This is my hoe. It’s been with me for a long time. The sharpness is just right. It’s good because it’s been sharpened by the soil. Its handle feels good, at least for me. For you, a good hoe may be entirely different. You have to try it yourself to know..

For anyone working in the field agricultural extension, Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory might sound familiar. The theory explains that in every introduction of a new technology, there will be groups of people that respond differently: innovators (those venturing on the technology, bearing the risk of failure), early adopters (people who adopt the technology when others do not want to), early majorities (large groups of people who use the technology after its success), late majorities, and laggards (those who remain skeptical but will eventually adopt last).

Diffusion of Innovations Curve (taken from Wikipedia; adapted from Rogers, 1962)

Since Rogers published his theory in 1962, various agronomic and agricultural technology studies have used this theoretical framework in introducing new technologies (especially during the Green Revolution), and along with it, criticisms have emerged. In the 5th edition of Diffusion of Innovations (2003) [1], Rogers integrated these criticisms into a chapter. He says there are four forms of criticism of this theory. I try to reflect this in the context of agriculture.

First, there is the pro-innovation bias, the view that all innovations are beneficial to farmers. The diffusion of innovations theory sees that in principle, all farmers will benefit from new technologies, so the adoption of such technologies is a necessity – the question is, who adopts first. In reality, not all farmers see innovations as beneficial to them, and this is an important factor in the distribution of technology adopters.

The second and third criticisms are more technical. Individual-blame bias sees that the non-adoption of a technology is not entirely because farmers do not want to adopt; it could also because extension workers did not convey the information well. The third criticism, the recall problem, recognizes that the adoption process does not happen at one specific time. Farmers may forget when they adopted the technology – and this has the effect of inaccurately mapping the timing of adoption on which Rogers’ diffusion curve is based.

Fourth, the inequality issue – that adoption of a technology is not necessarily a matter of wanting to. Often, factors such as access to technology, capital, knowledge and social class affect how quickly one adopts a new technology. In some cases, smallholder farmers are ready to try new technologies, but have limited money to buy them. In other case, due to the size of their farmland, it is too big a risk for small farmers to adopt a new technology compared to large farmers.

So what does this have to do with hoes?

As a classic form of technology, the hoe illustrates yet another critique of diffusion of innovation theory – a critique derived from science and technology studies (STS), that technology manifests from the material-semiotic (symbolic) relationship between human actors (users) and the tool itself. Technology has agency, it moves people to do things. It is more than just ‘utilized’, but also influences the way humans behave (remember the story of the Fortuner driver?). On the other hand, technology is also shaped by the user. I’ll talk more about this below.

STS’s critique of diffusion of innovations theory is that technology adoption is never linear and unidirectional. The socio-cultural context is crucial. One’s personal experience of the technology is also a factor. A study that nicely demonstrates this is the story of the Zimbabwe bush pump by de Laet and Mol [2]. The Zimbabwe bush pump is a specific water pump that was introduced to communities in remote areas of Zimbabwe where clean water was scarce. It is one example of various pumps that were introduced, but which was in the end most successfully adopted. The key to its success was that its design was compatible with the culture of the people there. The color of the bush pump happened to symbolize the community identity, the way it had to be used collectively (people need to work together on the pump) was well received and became a means of binding the community together. Its simple components are easy to modify, making the community ‘closer’ to this pump. Thus, the diffusion of innovation is not unidirectional. The suitability of this technology to the daily life of the community is also decisive, apart from the effectiveness of the technology itself to answer the purpose: drawing water.

The quote at the beginning of this article is taken from a conversation I had with Cece, one of the senior farmers, when I bought a hoe from a shop. A hoe, for a farmer, is more than just technology. It is an extension of his hand, part of his means of production, which he knows up close and personal. Whenever a farmer buys a new hoe, the first thing he modifies is the handle (doran). The height, slope, curve, size, texture and weight of the handle determine how comfortable the hoe is to use. Not all woods can be used as a doran. Teak is a good one, albeit expensive, of course, but it is not uncommon for farmers here to use surian wood – quite light, but strong.

Cece is ready with a knife and cleaver to sharpen and trim the hoe handle. Occasionally, he balances the hoe with his hand, making sure the location of the weight points is correct. The sandpaper also works to smooth the handle. After finishing with the handle, the hoe blade is sharpened with burrs and stones, until it is sharp enough. He can work on this for hours, reducing the length of the hoe inch by inch. But he was not satisfied. He says the best hoe is the one that has been used for years (his old hoe is five years old already), because the blade gets sharper the more it collides with the soil and stones. In a way, the hoe accumulates its experiences and turns them into wisdom, the way the farmer does.

The hoe is symbolic of how technology permeates into people’s daily lives – it is not static, but is shaped, forged and adapted to its context. The theory of diffusion of innovations explains the general pattern of societal acceptance of technology, from the perspective (and for the benefit) of the technology provider. But in reality, the process is much more complex. This explains why it is so difficult for many extension workers to introduce new technologies to farmers. While diffusion of innovation theory encourages extension workers to identify local champions who are ready to become innovators, STS helps understand the characteristics of the technology and the extent to which it is compatible with the existing socio-cultural context. Perhaps it is not the farmers who are at fault, but the technology that is too ‘stubborn’ to be adapted to their daily lives. Perhaps, the problem is the perspective of seeing technology as a mere solution, not as something that must be integrated into people’s daily lives. This inspired me to write an article with Jérémie Forney on everyday digitalization [3], which can be read here.


[1] Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

[2] De Laet, M., & Mol, A. (2000). The Zimbabwe bush pump: Mechanics of a fluid technology. Social studies of science 30(2): 225-263.

[3] Forney, J., & Dwiartama, A. (2022). The project, the everyday, and reflexivity in sociotechnical agri-food assemblages: proposing a conceptual model of digitalisation. Agriculture and Human Values 1-14.