Re: implied or inferred memes

Tim Rhodes (
Wed, 22 Sep 1999 11:27:57 -0700

From: "Tim Rhodes" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: implied or inferred memes
Date: Wed, 22 Sep 1999 11:27:57 -0700

Bill wrote:

>Can you give a reference?
>It's in chapter 1 of Rogers, E.M. and Shoemaker, F.F. (1971)
>Communication of Innovations. A Cross-cultural Approach. 2nd ed. Free
>Press: New York.

And here's the same case study as it appears in the 4th edition of Diffusion
of Innovations (Everett M. Rogers, 1995, Free Press):

Water Boiling in a Peruvian Village:
Diffusion That Failed

The public health service in Peru attempts to introduce innovations to
villagers to improve their health and lengthen their lives. This change
agency encourages people to install latrines, to burn garbage daily, to
control house flies, to report cases infectious diseases, and to boil
drinking water. These innovations involve major changes in thinking and
behavior for Peruvian villagers, who do not understand the relationship of
sanitation to illness. Water boiling is an especially important health
practice for villagers in Peru. Unless they boil their drinking water,
patients who are cured of infectious diseases in village medical clinics
often return within a month to be treated again for the same disease.

A two-year water boiling campaign conducted in Los Molinas, a peasant
village of 200 families in the coastal region of Peru, persuaded only eleven
housewives to boil water. From the viewpoint of the public health agency,
the local health worker, Nelida, had a simple task: to persuade the
housewives of Los Molinas to add water boiling to their pattern of daily
behavior. Even with the aid of a medical doctor, who gave public talks on
water boiling, and fifteen village housewives who were already boiling water
before the campaign, Nelida's diffusion campaign failed. To understand why,
we need to take a closer look at the culture, the local environment, and the
individuals in Los Molinas.

Most residents of Los Molinas are peasants who work as field hands on local
plantations. Water is carried by can, pail, gourd, or cask. The three
sources of water in Los Molinas include a seasonal irrigation ditch close to
the village, a spring more than a mile away from the village, and a public
well whose water most villagers dislike. All three sources are subject to
pollution at all times and show contamination whenever tested. Of the three
sources, the irrigation ditch is the most commonly used. It is closer to
most homes, and the villagers like its taste.

Although it is not feasible for the village to install a sanitary water
system, the incidence of typhoid and other water-home diseases could be
greatly reduced by boiling the water before it is consumed. During her
two-year campaign in Los Molinas, Nelida made several visits to every home
in the village but devoted especially intensive efforts to twenty-one
families. She visited each of these selected families between fifteen and
twenty-five times; eleven of these families now boil their water regularly.

What kinds of persons do these numbers represent? We describe three village
housewives--one who boils water to obey custom, one who was persuaded to
boil water by the health worker, and one of the many who rejected the
innovation--in order to add further insight into the process of diffusion.

Mrs. A: Custom-Oriented Adopter.

Mrs. A is about forty and suffers from a sinus infection. The Los Molinas
villagers call her a "sickly one." Each morning, Mrs. A boils a potful of
water and uses it throughout the day. She has no understanding of germ
theory, as explained by Nelida; her motivation for water boiling is a
complex local custom of "hot" and "cold" distinctions. The basic principle
of this belief system is that all foods, liquids, medicines, and other
objects are inherently hot or cold, quite apart from their actual
temperature. In essence, hot-cold distinctions serve as a series of
avoidances and approaches in such behavior as pregnancy, child-rearing, and
the health-illness system.

Boiled water and illness are closely linked in the norms of Los Molinas; by
custom, only the ill use cooked, or "hot" water. Once an individual becomes
ill, it is unthinkable to eat pork (very cold) or drink brandy (very hot).
Extremes of hot and cold must be avoided by the sick; therefore, raw water,
which is perceived to be very cold, must he boiled to make it appropriate to

Villagers learn from early childhood to dislike boiled water. Most can
tolerate cooked water only if a flavoring, such as sugar, cinnamon, lemon,
or herbs, is added. Mrs. A likes a dash of cinnamon in her drinking water.
The village belief system involves no notion of bacteriological
contamination of water. By tradition, boiling is aimed at eliminating the
"cold" quality of unboiled water, not the harmful bacteria. Mrs. A drinks
boiled water in obedience to local norms, because she perceives herself as

Mrs. B: Persuaded Adopter.

The B family came to Los Molinas a generation ago, but they are still
strongly oriented toward their birthplace in the Andes Mountains. Mrs. B
worries about lowland diseases that she feels infest the village. It is
partly because of this anxiety that the change agent, Nelida, was able to
convince Mrs. B to boil water.

Nelida is a friendly authority to Mrs. B (rather than a "dirt inspector" as
she is seen by other housewives), who imparts useful knowledge and brings
protection. Mrs. B not only boils water but also has installed a latrine
and has sent her youngest child to the health center for a checkup.

Mrs. B is marked as an outsider in the community of Los Molinas by her
highland hairdo and stumbling Spanish. She will never achieve more than
marginal social acceptance in the village. Because the community is not an
important reference group to her, Mrs. B deviates from village norms on
health innovations. With nothing to lose socially, Mrs. B gains in personal
security by heeding Nelida's advice. Mrs. B's practice of boiling water has
no effect on her marginal status. She is grateful to Nelida for teaching
her how to neutralize the danger of contaminated water, which she perceives
as a lowland peril.

Mrs. C: Rejector.

This housewife represents the majority of Los Molinas families who were not
persuaded by the efforts of the change agents during their two-year
water-boiling campaign. In spite of Nelida's repeated explanations, Mrs. C
does not understand germ theory. How, she argues, can microbes survive in
water that would drown people? Are they fish? If germs are so small that
they cannot be seen or felt, how can they hurt a grown person? There are
enough real threats in the world to worry about--poverty and hunger-without
bothering about tiny animals one cannot see, hear, touch, or smell. Mrs.
C's allegiance to traditional village norms is at odds with the boiling of
water. A firm believer in the hot-cold superstition, she feels that only
the sick must drink boiled water.

Why Did the Diffusion of Water Boiling Fail?

This intensive two-year campaign by a public health worker in a Peruvian
village of 200 families, aimed at persuading housewives to boil drinking
water, was largely unsuccessful. Nelida was able to encourage only about 5
percent of the population, eleven families, to adopt the innovation. The
diffusion campaign in Los Molinas failed because of the cultural beliefs of
the villagers. Local tradition links hot foods with illness. Boiling water
makes water less "cold" and hence, appropriate only for the sick. But if a
person is not ill, the individual is prohibited by village norms from
drinking boiled water. Only individuals who are unintegrated into local
networks risk defying community norms on water boiling. An important factor
regarding the adoption rate of an innovation is its compatibility with the
values, beliefs, and past experiences of individuals in the social system.
Nelida and her superiors in the public health agency should have understood
the hot-cold belief system, as it is found throughout Peru (and in most
nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia). Here is an example of an
indigenous knowledge system that caused the failure of a development

Nelida's failure demonstrates the importance of interpersonal networks in
the adoption and rejection of an innovation. Socially an outsider, Mrs. B
was marginal to the Los Molinas community, although she had lived there for
several years. Nelida was a more important referent for Mrs. B than were
her neighbors, who shunned her. Anxious to secure social prestige from the
higher-status Nelida, Mrs. B adopted water boiling, not because she
understood the correct health reasons, but because she wanted to obtain
Nelida's approval. Thus we see that the diffusion of innovations is a
social process, as well as a technical matter.

Nelida worked with the wrong housewives if she wanted to launch a
self-generating diffusion process in Los Molinas. She concentrated her
efforts on village women like Mrs. A and Mrs. B. Unfortunately, they were
perceived as a sickly one and a social outsider, and were not respected as
social models of appropriate water-boiling behavior by the other women. The
village opinion leaders, who could have activated local networks to spread
the innovation, were ignored by Nelida.

How potential adopters view the change agent affects their willingness to
adopt new ideas. In Los Molinas, Nelida was perceived differently by lower-
and middle-status housewives. Most poor families saw the health worker as a
"snooper sent to Los Molinas to ply for dirt and to press already harassed
housewives into keeping cleaner homes. Because the lower-status house wives
had less free time, they were unlikely to talk with Nelida about water
boiling. Their contacts outside the community were limited, and as a
result, they saw the technically proficient Nelida with eyes bound by the
social horizons and traditional beliefs of Los Molinas. They distrusted
this outsider, whom they perceived as a social stranger. Nelida, who was
middle class by Los Molinas standards, was able to secure more positive
results from housewives whose socioeconomic level and cultural background
were more similar to hers. This tendency for more effective communication
to occur with those who are more similar to a change agent occurs in most
diffusion campaigns.

Nelida was too "innovation-oriented" and not "client-oriented" enough.
Unable to put herself in the role of the village housewives, her attempts at
persuasion failed to reach her clients because the message was not suited to
their needs. Nelida did not begin where the villagers were; instead she
talked to them about germ theory, which they could not (and probably did not
need to) understand. These are only some of the factors that produced the
diffusion failure in Los Molinas. Once the remainder of the book has been
read, it will be easier to understand the water-boiling case.

This case illustration is based on Wellin (1955).

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