When Everett M. Rogers passed away on October 21, 2004, his ashes were returned to the family’s Pinehurst Farm in Carroll, Iowa, where he was born on March 6, 1931. In a career spanning 47 years, he wrote 36 books, some 325 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, and over 100 research reports. His prolific writing and clear prose have left an indelible mark on our understanding of the role that communication plays in social change.
Everett Rogers attended Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, which had a great intellectual tradition in agriculture and in rural sociology. Numerous agricultural innovations were generated by scientists at Iowa State. Rural sociologists – including George Beal (who served as Ev’s doctoral advisor) – were conducting pioneering studies on the diffusion of these innovations, such as hybrid seed corn and chemical fertilizers. Questions were being asked about why some farmers adopted these innovations, and some didn’t. These questions intrigued Rogers.
Such questions about innovation diffusion, including the causes of strong resistances and how communication could help overcome them, formed the core of Rogers’s graduate work at Iowa State University. His 1957 doctoral dissertation analyzed the diffusion of a cluster of agricultural innovations among farmers in Collins, Iowa, close to the family farm. In the review of literature chapter, he reviewed the existing studies on the diffusion of agricultural innovations, educational innovations, medical innovations, and marketing innovations. He found several similarities: For instance, innovations tend to diffuse following an S-shaped curve of adoption.
This finding was of great interest to scholars both within and outside of rural sociology because of its deductive and parsimonious potential. For instance, marketing scientists, epidemiologists, demographers, and political scientists appreciated the predictive potential of the S-shaped curve, given that it elegantly describes a logistic (or exponential) growth curve (Dearing & Singhal 2006).
In 1962, Rogers published this review of literature chapter, greatly expanded, as Diffusion of innovations. The book provided a comprehensive theory of how innovations diffused, or spread, in a social system. The book’s appeal was cross-disciplinary and global.
When Diffusion of innovations was published, a dominant paradigm guided development theorizing and influenced development communication theory and practice. This dominant concept of development “grew out of certain historical events, such as the Industrial Revolution, the colonial experience in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; the quantitative empiricism of North American social science, and capitalistic economic/ political philosophy” (Rogers 1976, 121). The decade of the 1960s, when dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, and South America gained their political independence, was one of great optimism for development. The governments of these countries were searching for ways to effectively communicate agricultural, health, and family planning innovations to their populations. The international development community believed that people in these countries needed to discard their traditional ways and adopt technological innovations (Melkote 2006).
At that time, the notion of exogenously induced social change was implicit in diffusion practice and research (Melkote 2006). The route for this change – from being a traditional person to a modern one – was embodied in the communication and acceptance of new ideas. So Everett Rogers’s writings on the diffusion of innovations established the importance of communication in the modernization process.
By the 1970s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the process of development was not as straightforward as was conceptualized in the dominant paradigm (Rogers 1976). Although an early proponent of the dominant paradigm, Rogers was humble enough to admit the problems with the earlier conceptions of communication and social change (Melkote 2006). For one thing, he redefined the meaning of development, moving away from the earlier technocratic, overly materialistic, and deterministic models to include issues of equity in distribution of information and benefits, active participation of people at the grassroots, independence of local communities to tailor development projects to their own needs, and integration of old and new ideas, traditional and modern systems, and endogenous and exogenous elements (Rogers 1976; Wilkins 1999).
Throughout his career, Rogers believed that the academy had a responsibility to not just study the processes of social change, but also affect it. He argued that practitioners had much to teach the academy, for they were the ones getting their hands dirty in the real world (Dearing & Singhal 2006).
Why have Everett Rogers’s writings been so influential over the past four-plus decades? His biggest contribution lies in his ability to explain how the macro-process of system change is linked to micro- (individual- and group-)level processes. The explanations he offered showed both how micro-level units of adoption were influenced by system norms, and how system change was dependent on individual action. In this sense, diffusion of innovations theory is one of the very few social theories that link macro- with micro-level phenomena (Dearing & Singhal 2006).
It is no surprise that Diffusion of innovations, into its fifth edition in 2003, is the second most cited book in the Social Science Citation Index.
- Dearing, J. W., & Singhal, A. (2006). Communication of innovations: A journey with Ev Rogers. In A. Singhal & J. W. Dearing (eds.), Communication of innovations: A journey with Ev Rogers. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 15–28.
- Melkote, S. (2006). Communication and social change in developing countries. In A. Singhal & J. W. Dearing (eds.), Communication of innovations: A journey with Ev Rogers. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 145–171.
- Rogers, E. M. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.
- Rogers, E. M. (1976). Communication and development: The passing of the dominant paradigm. In E. M. Rogers (ed.), Communication and development: Critical perspectives. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 121–148.
- Wilkins, K. G. (1999). Development discourse on gender and communication in strategies for social change. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 46–68.
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