Vaneechoutte, M. (2002). A Review of: The theory and practice of
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 7.
The theory and practice of institutional transplantation (TPIT) covers a broad range of examples whereby parts of one cultural system have been transferred, or 'transplanted' as the editors put it, to another. Starting with a general introduction on institutional transplantation (Chapter 1), working hypotheses are put forward in chapters 2 and 3. What follows (chapters 4-17) are numerous illustrations of different events of insitutional transplantation. The concluding chapter 18 compares the initial working hypothesis with what was learned from the different examples. Theory and practice, indeed.
Institutional transplantation deals with organisational models that are introduced into a society from abroad. Be it on a voluntary basis, or imposed from above. Although the organisational models and structures theirselves may be rather technical, the authors deal especially with how these were accepted in the receiving countries, and therefore focus on the aspects of – horizontal - cultural transmission, i.e. memetics, although the terms 'meme' and 'memetics' are never used. Instead the authors speak of 'cultural theory'.
The least that can be said about TPIT is that it is an impressive work. Not only are there 300 pages of dense reading – in a handy hard cover format, but also the range of examples covered is broad (geographically, historically and with regard to the types of institutions discussed) and well chosen. The book deals with many domains in many parts of the world. It explores the borrowing of political institutions, business fashions, management practices and policies from one country to another. As the authors state, ongoing globalisation speeds the process by which information and experiences are exchanged, and often this occurs in a context of a hype and without clear reflection of the possible structural and cultural consequences in the host country. Therefore a fundamental study of institutional transplantation is warranted, to grasp what can go wrong and how this can be avoided as much as possible. At the same time the knowledge about these different events offers an opportunity for developing, testing and refining memetic theory.
The chapters deal with diverse examples like how the French organized the road and waterway construction and management in a 'below sealevel' country like the Netherlands. How transplants from France became a historical tradition in organizing Greek administration. How West German school systems were (are) introduced into East-Germany after the German reunification. How Dutch government practice was transferred to the Netherlands Antilles. How Western urban development was adopted by Moscow politics. About the failure of implementing the American subway refurbishment in the London underground. A special case is about transplanting democratic institutions of separate European countries to the supranational level of the European community. The several authors that contributed to the book are extremely well-informed and for example gathered first hand knowledge by interviewing the administrators and other authorities and people involved in decision making. As a Flemish, I learned more from chapter 15 about structural planning and some of the history of my region (Flanders, Belgium) than in most of my previous readings and discussions about the subject.
All of these could be just a bunch of cases, but the editors try to consider the different events of organisational transplantation within a theoretical frame work, outlined in the first chapters and evaluated in the last chapter.
They consider two perspectives on how the transplantation occurs and on what is crucial to its success (Chapter 2). These two are named 'the actors pulling in' and 'the goodness of fit' arguments. The first approach considers basically the practical and administrative aspects, without paying too much attention to congruence between the cultures that are confronted in the process of transplantation. The second approach deals more with cultural, legal and political affinities and similarities between the donor and host nations and takes cultural congruence as a key factor in determining the transplantation success. For the latter approach, one needs to determine which countries have similar cultures and how cultures of different countries differ. This is done by showing the state of the art on what the concept 'families of nations' implies (Chapter 3). This leads to subdividing the different cases studied in the practical part of the book in three parts: transplants from continental Europe, transplants from the Anglo-Saxon world and transplants with multiple donors.
Drawing general lessions from all of these cases is surely a complex matter. Each case illustrates how special conditions exist in the different countries and how the interplay between different cultures and different social and political classes within each country further complicate understanding the 'best' rules for cultural transplantation. Not taking into account cultural differences (as in the first perspective, the 'Actors pulling in') is quite often not possible, e.g. when import of organisational models from Western Germany to Eastern Germany or from North America to South America is considered: the cultural differences are simply too large. But then again, this cannot be used as a general rule, as there are successful transplantations contradicting the fears of those inclined towards 'The goodness of fit' as a conditio sine qua non for successful transfer. Consider the organisation of post war Germany, which was based on Anglo Saxon recipes, not resembling those during the preceding years of Nazi-regime, but nevertheless successful. The editors conclude that both approaches cannot be considered as mutually exclusive.
They further formulate three working propositions generated by each perspective.
The 'Actors pulling in perspective' leads to the following propositions:
The 'Goodness of fit' generates propositions about structural aspects that facilitate or impede transplantation.
Although these propositions make sense at first sight, and certainly can be used to a large extent as a fist rule for evaluating the chances for success of transplantation, several cases illustrate how again these cannot be considered as general rules, pointing to the complexity of the matter. These lessons are drawn in the concluding and illuminating last chapter.
TPIT is very well written and well conceived, but
not easy reading. The depth of the analyses made in this book, contrasts
to the often simplistic reasoning found in several publications about
memetics and learns that we should remain careful in formulating
hypotheses about cultural evolution, if only because this is such a
complex matter. Culture is an interplay of factors like historical
background, constraints of political organisation, and emotions of
individuals, among many others and is further – exponentially -
complicated when different cultures meet. No doubt, TPIT
provides a valuable contribution to the study of cultural theory and
to Issue 2 Volume 7