As agriculture becomes more complex and problems of adjustment
more acute, it becomes increasingly important to know more about
the educational processes which lead people to accept new ideas and
adapt them to their individual enterprises. Such information is of
particular value to the educational programs of the Cooperative
Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics. It is of
equal importance to other groups in industry and govern incit which
work and deal with farm people.
This publication is a supplement to Regional Extension Publica-
tion No. 1, "How Farm People Accept New Ideas." It includes
some additional information based on recent research. Basically, it
is a summary of a flannelgraph presentation by I)r. Joe M. Bohlen
and Dr. George M. Beal of the Department of Economics and
Sociology at Iowa State College. This presentation has been given
before Extension and college groups and many industrial groups in
all parts of the United States.
The basic framework of the regional report is the result of group
efforts of a Subcommittee for the Study of the Diffusion of Farm
Practices, an adjunct of the North Central Rural Sociology Com-
mittee, sponsored by the Farm Foundation, Chicago, Ill.
MARVIN A. ANDERSON
Associate Director, Iowa Cooperative
Advisor to North Central Rural
SPECIAL REPORT NO. 18
Agricultural Extension Service Iowa State College
Ames, Iowa March, 1957
THE DIFFUSION PROCESS
This paper is a summary of the flannelboard pre-
sentation on how farm people accept new ideas. It
is based on the findings of 35 research studies con-
ducted during the past 20 years in various parts of the
United States, including Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wis-
consin, New Hampshire, New York, West Virginia,
Kentucky and Tennessee.1 The findings of these studies
are presented in a framework which will be useful to
people who are faced with the problem of diffusing new
ideas and practices.
Because the report is a compilation, it must, of neces-
sity, deal with generalizations.
In all of these studies the data were gathered by
field interviews with farmers and farmers' wives, and
the information represents their points of view. No
attempt has been made to determine the ultimate sources
of the information used by farm people. Practices
studied were farm and home practices, such as use of
fertilizer, 2,4-D, antibiotics, contouring, new fabrics and
deep freezers as well as several others.
STAGES OF THE DIFFUSION PROCESS
Data are presented in the framework of two over-all
generalizations. The first of these generalizations is
that the process by which people accept new ideas is
not a unit act, but rather a series of complex unit acts-
a mental process. The research seems to indicate that
this mental process consists of at least five stages.
Evidence supports the belief that individuals can dis-
tinguish one stage from another and can designate
points in time when they went through each stage.
THE AWARENESS STAGE
At this stage an individual becomes aware of some
new idea, such as hybrid seed corn. He knows about
the existence of the idea, but he lacks details concerning
it. For instance, he may know only the name and may
not know what the idea or product is, what it will do
or how it will work.
By George M. Beal and Joe M. Bohlen
1 The basic information for this report was assembled by the
Subcommittee for the Study of Diffusion of New Ideas and
Farm Practices of the North Central Rural Sociology Commit-
tee, sponsored by the Farm Foundation. Most of the findings
used in this report are taken from the works of A. Lee Cole-
man, H. G. Lionberger, E. A. Wilkening, Robert M. Dimit,
Neal Gross, Bryce Ryan, George M. Beal and Joe M. Bohlen.
This 'article has also been published by the Farm Foundation
in "Increasing Understanding of Public Problems and Policies
THE INTEREST STAGE
At the interest stage an individual wants more infor-
mation about the idea or product. He wants to know
what it is, how it works and what its potentialities are.
He may say to himself that this might help him increase
his income, or help him control insects or diseases, or
improve farming or home life in some other way.
THE EVALUATION STAGE
The third stage in this mental process is the evalua-
tion stage. The individual makes a mental trial of the
idea. He applies the information obtained in the
previous stages to his own situation. He asks himself,
"Can I do it; and if I do it, will it be better than what
I am doing now-will it increase my income, or will it
help maximize any other values which I hold im-
THE TRIAL STAGE
If he decides that the idea has possibilities for him,
lie will try it. The trial stage is characterized by small-
scale experimental use, and by the need for specific
information which deals with: "How do I do it; how
much do I use; when do I do it; how can I make it
work best for me?" For example, when farmers were
trying out hybrid seed corn, the average planting for
the overwhelming majority of farms was 6 acres.
Apparently individuals need to test a new idea even
though they have thought about it for a long time and
have gathered information concerning it.
THE ADOPTION STAGE
The final stage in this mental process is the adoption
stage. This stage is characterized by large-scale, con-
tinued use of the idea, and most of all, by satisfaction
with the idea. This does not mean that a person who
has accepted an idea must use it constantly. It simply
means that he has accepted the idea as good and that
lie intends to include it in his on-gping program.
These, then, are the stages in the mental process of
accepting new ideas and practices. Individuals may go
through these stages at different rates, and any given
individual may go through these stages at different
rates depending upon the practice itself. The complexity
of the practice seems to be a major factor in determin-
ing the rate and manner with which people go through
these mental stages. The following is a categorization
of ideas based upon their complexity.
COMPLEXITY OF PRACTICES
The simplest of these categories is a change in
materials and equipment, such as increasing the use of
fertilizer from 100 pounds per acre to 200 pounds.
The second in complexity is an improved practice,
which involves a change in technique. An example
would be switching from broadcasting fertilizer to side-
The third category nmpl is an innovation.
An innovation is a change which involves not only a
change in materials but also a complex of changes with
regard to their use. An example is the use of hybrid seed
corn. On first thought, the use of hybrid seed corn
might appear to involve only a simple change in materi-
als or equipment; in this instance materials. But the
adoption of hybrid seed corn involves a much more
complex change. It involves a different framework for
obtaining the seed. In many rural communities farmers
had attained status and satisfaction from being good
judges of seed corn. When they adopted hybrid seed,
they had to give up this status and the prestige attached
to it. Once hybrid seed corn was accepted, other seeds
which fitted this pattern were adopted much more
rapidly. Approximately 5 years passed from the time
the average individual first heard about hybrid seed
until he tried it, and 13 years passed before the majority
of farmers adopted it. Now, when a new hybrid variety
is developed, farmers go to get seed before the experi-
ment station even has time to propagate it.
The fourth category of complexity of practices is a
change in enterprise. This involves many innovations.
SAn example is a change from a dairy herd to a beef
Another factor associated with complexity of practices
and ideas is the cost.. Those practices which cost little
seem to be adopted more rapidly than those which are
moree expensive. From another point of view, those
practices which yield the greatest marginal returns per
\ dollar invested, and in the shortest time, seem to be
adopted most rapidly. For example, when a farmer was
questioned regarding the trial stage in the use of 2,4-D
for field weed control, he answered that he had bought
a 69-cent can and tried it on his wife's flower garden.
This example points out something else. This individual
combined the evaluation and trial stage in his own mind.
If this same individual were changing over from a
stanchion-type dairy barn to a milking parlor and loaf-
ing shed type of dairy arrangement, he probably would
spend a great deal of time at the evaluation stage. Even
though he might take a questioning attitude after install-
ing this new equipment, he would realize that in reality
he has no trial stage because once he installs the milking
parlor, he cannot afford to change again.
THE SOURCES OF INFORMATION
The research indicates that the five stages dealt with
earlier in this paper are not merely theoretical, but
actually are real in the minds of farm people. Evidence
shows that people use different sources of information
at the various stages in this mental process. Table 1
shows the sources from which the largest number of
people said they obtained information at the different
stages in the diffusion process. In compiling these
data all practices in all studies were combined. The
classifications are based on aggregate data. For any
single practice the rank of the sources of information
may not be the same as designated in table 1.
At the awareness stage more people mentioned first
hearing about a new idea through mass media than
through any other source. Operationally, mass media
were defined as those sources of information which were
available to the public, such as radio, TV, newspapers,
farm magazines, and other forms of commercial publi-
cations. This category does not include publications
issued by government agencies, which individuals ob-
tained by request. Neither does it include information
published by commercial concerns in their house organs,
which farm people recognize as coming from that source.
The second most important source of information in
terms of making people aware of new ideas was govern-
ment agencies. This category includes the Extension
Service, which was by far the most important, the Soil
Conservation Service, Vocational Agriculture and Voca-
tional Homemaking, ACP and PMA, and other govern-
ment agencies. Next in importance were neighbors and
friends, and least important were salesmen and dealers.
At the interest stage the greatest number of indi-
viduals said they obtained their information from mass
media, and government agencies were a close second.
Neighbors and friends ranked third, and salesmen and
At the evaluation stage, neighbors and friends were
mentioned most frequently. When farmers were at-
tempting to make their decision, they relied more on
neighbors and friends than any other source. Govern-
ment agencies ranked second, mass media third, and
salesmen and dealers fourth.
At the trial stage the data are not as definitive as
at the other stages. However, the rank order as indi-
cated by the studies is neighbors and friends first,
government agencies second, mass media third, and
salesmen and dealers, again last. At this stage farmers
seem to rely upon mass media for information regard-
ing when to apply the practice and upon salesmen and
dealers for technical help regarding handling of the
I TABLE 1.3THE0A*OPTI 0 ** AD. 0 E 0F I
Knows about it;
1. Mass media:
Radio, TV, news-
2. Govt. agencies:
gathers general in-
formation and facts
1. Mass media
2. Govt. agencies
Mental trial; applica-
tion to personal sit-
nation: Can I do it?
How to do it!
1. Neighbors, friends 1. Neighbors, friends 1. Neighbors, friends
2. Govt. agencies
3. Neighbors, friends 3. Neighbors, friends 3. Mass media
4. Salesmen, dealers 4. Salesmen, dealers 4. Salesmen, dealers
2. Govt. agencies
3. Mass media
2. Govt. agencies
3. Mass media
4. Salesmen, dealers .. Salesmen, dealers
At the final, or adoption stage, neighbors and friends,
government agencies, mass media and salesmen were
ranked in that order. In over 90 percent of the cases
studied, individual satisfaction with- the idea was the
most important factor in continued use.
---In all stages the complexity of the idea is related
to the choice of sources. The more complex the idea,
tile greater is the tendency to rely on government
When people are making a decision to adopt an idea,
they apparently rely on sources which they consider to
be objective. Neighbors and friends and government
agencies evidently rank high as valid sources of infor-
mation. Farmers seem to suspect mass media and
salesmen and dealers of pushing an idea mainly for the
purpose of selling a product.
DIFFERENCES AMONG INDIVIDUALS
The second major idea of this paper deals with the
fact, obvious to most readers, that people do not adopt
new ideas at the same time. Some people adopt ideas
when they are first introduced; others wait a long time;
while some never adopt an idea.
Figure 1 summarizes the data related to this second
major idea. The horizontal axis of this figure indicates
the time at which a new practice was adopted. The
vertical axis indicates the percentage of people who
have adopted an idea. Running across the figure is the
adoption or diffusion curve. This is a cumulative curve
so that at any point on the curve its height represents
the total percentage of people who have adopted an
idea up to that time.
There are no absolute values on either the time or
percent adopting axis. The time span over which people
adopt a new idea will vary from practice to practice.
For instance, after hybrid seed corn had been on the
market 15 years, approximately 98 percent of the
farmers had adopted it. Perhaps the vast majority of
people would adopt another practice in 5 years. Also,
quite possibly a given practice might apply to only 30
percent of the people. In the case of hybrid seed corn
nearly 100 percent adoption might be expected.
Examination of the diffusion curve shows that it is an
S curve, which is close to a normal growth curve. There
is a slow gradual rate of adoption, then quite a rapid
rate of adoption, followed by a leveling off of the
adoption rate. If this were a simple distribution curve in-
stead of a cumulative curve, it would approach a normal
bell-shaped distribution. For most practices the adop-
tion curve either fits the normal growth curve pattern
or approximates it
The research shows significant differences in selected
personal and social characteristics when people are
categorized according to time of adoption. Five cate-
gories will be discussed: innovators, early adopters,
early majority, majority and nonadopters. Although
there may be additional categories, the categories pre-
sented will serve as tools for the extension worker in
analyzing the people with whom he works in terms of
their probable rate of adoption. While these data apply
to farm practices, other research indicates that similar
categories are found in the diffusion of other kinds of
practices, for instance, the adoption by medical doctors
of the so-called "wonder drugs."
INNOVATORS EARLY ADOPTERS EARLY MAJORITY MAJORITY NONADOPTERS
Large firm Younger Slightly ahobe nterage I.e's" education Le., education
High status Higher education Age Older Older
Active in community. Morel formal Educ.tion Le lis Cidl
Z Extra-cmrnmuniily participation Farming experience p
0 ecnntacts More co-op and Medium high .icio-
1 p Fonnal g'ot agency economic statute
O Informal program' More papers. m.
< Information More Ial er.. magl.. and bulletin
. College-direct and bulletins Attend mo
IMore refers to significantly more than categories that follow.
2Less, older, fewer refer to significantly different from previous categories.
The first people to adopt a new idea are innovators.
They adopt ahead of other people. A community would
probably have only two or three innovators.
What are some of the characteristics of innovators?
They have the larger farms, they usually have a re-
latively high net worth and-probably more important-
a large amount of risk capital. They can afford to take
some calculated risks. They are respected and have
prestige. They adhere to and represent important com-
munity standards. Quite often these innovators come
from well-established families. (Perhaps they married
the right girl or had the right parents.)
They are active in the community. They have power.
They may not hold many offices in the community, but
they may act behind the scenes. For instance, they may
not be members of the school board, but they have a lot
to say about who serves on the board.
Their sphere of influence and activity oftentimes
goes beyond the community boundaries. They fre-
quently belong to formal organizations at the county,
regional, state or national level. In addition, they have
many informal contacts outside their community.
Since they have more formal and informal associa-
tions outside the community than most other community
members, they have more potential sources of informa-
tion. This is a partial answer to the question of where
the innovators obtain their information and thus ties
table I and fig. 1 together.
Innovators also get their ideas directly from the
colleges. They go directly to the research worker or
the specialist. Even though the innovators get much
of their information direct from the colleges and com-
mericial research workers, they also obtain information
from such people as county agents and vocational agri-
culture teachers. The innovators know these people,
talk to them and receive their publications. These
people usually play an important role in aiding the in-
novator as he adopts new ideas.
The innovators also subscribe to many farm magazines
and papers, including the more specialized publications.
Other farmers may watch the innovators and know
what they are doing, but the innovators are not often
named by other farmers as "neighbors and friends" to
whom they go for information.
The second category of adopters are the early adop-
ters. They are younger than those who have a slower
adoption rate, but are not necessarily younger than the
innovators. They have a higher education than those
who adopt more slowly. They participate more in the
formal activities of the community through such orga-
nizations as the churches, the PTA and farm organiza-
tions. They also participate more in agricultural
cooperatives and in government agency programs in the
community. In fact, there is some evidence that this
group furnishes a disproportionate amount of the formal
leadership (elected officers) in the community. They
take more farm papers and magazines and they re-
ceive more bulletins than people who adopt later.
The third category of adopters is called the early
majority. Figure I shows that tie number of adoptions
increases rapidly after this group begins to adopt. The
early majority are slightly above average in age, educa-
tion and farming experience. They take a few more
farm papers, magazines and bulletins. They have
medium high social and economic status. They are less
active in formal groups than those who adopt earlier,
but more active than those who adopt later. In many
cases they are not formal leaders in the associations in
the community, but they are active in those associations.
They also attend extension meetings and farm demon-
The people in this category are most likely to be in-
formal leaders. They are "of high morality and sound
judgment." They are "just like their following, only
more so." They are only slightly different from their
followers. Their position of leadership is informal;
they are not elected to it. They have a following only
insofar as people respect their opinions. They must be
sure an idea will work before they adopt it. If the
informal leader fails two or three times, his following
looks elsewhere for information. Because the informal
leader has more limited resources than the early adopters
and innovators, he cannot afford to make poor decisions.
These people tend to associate mainly in their own
community. They value highly the opinions their
neighbors and friends hold about them, for this is their
main source of status and prestige.
They are named disproportionately as "neighbors and
friends" in table 1.
The next category is the majority. Those in this
group have less education and are older than the early
majority. While they participate less in formal groups,
they probably form the major part of formal organiza-
tional membership. They belong to significantly fewer
organizations, are less active in organizational work,
and take fewer leadership roles than the earlier adopters.
They take and read fewer papers, magazines and bul-
letins from the colleges than do the early majority.
They do not participate in as many activities outside the
community as do people who adopt earlier.
The final category includes tile nonadopters. They
have the least education and are tile oldest. They parti-
cipate the least in formal organizations, cooperatives
and government agency programs. They take the fewest
farm papers and magazines and receive and read the
In concluding this brief sumnuary of the diffusion
process, it should be emphasized that this is only a
progress report. Most of the research to date has been
broad and general rather than specific and penetrating.
However this broad, general research has provided
information for a number of generalizations, some of
which were presented in this paper. The great need
for more specific research in various areas discussed in
this paper is evident. It is encouraging to note that
much research is being done by sociologists and by other
groups interested in the diffusion process, not only in
the area of farm practices but also in other areas.
NOTE TO THE READER: Little attempt has been made
in this summary of the flannelgraph presentation to tie
the basic concepts in table 1 and fig. I closely together.
Nor has very much been presented in the way of general-
izations that might apply to specific groups, such as the
one to which you may belong. As the flannelgraph
presentation is given before specific groups, such as
extension workers, manufacturers, salesmen, editors, ad-
vertisers, etc., generalizations and applications of par-
ticular interest to each group are presented after the
Two additional publications that supplement the in-
formation in this outline may be obtained from the
Publications Distribution Room, Morrill Hall, Iowa
State College, Ames. One is "How Farm People Accept
New Ideas," North Central Regional Publication No. 1.
The second is a bibliography called "Social Factors in
the Adoption of Farm Practices," prepared by the North
Central Rural Sociology Committee. This bibliography
lists most of the studies completed in the area of dif-
fusion and may help you in obtaining material that deals
with your specific area of interest. Single copies of
these pamphlets are free. Additional copies are 10 cents
each with a 10 percent discount on lots of 100 or more.
Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics, Iowa State College of Agriculture
and Mechanic Arts and the United States Department of Agriculture cooperating. Floyd Andre, director,
Ames, Iowa. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914.