By Jessie Christensen
This chapter is an interview with Peter Korsching conducted and compiled by Jessie Christensen. Peter Korsching is an Emeritus Professor at Iowa State University. Korsching’s work focuses mostly on the interrelationships between agriculture and rural areas and the continuing viability. This also includes the examination of public policies that affect rural areas, adoption and diffusion of new technologies, conservation of natural resources, and strategies for rural development. Korsching’s major interests are in the application of human ecology theory and explanations of changes in rural society. Peter Korsching collaborated with Everett Rogers while working at Iowa State University.
J. Christensen: Based on your perspective, what are some of the important topics in the area of diffusion and change?
P. Korsching: Innovation Diffusion and the Information Age. It could be a new paradigm. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. You can decide just how much of a new paradigm this is. This formulation is grounded in three components of science. One, obviously, is theory — partly diffusion theory, partly community theory, partly just general sociology theory. Second, some of it is based in research — my own research and the research of others. The third basis of this is SWAG. --- But I don’t want to be flippant about it because much of scientific knowledge has developed just that way. Things don’t work out exactly the way you want them to in your research, your hypothesis doesn’t hold up, so you make some guesses. You create new hypotheses and begin exploring those. What I’m doing in part is making some guesses, perhaps that somebody else then can take and address through research. My stage of career is beyond starting any new research projects, but hopefully I can give the impetus for someone else to maybe move forward with some of these ideas.
J. Christensen: What are some of the basic concepts about diffusion of innovations?
P. Korsching: Lets with some basic definitions to make sure that we’re all thinking along the same lines. These definitions, to a large extent, are from Rogers. Innovation is an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as being new. Of course, perceived by the person you’re expecting to adopt the innovation, not yourself. Adoption is a social-psychological decision-making process to either use or reject whatever the idea or technology happens to be. And, diffusion is the process of communicating an innovation through certain channels over time among members of a social system.
Now, a couple of additional concepts, uncertainty and risk. What’s the difference between uncertainty and risk?
Uncertainty — lack of predictability — is to some degree a part of all innovations, some more than others. Risk usually accompanies uncertainty. Risk is a perception of a potential loss. With uncertainty, you just don’t know what’s going to happen, but it may not make any difference to you what happens. Risk implies that there’s something of value to you that may be lost in the process if things don’t go right. So, what can overcome uncertainty and risk?
Information reduces uncertainty and risk. In attempts to incorporate more theory into his diffusion book and to provide the basis for the conclusions that were reached, Rogers emphasized the importance of information. One of the strong themes in the fifth edition was the critical role of information in reducing uncertainty and risk that go along with the adoption of any innovation.
J. Christensen: What are some of the theories that influenced your work on diffusion and change?
P. Korsching: Professor Donald Dillman delineates three eras of social change he says we have experienced in the 20th century. The first one (and I’ll go into each one of these in more detail) is the Community Control Era, early 20th century. That was overtaken by the Mass Society, which was the middle part of the 20th century. Then, finally, the current Information Age in which we find ourselves.
Community Control — early 20th century. In this era the community was a local, geographic place; a small place usually. Within big cities there also were smaller entities such as neighborhoods that were often considered to be communities. These were places of very strong identification for the people who lived there. Somebody asks you where you’re from? Well, you’re from Ames or Scottsbluff or Chicago or wherever that happens to be. In the early part of last century, especially before World War I, most people didn’t venture more than about 30 miles from their homes. They were born, lived, and died there, and in all that time, traveling more than 30 miles from home was very unusual. After World War I until World War II that changed somewhat, but it wasn’t until after World War II that real movement started, that the country became mobile and people began to move and travel more readily. Until then, the community was a strong determinant of values, norms, and behavior. In other words, the local community controlled what people did, what they thought, what they believed, their norms, how they acted. That was all part of the local community. Additionally, it controlled the information flow within the community. Since it controlled the information flow, it obviously also controlled the flow of information about innovations. In the original Diffusion Model, the opinion leaders within the community were the ones that controlled the innovation information flow. Once they accepted the innovation, then others within the community would also adopt. It was all part of community control. Of course the epitome of community control was the small Midwest farming community. If you look at Iowa, communities are spread out in the state like no other place in the world. There is a community about every 8 to 10 miles, an ideal distance for community control in the pre-mass society and pre-electronic communication eras. That, briefly, describes the Community Control Era of the early 20th century.
From there, we go to the Mass Society Era, which is the middle part of the last century. In this era, we saw rapid technological development, especially in the areas of transportation and communications that were very important to the diffusion of innovations. The national highway system was developed. Before WWI, you had a few muddy roads that were impassable much of the year when it was snowing or raining. The national highway systems were developed along with reliable and affordable cars that could actually drive on those highways and get you around. National radio and television networks came into existence. Also, reliable air transportation. Further changes included increasing size and agglomeration of regional businesses, and, of course, the role of government, especially national government, in local communities. This included involvement in areas such as health, education, transportation, and agriculture. It’s hard to believe that the government at one point wasn’t involved in all these. When I was in high school, back in the early 1960s, for one year I belonged to the debate club. The topic of debate at that time was whether the federal government should be involved in public education. Now, is that something we’d be debating today? Today we wouldn’t be debating whether the government should be involved, we’d be debating how much money the federal government should be giving to public education. So things have changed. These trends, then, tended to undermine the control of local communities because they opened those communities to the influence of larger society. For community sociologists from the 1940s through the ‘60s, one of the main topics of concern was the loss of local autonomy by communities, both from federal government intrusion and from connections to industry and business. External forces were taking over. Many important decisions affecting local communities were made in places that were far removed from the communities. They were being made in Chicago or New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles or someplace else. As community control was declining, control by the mass society reached its zenith probably in the third quarter of the 20th century.
So then we come to the Information Age, the current age. You all have computers in front of you, so you all are part of it, as am I. We have almost instantaneous access to almost any information that we want. What does that mean? First of all, we have access to the information, but also society as a whole is more educated. People have a much higher level of education, in general, than they did 50-60-70 years ago. In addition to that, people have a real adeptness at using the technologies they have in front of them. The combination of higher education and new technology means that almost anyone can become an expert on almost any topic desired. So, we have much less reliance on others. Of course, that changes the pattern of innovations' diffusion within a community.
Source: Dillman, Don A. “Social Issues Impacting Agriculture and Rural Areas As We Approach the 21st Century.” Pp. 21-52 in Larry R. Whiting, et al. (Eds), Issues Facing Agriculture and Implications for Land-Grant Colleges of Agriculture. The Farm Foundation: Oak Brook IL.
You can see them in the figure from one of Dillman’s publications. It graphically shows the strengths of the three eras. If plotted out, community control would probably go back much farther than the 1900 starting point in the figure, probably somewhere close to the Industrial Revolution. Communities really controlled what occurred locally for a long time. Then, in the middle of the last century, community control started to decline as the mass society became more important in the lives of people here in the United States. The reason it ends at 1985 in the figure is that’s when this article was published. It started to decline as the Information Age emerged. This is when the computers and telecommunications really became important. You can see that the rise is very quick here. Where we currently are is an overlap of all three of those. Community control has not completely died out and it probably never will. People live in communities. I live in Nevada (Iowa) and, to some extent, I have to pay attention to what’s going on locally. If I’m too radical in my behavior, people are going to look down on me. I guess it depends on how thick my skin is whether I can put up with it or not. That will always be with us to some degree. As will mass society. We’re always going to be influenced to some degree by national and international social and economic trends and forces. But the Information Age has become very important.
J. Christensen: We’ve had this discussion before in class, it’s something that has been on our minds. Right now, communities are different. Communities don’t live in the same geographical area. All these students, they are a part of these communities online. Technology, education, and those types of communities are regaining some control. So we were wondering how do all of these changes fit in today?
P. Korsching: Dillman’s community control really refers to the geographic community, which is very different from the virtual community. Now, we get to the point of what does it all mean for the diffusion of innovations, which is the topic here. Well, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Diffusion of Innovations Model was largely developed and refined within the Community Control Era. I’m referring to the geographic community. As I mentioned earlier, the small rural farm community where the original diffusion research was conducted, was kind of the epitome of community control. The strong norms and networks of the close relationships that people had within these communities largely shaped the diffusion curve discovered by researchers when they were attempting to understand hybrid seed corn’s diffusion. They determined the diffusion curve, the adopter categories, the roles of the various actors within the process, relevant information to promote diffusion, and the communication channels that people used. It was all part of the community control era.
Then, as mass society emerged and increased, community control began to decline. So, moving on, those values, norms, and relationships that were part of that original research were compromised by the values, norms, and relationships of the larger society. Diffusion continued to follow the expected normal curve distribution, but there were also problems with the model. Problems included greater overlap in the characteristics of the adopter categories and more variation in the important sources of information in the stages of the decision-making process. In terms of the problem relating to characteristics of the adopter categories, a number of social, demographic, and economic characteristics of potential adopters are important in the diffusion process. For example, in traditional formulations of the model, innovators are highest in education, laggards are lowest, and there’s a continuum from one to the other. That continuum has never been totally consistent. There have always been outliers having higher or lower levels more appropriate to one of the other adopter categories. But, as the values and norms of the larger society impinged on the local community, those categories were even more compromised with further reduced uniqueness of adopter category characteristics.
In relation to the problem of the variation in sources of information in the stages of the decision-making process, researchers initially discovered that the important source of information changed depending on the adoption stage:
- Knowledge: Mass media; product manufacturers; and organizations & agencies.
- Persuasion: Product manufacturers; colleagues & peers; and organizations & agencies.
- Decision: Colleagues & peers; product manufacturers; and organizations & agencies.
Of the three primary sources of information at the Knowledge Stage, the mass media were the most important source. People become aware of innovations primarily through the mass media, and secondarily through product manufacturers, organizations, and agencies that may be promoting innovations. In the next stage, the Persuasion Stage, the potential adopter is closer to actually adopting the innovation, trying to decide what to do, gathering more information. Changes occur in sources of information. Mass media drop out. Product manufacturers become more important. Colleagues and now peers enter, followed by organizations and agencies.
Upon reaching the Decision Stage, what happens? What category is going to be first? Colleagues and peers. Then product manufacturers and then organizations and agencies.
J. Christensen: Why are colleagues and peers more important at this stage than in the earlier stages?
P. Korsching: Trust. Who do you trust? Out of all of these sources, when reaching the point of actually making that decision, what is the source that you trust the most? Somehow, you’d think that colleagues and peers would have your interests at that heart for that decision. It’s credibility. Trust and credibility. Credibility has two aspects. One is expertise. Do they have the knowledge? The other part of that is motivation. What is their motivation for giving you their recommendation? Is it self-centered or are they concerned about your well-being? Product manufacturers want to sell their products. They want you to succeed, of course, so you use the product again, but they want to sell. So they have more of a self interest than colleagues and peers. So, colleagues and peers - primary personal sources - were the sources that were most trusted in the early diffusion research.
Now, my colleagues and I conducted research in the mid 1980’s on farmer adoption of conservation tillage. We asked what sources of information they used in making their decisions. We were surprised because what we found is that the top mentioned source was farm magazines (86%). Second was other farmers (82%). Seventy-seven percent said they used the Soil-Conservation Service (now part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service), the source that would actually have the most information on soil conservation. We were surprised because farm magazines came out on top. We followed up by asking which information source was, first, most timely, then most available, then most knowledgeable, next most trustworthy, and finally most locally relevant. The Soil Conservation Service came out on top on all five. Roughly 50% selected the Soil Conservation Service. But, for most timely, most available, and most knowledgeable, farm magazines were second and farmers were third. In most trustworthy and most locally relevant, that ranking was reversed. Farmers were second and farm magazines were third. Even so, we were surprised that farm magazines made such a strong showing. What was going on here? Why farm magazines? Magazines would be in the mass media category. What was happening is that this was the early stages of information proliferation. In the past, there were a few general farm magazines such as Successful Farming and Wallace’s Farmer. Wallace’s Farmer is the Iowa farm magazine that goes back to the 1850s. In the 1960s, we were seeing a proliferation of magazines in all fields on specific topics. It was kind of the beginning of the information proliferation in which information became available tuned to the needs of almost any specialized interest group. With some assumptions about the proliferation of topic-specific magazines, we concluded that farmers now found there were specific magazines that addressed their interests and needs. We began to see a change in information availability reflected in the changes of information sources among farmers. The secondary impersonal sources were gaining importance. Farmers began to see these information sources as being credible and trustworthy.
As already discussed, research also saw a breakdown in the distribution of adopter category characteristics. The characteristics were more likely to blend across adopter categories. As scholarly research expanded to include geographic groups in units larger than the small farm community researchers relied increasingly on statistical sampling as opposed to interviewing everyone involved in the diffusion process. With these research practices the model still held up — diffusion followed a relatively normal curve that yielded the adopter categories. But the adopter categories were not as mutually exclusive as in early research. Also, the statistically explained variation tended to be lower. What we find, then, is that in retrospect, the model works better within the context in which it was developed, that is, at the local community level with community control social environment principles in operation.
In summary, the Information Age increased availability and use of information. Anyone could quickly get almost any information through radically increased speed and fidelity of computers and telecommunications. Also, society as a whole is more highly educated. People have increasing adeptness in being able to use the technologies to seek information. They can interpret the information so that it becomes meaningful to them and then actually put it to use.
J. Christensen: What are the implications of this?
P. Korsching: First, potential adopters will experience greater exposure to relevant information regarding innovations. Potential innovation adopters no longer need to wait for the opinion leaders to bring information into the community, let them decide whether or not it’s good, and then diffuse it to the other individuals within the community. Anyone can go online to get it.
Furthermore, the diffusion process is less dependent on word of mouth transfer of information. Again, this relates to the opinion leaders. During the Community Control Era, this was the predominant process for the diffusion of innovations. It was by word of mouth, one farmer passing it on to another farmer. In fact, if you look at some of those early extension publications on the diffusion of innovations, they actually have charts showing how the information flowed from one individual to another within a farming community (see Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 2003, p. 293). The key individual in initiating the innovation was, of course the opinion leader/early adopter. Arrows then indicated the flow of information to others through personal, one-on-one, word of mouth communication.
Today there is less reliance on opinion leaders and increasing faith in self-determination. In evaluating the innovations and deciding whether or not they’re relevant people can largely collect the information themselves. They no longer need to look to opinion leaders for the information nor is there the sanctioning threat for moving ahead independently.
There are fewer differences in the characteristics of adopter categories across the diffusion curve. For over 20 years I have been a partner in a marketing research and consulting firm. We use the adoption/diffusion model in much of our research. What we discovered in our research is that those traditional categories of innovator, early adopter, early majority, late majority, and laggard just don’t apply as much as they once did. We assume it may be because people are out there getting their own information. My subtitle for this presentation—A New Paradigm—comes from the fact that the traditional diffusion of innovations model just is not working the way it once did.
The diffusion curve may be much steeper than in the past. People continue to adopt some innovations very slowly, others very quickly, but I think generally with the information being available to just about anyone at any time, the adoption curves will be much steeper than they were in the past. As new technology comes along, the adoption curve may become truncated because people drop the existing technology for the new before the curve is completed. People move on quickly. I’ve still got one of those old flip telephones. Most of you are probably three or four generations beyond that.
An important question here is, do we still have a two or multi-stage information transfer from the source to the community of adopters? Remember the two stage model? Information flows to the opinion leader and from the opinion leader it radiates out to others. Or are we back to the Hypodermic Needle Model? Research in the 1960s and into the ‘70s found that the Hypodermic Needle Model just didn’t work and scholars were promoting the two or multi-stage model of information flow. Have we gone back now to the earlier model in which the information goes directly from wherever the source is to the individual making the decision?
This brings us to another, crucial issue. For many innovations in the Information Age, the relevant community is now simply a network of acquaintances. In other words, it is a virtual community, very different from the traditionally conceptualized community. In sociology textbooks on community, communities are generally identified by three characteristics. One characteristic is social interaction. Obviously, you need a group of people who are interacting with each other and these people have various roles within that group. Along with norms that, in part, determine how they act within the group. So that’s the first characteristic, social interaction. The second characteristic is common ties to hold the people together. Ties include sentiments, beliefs, values, attitudes, and interests. Not everyone will share all these tie components, but they share enough to create a common community life, to stay in that community, and to work with others to make that community as good as possible.
So, we have interaction and common ties. What’s the third element of the traditional definition of community? Proximity! A place! Territory! For most of us, when we think of where we’re from, immediately some place comes to mind. Yet, when it comes to the diffusion of innovations, it’s not all that relevant anymore. So, there is real interaction—people in direct contact with each other, and there is virtual interaction—people in contact through computer or telecommunications mediated networks. The principle defining element of communities that was present in the early adoption research, geographic space, is not relevant for virtual communities. In the community control era, the research population was grounded in the local community, and the community exerted control on behavior through sanctioning power. If you acted the way the community wanted you to act, you received positive reinforcement. If you didn’t, you received negative reinforcement. That sanctioning power, to a degree, controlled whether or not an innovation was introduced and diffused within the community. Mass society began weakening those powers by shifting the points of reference from the local community to the larger society.
For many innovations in the information age, the community is simply a network of acquaintances. Members interact and share interests, but the controlling geographic context no longer exists. The next point I want to make is, what does this mean in relation to opinion leaders? What makes opinion leaders opinion leaders?
Their stature in the community causes others to look to them for leadership and guidance for innovation. They are the people who are knowledgeable about innovations and usually right in their decisions. They’re respected. Other people look up to them for making decisions. But the opinion leaders themselves can’t venture too far beyond the community’s values and norms and still retain the respect of that community. They are embedded in, and, to some degree, hemmed in by the community. They obtain their status in part because they reflect and uphold their community’s norms. Yes, they’re more innovative and out there in front of the others. But if they venture too far, they will lose the community’s respect. In other words, opinion leadership as initially conceptualized was coterminous with a geographic area. That raises the question: Can we have opinion leaders in a virtual community? You can, but do those opinion leaders exert the same sort of influence on you as when you lived (in a community)? What we’re really dealing with here is: What is the relevance of the early research and the original model in today’s world? If you’re living in a small (geographically defined) rural community with all the close relationships, close ties, norms, and networks, you can’t “shut them off”. Most of the sociological literature I have seen on this topic is very theoretical and raises a number of issues. One issue is: To what degree is there the possibility of sanctioning in a virtual community as there is in a physical community? Also, do virtual communities have the close relationship necessary for the development of trust.
J. Christensen: So what are the elements of the new paradigm in diffusion of innovations?
P. Korsching: It’s more a questioning of the old paradigm to determine its relevance in today’s post modern society and to determine if there is a need for a new paradigm. I don’t have the answers in terms of how that relates to virtual communities. In fact, I’m going to raise even more issues. For example, another issue of the Information Age is the difference between broadcast and narrowcast. Are those terms that you’ve heard? Broadcast? Narrowcast? What does broadcast suggest? This gets back to what we talked about earlier in terms of specialization of media sources such as magazines.
We have had the shift from information broadcast to the mass society. If I think back to when I was growing up, the big magazines were Look and Life and Post. These were very general magazines. Each magazine had about 20 articles in it and the articles covered a wide range of topics. Then, starting in the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, there was a proliferation of magazines. Magazines became ever more specialized. Traditionally for Iowa farmers, there was Wallace’s Farmer, Successful Farming, and a few others. Now there were magazines for each farming enterprise and specialty. Communication channels and messages are increasingly customized to meet the needs of specific audiences. You can go online and regardless of what topic you’re interested in, you can probably find someone else who is interested in that topic. You probably can find a long list of Web pages that relate to that topic. And you can narrow the topic down ever further. With this information proliferation audiences use selective perceptions to select only the information that specifically interests them and they ignore everything else. In the early 1950s television consisted of ABC, NBC, and CBS. The local stations that relayed those networks perhaps produced a few of their own shows. In Scottsbluff, Channel 10 received programs through Channel 5 in Cheyenne which carried some programs from two of the national networks and produced a few programs locally. We received programs from only two networks. Then public television came along, but back then the programming wasn’t all that interesting. Now, we have cable and dish television. If I start scrolling through all the channels that we receive on our dish, I find several hundred, some are very narrow in focus. Specific topics and specific languages—whatever I want. And the internet is almost endless in what is available.
Additionally, we must consider the issue of differing competing values. The Diffusion Model and much of the early research on the adoption and diffusion of innovations literature suggests that individuals who were early adopting one innovation also tended to be early in adopting other innovations. In other words, early adopters were usually early adopters and late adopters were usually late adopters (if the innovation was relevant). Beginning with Mass Society, people were more likely to be exposed to differing values. Not just the values that were common within their little community, but from the larger society. Of course, beginning with the Information Age, there is an endless number of values to which an individual can be exposed. And some of these values are likely to be competing. An individual may have progressive values and generally we think of progressive values as reflecting an openess to change, to innovation, and to early adoption. All this may be true. A person with progressive values may be the first to adopt all the latest internet technology and electronic gadgetry that goes along with it. But the same person, even though the first to adopt electronic technology, may also be socially and environmentally conscious. This individual may refuse to drink milk that has in any manner been produced with BGH (bovine growth hormones). Or they may refuse to eat food that in any way is connected to GMOs (genetically modified organisms). All these values can be progressive. So, contrary to a generalization of early research, individuals may be early adopters in one area but not in other areas.
J. Christensen: Is there need for further research on diffusion of innovations?
P. Korsching: It’s interesting that rural sociology, the discipline in which most of the early research on diffusion of innovations was accomplished, almost 30 years ago decided that all the major theoretical issues had been explored and there was no need for more research. The journal Rural Sociology stopped accepting and publishing articles on the diffusion of innovations. “This is old stuff!” “We’ve done everything!” In fact, Rogers also says as much in his textbook, that basically all the major elements and theoretical issues of the model have been explored. All those naysayers weren’t anticipating the changes that were going to occur in availability of information and how that was going to affect the adoption and diffusion process. That’s why we don’t have any answers. We haven’t really had any research reflecting the changing technological and social environment. In part it may be that it’s difficult to conduct that research. If I was just starting my research career, I would be very excited about it, because there isn’t much out there. There are all these new areas that can be explored.
J. Christensen: What are some of the topics we can explore for our thesis and dissertations?
P. Korsching: In fact, with Rogers’ passing, this fifth edition most likely will be the last edition. But the area is wide open in terms of a follow-up book on Rogers’ fifth edition! If there’s a group of you that would like to take this on, you may have the next bestseller. The thing is, some aspects of the model don’t apply very well here in the US anymore, but in places like Latin America and Africa the model still works very well and is widely used. The businesses field uses the model. In education, apparently you still use the model. I think there’s still much to be gained. Anyway, yes. I think the innovation diffusion model can still help you in many ways in developing educational programs, but you do need to keep in mind that some elements and practices that used to work may no longer work in the Information Age.
J. Christensen: Within your research, do you still use a lot of the elements of Rogers’ model or do you really look at it the way that you said before, bringing up a new paradigm and trying to come up with a new way to explain things?
P. Korsching: What I presented today actually came together in my mind a few months ago. In our consulting company we do use the model. We really focus on the attributes or characteristics of the innovation because they continue to be relevant — trialability, complexity, relative advantage, and so on. We also look at the groups of innovators, but our main interest here is their characteristics. Those characteristics are still important. Do they have the resources to adopt? Do they have the interest? Are they innovative? Open to change? We do categorize the adopters, but what we find is that they load heavily on the front. In other words, the normal curve of diffusion is distorted. The curve is skewed toward early adoption.
J. Christensen: Do you know of any modern movers and shakers in some of these theories that are publishing right now? Whose work we might read?
P. Korsching: One I can think of is Thomas Valente, Rogers’ graduate student who went to Yale University. He’s cited in the back of the book. He ventured into mathematical models for the diffusion process. Here on campus is one of my colleagues in the Sociology Department, Dr. Stephen Sapp. You might contact him. Oh, and my former colleague Dr. Peter Nowak. He also retired this year from the University of Wisconsin, but I’m sure you can contact him. He used the diffusion model throughout his work.
J. Christensen: Do you think that the study of innovation diffusion encourages entrepreneurship?
P. Korsching: Entrepreneurship turned out to be the last area that I worked on in my academic career. Part of that was because I saw the parallels with some of the concepts in the diffusion model and the entrepreneurship models. I think there’s a very close relationship between the two fields. Entrepreneurs are not innovators, but they tend to be the early adopters, because they are rational in what they do. Most don’t just jump into something. They’re very rational about their investment decisions, and what risks they assume are measured risks, unlike innovators who adopt just to be innovative.
J. Christensen: We are very thankful that Dr. Korsching came tonight and shared his expertise and knowledge and stories. So, here is a thank you card. Thank you very much from all of us.