Chemicals, companies, and countries: The concept of diffusion in management research

Jennifer Whitson*, Klaus Weber, Paul Hirsch, Y. Sekou Bermiss

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


In the field of organizational behavior, the term "diffusion" has come to be implicitly paired with the concept of innovation and a peculiar set of conceptual choices. We explore how this came about, and examine the evolution of the concept "diffusion" from its inception in the English language through its use in the natural and social sciences to its current meaning in organizational research. A sensemaking perspective on researchers' cognition helps us explain the changing meaning of the concept, and alerts researchers to the subtle but far-reaching effects of revisions in a field's conceptual language. Even though the field of organizational studies ostensibly treats diffusion as a neutral phenomenon, it implicitly narrates diffusion as a mechanical and positive process that should be welcomed and encouraged. The implications of this reframing become even more important with the increasing focus on innovation in recent diffusion studies. The diffusion of new products among consumers and the diffusion of market institutions around the world are things of a rather different nature and consequence, but treating them as implicitly equivalent "innovations" that "diffuse" naturalizes and hence legitimates them. We conclude by noting implications of our findings for exploring the evolution of meaning for other concepts, and their utilization in research on organizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)135-150
Number of pages16
JournalResearch in Organizational Behavior
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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