Diffusion – or delusion? Challenging an IS research tradition

Tom McMaster (Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford, UK)
David Wastell (Information Systems Division, Nottingham University Business School, Nottingham, UK)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Publication date: 1 December 2005



This paper seeks to critique the notion of diffusionism.


The notion of diffusionism provides a general way of understanding innovation and human progress. It is pervasive within IS research and practice. Generically, diffusionism denotes an asymmetrical view of innovation as originating exclusively in “progressive” centres, from which it spreads through an essentially passive recipient community. This model is pernicious, as it privileges an élite few over the majority, with the innovator/imitator dichotomy presented as natural, moral and inevitable. This paper analyses the notion of diffusionism in information systems (IS).


The failure to find any empirical support for diffusionism reveals both its mythical character and its ideological rationale in lending moral legitimacy to colonialistic projects. Empirical examples demonstrate both the ubiquity of the diffusionist mindset in IS research and practice, and its linkage to pseudo‐colonial activities in the home domain.


The paper concludes by arguing for a more critical approach within IS research on innovation, the use of richer, process‐based theories, and greater partnership with practitioners in order to close the research/practice gap.



McMaster, T. and Wastell, D. (2005), "Diffusion – or delusion? Challenging an IS research tradition", Information Technology & People, Vol. 18 No. 4, pp. 383-404. https://doi.org/10.1108/09593840510633851

Download as .RIS



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Please note you might not have access to this content

You may be able to access this content by login via Shibboleth, Open Athens or with your Emerald account.
If you would like to contact us about accessing this content, click the button and fill out the form.
To rent this content from Deepdyve, please click the button.