Winning the hearts and minds of farmers: Institutionalised innovation diffusion in Sri Lanka
Journal article, 2013
Classical diffusion research, both in geography and sociology, received considerable criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, but after that the diffusion debate has faded away. At the same time, one of the earliest contributors to diffusion research, Gabriel Tarde, is now attracting the attention of both geographers and sociologists. Drawing from earlier experiences with agricultural extension and the Green Revolution, this Tarde-inspired article aims to revitalize the diffusion debate through an ethnographic case study of extension practices in Hambantota District, Sri Lanka. The study is based on field material collected between 2009 and 2011, which includes semi-structured interviews with representatives from various spread agencies – government agricultural instructors, NGOs, social enterprises, and the inorganic industry – as well as with farmers and other key informants. Following the recent work of Nigel Thrift, it is argued that such an approach to the study of innovation diffusion can be a way of uncovering ‘the political economy of propensity’. The article suggests that a return to Tarde should not lead researchers back into naïve diffusionism, or towards a position that blames traditionalist farmers for non-diffusion. Non-human actors can also exhibit resistance and sociality: innovations travel through a landscape which is both human and non-human, and the spread of organic farming practices is configured by both bonds of trust among farmers and bonds of chemicals in the soil. Furthermore, it contends that future research may interrogate the ways in which the very medium of diffusion is being reconfigured, following actors’ institutionalization of innovation diffusion methods.