Diffusion theory

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The term diffusion theory summarizes the theoretical concepts of diffusion and adoption in specialist areas such as sociology , communication science or business administration . Diffusion theory deals with the processes that are triggered by the introduction and diffusion of innovations in a social system such as that of the market. Innovations are all ideas, processes and objects that are subjectively perceived as new for a social group. This can e.g. B. also include messages.

Diffusion models

Typical functional course of the growth and saturation models

Diffusion and life cycle models try to describe growth and saturation processes and assume that the time series to be analyzed will approach a saturation limit in the longer term. Diffusion models differ from life cycle models in that they do not depict degeneration. A typical representative of this model variant is the bass diffusion model. In palaeosociology in particular, the preferred use of diffusion theory to explain the spread of innovations in several or through several cultures is called diffusionism . Comparative political science also knows a special political diffusion theory .

Research history

Among the founders of diffusion research were the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde with his work Les lois de l'imitation (“The Laws of Imitation”, 1890, French new edition Paris 1993). Similar to Schumpeter , an invention becomes a starting point for processes of imitation for Tarde. At the time of the invention, its importance cannot yet be assessed. It is only through the imitative spread that new application possibilities arise.

German, Austrian and American anthropologists, ethnologists and anthropogeographers such as Friedrich Ratzel , Leo Frobenius and Franz Boas used diffusionistic explanatory models of cultural development and thus rejected evolutionist models according to which all cultures go through analogous stages of development.

Since the 1930s, the spread of new agricultural technologies, e.g. B. New high-yielding seed varieties in the Midwest of the USA to be investigated for some important pilot studies in diffusion research. Such a study of the distribution of hybrid corn seeds in Iowa by Ryan & Gross led to the diffusion paradgima becoming established in research and subsequently being carried over to the health sector and more and more areas.

Process of adoption

The starting point of the modeling is the adoption theory, which describes on the individual level the factors that lead to an adoption (adoption) or rejection (rejection) of an innovation. Diffusion curves can be derived from the aggregation of individual adoption processes. They describe the proportion of people who have already accepted an innovation. The duration and intensity of the diffusion processes depend on personal, environmental and product-related, but also on spatial (see diffusion research ) determinants and available communication channels, such as the level of education and income of the customer, the complexity and need for explanation of the new products, the constraints of information flows and the spatial networking of information carriers.

The adoption theory of the diffusion approach assumes that the innovation decision-making process is primarily determined by the individual demands of the technology adopter, the characteristics of the innovation and the framework conditions of the adoption process. The decision-making process is divided into different phases and different types of adopters are defined (innovators, early adopters, early majority, etc.). These different adopters are only ready to consider adoption in their own phase: at the beginning of the diffusion, practically only innovators can be assumed that they are considering adoption; the next group of early adopters usually does not consider adoption until a large number of innovators have adopted the new. The early majority also tend to wait and see whether the early adopters accept the new and are satisfied with it; only then do they consider their own adoption; the same applies to the following groups. Supporting the diffusion process is therefore particularly successful with the group that is currently up-to-date; The way in which the new is presented also sensibly follows the needs of the current group (innovators are looking for new things; early and late majorities are looking for what has been tried and tested).

The willingness to adopt is explained, among other things, by socio-economic factors (education, age, income), personality-related factors (attitude towards new things, curiosity) and communication-behavioral factors (type and quality of interaction and communication with the social unit). The decision to take over is followed by implementation, application and use. Depending on how the experience with the use turns out, the decision may be confirmed or revised. The sociologist Everett M. Rogers (1931-2004) names factors such as relative advantage (subjectively perceived improvement over the status quo), compatibility (compatibility of a technology with experiences, values ​​and needs), complexity (subjective complexity ) as promoting or inhibiting the decision to adopt of new technologies), trialability (testability, e.g. access to test applications) and the communicability of the innovation, e.g. through lighthouse projects.

The decision to innovate according to Everett M. Rogers

According to the theory of sociologist Everett M. Rogers (1931–2004), the decision to accept or reject an innovation is not a spontaneous reaction, but a social process that extends over a certain period of time and includes a series of actions. He differentiates between the following stages of this adoption process:

  • Knowledge, learned about an innovation
  • Persuasion, to be convinced of an innovation in a positive or negative sense
  • Decision to decide for or against an innovation
  • Implementation, implement innovation
  • Confirmation, confirm the innovation decision and continue to use or reverse it

At all stages of the process an attempt is made to reduce the existing uncertainty regarding the new idea. This happens e.g. B. by obtaining information through various communication channels or testing the innovation. The implementation phase - the application - is only reached when an innovation has properties relevant for adoption, including a high relative advantage, low complexity, high compatibility, high testability and high observability.

The knowledge phase

At the beginning of the adoption process there is the knowledge phase, in which an individual or an organization first learns about the existence of an innovation. Here the question arises: which comes first, the need or the awareness of an innovation? With individual innovations, the problem is there first (e.g. a disease) and then the solution (remedy) is sought. With other innovations, the solution is there first (e.g. the hard disk recorder ) and then the problem is looked for ( video cassettes lying around ). Innovations can create needs and vice versa. Rogers takes the position within diffusion research that humans do not take a passive role in the knowledge phase. Rather, they receive the knowledge with an individual inclination, which influences whether and how they perceive the news about innovations and what effects they have as a result. Rogers is referring to Edward W. Hassinger , who states that people rarely perceive an innovation when there is no need for change. You only perceive an innovation when it is classified as relevant and corresponds to your own values.

There are three types of knowledge that play a role in this phase:

  1. awareness-knowlege: awareness of the existence of an innovation
  2. How-to-knowledge: Basic understanding of how an innovation works and can be applied. The more complex the innovation, the more people value this point.
  3. Principles-Knowledge: Understanding of underlying processes of innovation.

People who find out about an innovation early on:

  • are better educated
  • have a higher social status
  • are more exposed to the mass media
  • have more contact with different people, including members of their peer group or the change agents
  • are more open to the world.
Persuasion phase

In this phase a person develops an attitude towards innovation. In doing so, she can adopt a positive, indifferent or even negative attitude. It is no longer just a matter of rational arguments; feelings are more important. In order to further reduce the existing uncertainty, the person actively searches for further sources of information and questions them. Interpersonal communication within one's own social group plays an important role here. The person develops ideas about how the innovation could be used in their subjective context. The main question is what advantages and disadvantages result from this.

In this phase topics are like

  • relative advantages
  • compatibility
  • and complexity

particularly important.

A positive attitude towards innovation does not necessarily lead to implementation.

Decision phase

In this phase a person decides whether to reject or accept the innovation. One way to remove the uncertainty about the success of the innovation is to test it. Testing increases the likelihood of dissemination and in many cases it is sufficient for an opinion maker from the social group concerned to do so. A demonstration of the innovation also has a reinforcing effect on an acceptance of the innovation.

At this point, too, the person can again decide not to use an innovation. There are two types of rejection:

  • Active rejection: The person deliberately decides against an innovation
  • Passive rejection, including non-adoption: The person didn't really consider introducing the innovation.
Implementation phase

Implementation begins when the data subject takes an active role and applies the innovation. This usually follows the decision-making phase, unless the innovation is e.g. B. not available at short notice. In many cases an innovation is not exactly adopted, but partially modified according to individual needs (re-invention).

Although the decision to adapt has been made, there are still uncertainties in this phase. The more people are involved in the decision-making process and the innovation has to be integrated into the existing system, the greater these are. Questions arise mainly about the problem-free functioning. "Change agents" play a supporting role in the form of technical assistance. The implementation phase can take a long time. It ends when the innovation has become an integral part of the system and thus loses its "innovative character".

Confirmation phase

Empirical studies show that the decision for or against an innovation is often revised. A significant number of people also look for more information after the decision to innovate to confirm their decision. About the same number of people as the early adopters revise their own decision and stop using the innovation.

People and organizations are constantly trying to reduce cognitive dissonances through new knowledge, through their own attitude or through actions.

  • When a person realizes that they have a need and is actively looking for a solution. This happens in the knowledge phase.
  • When a person learns about an innovation and takes a positive attitude, but the innovation has not yet started ( KAP gap ). This state occurs in the decision and implementation phase.
  • After the person has implemented the innovation and is convinced by outside information that the decision was wrong. This process can also run the other way around, the person has decided against an innovation and retrospectively thinks about it.

It is usually difficult for the person to reverse a decision they have made. Often the search for new information will be very selective in terms of your own decision.

If the organization or the person interrupts the use of an innovation, this usually happens for two reasons:

  • Replacement with a new innovation
  • Disappointment.

Disappointment comes from, among other things

  • Failure to perform as expected
  • wrong use.

The wrong use of an innovation is particularly observed among later adopters . Research shows that the "dropouts" often have a more formal education, have a lower social status and have less contact with the "change agents". This is the opposite of innovators.

The conclusion is that innovations with a low relative advantage have a slow diffusion rate but a high abandonment rate. In contrast, innovations with a high relative advantage spread quickly and also show low abandonment rates.

See also


  • Veronika Karnowski: Diffusion theory (= concepts. 6). 2nd updated edition. Baden-Baden, Nomos 2017, ISBN 978-3-8487-2249-5 .
  • Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. Free Press et al., New York NY et al. 1962 (5th edition, ibid. 2003, ISBN 978-0-7432-2209-9 ).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Bryce Ryan, Neal C. Gross: The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities. In: Rural Sociology. Vol. 8, No. 1, 1943, ISSN  0036-0112 , pp. 15-24, ( digitized version ).
  2. Olof Leps: Use and acceptance of e-government specialist applications in public administration. An empirical analysis using the example of the European internal market information system. Logos Verlag, Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-8325-4272-6 , p. 33.
  3. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , pp. 161 ff.
  4. ^ Edward Hassinger: The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities. In: Rural Sociology. Vol. 24, No. 1, 1959, pp. 52-53, ( digitized ).
  5. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , p. 166 f.
  6. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , p. 167 ff.
  7. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , pp. 171 f.
  8. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , p. 172 ff.
  9. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , pp. 174 ff.
  10. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , p. 180 ff.
  11. Everett M. Rogers: Diffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. Free Press, New York NY et al. 1995, ISBN 0-02-874074-2 , pp. 182 f.