Dangerous(ly seductive) curves ahead – of life cycles and hype

or “smacking your (rule of) thumb with the hammer marked ‘brain'”.

Narratives are great. They help you arrange (or even create) facts that fit in a nice orderly view of the world. If there is a graph to go along with the narrative, they’re even more comforting. I mean, it’s science, right?

Sadly, no.

So, two of my favourite dangerous curves are the issue life-cycle model of Anthony Downs (1972) and the Hype-Disappointment Cycle that the Gartner Consultancy came up with.  I’ll discuss each in turn.

The lifecycle model talks about how issues come onto the public radar, everyone gets alarmed and exuberant, then realised the actual cost of doing anything [which is often forcefully highlighted by the industry under attack] and then the ‘issue’ gets kicked into the long grass and forgotten (or perhaps, not to be too cynical, actually got resolved. It can happen.)


Downs’ article was fab, but – as a lot of work shows since – there were plenty of unanswered questions.  Why do some issues catch hold and others don’t?  Which ones sputter out?  How, exactly, do issues move up the cycle?  What are the different actors (social movements, governments, industry) doing in each stage? (Thus the Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model)


Hype cycles talk about that initial exuberance behind a Shiny New Technology, with it getting boostered by folks who want (you) to believe it is the Answer To Everything.  And then reality intervenes, everyone loses interest/moves to the next SNT.  Some hardcore fans stick around, dust off the battered tech, and it slowly climbs in stature and usage.


Except…. As Borup et al. (2006: 291-2 )put it

However seductive, there are a number of serious problems with this form of representation. First and foremost, the model is too general in not providing enough room for the kinds of variation and unpredictability that characterize the place of expectations in technological, let alone, social change. Many cases, for example, do not show a neat slope of enlightenment, and simply stop at disillusionment or continue with a new inflation of expectations. Critically, this way of thinking about change re-introduces a highly linear understanding of a technology’s path dependency and fails to account for the way artefacts or technologies actually change over time in a continual and practical process of reconfiguring and being reconfigured in use.

So, the lesson is, don’t let an eye-pleasing curves distract you. Same probably goes for diffusion of innovation curves, but I am hardly acquainted with that, so wouldn’t pretend adequacy.


Borup, M. Borwn, N. Knorad, K. and Van Lente, H. 2006. The Sociology of Expectations in Science and Technology. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management. Vol. 18, (¾), pp.285-298.

Downs, A. 1972. Up and down with ecology – the issue attention cycle The Public Interest Vol. 28 (2)

2 thoughts on “Dangerous(ly seductive) curves ahead – of life cycles and hype

Add yours

  1. Marc,
    Funny how research/literature in different fields develop in similar areas without really engaging with each other. There is a whole raft of related literature in the ‘diffusion of innovations’ area (see esp Everett Rogers whose book is the bible in the field). He adopts essentially a contingency model of how ideas travel over time and space are adopted, modified and rejected. From a more post-structural perspective the literature on ‘translation’ provides another perspective on this issue (e.g. Callon). Finally there’s a nice review article by my colleague Andy Sturdy (Bristol Uni) on different perspective son how management ideas are adopted or not: Sturdy, A. 2004. The adoption of management ideas and practices: Theoretical perspectives and possibilities. Management Learning, 35(2): 153-177.

    In the area of climate politics (which you’re working on) I think the trick is to bring in the political economy of how ideas diffusion/adoption/rejection is operationalised! This requires considerations of power, hegemony, ideology -almost a Gramscian take on the whole process of agenda setting and political control!

    1. Yes, we talk past each other so much, because of silo-fication, volumes of stuff. Funnily, I was just reading a David Levy piece from about 2003, and thinking how much it has to offer the public policy crowds, but I rarely if ever see his work cited by them…

      Will look at that reference etc. Many thanks!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: