Practice Diffusion: Insights from Surfing

Diffusion is traditionally examined at a macro-level, measured by adoption (e.g., sales), or at a micro-level, assessed by consumer characteristics (e.g., adopter types). In a recently published Journal of Consumer Research study, Melissa Akaka, Hope Schau, and Stephen Vargo used the practice of surfing to study diffusion at a meso-level. Here they share what we can learn from their findings.

In 2021, surfing made its debut as an Olympic sport. The entrance of surfing into the Summer games reflects the evolution of an indigenous cultural practice that made its way across multiple continents, a multitude of countries, and hundreds of coastal areas over the past 200 years. Although not everyone around the world is aware of the Polynesian and Hawaiian genealogy of modern-day surfing, all who engage with the current elements of the practice are historically tied to these origins. As a practice spreads across different local, national, and regional cultures, it is integrated with a variety of sociocultural beliefs, norms, and meanings. Prior research tells us that the reproduction of a practice requires links between practice elements (materials, meanings, and competences), but in a broad cross-cultural context, the question remains: how does a practice diffuse?

Diffusion is traditionally examined at a macro-level, measured by adoption (e.g., sales), or at a micro-level, assessed by consumer characteristics (e.g., adopter types). We address diffusion at a meso-level focusing on how a practice disseminates across extended time and cross-cultural and cross-national space. We highlight the story of Jafar, the first known surfer in Bangladesh, who rode a surfboard on his belly for 7 years before learning that others around the world ride it standing. It wasn’t until a group of foreign surfers visited his country and supported the transposition (connections between materials such as boards and meanings of surfing), codification (connections between skills/competences such as riding a wave and meanings of surfing) and adaptation (localized integration of materials, competences, and meanings) of surfing, that it emerged and sustained as a practice in that region.

We trace the dispersion of surfing to understand how a practice spreads across diverse cultural contexts over an extended period of time through an historical analysis and an ethnographic inquiry. Our historic data consist of oral histories, explorer journals, journalistic and historic texts, artifacts (surf gear), and images (photos and drawings of surfing). Our ethnographic data include interviews with prominent surf historians, former professional surfers, surfboard shapers, surf retailers, and surfing hobbyists, as well as years of participation in surf communities. Taken together, our data suggest practice diffusion is not the outright adoption of a practice, but rather a perpetual state of adaptation.

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The findings reveal practices are entangled with other practices and form systems of practices, such as religion, laws, markets, families, and organizations. Reproduction of a practice requires element alignment of practice elements within these systems of practices as a practice is transported across time and space by carriers (those engaged with a practice). However, we find that this alignment is limited, and reproduction hindered, when non-carriers (those who do not engage with a practice) have dominant and misaligned, sometimes contradicting, meanings. We show how practice emergence occurs through shifts in power between practice carriers and non-carriers and results in varying forms of practice reproduction (demarcation, imitation, acculturation, and innovation). The maintenance and evolution of a reproduced practice depends on its strength of alignment with and embeddedness within systems of practices.

Our study on surfing uncovers a recursive process of practice diffusion that underlies the repeated emergence of a practice in cross-cultural and cross-national contexts. This process is not unique to surfing, as it applies to the spread of many enduring practices. However, the evolution of this practice from an indigenous cultural phenomenon to a global sport reflects the complexity and potential of practice diffusion. The findings of this research have important implications for consumers, businesses, and policy makers who want to support the spread of desirable practices and hinder the diffusion of others.

Read the full paper:

Practice Diffusion

Journal of Consumer Research, ucab045,