Changing people's customs is an even more delicate responsibility than surgery.
    Edward H. Spicer, Human Problems in Technological Change.

These things must be done delicately, or you hurt the spell.
    The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz.


Research and experience have shown that the diffusion of innovations approach is highly effective in gaining adoption of many types of innovations across a wide variety of settings. The question that remains to be addressed in Sociology 415 is, "Should sociologists become involved as change agents?" Recall that we are thinking of the sociologist as employed by the public with funding from their tax dollars. Recall also that all innovations inevitably bring about negative consequences for some members of the population. So, should a publicly funded employee seek change that will benefit some and create negative consequences for others? Should the sociologist, as a publicly employed scientist, advocate for/against adoption of genetically modified food, food irradiation, affirmative action, feminism, environmentalism, use of contraceptives ... ?

This question is as old as the field of sociology and cannot be answered by policy. The answer is left to the judgment of the sociologist. What Rogers asks us to keep in mind as we consider our options is that sometimes seemingly benign actions aimed at societal improvement undertaken with the best of intentions can create very negative consequences (e.g., read "Steel Axes for Stone-Age Aborigines," pages 421-422 in Rogers, or for examples closer to home, read about the failed Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project or the controversial social program of forced school busing). In Chapters 3 and 11, Rogers describes how social change can result in unintended, unanticipated, and undesirable consequences and recommends approaches sociologists can take to avoid negative consequences when they become involved in the delicate process of acting as a change agents.


    Key Questions

      What are the ethical obligations of the change agent?
      How can negative consequences associated with technology adoption be mitigated?


      What negative consequences might be anticipated as a result of societal adoption or rejection of the sampler technologies?

      What policies might be adopted to mitigate negative consequences of societal adoption or rejection of the sampler technologies?

Contributions and Criticisms of the Diffusion Approach

This final section of Sociology 415 reviews contributions and criticisms of the diffusion of innovations approach and suggestions offered by Everett Rogers for mitigating negative consequences associated with new technology adoption. The central point of Chapters 3 and 11 is that change agents, given their accountability to all citizens, have a responsibility to address negative consequences.

Contributions of the Diffusion of Innovations Approach
Rogers first reviews contributions of the diffusion approach in helping sociologists and other change agents gain adoption of new technologies.
  1. The diffusion model is relevant to many disciplines and topics. The model enjoys much popularity among a wide variety of academic disciplines, public agencies, and private firms in providing insight into adoption decisions and strategies for gaining adoption. The approach works, it works in many settings worldwide, and it has done so for many years. The diffusion of innovations model serves as the foundation for every social change program in the world.
  2. The model has a strong applied focus. Although supported by much sound social science theory, one need not be an professional social scientist to develop practical programs for social change. The methodology of diffusion is clear-cut and relatively easy to implement.
Criticisms of the Diffusion of Innovations Approach
Because the sociologist is supposed to engineer society in a favorable manner, the unintended, unanticipated, and undesirable consequences of technology adoption need to be foreseen and mitigated as much as possible. No small task!

This section describes criticisms of the diffusion approach. Not all the criticisms reviewed by Rogers are presented here. Some of them are relevant only to professional sociologists conducting research on the model itself. Please read all the criticisms of the model presented in Chapter 3, but just the ones likely to be of interested to most persons are listed below.


Overadoption is adoption when experts suggest rejection, or less adoption. This criticism is a variation on the theme that one can have too much of a good thing. Too much housing development in certain locations, for example, can be detrimental to environmental quality. Too much use of antibiotics in medications, animal feed, and cleaning products frightens microbiologists who express concerns about bacteria developing a strong resistance to antibiotics, thereby becoming "supergerms" that will be difficult to defeat. Sometimes, good innovations should not be adopted by persons who cannot afford them or cannot use them wisely because of insufficient knowledge of how they work.

Thus, the delicate task of social change is fraught with many hidden dangers. One value choice leads to another. Questions that come to mind are:
  • Which innovations should be diffused?
  • Who should have them?
  • Who should not have them?
  • Should limits be placed upon technology adoption?
Pro-Innovation Bias

The pro-innovation bias is the implication that the innovation should be adopted by all members of the social system. New technologies offer wonderful promises for a better, brighter tomorrow. Many technologies have lengthened the life span, eased burdens, and provided much entertainment and pleasure. Technological failures, however, sometimes bring about heartbreaking catastrophes. Given their responsibilities to all citizens to improve society, sociologists are obligated to investigate potential negative consequences rather than blindly accept the promises of new technologies.

The sociologist must be critical in evaluating new technologies, recognizing that some technologies are produced for and by the power elite. Reduction of inequalities sometimes requires the sociologist to note that adoption will increase inequalities or cause the less powerful to bear a disproportionate share of the risk.

The Individual-Blame Bias

The individual-blame bias is a tendency to blame individuals for their non-adoption. Of course, some persons are laggards simply because they do not like change, are slow to understand new technologies, and so forth. The responsible change agent, however, must look beyond such individualistic explanations to fully understand non-adoption because not all laggards are ignorant, resistant to change, or otherwise personally predisposed to reject new technologies.

One course of action for the change agent to pursue in understanding non-adoption is to investigate how the characteristics of the innovation might influence some persons to be laggards.
  • It might be, for example, that laggards fully understand the features of the innovation but do not find it compatible with their values (e.g., Amish and Mennonites reject many technologies based upon their religious beliefs).
  • Laggards might want to adopt an innovation but do not have the financial ability to do so (e.g., safer automobiles tend to be more expensive to purchase).
  • It might be that laggards do not have a good opportunity to adopt because the innovation is not easily available to them (e.g., a person might be anxiously awaiting the opportunity to have a cable connection to the internet when it becomes available in their geographic area).
The explanations provided above for non-adoption focus upon legitimate reasons why some persons are laggards. The system-blame perspective, as a second explanation of non-adoption, seeks to understand why many persons rather than just laggards do not adopt. Why, for example, were many persons reluctant to wear seatbelts when driving their automobiles? Blaming many persons for being ignorant, lazy, etc. when many persons are made aware of a new technology is not an adequate explanation for widespread non-adoption. To understand why many persons do not adopt an innovation that seems beneficial, sociologists must investigate system-level constraints to adoption. What might seem like individual reluctance to adopt might be a symptom of cultural or structural conditions in society that impede adoption.
  • It might be that issues of compatibility are widely felt within a society (e.g., many persons reject abortion because they consider it to be immoral, or said another way, they see abortion as harmful rather than as beneficial).
  • It might be that societal infrastructure does not encourage adoption (e.g., it has taken time for policies to be developed to support individual use of ethanol as a fuel additive).
  • It might be that societal infrastructure erodes the effects of adoption (e.g., Ralph Nader, in Unsafe at Any Speed, pointed out that, even if drivers wore seatbelts, automobile and highway construction technologies and policies significantly contributed to motor vehicle injuries and deaths).
  • It might be that societal-level practices constrain adoption (e.g., a colleague noted that practices in some countries encourage unsafe of dangerous pesticides because powerful interest groups are capable of influencing national policies).

No-till farming, for example, was difficult to diffuse because the prevailing culture defined a "good farmer" as one who removed all crop residue from the field and cut deep furrows with mole board plows after harvest. Redefining the "good farmer" was a critical part of gaining adoption of no-till conservation practices. A second system-level explanation for slow adoption is that new innovations might threaten the status of the power elite. If so, then the power elite might create barriers to the development and dissemination of the new technology.

Issues Related to Furthering Inequalities

The critical perspective of sociology asserts that the powerful elite will intentionally encourage the development of technologies that maintain or further their class standing. Such activity might or might not occur; it is difficult to prove technological conspiracies to further inequalities. Proving intent by the powerful elite, however, is unnecessary when investigating negative consequences of technology adoption. Whether by intent of the powerful elite or not, new technology adoption can further inequalities between upper and lower classes.

New technology adoption can further inequalities for several reasons:
  1. People in upper classes typically have greater input to research and development planning and decision making. Through their contacts and memberships on committees and advisory councils they can suggest needs for technologies that seem appropriate to them and consequently tend to benefit them more than they benefit persons in lower class positions.
  2. Upper class people are more likely to hear about new technologies earlier than are persons in lower class positions. Earlier knowledge of emerging technologies gives upper class persons an edge in planning for change. Upper class persons are more likely to hear innovation-evaluation information earlier than their lower class counterparts and therefore know in advance how well a new technology works.
  3. By definition, upper class persons have greater economic resources that allow them to take risks on new technologies that would be too great for persons with less money.
Thus, because upper class persons have more input to technology research and development, learn earlier than other persons about new technologies, and are in a better position to take economic risks, they are able to take advantage of beneficial technologies earlier than persons in lower class positions.

These privileges can further inequalities because oftentimes the marginal benefits of a new technology are highest at its early stages of implementation. Profit margins are higher early on and decrease as competing firms produce similar technologies or as patents expire. Competitive advantages of increased efficiency or productivity are higher early on and decrease as others adopt similar practices. Persons in position to adopt early, therefore, reap more benefits. Rogers refers to advantages accrued through early adoption as windfall profits. If the elite adopt a beneficial technology early, then inequalities increase, whether through intentional conspiracies or not.

Exploitation of Weaker Social Systems

The Enlightenment perspective is that "the more advanced the technology the better" because everyone benefits from increased productivity and efficiency. The critical perspective, on the other hand, asserts that technology adoption might decrease rather than increase quality of life. The critical perspective outlines four ways in which the more powerful can exploit resources from the less powerful through diffusion of new technologies:
  1. Economic Leakage refers to loss of potential income to another social system. Economic leakage occurs, for example, when people living in one town conduct most of their shopping in a neighboring town; money "leaks" out of their home town.

    To better understand the process of economic leakage and how it can be a mechanism of exploitation it is instructive to place the phenomenon within the context of different levels of economic development. A primary economy is one that focuses mainly upon raw commodity production (e.g., growing food crops, mining raw ore). A secondary economy is capable of further manufacturing of raw commodities; it adds value to raw commodities (e.g., processing food products, finishing metals and minerals). A tertiary economy finances raw commodity production and manufacturing and coordinates trade in raw and value-added goods. Typically, profit margins increase in more advanced economies.

    Social systems with secondary economies are in a position to further economic leakage from social systems with primary economies by providing them with technologies that increase their capacity to produce raw commodities. The transfer of production technology from the secondary to primary economy serves as an investment that increases profits to the secondary economy because the primary economy can produce more raw materials at a lower unit cost. Similarly, tertiary economies are in a position to increase their profits by transferring technologies to primary and secondary economies that increase their capacities to produce and process raw commodities.

    From the structure-function perspective, such activity increases the productivity and efficiency of the global capitalist system and is therefore beneficial to all. From the critical perspective, technology transfer for the purpose of increasing raw commodity production and processing by a social system with a tertiary economy amounts to exploitation of weaker social systems. From either perspective, the long-term well-being of social systems with primary economies can be decreased if tertiary economies transfer only raw commodity production technologies to them because less developed social systems can find it difficult to increase their capabilities to develop secondary or tertiary economies. They advance technologically in producing raw commodities, but they remain less developed because they do not advance technologically in adding value to raw commodities.

    Americans sometimes wonder why the United States has liberal trade policies for transferring production technologies to less developed countries. Understood from the perspective of economic leakage, one realizes that, as a social system with a tertiary economy, the U.S. benefits by providing technologies that increase the rate of production of raw commodities because it will enjoy the higher profit margins of financing greater commodity production and processing.

  2. Dependency refers simply to relying upon other social systems to support production in the host social system. If, for example, a less developed country adopts technologies more advanced than their current capabilities, they become dependent upon the core country that provided the technology to train persons to use the technologies, repair them, and integrate them within production systems that rely upon other technologies provided by core countries.

    Another advantage to the United States of transferring production technologies to less developed (i.e., host) countries is that they become dependent upon the U.S. for training users of the technologies and providing parts and other support services for technology maintenance.

  3. Political influence of leaders of host countries facilitates transfer of technologies that can further the economic position of core countries. Because technology transfer is an important element of trade, trade policies can transcend differences in political and ideological outlooks.

    The United States has supported dictatorships and traded with communist nations and nations with many human rights violations whose trade policies favor U.S. economic development and technology transfer.

  4. Too rapid social change sometimes can result from technology transfer. Indicators of too rapid social change are feelings of anomie (loss of common values, sense of mission, or feelings of belonging) and alienation (feelings of being unimportant, disconnected from others) that can result in higher rates of crime, family disruption, and loss of productivity. Rapid social change can create vulnerabilities in social structure and functioning that allow core countries to exploit local resources or influence technology and trade policies.

    The web pages listed below discuss issues of rapid social change and negative consequences that can result from too rapid adoption of core-country technologies.

    The Consequences of Culture Change.
    Globalization and Rapid Social Change.
    Social Change After the September 11 Terrorist Attack on the United States.

Rogers summarizes this classical approach to development in a chart that shows the dominant paradigm of development and suggested alternatives to it.

Ethical Responsibilities of Change Agents

Everett Rogers suggests ways the change agent can act responsibly in diffusing information about new technologies. The guiding principle is that, because the diffusion approach is effective in gaining adoption of innovations, the change agent has a responsibility to explore potential negative as well as positive consequences associated with technology adoption.
Principles of Ethical Conduct
Ethical conduct for a change agent involves asking questions that explore motives for technology development and dissemination and potential negative consequences of technology adoption.

Typical Diffusion Questions:

Rogers notes that too often change agents focus their attention too strongly upon gaining adoption. In so doing they ask questions that focus their attention only on adoption:
  1. How are technological innovations diffused in a social system?
  2. What are the characteristics of innovators, etc.?
  3. What is the role of opinion leaders in the interpersonal networks through which a new idea diffuses in a social system?
More Appropriate Questions:

Rogers states that more appropriate questions explore the social context of technology development and dissemination:
  1. What criteria guide the choice of which innovations will be diffused?
  2. Who decides which innovations should be developed?
  3. Who controls the communication channels?
  4. What is the nature of the society's social structure and what will be the impact of the innovation on this structure?
Strategies for Reducing Inequalities
Rogers suggests strategies the change agent can use to reduce gap-widening consequences of new technology adoption. He organizes these suggestions into the three major reasons why socioeconomic gaps widen as a result of innovation adoption:

Strategies When Ups Have Greater Access to Information:
  1. Provide redundant information to allow Downs the opportunity to hear and understand information about innovations.
  2. Tailor messages to Downs. Messages, for example, might rely more upon drawings and pictures than text.
  3. Tailor media to Downs. Rogers points out that in the United States, for example, persons of lower socioeconomic class depend upon television more than print media to learn about innovations.
  4. Organize small group presentations to Downs to help them understand innovations.
  5. Encourage more change agent contact among Downs. Rogers notes that, because change agents typically are more homophilous (i.e., similar in social characteristics) with Ups and heterophilous (dissimilar in social characteristics) with Downs, they tend to focus too much of their attention on gaining adoption among Ups rather than Downs. Rogers urges change agents to more actively seek contact with Downs.
Strategies When Ups Have Greater Access to Innovation-Evaluation Information:
  1. Typically, change agents identify opinion leaders that influence Ups. Rogers suggests that change agents identify opinion leaders among downs to provide them with innovation-evaluation information.
  2. Use change agent aides among downs. Rogers notes that experience has shown that using paraprofessional aides recruited from among Downs helps Downs better understand innovation-evaluation information and gain trust in change agents.
  3. Organize groups among the downs. Rogers reinforces the need for change agents to have more contact with Downs, including organizing interest groups who might serve as information providers for a wide variety of innovations.
Strategies When Ups Possess Greater Slack Resources:
  1. Encourage core social systems to develop and disseminate technology appropriate to the socioeconomic conditions of the host social system. Oftentimes, the technology of most use to host social systems is much less advanced than the technology most advocated by the core social system. Appropriate technology can be less expensive to implement and lessen dependency upon core social systems.
  2. Urge change agents to help Downs form cooperatives to provide them with purchasing and selling power in relation to core social systems.
  3. Encourage research and development organizations to include Downs in the planning and dissemination of new technologies.
  4. Advocate for core social systems to fund special agencies to work only with the Downs.
  5. Encourage change agents to place more emphasis on diffusion of decentralized innovations. Decentralized innovations, in contrast with centralized innovations, encourage greater sharing of power and information. They take more of a problem-centered approach to technology development, are highly adaptable to local conditions, come from experimentation by nonexperts in local settings, and give power to local people to make adoption decisions.


Because all technologies bring about negative consequences for some, the delicate process of technology transfer is, itself, a complex and controversial task. Change agents, knowing the power of the diffusion approach in gaining adoption, must be aware of the responsibilities that accompany the application of diffusion strategies. Change agents should strive to reduce the gap-widening effects of new technology adoption.
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