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Diffusion in Sociological Analysis

Alberto Palloni, Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA
2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
This article is a revision of the previous edition article by N. Alter, volume 6, pp. 36813684, 2001, Elsevier Ltd.

The study of diffusion of behaviors has a long history in sociology. While the key elements of the processes were already well
dened in traditional approaches, sophisticated models incorporating all of these ingredients necessitated modern advances
in social network theories, models for social interactions, agent-based approaches and, importantly, the widespread use of
simulation that could only be launched with remarkable advances in computer power. This article reviews the linkages
between traditional and modern approaches to the study of diffusion processes.

Over the last 20 years or so there has been a remarkable swift

progress in the formulation and analysis of diffusion processes
in social sciences in general and sociology in particular. Past
conceptualizations (Alter, 2001) have been superseded
through a paradigmatic shift triggered by the introduction of
sophisticated behavioral models from other disciplines,
particularly economics, the rapid evolution of social network
analysis, and the discovery and application of agent-based
models (Palloni, 2001, 2003). The transition from the traditional to the new paradigm is, however, not yet complete and
there is much ground to cover. Scarcely any of the progress
made in the recent past would have been possible in the
absence of signicant advances in statistical inference,
quantum leaps in computing power, and the development
of new communication technologies and data gathering

Traditional Diffusion Theories

The most recent Encyclopedia entry on diffusion processes
emphasized a traditional view that was mostly anchored in
classic sociological theories and anthropology (Alter, 2001). At
the time the entry was written there already was in place a solid
sociological tradition, albeit youthful and underdeveloped,
best represented by the classic and much cited work of
Rogers (Rogers and Kincaid, 1980; Rogers, 1995). Rogers
denes diffusion as . a process by which an innovation is
communicated through certain channels over time among the
members of a social system . (Rogers, 1995) or the diffusion
effect as . the cumulative increasing degree of inuence upon
an individual to adopt or reject an innovation, resulting from
the activation of peer networks about an innovation in a social
system ... (Rogers, 1995). Rogers main contribution at the
time was to assemble in a coherent manner the stock of accumulated knowledge by the middle to the late 1970s and to
articulate a conceptual framework that became the theoretical
scaffold that supported numerous subsequent empirical
The main object of study of standard diffusion theories is
the process of adoption of innovations (behaviors, practices,
beliefs, norms, etc.). By its very nature this process requires
ows of information across actors and/or between a central

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 6

source and groups of actors. Needless to say, the abandonment

of practices, behaviors, beliefs, norms, etc., can also be studied
as a diffusion process: in these cases what is adopted is
a rejection behavior. Adoption of behaviors or practices is
rarely a mechanical matter. Like conventional individual decision processes it involve actors with preferences and tastes, who
face price and budget constraints, and who are set to maximize
their utility in an environment characterized by uncertainty.
Unlike conventional decision-making processes, diffusion
involve actors whose calculus is signicantly inuenced by
other group members attitudes and behaviors (observed or
expected) toward adoption.
It is not surprising that the most important application of
diffusion studies involves the adoption of technological innovations. Some of the most inuential early works include Ryan
and Grosss (1943) analysis of the diffusion of hybrid corn,
Hagerstrands (1967) investigation of the diffusion of TB tests
in Sweden, Coleman, et al.s (1966) study of the adoption of
tetracycline among Midwestern doctors, Katz and Lazarsfelds
(1955) celebrated formulation of the two-step ow of
inuence process, Rogers contribution to the early empirical
literature on farm innovations (Beal and Rogers, 1958), and
Rogers and Kincaid work on contraceptive behavior (Rogers
and Kincaid, 1980). The main goal of all these studies is to
assess the effects of the mass media a central source of
diffusion the degree of inuence of individuals located
at the top of the community hierarchy (agents of change),
and the relative contribution of interpersonal interactions
within the boundaries of the community where the
innovation is spread. With the exception of the work by
Hagerstrand and Ryan and Gross, these studies highlight the
role of interpersonal relations and channels of inuences as
mechanisms fostering or impeding diffusion. They thus
anticipate some of the most promising work on social
inuences in general and diffusion in particular that becomes
solidly established and continues to develop from the early
1980s onward (Valente, 1995, 2010; Bandura, 1986;
Moscovici, 1985; Marsden and Friedkin, 1993; Marsden,
1998; Erbring and Young, 1979; Granovetter, 1973, 1978).
Developing side by side with the sociological approach
emerging in the works identied above, the bulk of empirical
research in the area of diffusion rested on the formulation of
models testable with aggregate information about behaviors,



Diffusion in Sociological Analysis

such as the proportion of adopters, of susceptible to adopt, and

of nonadopters. These formulations mimic contagion models
for the spread of disease developed in epidemiology (Mahajan
and Peterson, 1985; Anderson and May, 1992; Bailey, 1975).
And while its appeal was rooted in their simplicity and low
grade data-demands, their generalized use had the unfortunate
consequence of portraying the social diffusion process as one
where individuals are either passive carriers of information
and innovations or passive susceptible rather than actors
who are decision makers, engaged in real social interactions,
and whose calculus is inuenced by other actors choices and
the effects of adoption on the groups morphology itself.
Using highly stylized representations, these models eschewed
explicit denition of the role of social networks, their social
and spatial organization, and the relative positions of
individuals in it. In the contagion-like models the richness of
social interactions permeating the formulation of diffusion
processes in traditional sociological approaches is either
absent or concealed by invoking rigid and unrealistic
assumptions. Thus, most of these models are deterministic,
rest on strong assumptions about temporal and spatial
homogeneity and rarely, if ever, explicitly introduce the role
of relations between actors. While some of the stochastic
variants of contagion models explicitly allow for social and
spatial heterogeneity, they are mathematically intractable
and, at least until recently, before the advent of powerful
computers, led to only modest improvements of our
knowledge about diffusion processes (Bartholomew, 1982;
Bailey, 1975; Morris, 1993).
Recent research suggests that this state of affairs is beginning
to wane rapidly and that the very stylized models of diffusion
of old have receded and been replaced by more complex and
powerful representations both in investigation of the spread of
diseases (Bauch and Galvani, 2013; Brockman and Helbing,
2013) and in social sciences in general (Homer and Hirsch,

Centrality of Diffusion in Sociological Theory:

Structural vs Diffusion Explanations
Full characterization of diffusion models and theories is of
relevance because in social sciences in general, and sociology in
particular, researchers seek to empirically identify alternative
and competing processes or mechanisms that produce similar
observable outcomes.
To x ideas we introduce a simple but useful distinction
between structuralist and diffusion explanations of social
phenomena. Although we argue below that the stark opposition between these two is ultimately misleading, social sciences
is riddled with controversies pitting one against the other and
their contrast is useful to dene more precisely the nature of
a diffusion approach. Structural explanations of behavioral
changes seek their causes in changes of tastes, preferences, and
opportunities that result from either shifts in individuals social
positions (social mobility) or from reshufing of resources
associated with these positions (structural social mobility,
redistribution of wealth).
Diffusion explanations or models, on the other hand,
attempt to identify mechanisms conducive to cumulative

adoption of behaviors by some individuals, even while their

social positions or the resources associated with them remain
unaltered. In diffusion models, the behavior spreads and is
adopted by individuals irrespective of their socioeconomic
positions, even among those whose objective positions are
hypothetically associated with cost-benet calculations that do
not require or are inconsistent with the new behavior. Adopting
the new behavior occurs as a result of reevaluation of ones own
choices in light of other peoples behavior, not as a strategic
response or accommodation to a realignment of resources
associated with ones social position in the social system. As
in models for collective behavior (Coleman, 1990) diffusion
models are built on the idea that, individuals transfer partial
or total control of their own behavior to others. This implies
a decision process that needs to be explicitly modeled: the
decision to adopt a behavior is now affected by the actual or
perceived adoption by others: the individual behavior object
of study becomes endogenous (Manski, 1995).
This conceptualization of a diffusion explanation has the
virtue of reintroducing explicitly the role of social interactions,
their inuence on individuals calculations, and the potential
for spillover effects as the adoption of a behavior may alter the
very nature of the social groups and the distribution of individuals positions within it. Below I provide two illustrations of
the clash between structuralist and diffusion explanations, one
from political sociology and the other from population history.

Class and Ethnic-Based Politics

Contrary to expectations, class-based political alignments do
not always take hold at the same pace as industrialization
progresses. Instead, traditional political allegiances, based on
language or ethnic identities, could remain dominant long
after industrialization creates conditions for class-based
politics. This is a well-studied phenomenon in political
sociology and is part of the large eld of research on
nationalism, ethnic enclaves, and the persistence of nonclassbased allegiances and ethnic enclaves (Hechter, 1975; Hechter
et al., 2006; Brubaker, 1996). In these cases, observed
individual political behavior (voting behavior, for example) is
at odds with what is expected by virtue of individuals
ranking in the social system. Failure of individuals to act
according to class positions an expectation derived from
a structuralist explanation of political behavior occurs as
a result of adherence to practices consistent with positions
occupied prior to the social and economic transformations
that accompanied industrialization. What is diffused and
adopted in this case is the individual resistance to act
according to class-based principles (the new behavior) and
the continued allegiance to more primordial social markers.

Fertility Decline
In contrast to predictions from the classic demographic transition theory, fertility decline in Europe did not always follow
a trajectory consistent with social and economic transformations that accompanied industrialization. Instead, the
course of the decline roughly proceeded along ethnic, language,
and religious boundaries (Coale and Watkins, 1986; National
Research Council, 2001). The resulting geographic and

Diffusion in Sociological Analysis

territorial clustering of fertility levels and patterns has been

construed as evidence against a structural explanation of
fertility decline, and as support for the hypothesis that
fertility changes were instead associated with ideational or
cultural changes and diffusion mechanisms. Clustering of
fertility changes along spatial/religious/language that is
inconsistent with levels of urbanization or industrialization is
prima facie evidence of diffusion of a low fertility norm and/or
of knowledge about family size limitation. A similar explanation has been favored to account for post-1950 fertility changes
in (most) low income countries, where sharp fertility declines
take place suddenly, in a highly contracted period of time,
and generally in the complete absence of signicant
macroeconomic changes, growth, and development (Cleland
and Wilson, 1987; Bongaarts and Watkins, 1996).
The examples from political sociology and population
theory given above share two features. The rst is that in both
cases there are two competing explanations: one that infers
expected behavior from a reading of individual socioeconomic
positions (structuralist) and the second one that infers a pattern
of expected behavior from adherence to beliefs shared by
others in the same community, including those situated in
different position in the social hierarchy. Second, both explanations assume that individuals are decision makers, acting in
uncertain environments, sorting through limited information
on prices, utilities, constraints, potential outcomes of alternative behaviors, elucidating their own preferences, and ultimately taking some course of action. Yet whereas, as a norm,
structuralist accounts consistently include an explicit representation of the individual decision-making process, it is only
of recent that diffusion models are built including social
inuences that affect individuals decision making. These new
formulations of diffusion processes have sprung in many areas,
not just in sociology, and have adopted many forms. But they
all share one commonality, namely, that the explanation of the
outcome of interest as a result of diffusion involves interconnected actors whose decisions may reinforce each other
albeit with time lags, and whose relative positions may change
as a result of the process itself (Montgomery and Chung, 1994;
Montgomery and Casterline, 1993; Valente, 1995, 2010, 2012;
Marsden and Friedkin, 1993; Burt, 1987; Granovetter, 1973;
Durlauf and Walker, 1998; Brock and Durlauf, 2001; Christakis
and Fowler, 2007, 2008; Banerjee et al., 2013; Kossinets and
Watts, 2006; Aral and Walker, 2012).

Weak Identication of Diffusion Processes

The bulk of evidence to discriminate between diffusion and
structuralist explanations conventionally rested on aggregate
data. Since in conventional diffusion models the individual
adoption process is poorly, if at all, specied, the aggregate
process and its outcome are ill dened: seldom is there a way
to determine what kind of aggregate evidence one would
expect when the individual adoption process itself is undened. The last resort is the generalized practice of using
residual evidence or, equivalently, to infer the validity of the
diffusion model from the weaknesses of the structural
explanation, e.g., what the latter cannot account for is
assumed to be the outcome of diffusion. This unsatisfactory
state of affairs began to recede only recently, perhaps no


longer than 20 years ago, when diffusion models were nally

coupled systematically with social network theory, when
individual decision making involving social interactions were
explicitly dened (mostly by economists) and, nally, with
the advent of agent-based models, a powerful tool with the
capability to generate bounds for estimates of the inuence/
magnitude of diffusion processes. The nature of these
advances is reviewed below.

The Diffusion of Modern Diffusion Models

About two decades or so ago, sociological analyses of diffusion processes began to move away from conventional
contagion models and to reintroduce and place complexity of
social interactions and individual behavior at the center of
diffusion research (Palloni, 2001). The object of study was
reshaped and rather than targeting aggregate parameters, such
as the overall adoption rate, researchers began to focus on
individual processes that led to either adoption or nonadoption of a behavior, the timing of the adoption and,
strategically, the effects of the adoption process itself on the
structure of the social group. This type of model shifts the
focus away from aggregate outcomes toward individual
behaviors and individual adoption, and redirects attention
toward actors who are decision makers, to the processes of
social inuence that shape individual decision making, and to
the changes in the landscape of prices, constraints, and preferences that the diffusion process itself induces (feedback
mechanism). These new models lead to predictions about
aggregate trajectories that are a transparent outcome of individuals actions governed by the diffusion process. These
models now enable the researcher to fully incorporate
complexities of the adoption process itself (interagent
communication, external sources, barriers, agents of change,
etc.), the social conditions of interaction between actors who
are adopters and potential adopters and, importantly, relevant feedback mechanisms. To evaluate the progress and
improvements made in the last two decades we turn to a more
rigorous denition of the elements of a diffusion process,
including traditional and modern ones.

The Elements of a Diffusion Processes

The new approaches to the study of diffusion include the
following elements:

Actors, Decision-Making, and Social Interactions

A diffusion process occurs among individual decision makers
that evaluate costs and benets associated with adoption (or its
obverse, resistance to adoption), as well as information and
ignorance about prices, costs, outcomes, and alternatives.
Unlike other processes, however, individual calculations
include the observed, anticipated, or presumed behaviors of
other members in the group. The inclusion of the individual
capacity of decision making and the intrusion of others
behavior on individual calculus is what distinguishes social
from biological evolution (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1980).
The diffusion process involves individual social learning, social
inuences associated with different individuals in the group,


Diffusion in Sociological Analysis

and institutional constraints (Montgomery and Casterline,

1996; Erbring and Young, 1979; Marsden and Friedkin, 1993;
DiMaggio and Powell, 1991).

Social Structure as Context

Adoption of new behaviors occurs within a social structure
composed of formal and informal elements. Actors occupy
positions in a hierarchy, perform roles, are connected formally
and informally to other individuals through relations of
authority, functional rapports, respect, and trust. Their positions shape the information they may receive about prices,
utilities, and what others are doing, and values and norms
determine the repertoire of acceptable and feasible behaviors.
Emphasis on the importance of social structure for diffusion
processes is hardly new (Rogers and Kincaid, 1980; Coleman
et al., 1966; Burt, 1987) but it has seldom been systematically incorporated into actual empirical research on diffusion.
It is only recently that sociologists interested in diffusion
account for it explicitly in the formulation of models (Valente,
2010; Strang, 1991; Strang and Soule, 1997).

Individual Heterogeneity
Given preferences, prices, budget constraints, and their positions in a social structure, individuals may be more or less
resistant to adopt innovations, more or less able or willing to
learn from others and, if they adopt at all, more or less
reluctant to retain the innovation in the menu of practices and
behaviors they normally employ. That is, after one accounts
for all standard elements entering in the decision to adopt or
to resist, there could be individuals who are more (less) risk
averse and adopt more (less) easily than others. Factors that
contribute to such variation include social and economic
stratication, geographic location, access to communication
networks, and heterogeneity in behavioral characteristics that
govern both awareness and eventual adoption (Cavalli-Sforza
and Feldman, 1980).

Persistence and Reversibility

Once adopted new behaviors could be abandoned and
replaced by others. This implies that diffusion models must
include components to understand the persistent use of the
innovation. This is of particular importance in applications to
social behaviors that are inherently reversible or unstable due
to changes in the risks involved (for example, participation in
mass protests or feedback mechanisms that alter the organization of social groups, the position of individuals within it, or
the distribution of resources and opportunities (see below)).

Endogenous Feedback
Both, the individuals position within the group and the
structure of the group, could be modied by the process of
adoption itself. This implies the existence of feedbacks that may
accelerate or retard the process. This is a key feature of modern
approaches to diffusion processes that distinguishes them from
more traditional approaches. Although the power that alternative models may have to enable inferences in the operation
of feedback mechanisms may differ, they all include explicit
consideration of it.
The following are three examples of feedback mechanisms
in diffusion processes. In all three of them the spread of

a behavior changes the decision-making environment for

everybody thus inuencing the diffusion process itself.

Vaccination campaigns and the spread of diseases: the

spread of antivaccination campaigns changes the collective
exposure to the risk of contracting the disease and this, by
itself, may reduce incentives to resist vaccination thus
undermining the antivaccination campaign (Bauch and
Galvani, 2013).
l Vigilance, sexual behavior, and prevalence of HIV: as the
prevalence of HIV increases so does awareness of the disease
and willingness to modify sexual behaviors. The spread of
new behaviors (through reduction of sexual partners,
steadier relations, sexual protection, control of other sexually transmitted diseases) is likely to reduce HIV prevalence
and this can weaken the efcacy of collective efforts, public
campaigns, awareness, and individual incentives to retain
modied behaviors. The outcome may be a renewed
increase in the prevalence of the disease (Bauch and
Galvani, 2013).
l Adoption of technology: the adoption of some technologies
(cell phones, software, and operating systems) becomes
unavoidable once a critical mass of users has adopted it since
the incentive structures for all users is altered, becomes more
favorable for adoption of the new technology, and can even
create additional opportunities that reinforce adherence to it.
The combination of these ve ingredients produces
considerable empirical variability. Diversity in the feedback
mechanism alone (strength of endogenous feedback, time lags,
threshold effects, number, and complexity of mechanisms on
which it is sustained) can lead to aggregate outcomes that vary
from runaway adoption and saturation, wholesale abandonment of the new behavior, or oscillations between states
characterized by different levels of prevalence of the new
behavior. This heterogeneity makes it difcult to infer a mechanism (diffusion vs structural mechanism, different types of
diffusion) from observation of limited features of the process,
such as its speed or the inection point(s) of the growth curve
of adopters. A more precise identication of the process
requires more detailed modeling. This, in turn, can be done
using one or a combination of the three new approaches
described below.

Social Network Approaches

Although the development of social network theories, models
and methods proceeded and will surely continue to proceed
independently, one of the most important advances in the
growth and development of diffusion models is the establishment of a bridge between the two subdisciplines. Indeed, social
network theory becomes integrated as a submodule within
diffusion models in a very precise way: actors decision-making
process is assumed to be inuenced by their position within
one or a subset of social networks in which they are members,
by the frequency and type of ties that link them to other actors
within those networks, by the position and degree of inuence
of other actors, by the types of communication between actors
in the network, etc. Diffusion models borrow from social
network models a conceptualization of the resources that
individuals have access to and can use by virtue of their

Diffusion in Sociological Analysis

membership in such networks. Valente (1995, 2010, 2012) was
one of the rst social network theorists to write extensively
about the connection between diffusion models and the
sophisticated machinery of modern social networks models
(Burt, 1987; Watts, 1999; Doreian and Stockman, 1997;
Carrington et al., 2005). Although the linkage had already been
implemented in extant empirical work (Hedstrom, 1994;
Kohler, 1996), it had rarely been formally used in a systematic
way as part of diffusion models. The key innovations is that
individuals decisions to adopt a behavior is dened as a function of standard individual characteristics (gender, education,
etc.), network-related network individual traits (such as
individuals position within the network) as well as pertinent
network properties (type of network, size, density of
interaction, etc.). The individual probability to adopt the
behavior(s) is now formally represented as a function of
these characteristics. Modern applications of diffusion models
enhanced with the substance of social network theory and
models are making inroads in many areas in social sciences
ranging from health studies (Valente, 2010, 2012; Christakis
and Fowler, 2007; Brockman and Helbing, 2013; Bauch and
Galvani, 2013), addictive behaviors (Christakis and Fowler,
2008), communications and technology (Kossinets and
Watts, 2006; Aral and Walker, 2012), and micronance and
developmental economics (Banerjee et al., 2013).

Formal Models of Social Interactions

An important shortcoming of the integrated diffusion and
social network approach is that, by and large, they eschew
a rigorous representation of actors decision-making process
and the feedback mechanisms that characterize the process.
This weakness has been addressed by new models that seek to
characterize individuals decision-making processes as a function of individual conditions (tastes, preferences, budget
constraints), the nature of individuals social interactions
(relative position in social networks, active and potential links
to other actors) as well as the properties of the social groups to
which the individual belongs that are affected by the adoption
of the behavior. The most distinctive feature of these models is
recognition and inclusion of the dynamic interplay between
individuals decision making about adoption of behaviors and
the aggregate properties of the system that are inuenced by
those behaviors. Not only do these models acknowledge the
importance of social interactions as tangible individual
resources but offer room to represent the continuous reshufing of social network connections and properties that take
place as the diffusion process advances (Kohler, 1996; Brock
and Durlauf, 2001; Durlauf and Walker, 1998; Durlauf and
Ioannides, 2010; Lesthaeghe and Vanderhoeft, 2001).


translation of complex models into stylized and oftentimes

conning representations. An undesirable outcome of this is
that the mismatch between empirical ndings and theoretical
expectations lends itself to ambiguous interpretations: it can be
due not only to the formulation of a faulty model but also to
a faulty translation of the original to the estimable model.
Agent-based models provide a solution to the conundrum.
While these models are a very general tool to handle
complexity and were not formulated to study diffusion process,
they can be hijacked to represent some of the most complicated
features of diffusion phenomena. Agent-based models are
designed to include as much complexity contained in the
individuals decision-making processes as the researcher
considers necessary; they are ideally suited to incorporate
alternative feedback mechanisms that capture the dynamic
interplay between individuals decisions and the properties of
the collective or aggregate.
An agent-based model consists of a set of rules that generate
individual behaviors as well as aggregate properties. These rules
are translated into observables via computer simulations that
keep track of individual actors, their characteristics and relations to other actors in the system, and the evolution of the
social contexts within which those individuals interact. Agentbased models lead to precise predictions about aggregate
characteristics of a collection of actors that can be readily
contrasted with observed outcomes to decide about the accuracy of the original model(s).
In social sciences the best-known ancestors of agent-based
models are microsimulation models of population dynamics
(Sheps and Menken, 1974; Bongaarts, 1981; Wachter et al.,
1979; Palloni, 1996). So far the bulk of modern agent-based
models have been deployed in epidemiology and population
health (Auchincloss and Diez-Roux, 2008) but there are clear
indications that their use is spreading and catching on elsewhere in sociology and demography (Centola, 2010; Macy and
Willer, 2002; Billari et al., 2006; Axelrod, 1997a,b). While none
of the applications to date are explicitly designed to deal with
diffusion processes, the extension is not complicated and one
could easily imagine how diffusion models that include the
complexity implied by social interactions and network models
could lead to standard agent-based models.
Future developments of diffusion models are likely to proceed
via the agent-based model route, thus fullling the promise of
a sociological tradition that foresaw the need to incorporate for
complexity but could not quite consider it explicitly.

See also: Action, Theories of Social; Collective Behavior,

Sociology of; Innovation, Theory of; Nationalism, Sociology of;
Neighborhood Effects; Organizational Ecology; Social
Movements: A Social Psychological Perspective; Social

Agent-Based Models
The formulation of social interaction models to represent
diffusion processes is a signicant departure from and
improvement upon more traditional approaches but comes
with a steep price tag: the empirical estimation of key parameters
from observables can only be carried out after considerable
simplications. While these models allow a richer formulation
of diffusion of behaviors, empirical estimation requires the

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