What do corn and communication have in common? Together, they helped piece together one of the most popular general systems theories in the field of communication, namely the Diffusion of Innovation. Back in 1943, Bruce Ryan and Neal Gross studied the diffusion of hybrid seed corn innovation amongst farmers in Iowa (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995). Their investigation included four main elements of diffusion, including:
- a specific innovation
- processes of interpersonal & mass communication that created awareness of the item
- a specific kind of social system
- Different individual types that make decisions at various stages of diffusion
Their findings suggested the important role of interpersonal networks in the diffusion process in a system. Within the farming community, they found that the exchange of farmers??? personal experiences with hybrid seed was at the heart of diffusion. This was illustrated by observing that when enough farmers adopted hybrid seed corn, the rate of adoption took off. In 1962, Everett Rogers contributed on their findings by studying this diffusion phenomenon in articles across the disciplines and producing the five stages of the adoption process, namely awareness, interest, evaluation, trial and finally, adoption. Rogers also refined their distinctions between the early accepters, early adopters, the majority and later accepters by producing the popular Diffusion of Innovation Curve and a corresponding defined set of individual adopter types, including innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards, each with their own location on the adoption curve.
Everett Rogers explained Diffusion of Innovations as a theory that analyzes, as well as helps explain, the adaptation of a new innovation. It helps to explain the process of social change. An innovation is an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption. The perceived newness of the idea for the individual determines his/her reaction to it (Rogers, 1995). As a result, diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. Thus, the four main elements of the theory are the innovation, communication channels, time, and the social system.
The realization of the Diffusion of Innovations theory might seem simple at first, but various other earlier works were critical in helping communication researchers arrive at it. The Two-Step Flow of Communication was a hypothesis that was under considerable examination. Elihu Katz (1957) hypothesized that ???ideas flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from these to the less active sections of the population???. Through a series of studies which were increasingly more refined over time, researchers found that the two-step flow model only accounted for one aspect of interpersonal relations, as a channel of communication. Interpersonal relations influences decision-making in more ways including as channels of information (two-step flow emphasized on this only), as sources of social pressure, as well as sources of social support. The Two-Step Flow of Communication was an early hypothesis (similar to the magic/silver bullet theory of communication) which is dated, but served as a stepping stone in developing the more defined Diffusion of Innovation Theory.
Couple the Diffusion of Innovation theory with the network metrics from the Network Level Analysis (Monge, 1987) and the various groups and affiliations as illustrated in Georg Simel???s ???The Web of Group-Affiliation??? (1955), we now have a comprehensive set of tools for understanding and managing communication within networks. We can see how useful these theories are especially in the age of the Internet, where a trend has been to understand social networks in an online environment. One advantage of the measuring social networks on the Internet is that the data we need is quite accessible as tracking web links, server logs, tracking email relationships, and so on.
Simmel, G. (1955). The web of group-affiliations. Conflict and the web of group-affiliations (pp. 128-195. New York, the Free Press.
Lowery, S.A. & DeFleur, M.L. (1995). The Iowa study of hybrid seed corn. Milestones in mass communication research: Media effects (pp. 115-134). White Plains, N.Y.: Longman.
Katz, E. (1957). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis. Public Opinion Quarterly 21, 61-78.
Monge, P. R. (1987). The network level of analysis. In C. R. Berger & S. H. Chaffee (Eds.). Handbook of communication science (pp. 239-270). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.