A Cultural Approach to the Study of Diffusion and Adoption of Innovations


Bernard Dubois (1972) ,"A Cultural Approach to the Study of Diffusion and Adoption of Innovations", in SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 840-850.

Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1972      Pages 840-850


Bernard Dubois, Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University

[The author is indebted to Professor G. Zaltman and Mr. C. Pinson for their critical comments on an earlier draft and their helpful suggestions.]

[Bernard Dubois is a doctoral candidate in marketing at the Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.]

Why do French consumers resist frozen foods, breakfast cereals, and hamburgers while, at the same time, to most Americans, the idea of eating horsemeat, snails and frog legs seems at least strange if not repulsive? To account for these differences in the adoption of commercial products, various types of explanation have been advanced; some have been cast in economic terms,'others in physiological terms, still others in geographico-climatic terms. At a deeper level, it seems that such phenomena can be explained, at least partially in terms of differences in habits and life patterns, that is, differences in culture.

The purpose of this paper is to describe and discuss the nature of the cultural factors which affect the rate of diffusion and the rate of adoption of innovations. After having introduced the subject, the paper briefly discusses the concept of culture. Then, it analyzes how, at a macro-level, cultural norms affect the rate of diffusion of innovations. Third, at a micro-level, it presents the hypothetical relationship existing between cultural integration and individual adoption. Finally, it suggests an integrative framework which provides criteria according to which further research in the area can be stimulated and evaluated

A certain number of examples presented in the text concern French situations. This is not intended to indicate that the scope of this paper is limited to the French culture but merely results from the greater familiarity with this particular environment by the author.


Although many diffusion researchers (see for example Rogers, 1962; Rogers with Shoemaker, 1971; Robertson, 1971; Katz et al., 1963 and Zaltman, 1965), recognize the importance of cultural influences upon the diffusion and adoption processes, very few attempts have been presented which concentrate upon an analysis of their functioning at a conceptual level. We know that culture is a crucial variable but still have difficulties understanding how it works. Generally speaking, social scientists (see especially Barnett, 1953; Arensberg and Niehoff, 1964; Foster, 1962), seem to have been more interested in the role of innovations as elements of cultural change than in the impact of culture upon the diffusion and adoption processes. In other words, the main stream of interest has concerned the influence of innovation upon culture rather than the influence of culture upon innovation.

Despite these qualifications, a certain number of diffusion studies exist which clearly establish the predominance of cultural factors. The three studies reported below round among the most significant of them.

In both editions of his book, Rogers (1962; 1971) relates the story of the unsuccessful diffusion of a socially desirable innovation: that of water-boiling in rural Peru. As reported by Wellin (1955) and discussed by Rogers, the reasons for the failure deeply involved the villagers' custom's regarding hot, cold foods and illness; in the village under study, the basic belief system is that all foods, liquids, medicines and other materials are inherently hot or cold, irrespective of their actual temperature. Hot-cold distinctions serve essentially as a basis for discriminating between health and illness behavior. Raw water is originally considered as "cold" and therefore adequate for healthy people. Boiling it makes it less "cold" and therefore only restricted to ill persons. As a result of this, after two years of intensive efforts, only five per cent of the village population had adopted the new practice. Wellin concludes: "(Even) a practice as mundane as the domestic boiling of water is arbitrated by local cultural standards ... By virtue of their common membership in the community as such, residents of Los Molinos share many customs--including a core of common understandings about boiled and unboiled water ... This study suggests that detailed knowledge of social and cultural factors of the community is vital to the efficiency of the water-boiling program. It also suggests that useful wisdom comes not simply from knowing the scattered items of cultural belief and practice but from the appreciation that they constitute a system in which the individual parts are linked to form a meaningful structure." (1955: 100-102).

A second study of interest is the one conducted by Pedersen (1951) concerning the adoption of selected farm practices by farmers from two different cultural backgrounds. Unlike the Wellin's report, based on a case study, Pedersen's analysis is closer to a field experiment: He compared the rate of adoption of agricultural innovations concerning livestock, cropping and mechanization practices by Danish and Polish farmers settled in Central Wisconsin. All factors, except ethnic background were held constant through the selection of the two groups. In all cases, the number of Polish farmers adopting the recommended practices was much lower than the number of Danish farm operators. As explained by Pedersen, "this performance suggests that the Danish and the Polish ethnic groups constitute different universes from the standpoint of behavior or reaction to recommend dairy farming practices. The attitudes and values of the Danish group are different from the attitudes and values of the Polish group . . . The Danish farmer values education, whereas the Polish farmer places greater confidence in home training. The latter attitude tends to perpetuate the established way of performing specified operations. The orientation of the Danish farmers is out-going and community centered whereas that of the Polish farmer is family-centered. The former orientation opens up avenues of communication with outside agencies, thereby facilitating the dissemination of information in the farm community, whereas the latter tends to block the dissemination of information. Finally, the value placed upon independence and individual freedom in the Danish group tends to facilitate the acceptance of new farming practices by making a relatively complete break in operations between father and son, leaving the son free to try out new adaptations. In the Polish group, in contrast, transference of the farm from father to son is a gradual process which is tied to the training or apprenticeship of the son in farming ... In short, the culture of the Danish group facilitates the introduction of new ideas, whereas the culture of the Polish group tends to perpetuate the status quo." (1951: 48-49).

The third and last study that will be reviewed here, derived this time from a marketing environment, is a landmark in cultural research in marketing. It is Graham's study (1956) of the diffusion of five innovations: television, canasta, supermarkets, hospital insurance and medical service insurance across six subcultural groups of contemporary America. In comparing the percentages of acceptors and rejecters of each of these innovations in each of these groups, Graham found that no consistent behavior could be observed with respect to the adoption of the five innovations considered together; some innovations were accepted by some groups and rejected by others,while other innovations were accepted or rejected by all groups.

In trying to account for the differences thus revealed, Graham emphasized the cultural determinants of the adoption decision. Television for example tended to be accepted by lower class people and rejected by upper class members mainly because of a significant "penchant" for passive leisure experienced by the former subgroup. Inversely, canasta was easily adopted by upper class people given their greatest interest in active recreation and their more frequent gathering together with friends by social purposes. Graham concluded: "Of critical importance in determining the degree of acceptance of an innovation is the extent to which innovational characteristics and the culture of the receiving group are compatible. Each innovation is unique, each is compatible in different degrees with the culture of a given group. Therefore, each is accepted in different degrees by that group." (1956:99)

Although only briefly discussed here, the three examples presented above (the interested reader will find other studies dealing with the same topic in Alers-Montalvo, 1957; Apocada, 1952; Barnett, 1953; Brandner and Straus, 1954; Erasmus, 1962; Fliegel and Kivlin, 1962; Holmberg, 1952; Linton, 1936; Mead, 1955; McCorkle, 1961; Sasaki and Adair, 1952; Datt Singh, 1952; and Suttles, 1951) seem sufficient to convey the idea that culture definitely influences the degree to which innovations are accepted by individuals and spread among their groups. How this process occurs and what the mechanisms underlying it are provides the matter for the subsequent parts of this paper. However, to clarify the discussion, an initial and brief analysis of the concept of culture is in order.


Many definitions of the concept of culture have appeared in the literature (in their "Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions," 1963, Kroeber and Kluckhohn discuss one hundred and sixty-four of them) and it is not in the scope of this paper to review and analyze them. Given our purposes, what seems more important is to understand what the essential dimensions of culture are, as far as its influence upon human behavior is concerned.

In essence, culture consists of a system of values. By values, we mean specific items, ideas or concepts which receive particular positive or negative connotation. For example, we easily recognize that in our contemporary western culture, the possession of goods is a highly valued cultural goal (Kassarjian and Robertson, 1968) while in other cultures, this is not necessarily the case (Mead, 1935). In symbolic form, we can therefore describe a given culture in terms of its "characteristic value vector" V = (v1, v2, ..., v ) where v1, v2, V3 ..., v stand for the items or ideas which are particularly valued (positively or negatively). To illustrate our point, consider the description of the American culture given by Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968): It is expressed in terms of an eight-element value vector; these values are: Religiosity, achievement, security, other direction, conformity, leisure, youthfulness, and urbanization. A similar description of the French culture would have probably included the the following values: individualism, sedentarism, nationalism, social justice, freedom, logic, artistic sense and mature age. (The interested reader is referred to Brinton, 1968; Curtius, 1932; Cohen-Portheim, 1933; McKay, 1951 and Stegfried,1930; for various presentations and discussions of the French culture.)

In order to be operational, cultural values have to be expressed in terms of norms; cultural norms refer to the tolerable patterns of overt behavior which are to be observed by the members of a given culture. It is through norms that individuals become acculturated and often, the concept of culture is defined in terms of norms rather than in terms of the values underlying them; see for example the classic definition of a culture given by Linton (1948): "A configuration of learned behavior and results of behavior whose component elements are shared and transmitted by the members of a particular society." Incidentally, it can be noticed that as long as the operationalization process which transforms values into norms is accurately understood, the decision of defining a culture in terms of norms rather than in terms of values becomes a matter of personal convenience; in particular, the description of a given culture should amount to the same thing whether it is expressed in terms of norms or in terms of values. Personally, we prefer to define a culture in terms of values only to the extent that values, more general and more abstract than norms, seem to represent more adequate vehicles to convey the essence of a culture.

As we will see later, those norms and values play a critical part in determining the diffusion and adoption rates of an innovation.

So, to sum up the discussion thus far:

(1) A given culture can be best described by identifying the particular set of values which constitutes its essence. (2) To be operational (that is, to effectively affect the behavior of its members) the values of a culture are translated into norms. (3) The thesis presented in this paper is that an analysis of these norms is of critical relevance if we are to understand the impact of culture upon the macro-process of diffusion as well as the micro-process of adoption of an innovation.


In order to understand the impact of culture upon diffusion, it is first necessary to realize that the diffusion of an innovation never operates in a vacuum but within the boundaries of a social system, the precise nature of this social system depending upon the type of innovation being considered (for example, "in most farming studies, the social system is defined as a farming community, often a county. It is also possible to think of the social system in terms of age, income, social class or any other criteria of market segmentation") (Robertson, 1971).

Given our purposes, it is convenient to conceive of a social system as the output of a social stratification process whereby cultural values are distributed among its members. Any known society has its stratification system; it is less the amount of stratification than the rules according to which this stratification is operated which differentiate one system from another. These rules are of course the cultural values and norms which were discussed in the preceding section of this paper. To illustrate, we can take the example of certain Polynesian groups which accord high prestige to first-born children irrespective of sex. In this case, birth order is the relevant criterion. Similarly, we recognize that in France until recently, the ownership of land was traditionally synonymous with wealth and high status. Such a system would have appeared completely "irrelevant" to the Arapesh of New Guinea who tend to believe that man belongs to the land rather than the contrary (Mead, 1935).

Among the various norms existing in a social system, one is of particular relevance given our interests: the norm which prescribes the behavior individuals will follow with respect to novelty and change. It is well known that some cultures value positively novelty and change for their own sake. The Americans for example are said to be attracted by the new. By contrast, countries like France consider change as having much less positive appeal. (Often, this attitude is linked with a basic fatalism and/or cultural ethnocentrism.) Rogers (1962, 1969) was instrumental in presenting a theoretical framework to account for these differences. He basically distinguishes two ideal types of societies: the modern one in which norms tend to systematically favor innovativeness and welcome change and the traditional one which tends to resist the new. According to Rogers, the major dimensions along which modern and traditional social systems differ are: the level of technology, the level of education, the degree of cosmopoliteness, the existence of a "rational mind" and the ability to empathize.

Although such a framework is of some value as a contribution to analysis of the impact of culture upon the diffusion of innovations, it should be kept in mind that the traditional-modern norm is but one way in which culture may exert its influence.

More generally, it is useful to recognize that an innovation is always perceived with respect to a given number of specific attributes such as relative advantage, complexity, divisibility, etc. (Rogers with Shoemaker, 1971; Zaltman and Lin, 1971). Among these attributes, the one which is of particular relevance here is compatibility. Compatibility refers to the degree of concordance existing between the given characteristics of the innovation and the central values of the socio-cultural system under consideration. Numerous studies have been conducted which demonstrate how innovations have failed to diffuse because of a lack of compatibility with the existing norms of the socio-cultural system. Foster (1962) for example reports that agricultural extension programs in Buddhist countries have encountered tremendous problems in pest control because the religious prohibition against taking life in any form was logically incompatible with the direct approach to the problem through insecticides. Similarly, people who practice polytheism do not offer great resistance towards Christian missionaries while proselyting among monotheistic people was a much more difficult task.

In France, a few years ago, an attempt was made to launch California wines on the market. Over 48,000 bottles were imported and put into sale at the major department stores in Paris. Although importers were careful enough to remove all French-like labels (champagne, burgundy, etc.) which would have irritated the French consumers, the failure was almost complete. Apparently, the proposed innovation was incompatible with a culturally-based image of wine as a "home-made" product present in the minds of most Frenchmen.

The limited success of canned soup in France can be explained in similar fashion. Canned soup is unacceptable to most rural families for whom soup is a complex and traditional dish which has to be prepared and cooked for several hours.

Recent advances in multidimensional analysis offer an interesting framework for the operationalization of the compatibility dimension. Going back to our "characteristic value vector," it can be seen that a given culture can be graphically represented as a point (or a subspace in the case of less than interval dimensions) in a multidimensional space where the axes stand for the characteristic values expressed in bipolar form (inner direction as opposed to other direction, leisure as opposed to work and so on ...) Then, it becomes possible to locate various innovations as points in the same multidimensional space. To accomplish this, one has to obtain data on the relative standing of each innovation with respect to each characteristic value. In other words, we want to know the nature of the relationship existing between a given innovation (T.V. for example) and such well-established values as conformity, leisure, achievement, and so forth. Using this framework, it becomes possible, through the computation of "distances" lying between the various innovation points and the culture-point, treated here as an ideal point, to compare and predict diffusion rates for a selected number of innovations within the boundaries of a given culture. Although we fully recognize that the usefulness of such a framework is completely dependent upon its ability to express the main attributes of an innovation in terms of the values of the culture under consideration, we believe that it is sufficientlY promising to warrant at least small-scale trial.

In the light of the discussion presented above, it appears logical to reaffirm the following generalization:

The rate of diffusion of an innovation among the members of a particular social system depends upon the nature of the relationship existing between the perceived attributes of the innovation and the central values (or norms) of the social system.

More specifically:

(1) The rate of diffusion will be high (A high rate means a larger percentage of the social system members adopting the innovation in a relatively short period of time) when the perceived attributes of the innovation are compatible (consistent) with the central values of the social system.

(2) The rate of diffusion will be low when the perceived attributes of the innovation are incompatible (inconsistent) with the central values of the social system.

Table 2 summarizes these hypotheses:




Having discussed how cultural norms and values affect the rate of diffusion of an innovation within a particular social system is in fact having treated one half of the problem we consider here. For our theoretical framework to be complete, we still have to account for the influence of socio-cultural factors upon the individual rate of adoption. In other words, we have to transfer our analysis from a macro-sociological to a micro-psychosocial level

To understand the mechanism of this influence, it is crucial to recognize that any individual does not adhere to the culture of his society to the same degree. In other words, the members of a given social system do not look like the homogeneous mass that we have seemed to imply so far. Each one is an individual with his own attitudes and cognitions. Generally speaking, an individual's adherence to his culture is determined by the particular position he occupies within the socio-cultural hierarchical system of his society. Such a position is generally referred to as his social status (Linton, 1945). The specific set of behaviors an individual is expected to observe according to his status is called his role. Role is therefore the operationalization of status. If we remember our previous discussion of cultural values and norms, it is interesting to parallel the kind of analysis which is presented now. More specifically:


The influence of culture upon the individual decision of adopting or rejecting an innovation can thus be expressed at two equivalent levels: at the abstract level, it is expressed in terms of values and status; at a more empirical level, in terms of norms and role.

How does this mechanism operate? A key concept to be introduced at this level of analysis is the concept of cultural integration. Cultural integration refers to the relative degree of conformity existing between an individual' 8 behavior and the central norms of the socio-cultural system of which he is a member Highly integrated people strictly observe the norms existing in their culture. Poorly integrated people are sometimes referred to as "deviants" or "marginal individuals." Generally, a high social status is associated with a high degree of integration while a low social status is associated with a poor level of integration.

It should be noted that the potential usefulness of multidimensional analysis discussed in the previous section also applies here. After studying the extent to which a selected number of individuals follow the norms of their culture, it becomes possible to locate these people as Points in the same multidimensional space alluded to before and to make predictions concerning their respective adoption of an innovation that would be perfectly compatible with the culture under consideration.

An interesting illustration of how the mechanism of differential cultural integration operates is found in the experience of supermarkets introduced into France. Local organizations, social meetings and clubs are much less developed in France than in the United States. As a result, the daily shopping experience is, for the French housewife, a major way of maintaining and developing her contacts with the outside world. To this extent, supermarkets which rest on self-service and weekly shopping in bulk, are not likely to be welcomed by her. Things however are rapidly changing now in France. New generations, through modern mass media, are in constant contact with the outside world. Often working under severe time pressure, they do not have time to spend in daily shopping. In other words, they are much less respectful of the traditional norms governing the shopping experience. To them, supermarkets mean substantial savings both in time and money; therefore, they readily accept them.

According to our discussion, we can now attempt the following generalization:

The rate of individual adoption of an innovation by a member of a particular social system depends upon his level of integration within the socio-cultural system under consideration.

More specifically:

(3) The rate of individual adoption will be high (in terms of the celerity with which the adopter goes through the stage of adoption process) when the potential adopter is deeply integrated within his socio-cultural system AND when the social values of the system favor novelty and change.

(4) The rate of individual adoption will be low when the potential adopter is a relatively marginal member of his social system AND when the social values of the system favor novelty and change.

(5) The rate of individual adoption will be low when the potential adopter is highly integrated within his socio-cultural system AND when the social values of the system resist novelty and change.

It is now interesting to combine the theoretical statements presented above into the form of the following matrix:



It is easily observed that the propositions presented above can be derived from an internal analysis of the cells of the matrix. When the attributes of an innovation are highly compatible with the cultural norms and values of a well integrated social system (cell 1), the innovation is likely to diffuse rapidly among its members. Inversely, if another innovation highly incompatible with these norms and values is introduced into the same social system,it will most probably be strongly rejected (cell 2).

Perhaps even more interesting are the situations presented in cells 3 and 4. In cell 3, the innovation is consistent with the social system values and norms and therefore would tend to rapidly diffuse but the level of integration is so low that its adoption remains limited Cell 4 presents the situation of a poorly integrated social system in which an innovation that hardly matches the central values of the dominant culture is introduced. In this case, predictions are hard to make because if those individuals who strictly respect the dominant norms are likely to reject the innovation, those who do not conform might very well be tempted to accept it (especially if it questions the established status quo). This is a situation which is sometimes discussed in the diffusion literature: it is argued that non-integrated members of a social system are often more likely to adopt innovations than highly-integrated people mainly because the former group has "nothing to lose" in making such a decision. If the anticipated consequences of the adoption of the innovation are such that a restructuring of the existing social system is likely to take place, they might even have something to gain. In terms of our matrix, we understand that this situation can only happen when the cultural values or norms of the system under consideration do not favor novelty and change. If, conversely, the system is of a more "modern" type, it is highly improbable that well integrated members will not attempt to adopt the innovation under consideration, given the high social rewards attached to such a decision.

Other similar analyses could be derived from such a matrix. In fact, we hope that it provides a useful framework for analyzing and interpreting research results as well as suggesting new avenues for further investigation. In particular, it is interesting to note that the cultural approach to the study of the diffusion of innovations which is considered here integrates dimensions such as "centrality" or "compatibility" which have tended to be separately presented in the diffusion literature. To a lesser extent, this approach also sheds new light upon dimensions such as social cost, terminality, gateway-ability and ego-involvement (Zaltman and Lin. 1971).

Clearly, empirical evidence is needed to support the theoretical framework presented above. Within the existing tradition of diffusion studies, such a validation is hardly possible. The reason is that diffusion researchers have so far focused upon the diffusion of an innovation within a particular social system without attempting to control for the specificities of the social system under study. In other words, what seems to be needed is an inter- rather than intracultural approach to diffusion research. If adopted, this orientation could lead, we believe, to major contributions to diffusion and adoption theories.


As mentioned in the introductory section of this paper, the relationship between culture and diffusion and adoption of innovations is two-fold. Because we felt that this side of the coin has been relatively neglected in the diffusion literature, we deliberately decided to concentrate our attention upon the processes whereby cultural factors affect the diffusion and adoption of innovations. Clearly, this orientation does not mean that we do not consider innovations as determinant elements of cultural change. In fact the relationship existing between culture and innovation is a deeply interactive one: As we have attempted to indicate in this paper, the rate of diffusion and the rate of adoption of an innovation within a socio-cultural system is critically dependent upon the nature of the cultural values and norms underlying the system. Conversely the consequences of the acceptance of an innovation can be such that some aspects of the cultural system in which the innovation takes place, may be affected. In such cases, a cultural change movement is generated. The innovation contributes to the development of a cultural system rather than being affected by it.

Interestingly and paradoxically enough, we may hypothesize that the innovations which are accepted with the least degree of resistance because of a high compatibility of their attributes with the cultural norms of a well integrated system for example, are likely to have the less disruptive effects,while highly "discontinuous" innovations will in the long run and if adopted offer the best opportunities for cultural change.


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



Bernard Dubois, Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University


SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1972

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