Rediscovering The Diffusion of Innovations by Rogers

Every scholar working in communication and technology should make it a point to read Everett Rogers, The Diffusion of Innovations. In addition to proposing what have become foundational concepts across so many academic disciplines and practical interventions, concepts such as adopter categories and the innovation-diffusion curve, the text is an important exemplar for understanding a research program based in a perspective heavily based in social psychology and a soft form of technological determinism — what I’ve called the Technology as Change Agent perspective (see my research page to get the articles).

The influence of the text is, in some measure, tragic.  It laid out a set of concepts, terminologies, generalizations, and research questions in a such a clear, systematic, and coherent manner that it became a sort of guidebook for any number of researchers across disciplines including communication, marketing, public opinion, international development, media, and even software engineering.  Its lucidity has meant that it speaks more as an honored elder, and less as an active participant in current discussions and debates about communication and technology. If it has been some time since you engaged Rogers directly (as opposed to through a secondary source or even your own lecture notes!), I suggest that it would be worth returning to take a closer look at the primary text.

I reread Rogers this week in preparation to my graduate seminar. Rather than having the bookstore get the text, I just asked that each student get a copy on his or her own. Among the 5 of us, we had 3 copies of the 3rd edition, 1 of the 4th, and 1 of the 5th (published 40 years after the first edition!). Remarkable to me — though not immediately obvious to the students — was the way in which the later editions revisioned or reconceptualized technologies. In keeping with more general trends across communication studies, the editions moved toward a more constructionist perspective. The 3rd edition contained sections that referred to innovations as having intrinsic informational content — essential properties that allowed them an entitativeness outside of use. These sections were deleted by the 5th.

Because I was using my trusty grad-school copy (3rd edn), I didn’t find out about these changes until a few minutes into our discussion as I was rendering some passage from my text with students reporting that the passage was absent from their later editions. I now realize I need to go back and investigate this mystery…how does one of the quintessential sequential models of diffusion reconcile itself with constructionist and emergent assumptions?

References

  • To learn more about the amazing influence of Rogers and his work, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everett_Rogers
  • Houston, R.H. & Jackson, M.H.. (2003).Technology and context within research on international development programs. Communication Theory, 13, 57-77.
  • Jackson, M.H. (1996). The meaning of “communication technology”: The technology-context scheme. In B. Burleson, (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 19 (pp. 229-268). Beverly Hills: Sage.
  • Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.
  • Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of innovations (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.