Anarchism and Diffusion Studies

A guest post from Ronan Mac Aoidh.

I recently read the first chapter of Everett Rogers' classic text 'Diffusion of Innovations', which attempts to create an analytic framework for understanding why some innovations become generalised throughout social systems, while others fail to do so. Although Rogers deals primarily with technological innovations, he argued that new ideas could also be analysed using this framework. With this in mind, I had a think about how this framework could be helpful for understanding why radical ideas do or do not spread in society. First Rogers' theory.

Rogers defines diffusion as "the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system." Diffusion is always a process of social change, whether small (such as the diffusion of MP3 players) or large (such as the diffusion of the internet). There are four key elements to diffusion, an innovation, communication, a social system and time. Communication first, might be thought of as a one way process when it comes to innovations, such that innovator A communicates their innovation to passive consumer B. This model however is misleading, since it is not only what A tells B about the innovation that is important, but also what B thinks of A, A's responses to B's problems etc.

An innovation is an idea or practice that is perceived as new by an individual or other social actor (such as a state, a union, a corporation etc).The different characteristics of innovations help to explain their rate of adoption.

1. The relative advantage that an innovation is perceived to have over the technology, practice or ideas that it should replace. This relative advantage could be economic (i.e. it's more cost efficient), but could also be related to social status (anarchists tend to be more popular... maybe I should be an anarchist...), aesthetic qualities, convenience etc.

2. Compatibility refers to the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with "existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters." Incompatible ideas or technologies are less likely to be taken up than compatible ones, for example, a wealthy industrialist is less likely to become an anarchist than a Spanish truck driver.

3. Complexity is the degree of perceived difficulty in taking up and using a new innovation, people are less likely to accept a highly complex and difficult to use innovation than they are a relatively simple one. For example most people are probably more likely to join a syndicalist union than a left communist discussion group.

4. Trialability refers to how easy it is for a curious new user to try out an innovation before making a commitment.

5. Observability is the description of how easy it is for potential users to see the results of adopting an innovation, I-Pods for example, are very observable, whereas the operating system on someone's home computer is not.

According to Rogers, the process by which an innovation is adopted by an individual goes something like this: 1) knowledge, 2) persuasion, 3) decision, 4) implementation, 5) confirmation. Knowledge refers to the first awareness an individual gains of some new technology or idea; persuasion to the first impression that individual acquires, whether favourable or unfavourable; decision is the individual making a choice about adoption, implementation is the first use of the innovation, and confirmation is the individual seeking reinforcement about his/her choice.

Back to communication, Rogers notes that different communication forms are appropriate during different stages of this adoption process. Mass media communication such as advertising, newspapers, and the internet may be adequate for creating knowledge of an innovation, but interpersonal channels are far more effective in persuading a user to actually adopt it. In terms of anarchism, we could see websites and newspapers as forms of mass communication, informing people about the basics of anarchism. This however, is unlikely to persuade many people to become anarchists, more two way communication and discussion is necessary for this. This analysis seems backed up by evidence from our own experience in WSM, most 'conversions' occur in campaign groups where members are active rather than via paper distributions.

This leads to the problem of 'heterophily' versus 'homophily', jargon aside, this means that diffusion is more likely to take place between two individuals who are relatively similar rather than individuals of different age, sex, education level etc. "More effective communication occurs when two or more individuals are homophilous." (19) This is another problem that we have come up against repeatedly, particularly when discussing the problem of gender balance. One comrade said that he found himself less inclined to discuss politics with female friends than male friends. In a situation with an already existing poor gender ration, this would then imply that this ratio is likely to be reinforced, as males convert males, who convert males.

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In order to visualise diffusion, Rogers developed the famous 'Bell curve' model of diffusion, which plots percentage of users against time. This model splits adopters into five distinct groups, each of which corresponds to social characteristics: 1) Innovators, 2) Early adopters, 3) Early majority, 4) Late majority, 5) Laggards. Innovators are the members of a social system who are most interested in new ideas and practice, however this interest also implies that they occupy a considerable distance from the mainstream of society, they are often viewed as 'freaks' or 'radicals', and there is no guarantee that their innovations will be commonly accepted. Early adopters are  crucial link between innovators and the rest of society, they are interested in new ideas but are still rooted in their social structure and are often opinion leaders. Early majority are somewhat more conservative, but still interested in ideas, and can influence their neighbours; the late majority are somewhat more conservative and less socially active, while the laggards tend to be most conservative and least interested in new ideas.

If I was to hazard a completely unempirical guess about anarchism in Ireland, I'd say we're somewhere at the start of the 'early adopters' stage, we're not quite freaks, but we're not exactly Jenny from the block either. It's worth noting again that there is no inevitability about the progress from one stage to another. A book called 'Crossing the Chasm' that deals with the marketing of IT products argues that there is a 'chasm' between the early adopters and the pragmatic early majority, this chasm is based on the different expectations of the two groups. Pragmatists will only accept an innovation if it is already 'tried and tested', they are more interested in practicalities rather than potential. It's also worth remembering that with anarchism, the quality of the idea actually changes the more people adopt it, i.e. if only four other people in Ireland are interested in anarchism, there's not much immediate prospect of revolution, and perhaps not much obvious advantage in becoming active. If four thousand people are active, it's a very different picture and so on.

So what can one take from this? Perhaps nothing here is really that novel, but put together it's quite a compelling (if simplistic) model for how social change happens. I'm particularly interested in the issue of practical benefit; if the 'early majority' are convinced by practical benefit, how do we convince people that anarchism is of practical benefit to them? It seems to me like the obvious starting point in the current climate is in workplace and union organising, where anarchists can (and already do) argue for direct action against wage cuts and redundancies, and against the sell outs and hypocrisies of union leaders.