Diffusion of Information

Research does not automatically translate into new practices in the field. There is a process of adoption that any new technology has to go through in order to be “successful” and to make any difference. During the 1950s, social scientists began to study that process in agriculture, and these studies were later applied to many other technological advances, not just in agriculture.

In the 40s, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University, Bryce Ryan, studied the process that Iowa farmers went through as they learned about and then adopted hybrid corn varieties during the 30s. They found that there was a core group of innovative farmers who experimented with this new technology. Then their neighbors saw how well the hybrids performed and they adopted the new varieties.

Other scientists studied the social and psychological processes involved in adopting new technology. They developed a theory of technological adoption lifecycle. Then, Everett Rogers formalized much of this work in 1962 in his classic book, The Diffusion of Innovations. What Rogers suggested was that there were several categories of individuals involved in the adoption cycle:

  • Innovators are the first to try promising new technologies. They generally pay attention to the research studies as they are published. They go to “field days” at research farms and lectures by extension specialists where the research is presented. They are generally younger, more cosmopolitan and have higher incomes than later adopters. They are willing to take a risk and have the money to support it. They are generally respected, but they do not enjoy the highest prestige in the community. Sometimes they’re ridiculed by their more conservative neighbors – as Dean Buller saw when some of his neighbors first tried irrigation. The innovators are watched but not necessarily followed. In response, they ignore any criticism. Rogers suggested that only a few farmers are true innovators, probably less than 5 percent.
  • Early adopters will follow the innovators if they see that the new technology is working. These farmers still tend to be younger than most of the community and may have more education. According to Rogers and others, they are the opinion leaders, participate in more formal activities in the community and may be the elected leaders. When the early adopters decide that a new technology has promise, their neighbors tend to respect these opinions. Rogers suggested that early adopters make up between 12 and 15 percent of the community.
  • Early majority. Up to a third of farmers fall into this category. The early majority are slightly above average in age, education and farming experience. They are in the middle of social and economic status. Because they don’t have as much money to risk on new technology, they must be sure an idea will work before they adopt it. Where the innovators and early adopters will travel to get new information, the early majority farmer tends to associate mainly in his or her own community.
  • Late majority. Another third of the farmers in a community fall into this group. They tend to have less education and are older than the average farmer. They participate in farm and community organizations but do not tend to be the leaders. They would adopt a new technology when it had become general practice by most of the rest of the community.
  • Laggards. Members of Rogers’ final group were labeled laggards. They tended to be the least educated, the oldest and the most isolated. They had the smallest farms and the least money or any group. Many were suspicious of county extension agents and agricultural salesmen.

Other researchers looked at the characteristics of the innovations themselves. What they found was that the new technologies had to demonstrate a clear relative advantage over the old practice. So, for example, when new hybrid corn varieties produced yields that were 20 percent better, farmers quickly noticed and adopted the new varieties.

The new varieties were also still corn – in other words, the plants were not radically different. They could still be planted, cultivated and harvested with the equipment that farmers had. That was the second characteristic of a successful innovation; it has to be consistent with existing cultural patterns.

Beulah Gocke InterviewWilliam Luebbe InterviewBeulah Gocke has seen how new fertilizer and hybrid crop technologies have been adopted by farmers. She says that when farmers tried the new, higher cost fertilizers and hybrids, “in the fall, you could see the improvements already in your crop. That kind of opened eyes.” But, the most important information source about new technology was your neighbor. “It had to be proven,” she says. “And it was proved more locally by people using it, more than the advertising hype and stuff we see now.”

William Luebbe says that the diffusion of information often happens in mundane ways but the best information comes from solid research. “You just drive down the road and you see a good crop and then you ask the guy how he raised it,” he says. But beware of where you get some of the information – like in a bar. “The guys that exchange information there, it isn’t hardly worth remembering, especially after they’ve had four drinks or more.”

Successful innovations are generally evolutionary, less complex, divisible, readily observable, low cost and profitable. They are also congruent with previous innovations. So, in other words, once hybrid corn was adopted, hybrid sorghum or hybrid soybeans were more easily adopted.

There are also stages that each individual farmer will go through before he or she will adopt a new technology:

  • Awareness. The farmer knows of the existence of the innovation but lacks details.
  • Information. The farmer becomes interested and seeks out further information usually from formal sources.
  • Evaluation. The farmer takes the information and weighs alternatives regarding land, labor, capital and management needs.
  • Trial. Usually farmers will use the innovation on a small-scale basis.
  • Adoption. The farmer moves to a full-scale use of the innovation.

Other research suggested that this process is not always one-way. In other words, conditions may change, and the farmer may decide to return to the old technology if the new is no longer profitable or efficient.

The diffusion of innovation matters because the agribusiness companies, land grant colleges and research institutions paid attention and used the theory to help get the word out about new products and techniques. So, if the innovations of the last 50 years had been ignored or adopted more slowly, food prices would be higher, productivity would be down and literally millions around the world would have starved. The Green Revolution might not have happened without the science of diffusion of innovation.

But there have been critics of the diffusion literature and its use by research institutions, particularly when it is applied to international development.

For instance, in 1972, Jim Hightower reviewed the impact that two parallel innovations had, the mechanical tomato harvester and a hybrid tomato that would stand up to the jostling of the new harvester. The two innovations are credited with saving the tomato industry in California. But in the process, only the largest growers survived. Where there had been 4,000 farmers who worked their crops using migrant and hired farm laborers, only 600 large growers remained. Thousands of farm workers lost their jobs and, presumably, moved to the cities. And consumers began complaining that the tomatoes they bought in groceries were tougher and not as flavorful.

Internationally, studies have shown that the way new technologies have been introduced has favored the largest, wealthiest farmers. The income gap between the wealthiest and poorest farmers widened after new technologies were introduced in Latin America.

The critics have pointed out several negative factors:

  • There is a “pro-innovation” bias. It is generally assumed that all new technology is inherently good. But, in fact, there may be negative consequences that are foreseen.
  • There is a bias toward larger and wealthier farmers. These are the individuals who are most receptive and most likely to adopt the new idea, so most of the information has been targeted at them. Those who need help the most are ignored.
  • On the other hand, those who don’t adopt a technology quickly are termed “laggards” and are blamed for their lack of response. There is an “individual-blame” bias. Critics say the companies, development agencies and research institutions should respond to the needs of all farmers.
  • There are equality issues. Will an innovation cause unemployment or migration in rural communities? Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Have the negative impacts of an innovation been considered?

Many in the development institutions are now considering these critiques. There are efforts to develop and advocate appropriate technologies in agricultural and other research fields. The needs of small scale farmers are being considered. Ag journalists are trying to get the message to those who are hardest to reach. In some areas in the developing world, cooperatives are being encouraged so that high technology can be shared within a disadvantaged community. And the consequences of innovation are being studied.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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