type 57 percent of ordinary copy. The Dvorak keyboard shifts this emphasis to 56 percent on the stronger fight hand and 44 percent on the weaker left hand. Only 32 percent of typing is done on the home row with the QWERTY system, compared to 70 percent with the Dvorak keyboard. The newer arrangement requires less jumping back and forth from row to row; with the QWERTY keyboard, a good typists' fingertips travel more than twelve miles a day, jumping from row to row. These unnecessary intricate movements cause mental tension, typist fatigue, and lead to more typographical errors.
One might expect, on the basis of its overwhelming advantages, that the Dvorak keyboard would have completely replaced the inferior QWERTY keyboard. On the contrary, after more than 50 years, almost all typists are still using the inefficient QWERTY keyboard. Even though the American National Standards Institute and the Equipment Manufacturers Association have approved the Dvorak keyboard as an alternate design, it is still almost impossible to find a typewriter or a computer keyboard that is arranged in the more efficient layout. Vested interests are involved in hewing to the old design: Manufacturers, sales outlets, typing teachers, and typists themselves.
No, technological innovations are not always diffused and adopted rapidly. Even when the innovation has obvious, proven advantages.
As the reader may have guessed by now, the present pages were typed on a QWERTY keyboard.
Details on resistance to the Dvorak keyboard may be found in Dvorak and others (1936), Parkinson (1972), Lessley (1980), and David (1986a).
Four Main Elements in the Diffusion of Innovations
Previously we defined diffusion as the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. The four main elements are the innovation, communication channels, time, and the social system (Figure 1-1). These elements are identifiable in every diffusion research study, and in every diffusion campaign or program (like the diffusion of water-boiling in a Peruvian village).
The following description of these four elements in diffusion constitutes an overview of the main concepts that will be detailed in Chapters 2 through 11.
1. The Innovation
An innovation is an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. It matters little, so far as human behavior is concerned, whether or not an idea is objectively new as measured by the lapse of time since its first use or discovery. The perceived newness of the idea for the individual determines his or her reaction to it. If the idea seems new to the individual, it is an innovation.
Newness in an innovation need not just involve new knowledge. Someone may have known about an innovation for some time but not yet developed a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward it, nor have adopted or rejected it. "Newness" of an innovation may be expressed in terms of knowledge, persuasion, or a decision to adopt.
Among the important research questions addressed by diffusion scholars are (1) how the earlier adopters differ from the later adopters of an innovation (Chapter 7), (2) how the perceived attributes of an innovation, such as its relative advantage or compatibility affect its rate of adoption, whether relatively rapidly (as for Innovation I in Figure 1-1) or more slowly (Innovation III), as is detailed in Chapter 6, and (3) why the S-shaped diffusion curve "takes off" at about 10- to 25-percent adoption, when interpersonal networks become activated so that a critical mass of adopters begins using an innovation (Chapter 8). It should not be assumed that the diffusion and adoption of all innovations are necessarily desirable. Some harmful and uneconomical innovations are not desirable for either the individual or the social system. Further, the same innovation may be desirable for one adopter in one situation, but undesirable for another potential adopter in a different situation. For example, mechanical tomato-pickers have been adopted rapidly by large commercial farmers in California, but these machines were too expensive for small tomato growers, and thousands of farmers have thus been forced out of tomat
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- July 2010