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Consortium Dialogues

A Conversation with Everett Rogers (February 2004)

(A longer version of this interview in Spanish was submitted to Diálogos de la Comunicación.)

Rogers' Intellectual Roots: Born in 1931 on a farm in Carroll, Iowa, Everett Rogers (commonly known as Ev), the author of groundbreaking work on diffusion of innovations theory, attended Iowa State University (ISU) for his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. ISU in those years"”the 1950s"”had a strong intellectual tradition in agriculture and rural sociology. Scientists at ISU generated numerous agricultural innovations, and rural sociologists were conducting pioneering studies on the diffusion of these innovations. Questions were being asked about why do some farmers adopt these innovations, and some do not?

Back at the family farm, Ev's father loved electro-mechanical farm innovations, but was highly resistant to biological-chemical innovations. He resisted adopting the new hybrid seed corn, even though it yielded 25 percent more crop and was resistant to drought. However, during the Iowa drought of 1936, while the hybrid seed corn stood tall on a neighbor's farm, the Rogers crop wilted. Finally, Ev's father was convinced.

Why People Sometimes Resist Change: Questions about innovation diffusion, resistance to innovation, and how to overcome resistance formed the core of Ev's graduate work at Iowa State University. Ev's doctoral dissertation reviewed existing studies of innovations in agriculture, education, medicine, and marketing, and other disciplines. He found several similarities in these diverse studies. For instance, innovations tend to diffuse following an S-curve of adoption. In 1962, Ev greatly expanded, enhanced, and refined his ideas into the classic book, Diffusion of Innovations.

The book provided a comprehensive theory of how innovations are diffused, or spread, in a social system. Diffusion of Innovations' appeal was global. Its timing was uncanny. National governments in countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America were wrestling with how to diffuse agricultural, family planning and other social change innovations in their newly independent countries. Here was a theory that was useful.

Guiding a Generation of Diffusion Experts: When the first edition of Diffusion of Innovations was published, Ev was an assistant professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University. The book made him a world-renowned academic figure. The Diffusion of Innovations book, now in its fifth (2003) edition, today is the second most cited book in the social sciences.

In a career spanning 47 years of teaching, research and writing, Rogers traveled a long way from his Iowa farm to his home in Albuquerque, N.M. He served as doctoral adviser to more than 200 students from all over the world, including Arvind Singhal (a co-author of this piece). His career included appointments as Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication at Stanford University and the Walter H. Annenberg Professor at the University of Southern California, as well as faculty positions at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Ohio State University.

While he started his academic life fascinated with diffusion theory, he grew to appreciate the diversity of communication approaches. His love affair with social change in international contexts began with Latin America.

The Singhal-Obregón conversation follows, conducted from Rogers' home shortly before his death. Rogers' answers reflect the evolution of his thinking and how he did "change his mind" and grow to appreciate participatory communication.

Please reflect on your association with the field of communication and social change over the past 40 years, perhaps emphasizing your connection with Latin America?

Rogers : My long affair with Latin America began in a very unusual way in 1962. I presented a research paper on the diffusion of agricultural innovations at the American Sociological Association meeting in St. Louis, MO. At that time, I was teaching at Ohio State University and had strong international interests but they were unfulfilled. I had applied for various teaching positions in Asia, Africa and Latin America to organizations such as the Ford Foundation, but as a young, unknown faculty member, my applications never got to the top of the stacks.

But on this occasion in St. Louis, as I read the paper, I noticed a young, good-looking Latin American sitting in the front row. I thought, he is probably a young Latin American doctoral student enrolled in some U.S. university. After the presentation, he introduced himself as Orlando Fals-Borda from Colombia. The name should have meant a lot to me, but it did not at that stage. It was a very brief encounter. We shook hands, and he left a card in my palm. On one side it read: Dr. Orlando Fals-Borda, Dean, Faculty of Sociology, Universidad Nacional, Bogotá.

Fals-Borda told me how interested he was in diffusion research in his own country, Colombia. Indeed he had done a study with an American scholar named Paul Deutchmann in the small Colombian village of Saucío.

Fals-Borda urged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to come to Bogotá the next year to teach in his faculty, especially to teach students how to do diffusion research. This seemed to be the answer to my prayers. But remembering my recent dismal experiences in obtaining an international assignment, I told him there is not much of a chance for a 30-year old assistant professor to be highly rated by the Fulbright people. He said, "Do not worry about that. What you should worry about is improving your Spanish." Now, that was an understatement in itself. I knew about three words in Spanish. He said: "You are going to teach in Spanish."

When I came home from St. Louis to Columbus, Ohio, I thought to myself, "˜I'll never hear from this again. This is a dream." Well, the next day I had a letter that Fals-Borda mailed from Washington, D.C. on his way back to Bogotá. Fals- Borda was a man of action. It was an application form from the Fulbright Office. He had talked to the officials in Washington, D.C. on the Fulbright Commission. He ended the letter with a sentence in Spanish saying, "Get to work on learning our language." So I enrolled in an introductory Spanish class at Ohio State and I worked very hard that year improving my language ability. But it was still far short of fluency when I arrived in Bogotá the next July 1963.

So I became a Fulbright professor for a year in Fals-Borda's faculty in Bogotá. I must say at the time he was not nearly as famous as he later became. And I never grew to fully appreciate the importance of Fals-Borda's somewhat critical point of view about innovation diffusion despite working in the same faculty -- a small faculty -- for a year. He did arrange indirectly for a lot of experiences that were to change me forever. For instance, he got me immediately involved in a study of slum dwellers in Barranquilla.

My students in Colombia greatly influenced my thinking. They were older than typical U.S. students, they knew what they wanted, they had points of view, and they were not shy in expressing them. I taught a research methods class and to me that meant mainly quantitative research methods. They questioned whether there was more. And, of course, my Colombia stay was a crash course in development at the grassroots level because Fals-Borda had research projects in a number of communities in Colombia. We were constantly going out to these communities, doing studies, and publishing papers.

So that year in Colombia from 1963 to 1964 was a very formative year for my career. As simple as it may sound, the biggest effect on me was learning and acquiring fluency in another language. I felt confident of expressing myself in Spanish and in conducting research in Spanish. For all the blood, sweat and tears that it took me to learn Spanish, I enjoyed speaking it very much, and have enjoyed it ever since. And it is not just the language skills. It is the point of view that the language embodies. Today, when I speak to someone in Spanish, because they prefer Spanish -- say here in New Mexico -- I immediately feel closer to them. And I can express this closeness in a way that I cannot in English. So really it is much more than language. It is a very fundamental attitude that comes with it.

To summarize, that year as a Fulbright lecturer in Colombia was a great learning experience for me that left me in love with Latin America. From then on I intended to be a Latin America specialist. At that time, in 1963-64, there were very few American communication scholars who were fluent in Spanish.

Within a year of returning from Colombia, I moved to Michigan State University and became part of, in retrospect, a golden era of communication study at Michigan State University, and in training PhDs in communication. A number of them, 12 to 15 out of maybe 60 PhD students, were Latin American students who were either Portuguese or Spanish-speaking. I learned Portuguese that next year and started a research project in Brazil: a five-year diffusion study, done in collaboration with scholars at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. So this was a way of further continuing and cementing my ties with Latin America.

The early 1960s was the time that communication studies were just beginning to get underway in Latin America. That was a coincidence, but it was a fortunate coincidence for me. Of course I knew Fals-Borda, and, actually, began to be influenced by his thinking more and more in later years. Luis Ramiro Beltrán came to Michigan State to get a doctoral degree. I taught him and was his master's degree adviser (someone else was his PhD adviser); he influenced me a great deal. He and I, still to this day, often joke that he came to Michigan State University, got his PhD and taught me more than I taught him. This is certainly true. Through Luis, I met Juan Díaz-Bordenave, who recently had earned his PhD, although not at Michigan State University. Thanks to these connections, I personally got to know many of the communication scholars from Latin America. For many years, I taught at CIESPAL in Quito, Ecuador. The participants in this seminar were mostly professors of communication from various Latin American countries, typically sixty or seventy in number. So I got to know communication scholars in Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and throughout Latin America.

Now, by this time, I had written the book, Diffusion of Innovations. Free Press published it in English in 1962. To my great surprise, while I was in Colombia, it became a rather popular book in the United States -- not popular with the public but it became something that many scholars read. So now I would meet people in the United States and in Latin America (remember I was about 30 years old) and they would say, "Oh, yes, you are the Rogers that wrote Diffusion of Innovations." So it was a terrific greeting card.

But, of course, the book also typecast me. Most of the research reported in the first edition of the Diffusion of Innovations (published in 1962) had not been conducted in Latin America; it was conducted in the United States and Europe. It described a model in which a new idea, an innovation, diffused generally from people who were more highly educated and technically expert than the general public. So you could say this was a one-way model. I argued that it was a democratic model in that if the idea was not good to the people who were going to use it, it did not diffuse. There were many such examples in the book.

The Diffusion of Innovations book was published in Spanish in 1963, the year that I was in Colombia. A then well-known Bogotá-based publisher, Tercer Mundo, published it. With my Colombian students, we sat in my office and translated, painstakingly, sentence by sentence the book into Spanish. Fals-Borda suggested that it should not be just a translation. He thought that it ought to really be a new book with the examples from Latin America (which meant really mostly from Colombia), but using the basic diffusion model.

That book, titled Difusion de Innovaciones, a Latin Americanized version of the U.S. book, never really had a wide circulation in Latin America. Today, I have a copy in my office, and it is a collector's item. I have never seen another copy of this Spanish version in 30 years. So I cannot say the translated book had a big effect, but the year I spent in Colombia had a big effect in how I thought about diffusion. From that year on, I began to think about diffusion, and about doing diffusion research, in a somewhat different way.

So that was the beginning of my attraction to Latin America. It was the beginning of my learning about the complexities of Latin America. And, mainly I learned that it was a very different place -- in many, many ways -- than the United States where most of my previous research was based.

Diffusion of Innovations came out in its fifth edition just a few months ago (early 2004). A lot of water has flowed under the diffusion dam during the past four decades. Can you talk a little about how your thinking has changed during the last four decades with respect to the diffusion model? And what would you say is the influence of Latin American scholars in explaining part of this change in your thinking?

Rogers : Let me respond by describing an event, an incident, actually. This was in 1980, at a weeklong conference in Bogotá, Colombia. This was a reunion conference of sorts, of people who had studied in Fals-Borda's faculty, some more than 20 years previously. Many of the attendees had become remarkably successful in Latin America and in Colombia. It was a kind of nostalgic homecoming week, and I participated in this conference and enjoyed it very much. During this conference, a television reporter interviewed me and she asked very tough questions. And they were generally negative questions. The first question was, "Is it not true, Dr. Rogers, that you helped bring about the crisis in Latin America?" At conferences like that one in Bogotá, and through other contacts with Latin American scholars -- including students who came to the United States to earn their PhD degrees -- I could see that communication studies in Latin America had gone in a very different direction than it had been heading in the early days"”the years when I was a Fulbright teacher in Colombia.

So I think Latin America changed, or communication research and scholarship in Latin America changed, in some very important ways. This would have been during the 1970s.

In your opinion, what fuelled some of these changes in Latin America?

Rogers : In many Latin American countries there were changes in government, with oppressive military governments taking over. Several communication scholars, including influential intellectuals like Paulo Freire, went into exile. They moved to other countries "¦ Mexico, for instance. I taught in Mexico in 1979, and that experience helped me understand how radical many of these communication professors were. I guess that if I had been tear-gassed, jailed and mistreated in other ways by the authorities in my own country, I would have felt the same way.

But these changes led to a "conflict" between scholars like me, Latin American scholars, and those who wanted to bring about rapid social change. The key issue was how fast social change should happen, and what can communication do to make it happen. Thus, several Latin American scholars were very critical of books like Diffusion of Innovations and of another book I wrote, Modernization of Peasants. It did not fit with their paradigm of rapid social change. So I had very interesting conversations with critically minded Latin American scholars. Some of these discussions were very contentious and influenced my thinking.

So, one reason for the change in my thinking was that Latin America changed, especially during the 1970s. At one time, toward the end of the 1970s, half of the 20 Latin American republics had military dictatorships. So that was a basic change in government, in public opinion, and it was a cause of criticism of my way of thinking. I did not respond by suddenly changing my thinking, but the criticism began to chip away at how sure I was of the modernization approach that I had been documenting. That was an important change.

Something like this, but less rapidly, happened in some parts of Asia, the Philippines, for instance, and some parts of Africa. These were countries in which I was involved in research projects or teaching. All of this drove me to become much more interested in communication networks -- in how people were interconnected and the role these networks played in the diffusion of innovations. The best representation of my thinking along those lines is expressed in a book published in 1981 called Communication Networks, which was published in English and in some other languages. It was basically a report of an empirical study done in Korea, done with Korean scholars, in which we gathered network data about the diffusion of family planning innovations in 25 villages.

Let me use an example from that study. Out of the 25 villages we studied, about five of them only had adopters of the oral contraceptive pill; another set of villages only had adopters of the intrauterine devices (IUDs) ; another set of villages only had adopters of vasectomy; and a few villages had adopted mixed family planning methods. Now why would one village in a nation only have adopters of one family planning method, and another neighboring village only have adopters of another method? We began to call them pill villages, IUD villages, and so on. Interestingly, the same government program of the Korean Ministry of Health was promoting the same set of family planning innovations in all villages. Of course, the answer was networks. Once you gathered data from each of the adopters in these villages, and found out how they decided to adopt a certain family planning method, it turns out it was because a neighbor had adopted a similar method. That Korean study was replicated in a number of other countries, Thailand, for instance, and similar results were obtained.

So, during this era, the 1980s, I began to become much more interested in studying social networks and their role in diffusion, but more generally their role in communication and social change programs.

My conception of the role of communication in development began to change, and the main statement about that was published in 1976 in a special issue of Communication Research, a journal published in English in the United States. This issue had articles from Latin American scholars, Beltrán and Díaz-Bordenave, for instance, and Asian and African scholars. The articles included empirical studies showing that development could happen in a variety of ways, including the importance of participatory approaches. So I edited this special issue, which was later published as a small book by Sage Publications, and my initial chapter in it basically pointed out that the old model of development communication had passed or was passing, and there was evidence to support this thesis. My thinking was changing about the role of communication in development, as was my writing on the subject.

The puzzle is that some scholars in Latin America and elsewhere still criticized me for the thinking expressed in the 1962 edition of Diffusion of Innovations. Actually, by the time that book was published, I was already beginning to change my mind, in part because of my stay in Colombia. There was definitely a lag then, and still there is a lag today, in the way people have cited and criticized my earliest work. They are entitled to do that, of course, but it would make me feel better if they would add a further paragraph that said " Rogers has changed his mind, and here is how he has changed it, and here is a publication expressing his different views."

Wasn't your 1976 article "The Passing of the Dominant Paradigm" in a special issue of Communication Research reflective of how your views were changing?

Rogers : Actually, that was the subtitle, I think. The main title was "Communication and Development." This was also the title of the special issue. "The Passing of the Dominant Paradigm" was the sub-title, and it expressed my changed views.

For those in Latin America who may not have read the 1971 second edition of Diffusion of Innovations , or the 1983 third edition of the book, or the 1995 fourth edition, or the newly published 2004 fifth edition, what are some key ways in which the fifth edition is different from the first edition in 1962?

Rogers : The main focus of the fifth edition is still on the way in which new ideas diffuse. And the title is still Diffusion of Innovations; so the basic framework is still there as expressed in the first edition. However, as your question implies, there are a number of changes. One of the changes is a much greater emphasis on social networks. There is an entire chapter now on diffusion networks. We have learned a great deal about them, and we now know how important they are, and we have learned how they can become part of a change agent's efforts. So networks are not invisible nor mysterious.

And as part of the importance of networks in diffusion, we have learned to focus on the critical mass, the point in which there are enough adopters in the S-shaped diffusion curve for the curve to become self-sustaining; and that is a very powerful kind of learning that has taken place in the last four decades.

The other major change in the fifth edition of Diffusion of Innovations is the focus on new communication technologies, most of all the Internet, and part of that is how the Internet can remove space as a factor or barrier in diffusion. Space becomes meaningless when you've got people exchanging information on the Internet. The Internet has sped up diffusion in some cases, and any innovation that can spread over the Internet these days can spread even more rapidly. An example is, which had 18 million users worldwide two years after it was launched. And it spread itself through the Internet because when you get a message from someone via hotmail at the bottom of the page it says: click here for a free Internet account. Millions of people did click on it and that is why hotmail is in such widespread use. So the Internet has changed, and will potentially change, the nature of diffusion in many ways.

It also raises a third, very important point, which now represents a focus of the book. That is, the consequences of innovations. In Latin America today, a rapidly increasing percent of the public have access to the Internet and to the World Wide Web, but many people do not. Thus there is a digital divide between those who do, and those who do not. And this has set off a great deal of research throughout the world on the digital divide. How are people learning to use computers and the Internet, and how do they get access to computers, often not by owning them but by using a cyber cafe or some other public means? So the consequences of the Internet are a very important field of study, and this is reflected in the latest edition of my book.

Ev, in closing, are we more humble today about the role of communication in development than was the case some four decades ago?

Rogers : Much, much more humble. Back in those early days, let us say the time that I spent in Bogotá, most people, not just communication scholars but also economists, sociologists and others who studied development"”and they were Latin Americans, North Americans, and Europeans"”I think we all shared a vague idea that development was not going to take a long time. We felt that in 10 to 15 years from that time whatever problem development presents will be solved. So we were much too optimistic, and we continue to be much too optimistic by studying successes and by overly reporting successes (but this is important to do.) But it has given us a general flavor that development is easy, and if there is any single thing we have learned, the hard way, it is that development is difficult.

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