New Conceptual Approaches in the Study of Innovation


Gerald Zaltman and Bernard Dubois (1971) ,"New Conceptual Approaches in the Study of Innovation", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 417-424.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 417-424


Gerald Zaltman, Northwestern University

Bernard Dubois, Northwestern University

[Gerald Zaltman is Associate Professor of Behavioral Science, Director of Research, of the Graduate School of Management, and Faculty Associate of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Science and Technology. Berm rd Dubois is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.]

This paper presents three new conceptualizations relevant to the adoption and diffusion of innovations. Because of their newness they presently lack direct empirical evidence. They are, however, logically derived from existing knowledge and research perspectives and promise considerable, fresh insight into the processes whereby innovations gain or fail to gain individual and broad social acceptance. The first conceptualization suggests that if the adoption and diffusion of innovations is the object of study it might be fruitful to examine as the relevant adopter unit only those which perceive a given idea, practice, or object as an innovation. The second conceptualization suggests a different approach to the treatment of attributes of items likely to be perceived as an innovation by some adopter unit. The third conceptualization argues for more explicit treatment of resistance factors and processes. While the study of successful instances of innovation has been fruitful, the incremental value of additional studies of this nature seems to be diminishing. Moreover, there is a general consensus that unsuccessful diffusion attempts are the rule rather than the exception. By studying factors affecting the failure of both planned and unplanned diffusion attempts we might gain considerable insight into processes affecting social change in general and diffusion in particular.


Several approaches have been taken to defining an innovation. Various writers have used such criteria as: qualitative distinction from preexisting phenomena (Barnett, 1953); functionally new (Federal Trade Commission, 1967); degree of acceptance within the relevant social system (Bell, 1963); effects upon established patterns of consumption or behavior (Robertson, 1971); newness as perceived by an objective investigator (Engel et al, 1968; Jacoby, 1971); and newness as perceived by the relevant unit of adoption (Zaltman and Lin, 1971; Rogers and Shoemaker, 1971).

Of these various approaches the one with the most significant implication is that which emphasizes perceived newness by the adopter. Zaltman and Lin (1971:656-57) "Consider as an innovation any idea, practice, or material artifact perceived to be new by the relevant unit of adoption." Rogers and Shoemaker (1971) have established essentially the same position. This idea of perception should not be confused with the idea of the perceived characteristics of the innovation once it is established as new. That an individual or some larger unit of adoption perceives an idea or object as new is one thing, what Produces this perception is another matter.

There is some empirical justification for considering an innovation as the result of a perceptual process for we know that sensation, in which perception is embedded, is, fundamentally, a matter of energy change or differentiation. Experiments in sensory deprivation demonstrate that a certain amount of differentiated and changing input is necessary for mental balance in the human being. In other words, the individual needs to perceive change in his environment if he is to perceive anything at all. Recognizing innovations is, of course, a major way of introducing change in one's environment and various physiological, psychological and cultural conditions ensure such recognitions. In a very real sense innovations are the output of a perceptual process.

To sum up the discussion thus far, innovations have existence only as a perception and reality is only what is perceived. If innovations are perceived differently by different people or differently over time by a given individual then there are "different' innovations involved. Also, the same item may be perceived as an innovation by one person and not by another or what one person perceives to be innovative about an item is not what another person may perceive as new. There are two important implications of this perceptual approach to innovation. These are considered below.

Defining Adopters on a Perceptual Basis

Perhaps the most significant but virtually unexplored consequences of the perceived newness approach is in defining the relevant target group to study. What is an innovation for some adopters may not be for others. Therefore most innovation diffusion studies may be misleading in that they are likely to be studying adoptions of ideas or practices differentially perceived by adopters as innovations. Should those who perceive an object as not new or only slightly new be included in any study of diffusion? Current practice says "yes" but this is a very difficult position to maintain or defend from a logical point of view. Obviously many diffusion curves would look much different if we were to exclude those to whom an item is not new. How they would differ is a matter for subsequent empirical investigation.

Many empirical studies have demonstrated that those who adopt innovations in approximately the same time period tend to share common traits. (It should be added, however, that there are differences among studies as to what these traits are for any given cluster of adopters-) Defining groups on the basis of relative time of adoption is very misleading. Time is merely a proxy variable serving as a convenient operational measure of a more complex set of variables. One very serious misuse of time in diffusion studies occurs when it is used as a dependent variable. This is not to say time should not be used as an independent variable but rather that in such instances it has sometimes been misleading. The problem stems from our view of time as a proxy variable, an index composed of several variables- The actual problem is that the independent variables used to explain or predict the rate of diffusion are sometimes the very variables for which time is a proxy.

Perhaps a more fruitful approach to segmenting adopters or potential adopters is to do so on the basis of perceptions. One could classify people or groups according to the extent to which they perceive a given item as new. It is quite conceivable that some of those who are among the earliest adopters, e.g. "innovators," might be those to whom the item in question is not perceived as significantly new. Similarly, one can readily imagine a situation where so called laggards are simply people who do not regard the product or idea as new.

It is suggested here that degree of perceived newness be considered as a criterion variable and its physiological, psychosocial and cultural determinants be found and developed. This would provide an entirely new foundation upon which change agents or interventionists can build their strategies and tactics for induced social change. While it is a subject for empirical investigation it is likely that new clusters of consumers would form when defined in terms of perceived newness and new and perhaps more useful underlying variables or adopter traits located.

Perception in the Adoption Process

This emphasis on perception has yet another significant implication. In most studies adoption is said to occur when an individual or some multi-member entity continues to make full use of the idea he perceives as new. This raises the question as to whether perceived newness remains intact throughout the adoption decision making process? The more basic and fundamentally more difficult question to answer is how long after initial exposure does perceived newness linger on? Alternatively, what is the relation of the perception of newness to the stages of adoption? Conceivably an item may be initially perceived as new but later during the evaluation or experimentation stages found not to be so new after all. Conversely, as the individual becomes more familiar with an item he may find that it is indeed significantly new or different in some way.

The differential relevance of particular innovation attributes at each stage has also been a topic of research (Lin and Zaltman, forthcoming). Certainly viewing the relevance of innovation characteristics particularly their differential relevance at different stages has made important contributions to our understanding adoption and diffusion processes- But different stimuli are perceived at each decision stage and the issue of whether the item is differentially perceived as an innovation has simply not been treated- This has many implications for change agents- Depending on the importance of perceived newness and its positive or negative impact on the adoption decision the change agent may wish to alter its salience over the course of the adoption process of the major target groups. This calls for considerable research into the psychosocial and situational factors affecting perceived newness. One factor which seems especially important concerns perceptual transformation or the change which can be induced in a percept by adding new elements to the situation. This reaches the very heart of the perceptual process and holds great promise as a source of clues suggestive of ways we can manipulate the image of an innovation and intervene in the individual's cognitive structure.


The importance of perceived innovation characteristics as factors affecting adoption cannot be understated- Ostlund (1969), for example, found that product perception factors overall had greater power in predicting innovativeness for the six new products he studied than did all of several predispositional variables including such frequently used concepts as venturesomeness, cosmopolitanism, and social integration, etc. and such demographic and socioeconomic including education, age, income, and occupational status- The product perception factors studied and their relative order of (decreasing) importance were: relative advantage, compatibility, perceived risk, divisibility, complexity and communicabilitY

Perception has been stressed earlier in this paper as a key process affecting the interpretation of an item as an innovation- Along these lines Osgood et al (1962:248) has suggested that there are three basic dimensions of perception: activity, evaluation, and potency. Perhaps these three factors can be used to classify by semantic differential techniques the basic perceived attributes of innovations such as compatibility, terminality, etc- which customarily affect their rate of adoption- It would also be useful to determine whether there are differences among adopter categories (defined on the basis of degree of innovation perceived) in their classification of basic underlying attributes of innovations.

The manner in which people identify with or project themselves into an innovative situation may possibly be subject to categorization with each potential adopter category consistently emphasizing different dimensions, e.g., activity, evaluation, and potency- While the physical attributes of a material innovation may provide certain limits as to what is or can be perceived their perception is also influenced by the cultural, social, and psychosocial qualities influencing the perceiver. An innovation having a direct physical manifestation is more subject to standardization and hence may be most readily classified according to potential adopter perceptions. Ideas and practices would be more difficult to investigate along these lines.

An attribute of innovations which has been little studied as an attribute per se concerns the impact of an innovation upon interpersonal relationships among adopters or between adopters and non adopters- Certainly many studies have focused on the impact and consequences of an innovation upon individuals and groups of various characteristics. But the potentiality of innovations for having various consequences has received little attention. For example, innovations may vary along a disruptive-integrative continuum. Related to this is the consideration of whether the innovation is more relevant to the socioemotional (internal) functioning of a group than to its task and goal (external) function or vice versa.

It is quite possible that initial non adoption by an individual may reinforce or strengthen his relative integration in a group but as the innovation gains acceptance by others within a group the non adopter becomes increasingly marginal (at least with respect to the innovation in question) while the reverse process occurs for the earliest adopters

ln general, relatively little work has been done concerning the perceptual processes of informal and formal groups as single entities Consequently, little is known about group perceptions of innovations. They may or may not mirror the dimensions and attributes considered relevant by individuals.

Zaltman and Lin (1971) have recently elaborated upon new characteristics of innovations not previously treated in the literature- One concern is with the degree of commitment required for successful use of an innovation. Another attribute concerns the publicness and conversely the privateness of an innovation. A public good is one which, if it is available to one party in a social system, is automatically and simultaneously available to all members. The number of gatekeepers involved in the dissemination of an innovation is also important, as are the number of nodes in a social system through which an innovation must pass or through which it can enter. Gatewayability defined by Zaltman and Lin as the extent to which the adoption of an innovation may open avenues for the adoption of other innovations, is also important.

The concept of compatibility as a salient attribute of innovations has been most thoroughly reviewed by Thio (1971) who traces its treatment from first use at a cultural level of analysis, to a social level and most recently at sociopsychological level of analysis where attention has been given to its "goodness of fit" with such adapter characteristics as personality, emotional attitude, value orientation, previous innovative experience, beliefs, education and income level. The notion of compatibility is particularly tied to the psycho-socialcultural world of the adopter-to-be and perhaps more than any other innovation attribute must be considered in conjunction with that psychosocial world. Especially important is symbolic compatibility which refers to the subjective perception of the potential adopter, i.e., what the adopter-to-be sees in the innovation. Also relevant is functional compatibility which concerns what is functionally required of the possible adopter in order to make use of the innovation. Thus, the following typology is offered. These two aspects of compatibility must be considered in interaction with the cultural, social, and psychological levels of analysis or experience.

Angelmar (1971) has provided some important insights into the concept of an innovation which raises some interesting theoretical questions and casts light on the task of classifying innovations. He notes that many attributes commonly associated with innovations (and mentioned earlier in paper) are not necessarily related to their being perceived as new. Examples of such attributes are divisibility, communicability, and terminality. This is not to say that such factors do not affect the behavior toward an innovation. Rather, we must distinguish between those factors which are likely to be the components of the newness being perceived on the one hand and those factors associated with an innovation which function to retard or facilitate its adoption on the other hand- In addition, there are variables which represent the antecedents of perceived newness. One example is the recency with which the potential unit of adoption has been exposed to the innovation. Often (but by no means always) this is related to the period of time an item has been in existence.


Resistance to change is more rule than exception. Interestingly, most diffusion studies focus on the exception -- successful innovation -- rather than the rule. It is suggested here that by examining and understanding the sources and forces of resistance to change marketers will increase significantly the likelihood of success in programs of planned change. The change agent or interventionist needs to know what not to do and how he can bypass points of resistance.

Given the constraints imposed on this paper we can do no more than indicate what forms resistance takes- First we shall present resistance forces as they relate to two adoption models recently suggested by Robertson (1971) and Zaltman and Brooker (1971). Following this we shall present in summary form sources of resistance as outlined by Watson (1971) and Foster (1962), the two best treatments of the subject.

Exhibit 1 presents some potential causes of incomplete or aborted adoption decision making processes. Both change agent and adopter causes are considered. The exhibit is self-explanatory. The particular acceptance process is one developed by Robertson (1971).





Exhibit 2 is also self-explanatory. However, resistance factors in both exhibits are oriented at the individual level. Important diffusion inhibiting factors exist at the group and cultural level. Briefly, as outlined by Watson (1971,, these include conformity to norms, systemic and cultural coherence, the sacrosanct, rejection of outsiders, restricted communication, and the hierarchical structure of power. Foster (1962) speaks of tradition, fatalism, pride and dignity, norms of modesty, group solidarity, factionalism, vested interests, authority systems, class and caste barriers, etc.


Although diffusion research in general and marketing in particular has progressed considerably during the past several years, there is a need for substantial reorganizing of existing conceptual schemes. This paper has presented a few such promising approaches. Certainly the area of resistance which was necessarily given brief treatment here deserves much further exploration. The authors also feel that a reconsideration of the concept of innovation and the role of perception as an indicator of adopter categories is warranted.


Angelmar, R., Pinson, C , and Roberto, E. A critique of diffusion concepts. Working paper, Northwestern University, 1971

Barnett, H- G Innovation: the basis for cultural change. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1953.

Bell, W. Consumer innovators: a unique market for newness. Proceedings of the american marketing association, 1963, 85-95.

Brooker, G. The single member adoption unit. Working paper, Northwestern University, 1971.

Engel, J., Kollat, J. and Blackwell, R. Consumer behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968.

Federal Trade Commission, Advisory Opinion Digest 120, April 15, 1967.

Foster, G M. Traditional cultures and the impact of technological change. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Lin, N. and Zaltman G. Reconceptualizing the concept of innovation. In R. D Schwartz and G. Zaltman (Eds.), Perspectives on social change. New York: Free Press, forthcoming.

Osgood, C. X, Suci, G. S. and Tannenbaum, P. H. The measurement of meaning. Urbana, 111.: University of Illinois Press, 1957.

Ostlund, L. E. The role of product perceptions in innovative behavior. Proceedings of the american marketing association, 1969.

Robertson, T. Innovative behavior and communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971.

Rogers, E. M. and Shoemaker, F. Communication of innovations. New York: Free Press. 1971.

Thio, A. O A reconsideration of the concept of adopter-innovation compatible in diffusion research, Sociological QuarterlY, 1971, 12.

Watson, G Resistance to change. American Behavioral Scientist, 1971, 14, 745-766

Zaltman, G. and Brooker, G. Reconsidering the adoption process. Working paper, Northwestern University, 1971.

Zaltman, G. and Lin, N. On the nature of innovations- American Behavioral Scientist, 1971, 14, 651-673

Zaltman, G. and Stiff, R. Theories of diffusion. In S. Ward and T. Robertson (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives in consumer behavior. New York: Free Press, forthcoming.



Gerald Zaltman, Northwestern University
Bernard Dubois, Northwestern University


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

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