Philosophers for Entrepreneurs: The Laws of Imitation

Gabriel Tarde was a French sociologist, criminologist and social psychologist.

He has dealt in detail with the question — how innovations propagate in society. Innovations were not just machines or tools for him. They could pertain to many spheres such as language, religion, politics, law, industry, or art.

He had compiled his thoughts in the form of a book, ‘The Laws of Imitation’. This book could be of particular interest to today’s entrepreneurs. After all, entrepreneurship, in its good sense, is based on what else if not innovation? Is it not some kind of ripple that arises in a pond when a stone is dropped? Moreover, which entrepreneur would not like his innovation to spread and be adopted by a large number of people?

According to Tarde, innovations spread in a society by way of imitations. One person sees another using a new invention or doing a novel thing, and copies the behavior. Imagine the birth of a plow. One person would have imitated the other one already using a plow. And, numerous such small imitations must have taken place. Only then plow could have become a significant force and have changed the face of agriculture.

Why some innovations spread faster and wider than the others?

Now, the question arises — why some innovations spread faster and wider than the others. Firstly, there are perceived advantages that an innovation offers over the prevalent ways of doing a thing. What advantage a plow could have offered over a spade or a trowel? Then, it could also be asked what advantage does an Android based food ordering application offer over dialing up a restaurant? Or, for that matter, is an electronically printed train ticket is better (or, worse) than an old styled punched ticket?

The issue is — how a new way of doing things is better than the prevalent way?

As entrepreneurs, we may have good wishes. We may assume things based on our own perceptions, or, based on our limited willingness to engage with the user. However, the plain fact is that an individual would not imitate an idea if it is not significantly advantageous.

But how the advantage of an innovation is felt?

Tarde states that innovations are nothing but thoughts. In fact, inventions are nothing but thoughts manifested in some tangible form. Inventions have some desire or belief as their basis. For example, the desire to grow food in the backyard rather than collect it from forest would have resulted in a quest to find ways of doing that. This quest would have resulted in many products, plow being one. Similarly, food apps would have come because the entrepreneurs might have themselves longed for better food. Electronic tickets would have resulted from a belief in computer’s efficiency.

Thoughts come first, artifacts later.

Then, thoughts have their own ways of dealing with each other. Often beliefs and desires fight with each other. At the start of the twentieth century, the need for speed directly conflicted with the need to preserve old lifestyle. Some people started driving cars, for the speed and freedom they brought. The others resented because they started disturbing the old way of life. The fight looked as it was between the engine and the horse. But, actually, it was between the two opposing ideas.

Thoughts grapple out with each other. The duel happens in the form of social discourse. This happens when two persons debate it out. Or, when issues are raised in large assemblies of people. Interestingly, the contesting of ideas happens not just between two persons, but also within the same person. A person hesitating to adopt a new innovation, is actually dealing with the internal duel. The innovation is adopted when the weaker idea finally dies down, or in many cases gets co-opted.

Engine won finally, and horse lost.

Fast growing industrial cities meant that speed would be an important issue. However, there was another reason. The first car owners were rich people who had money to experiment with the new things. Tarde informs that the rich and powerful are the thought leaders. Masses follow them later. At the same time, the imitation from higher to lower would not happen if the social distance is too much. Blue collar workers would try a novelty food only when there supervisors have started eating it. It does not matter whether executives who are much higher up do so or not. A change will only happen in the form of a chain of influence with lower stratum imitating its immediately higher counterpart.

In this light, following questions could be asked:

What is the clear advantage that the innovation offers to your user group?

It is not important what we may think is important. It is important what his latent needs are. This can be only known by being with him. That is the only way to be sensitive about someone’s beliefs and desires. There are many techniques to do so. One good method is contextual inquiry.

Another way to do that is by employing rapid application development, which allows to test and refine large set of ideas quickly and economically.

What does an innovation fit in prevalent thought process?

Entrepreneurs need to be social scientists. We need to examine which direction society is heading towards. Let us acquaint ourselves with philosophy, sociology and psychology. We shall read literature of Indian (or, a given country’s national and regional) language. It is worthwhile to follow newspaper editorials.

We should travel wide, to the far flung areas, to know that people are diverse. We should travel deep getting away from the same old routes that every other fellow follow, and explore the nooks and corners of a locality.

How do we create pioneer users?

We need users to take the lead. Often we do it as product endorsements by celebrities. However, we have to note that users imitate someone who is admired but socially not very far off.

Like what you read? Give Devanuj Balkrishan a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.