A note on memes and similar

The ways in which shared ideas spread and how one shared idea replaces another have become topics of more recent interest to social theorists concerned with how societies change over time. Memes and ideas in good currency are two examples of this interest.

Memes are, to use Daniel Dennett’s (1995: 344) phrase, distinct memorable ideas which spread from person to person in the community.  They can be as frivolous as a pop tune or as serious as a political ideology.  They come into existence when we react to an experience by coding it into a form that can be communicated to others who then spread it further by imitation and repetition.  Processes of diffusion, modification and accumulation of memes and the behavours they induce lie at the heart of changes in society, eg religious or patriotic fervour.  This is a view which brings us to the edge of historical idealism, the notion that history is propelled by the ideas, ideals, values and norms that manage to achieve mass appeal (to be contrasted with historical materialism, the notion that it is the system of production or industrial-military might which steers history) (Polak 1973: 14).

Memetics is the study of the diversification, replication and spread of memes through society, conceived of as an evolutionary process, somewhat like Darwinian evolution, with memes being the counterparts of genes.  That is to say, memes are replicated, with some degree of accuracy, when transmitted from one person to another.  A newly transmitted meme competes with other memes, particularly contradictory memes, for memory space in the mind of the person receiving it and, depending on the meme’s various properties (usefulness to the carrier, ease of communication, memorability etc.), will be passed on to a greater or lesser extent.  Taylor (1996: 47) points out that memorable cultural achievements appear in clusters (eg the Elizabethan dramatists) when new cultural niches or vacancies in existing niches occur and that these are the settings where cultural struggles are fought (or where memes compete if you prefer).

This is not the place to replicate the ’memes are like genes’ meme. Suffice it to say that the meme concept is evocative rather than precise and that while the prospect of   developing a rigorous science of memetics is doubtful, it does offer a valuable perspective on information and belief flow and accumulation in society.

Well before Richard Dawkins’ (1989) invented the term ‘meme’, Donald Schon (1971) had the same idea, but in a narrower context.  The concept of a culture being a set of shared (but not necessarily agreed) ideas and behaviours is illuminating.  Schon built his thinking around the perception that such shared ideas experience rising and falling levels of public support (shared agreement).  He sees well-supported ideas, what he calls ideas in good currency, as being primary determinants of public policy, ie of what governments do.  Ideas in good currency change over time, are relatively few in number and frequently lag well behind changing events.  The essence of his thinking is succinctly caught in the following quotation from Beyond the Stable State:

Taken at any time, a social system is dynamically conservative in its structural, technological and conceptual dimensions.  This last represents the `system' of ideas in good currency.   Characteristically, what precipitates a change in that system of powerful ideas is a disruptive event or sequence of events, which set up a demand for new ideas in good currency.  At that point, ideas already present in free or marginal areas of the society begin to surface in the mainstream ...  The broad diffusion of these ideas depends upon interpersonal networks and upon media of communication, all of which exert their influence on the ideas themselves.  The ideas become powerful as centres of policy debate and political conflict.  They gain widespread acceptance through the efforts of those who push or ride them through the fields of force created by the interplay of interests and commitments ...  When the ideas are taken up by people already powerful in society this gives them a kind of legitimacy and completes their power to change public policy.  After this, the ideas become an integral part of the conceptual dimension of the social system and appear, in retrospect, obvious.  (p120)

Note that, at any time, society has room for only a limited number of ideas `whose time has come'.  It is as though society has limited attention-capacity and when new disruptions appear, ideas for addressing some existing problem are displaced, especially if their prospects of success are limited.  Note also that while Schon is particularly concerned with change in public policy, his model of ‘ideas in good currency’ extends easily to explaining change in other parts of the society.  For example, there is a strong parallel between Schon’s thinking about public policy and Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) better known work on paradigm shifts in the development of scientific theories.  Loye’s (1988b: 178) related focus is on society’s creative activists and the gatekeepers who let a selection of their new ideas through.