Definitions and Theories of Innovation


What is an Innovation and Why Does One Happen?

A review of the literature on innovation and diffusion reveals
several distinct schools of thought as to just what an innovation
is and why one might happen.  The "school" which has been most
influential in North-American and North-American influenced
development projects is led by Everett Rogers.  He defines
innovation as "an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as
new by an individual or other unit of adoption" (Rogers 1983:11).

This school views innovation and diffusion as distinct processes,
takes the need for the innovation as given, treats technology as
a free-standing object independent and devoid of cultural
meaning, and views problems of diffusion as ones of communication
and persuasion.  To E. Rogers, innovations are singular
inventions that are adopted via a process of protagonistic
"marketing".  At issue is the potential adopters behavior ("i.e."
attitudes and personality) -- rather than their ability to adopt,
and the ability of the agent promoting the innovation to persuade
the potential adopter.

In contrast to the Rogers school, H. Barnett (1953), B. Agarwal
and others have argued that innovation and diffusion are not
separate processes -- that innovation is essentially the first
step in the diffusion process -- and that potential adopters
decisions concerning adoption is based on rationality rather than
persuasion (Agarwal 1983).  In this school, innovations are ideas
or technologies which are continually adapted as they are
adopted, and represent sequential socio-cultural change.  H.
Barnett, an early proponent of this school, stated that "When an
innovation takes place, there is an intimate linkage or fusion of
two or more elements that not have been previously joined in just
this fashion, so that the result is a qualitatively distinct
whole" (Barnett 1953:181).  J. Schumpeter's simple definition,
that innovations are "the carrying out of new combinations"
(1971:47) also fits this contrasting school of thought.

Economists have focused on the economic factors "inducing"
innovation, and have taken a market rather than personal
perspective.  Ruttan and Hayami (1984), utilize a functionalist,
neo-classical argument that innovation results from the
endogenous scarcity of some component of production.  Thus, using
this argument for example, the tractor was adopted in the United
States in response to increasing labor costs.  This is
essentially the "scarcity is the mother of all invention" school.

The neo-classical school has been criticized by another group of
economists that emphasize the importance of exogenous, structural
factors (history, international markets, politics and
institutions) in "inducing" innovation ("e.g." A. de Janvry

The discipline of anthropology is also divided on the subject. 
Again, in general terms, the division is largely between those
who consider humans to be pragmatists with innovations a function
of their rational objectives and characterized by the materials
at hand, and those who consider humans meaning- and symbol-making
beings with innovations a function of their subjectively defined
beliefs.  From the latter perspective, innovation is culturally
defined and stimulated, and thus innovation is essentially an
overt act of cultural creation.  Regardless of which of the two
arguments one supports, anthropology informs us that for reasons
related to either material or belief systems, each and every
culture is necessarily and fundamentally different.  Anthropology
thus offers at least one clear contribution to the debate on
innovation: an innovation which can be considered "rational" in
one socio-cultural environment would not necessarily be
considered "rational" in another.

Two anthropologists, H. Barnett and S. Gudeman, offer arguments
that bridge this gap between the "induced" argument of the
economists and the "culturalist" arguments of some
anthropologists.  Barnett maintained that the incentives to
innovate can be described as: self-wants (including credit wants
and subliminal wants); dependent wants (including convergent, and
compensatory wants); or a voluntary desire for change (Barnett
1953).  At the personal level, the "induced" innovation model of
Ruttan and Hayami would fit within Barnett's model.

Accepting the Barnett's and Schumpeter's definition of innovation
-- as that of making new combinations of familiar things -- 
S. Gudeman proposes that people create new things for use, and
simultaneously create culture (Gudeman 1991).  A discarded food
bowl used for a chimney cap is thus both an innovation with
practical use value and a cultural creation.  This proposal is
both a refinement and extension of the Barnett model.

Beyond economic and cultural rationales, there are of course
"personal" motivations for innovation.  By using the term "wants"
rather than "needs", Barnett clearly asserts the uniquely
personal nature of innovation incentives.  Schumpeter notes that
these motivations vary from "spiritual ambition...mere
snobbery...will to conquer...to prove oneself...to succeed for
success itself...[and] finally there is the joy of creating, of
getting things done or of simply exercising one's energy and
ingenuity."(Schumpeter 1971:69).  Gudeman (1991) reminds us that
the innovator can be motivated more by pride and excitement than
by potential economic gain.

How Does an Innovation Happen?

We have previously discussed various theories concerning what an
innovation is and why it might occur.  How does it actually take
place?  Conventional American literature and the popular American
belief hold that innovations are largely the product of
supraindividual inventors who have great intellects, insight, and
an eagerness to take risks.  These independent innovators are
also the entrepreneurs whose gall, brilliance and drive for
profit make the market economy function.

Barnett (1953), Kash (1989) and others have proposed that the
"American, independent innovator" is largely the stuff of myth 
-- or was only partially true in an earlier period -- and though
often responsible for formulating new ideas, they are not, unto
themselves, responsible for innovations.  H. Barnett also
emphasized that innovations initially and primarily take place on
a mental plane where divergent ideas converge.

Barnett proposed that the breadth and depth of ideas increase the
frequency of innovations and that social, cultural or natural
barriers to the exchange of ideas necessarily limit their mixing
and remodeling.  Similarly, Barnett found that the collaboration
of effort positively influenced innovation.  Group interaction
increases the possibility that a new idea will develop, not only
because of the simultaneous and cooperative exploration, but
because the interactions are mutually stimulating (Barnett

According to Kash, innovations are actually the product of
organizations which integrate different knowledge and skills held
by different individuals.  This is not to dismiss the importance
of the original idea, or of brilliant individuals.  It is to
state that brilliant ideas are initially just recombinations of
old ideas, and that they are actually reformulated, adapted and
processed by "normal" men who in the process create the
innovation.  Kash's theory that organizations sequentially create
innovations is similar to that held by the innovation school
represented by Agarwal:  that innovation, adaptation and
diffusion is a single process involving multiple individuals.

The term "brainstorming" illustrates Barnett's and Kash's
proposition.  From this perspective, groups or societies which
are successful innovators are those in which individuals are
organized in ways which stimulate the generation, interchange,
testing and adoption of ideas.  In essence, "the collective
capacity to innovate becomes something more than the simple sum
of its parts." (Reich in Kash 1989:53).  Thus in modern western
society at least, the secret to innovative capacity is propitious
social organization.

Summary: A Proposed Theory of Innovation in Rural Haiti

The author will adopt the Barnett and Schumpeter definition of
innovation and amend it with contributions of Agarwal, Gudeman
and Kash: that innovations are essentially new combinations of
familiar ideas (or "things") or a new use of an old idea;  that
this innovation is first "induced" by motivations which can be
described as self- and dependent wants, and then "formed" by
culture, market prices, resource endowments, and social
organization.  More specifically, innovation is the first step in
the diffusion process and group dynamics positively affects the
creation of the innovation itself, and then its diffusion.  The
second step in the process, the "formation" of the innovation is
directly dependent upon State "permission" of the individual
freedom and social collaboration which facilitate the interchange
of ideas.  This theory implies that at least three major factors
would influence innovation and diffusion:  1) the history and
culture of a people;  2) the political and economic context
within which they operate and; 3) the organizational framework
within which they think, discuss and work [note 2].  These
factors influencing innovation will be reviewed in relation to
Haiti before analyzing the case studies.

[Note 2. This theory corresponds to and is consistent with a
three dimensional model for analyzing soil conservation
independently generated by G. Murray in October of 1991 (Murray
1991).  He proposes that soil conservation be analyzed as a
behavior evolving within three interlinked components: 1)
technoeconomic;  2) organizational; and 3) ideational.  He also
proposes that the technoeconomic component has greater strength
than the others and usually drives behavioral evolution.


Converted from gopher on 8/6/1999