Adoption of an Incredibly Complex Innovation: Propositions From a Humanistic Vantage Point

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University
ABSTRACT - Five-propositions are presented concerning the adoption of complex innovations having technological and symbolic features. These were derived from a humanistically-based method combining introspection and participant observation. be primary innovation context from which propositional knowledge was derived was that of child care services.
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1987) ,"Adoption of an Incredibly Complex Innovation: Propositions From a Humanistic Vantage Point", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 57-60.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 57-60


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, New York University


Five-propositions are presented concerning the adoption of complex innovations having technological and symbolic features. These were derived from a humanistically-based method combining introspection and participant observation. be primary innovation context from which propositional knowledge was derived was that of child care services.


If one examines the diffusion of innovation literature in even a casual fashion, one will be struck with two verities. First, the great majority of innovations whose diffusion patterns have been studied are primarily technological products, such as medicines, agricultural supplies, industrial machinery, electric appliances, and so forth (cf. Bass 1969, Czepiel 1974, Rogers 19831. In contrast, much less research has been done on innovations which process both symbolic and technological content (cf, Hirschman 1983; 1986). Second, virtually all the innovation diffusion studies conducted have assumed the innovation in question was static in nature, - that its characteristics were immutable, at least in the short run decision making horizon. Thus the literature in general has been focused upon static entities whose functional properties are generally tangible and often objectively verifiable in advance. The primary task confronting potential adopters of such innovations is to gather the requisite data for determining if the innovation will meet their needs/wants at a lower "cost" or with greater effectiveness than the product they are currently using (Hirschman 1980; Robertson and Gatignon 1985; 1986).

In contrast, the present study examines child care services - a set of innovations, which in addition to having complex technological components (e g., safety features, location, hours of operation, specialized equipment) also have highly sophisticated symbolic aspects (e g., social prestige, nurturance ability, philosophical orientation, potential for intellectual stimulation). To sid to their inherent technological and symbolic complexity, these innovative services also have two other complicating characteristics. First, they are a rapidly evolving set of alternatives; new options (e g., au pairs) are appearing on the market, whereas the availability of traditional alternatives is declining (e g., grandmothers, older siblings). Thus, accurate data gathering by potential adopters is frustrated by the constantly changing set of products.

Second, unlike the majority of all innovation adoption decisions studied thus far, the childcare product is purchased not for self-consumption, but rather for a less-knowledgeable client - one's child. Further, this client has needs and wants that also are characterized by continuous, rapid evolution; child care options appropriate for a month old infant are usually not suitable for a two year old toddler or a four year old preschooler.

Thus in many ways the child care decision involves coping simultaneously with two innovations, both of which are dynamic: the child, which was "adopted" by birth, and the child care service, which must be adopted by purchase. Both are situated on upward trajectories of complexity and surrounded by increasing uncertainty as the parent/ adopter looks into the future. In short, the parent is confronting an incredibly complex innovation adoption decision - perhaps the most complex - and one whose consequences have large positive and negative potential.


Because I have recently converted from the positivist metaphysic to humanism, the discussion presented is based on the humanistic methodologies of introspection and participant observation. However, even in my orthodox positivist days, I do not believe I would have tried to model quantitatively (or believed that somebody else could have modeled quantitatively) the childcare adoption process. It simply is too emotional and too subjective to be investigated in an objective, analytical fashion. People may adopt computers based on the dry rationality posited by information processing theorists (although even this, I doubt), but they most certainly do not evaluate childcare options that way,

Postponed Decision Making

How do people evaluate childcare alternatives, and what insights might we gain about complex innovation adoption and diffusion processes, generally, by an examination of childcare choice? The first proposition that emerged from introspective and participant observation inquiries [It should be noted that the author and her husband constitute a dual professional family, whose first child was born during their thirties. The other couples about whom I am knowledgeable and upon whose experiences this paper is based have the same characteristics.] was somewhat counter intuitive, or at least counter to what same information processing theories would lead us to expect. I found that, in most instances, childcare information gathering and the actual decision, itself, was postponed for as long as possible - usually until at least the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy and often until after the child was actually born.

At that time, the couple usually "panicked", realizing that they must act, and began thrashing through information on child care alternatives, often making two or three unsatisfactory innovation adoptions before an acceptable option was found. Why did this seemingly haphazard behavior occur among well-educated, affluent consumers who are normally rational, deliberative decision makers? e answer seems to be that the utter complexity of the task overwhelmed their ability to approach the innovation alternatives ahead of time and, therefore, they waited until they were literally forced into action by the acquisition of a novel personal role -- parenthood.

The birth of a baby, is a very disruptive event in the parents' lives. Babies are discontinuous innovations (Robertson 1971), and also are indivisible, economically expensive, complex, require major role adjustments, come with no service guarantees and are not returnable to the place of purchase. Hence, when a child one arrives in a couple's life, the couple first has to learn how to cope with the presence of this strange novelty, before they are able to cope with the decision of what novel childcare service they will adopt. In essence, they have to acquire "hands-on" experience with the baby innovation before they are mentally and emotionally equipped to consider alternatives for the childcare innovation.

I believe this proposition may extend to some other types of complex innovation adoption decisions as well. For example, it is my experience that many people purchase a personal computer before they have learned to program it (and sometimes before they have had any computer experience at all). Many, probably most, people engage in sexual activity for the first time, before they have adopted birth control (sometimes with disastrous results). Many people wait until their parents are seriously disabled before considering any senior care options. In each of these cases innovation adoption activity is precipitated by the more or less irreversible acquisition of an additional personal role that was foreseeable - e g., computer owner, lover, guardian of disabled parent, - but viewed as so complex that other subsequently required innovation adoption decisions were postponed. I do not mean to imply that these consumers are necessarily acting irrationally or irresponsibly. In such situations we often do not know what we should do until we are actually in the process of doing it. In a very real sense, parents may have to care for their baby before they are able to decide how best to have it cared for. A person may actually need to have a computer before deciding how best to program it. One might actually need to make love before deciding how best to prevent pregnancy. One might need to observe and be with a disabled parent before deciding what kind of care is best for him/her.

The Role of Prior Experience on Tangible Attribute Preference

The second proposition I would like to suggest is that consumers' initial conceptualization of the best childcare innovation option is most often derived from their own experiences os children - thus, in most cases, they would like to have someone care for their child who is as much like their own mother as possible. In fact, if the truth be known, many new parents would prefer that their mother take care of the baby (after all, she did a great job with them). However, this is virtually never feasible as grandmothers these days are usually off pursuing their own activities and are generally unwilling to assume full-5& me (or even part-time) child care responsibilities. What frequently happens, therefore, is that the new parents decide to adopt the child care innovation that most resembles their own mother in form and function i e., a live-in housekeeper. A live-in housekeeper, for those of you unfamiliar with this innovation, is a woman somewhere in the range of 20 to 60 years old who lives in your home, cares for your children, does the house cleaning and laundry, and often cooks, as well. The live-in housekeeper also is the most expensive childcare option available (salaries range from $150 - $300 week). However, among the parents with whom I am familiar, this was by far the most commonly adopted innovation, because tangibly she most resembled a traditional mother.

However, a live-in housekeeper may not possess the appropriate characteristics for child care. This is frequently overlooked by adopters, who are so intent on acquiring the child care innovation option that most closely resembles in tangible characteristics their own childcare experiences ( that the less tangible aspects are ignored. The proposition that the form of an innovation may dominate its functional characteristics in determining the likelihood of adoption, I believe to be generalizable to other contexts. In a broader context it would be stated: the more an innovation option resembles in tangible structure the traditional solution to a problem, the more likely it is to be adopted, irregardless of its actual ability to perform the requisite task. This is especially true for highly complex innovations containing symbolic features for which the consumer lacks confidence in a priori evaluations. Therefore s/he must rely almost exclusively on tangible features in making a choice; These features may be nonisomorphic to the actual functional qualities of a particular option.

The Role of Prior Experience in Shaping Functional Expectations

A third proposition I would like to suggest is that the functions performed by the traditional model (in this case, a mother-housewife) may not be as good as the functions performed by innovative options currently available (i e., other child care service alternatives). However, consumers' prior positive experience with the traditional model (i.e., Mom) may 'blind' them to the functional superiority of novel alternatives and cause them to focus upon a smaller set of functional characteristics or a less optimal set of functional characteristics.

Traditionally in the U.S. the ideal childcare alternative has been believed to be the full-time mother who stays at home with the children, carefully nurturing them and attending to their needs. She is available 24 hours a day and, because the children are her own progeny, she is believed to be the person most dedicated and motivated to caring for then; The childcare functions the traditional mother performed, therefore, came to be seen as the optimal set of functions and childcare alternatives that deviated from that format were viewed as suboptimal. Women who pursued careers outside the home felt guilty because they were not able to be full-time mothers to their children; their children were suffering, they felt, because some less-perfect childcare solution was being used.

As with many other innovation contexts, I believe, this reasoning is faulty. Full-time day care centers, for example, deviate most markedly from the traditional mother format. There are multiple, unrelated care givers and multiple, unrelated children all interacting in a scheduled, ordered environment. Quite the opposite of the one-to-one, spontaneous relationship between mother and child. And yet several studies (e.g., Sarafino 1985; Webb 1984) and personal experience suggest that many children flourish in a day care environment. Research indicates that children's I.Q's, physical development, and social skills are consistently enhanced by the day care experience, as compared to SES-matched children in the care of traditional mothers. Further, the more time the children spend in the day care environment, the greater this positive discrepancy with home-raised children becomes. After two very frustrating experiences with housekeepers costing $250 a week, I enrolled my shy, quiet, daughter Alix in an $80 per week meals included) public day care center. I was filled with apprehension and guilt, sure she would be traumatized and overwhelmed by the experience. Four months later, I have a daughter who swings, slides, runs, shouts, reads, counts, sings, paints, brushes her teeth, washes her hands, picks up her toys, says please and thank you, and eats nutritious food three times a day. She is vastly ahead of where she was staying at home with her 'mother substitute', and vastly ahead of where I was at her age, despite the concern and attention of my loving, Phi Beta Kappa mother. be point is, day care centers often do a better job of child care than do traditional mothers because they were innovations specifically designed for that task. They perform more functions than does the traditional mother, and they perform them with a higher level of competence.

To what other innovation contexts might this be generalizable? Several cone to mind in the services marketing area: consumers now seek and receive advice from specialists in a wide array of choice areas that were once restricted to personal decision making. There are now consultants in wardrobe purchasing, SAT preparation, portfolio management, home decorating and lawn care. Each of these service providers performs a function that, until relatively recently in our culture, was performed by the consumer personally. Consumers have adopted these service innovations because they found that the function was performed more competently by a specialist than by themselves. This type of innovation adoption, and the conditions that precipitate it, has been described in greater detail in an article by Solomon (1986).

The Role of Social Class

A fourth proposition suggested by childcare experiences is that social class norms may serve as constraints on the range of innovation options considered. In the innovation adoption literature, income level of the adopter and price of the innovation are both cited as factors influencing adoption probabilities (cf, Roger 1983). Generally, the higher the income of the potential adopter and the lower the price of the innovation, the more likely it is that adoption will occur (i e., economic risk is minimized under these conditions). However, social class normative constraints surrounding the child care adoption decision may convolute this straightforward logic. Now obviously, consumers having low incomes are constrained in their ability to adopt the most expensive (and perceived most deluxe) childcare option - a live-in housekeeper. They simply cannot afford the $250 per week needed to purchase this "other substitute" to care for their children; and thus, their children are sent to the most affordable, and least deluxe, type of child care service - the public day care center.

However, not quite so obviously but just as consistently, upper income parents are symbolically constrained by social class norms from adopting all but the most expensive (and perceived most deluxe) childcare options. This means that for parents of Upper Middle or upper SES the only socially acceptable childcare options are live-in housekeepers and (less desirably) private nursery schools. Thus, just as low incomes may prevent poor parents from hiring housekeepers, social class norms ("what will the neighbors say"' prevent rich parents from adopting low cost childcare service innovations.

Of course, the underlying assumption supporting this social class normative constraint is that higher priced childcare options are also higher in quality. As stated earlier, personal experience has led me to strongly doubt the strength of the price/quality correlation with regard to childcare services. But, personal experience aside, the fact remains that the innovation literature generally has failed to consider the constraining role that social class norms may play in many adoption decisions. Several innovation options may be eliminated from serious consideration simply because they are not appropriate for people "of a certain class" irregardless of their ability to perform the desired function more efficiently or effectively than other options.

The More Things Change ... The More They Don't Stay the Same

A fifth, and final, proposition I would like to put forward concerns the dynamic nature of complex innovations. The continuous flux and instability of these innovations and their adopters is perhaps most vividly evidenced by the childcare decision, but is present in other contexts, as well. Quite often in the literature an innovation is depicted as a stable entity - a collection of tangible attributes that the adopter need only learn about in order to reach an adoption decision. Similarly, the adopter is generally depicted as a stable human being knowledgeable about his/her own preferences and desires. In childcare innovation adoption decisions, neither of these conditions holds true.

First, as noted earlier, childcare alternatives and their characteristics are in a rapid state of transition. In my community, for example, two new private day care centers have just opened, a church-affiliated nursery has closed, two new agencies are offering nanny and au pair referral services, and the senior citizens center has initiated a "rent-a-grandmother" service. Hours, costs, and functions associated with each of these novel options vary widely, making direct comparisons impossible. Similar proliferation of childcare innovations likely confronts parents elsewhere. And similar situations of innovation overload confront consumers of personal computers, compact disc stereo systems, zero-coupon bonds, adjustable rate hone mortgages, and other complex, rapidly-evolving innovation contexts.

There is a second dynamic factor in the childcare innovation adoption decision, however, - the child. I have discovered - as I am sure other parents have - that just as I have finally figured out what combination of intellectual, physical, and emotional resources my child needs, she changes. The toys that were her favorites last month, now lie discarded; the games that used to fascinate her, now are boring. Similarly, the childcare innovation option that was best at 6 months is inappropriate at 18 months, and so on. Unlike "theoretical" consumers who know what they want and remain stable in their preferences over a given time period, children do not always know what they want (and are even less cognizant of what they need), and their parents - who ostensibly are making informed decisions for them - know even less. Thus, in reality, the decision process for adopting a childcare innovation incorporates elements not only of Simon's (1967) concept of satisficing but also of Kassarjian's (1986) notion of muddling through.

Parents mentally and physically lurch along, examining brochures, calling referral services, visiting nursery schools, talking to friends, interviewing prospective live-in employees, wringing their hands and coping with waves of guilt. When they have reached their upper limits on physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion (which is necessary to assuage the guilt) they pick an alternative, likely influenced as much by their feelings toward their mother, their social class mobility, and the choices of their friends as it is by a direct consideration of service quality. The child is then immersed in the innovation chosen and his/her response is carefully observed. If the child seems to react with at least a minimum degree of satisfaction, the innovation is adopted for a continued time period.

Innovation Proliferation

m us this final proposition may be simply stated as: the more rapidly proliferating the number of specific alternatives within an innovation context, the lower the threshold of acceptable performance will be for a selected alternative. Consumers, when confronted with over choice among a set of complex novel options will tend to set lower standards of acceptability for any given option. Thus, whatever option the consumer happens to adopt first has a high probability of being continued. Large levels of dissatisfaction are necessary before the option will be discontinued.

A strong irony here is that many of the innovation contexts whose specific options are rapidly proliferating (e g. child care services, adjustable rate mortgages) are those having a direct impact on consumers' quality of life. m us there may be a tendency to satisfice and muddle through those very decisions whose outcomes have the most potential for increasing or decreasing consumers' happiness.


The foregoing discussion has put forward same propositions regarding the adoption of complex innovations possessing both technological and symbolic features. These propositions were derived from introspective analysis of the author's own decision processes concerning childcare services and from ad hoc conversations with other parents confronting the same innovation adoption task. Although I am not in favor of the indiscriminate use of self-centered analysis as a method of generating scientific data, certainly there are areas where our personal experiences as consumers (not scientists) can provide constructive insights into consumption phenomena. The transferability of the insights provided in the present paper to other contexts remains to be assessed. It is my hope that others will explore them.


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