Social Norms and Memetics

From: Kissane, Dylan Matthew - KISDM001 (
Date: Wed 19 Mar 2003 - 02:12:11 GMT

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    I am an International Relations and Sociology student from South Australia with a casual interest in memetics. While considering norms, normalcy and deviance within societies during a sociology class this week, the following situation occurred and I thought that there might be a place for memetics to play in the explanation of the situation.


    First, the background:


    It was contended by the lecturer that norms of behaviour within a society are socially constructed elements and are relative to a particular culture. An example might be standards of public hygiene or seating arrangements at a dinner table (both were mentioned in the course of the lecture). Thus, each culture has different norms according to how they construct them within their own societies.


    It occurred to me that while this is the case in terms of many areas, there are some norms which seem to be in many cultures. The ones that came to my mind immediately were norms regarding what we might call criminal deviance - murder for fun etc. It seemed to me that if norms were always socially constructed, then it must be massively coincidental that these norms have arisen in so many different cultures without contact between the different cultures. I wanted to know what would account for this and so questioned the lecturer following the class.


    The response was two fold. Firstly, there is no such thing as a universal norm. Evidence of cannibalistic tribes showed that even the act of eating another human was always viewed as deviant. Secondly, if there was such a thing as a universal norm, it would have to come from "God" and this would be too hard an argument to make.


    I went away a little happier, but later realised that, to my mind, it did not matter that there were examples of some cultures not adopting certain norms of behaviour if the norm was still spread throughout the rest of the planet. The exception does not account for the rising of the same socially constructed norms arising in so many OTHER societies in the same way. If these societies all have no or limited contact with each other, it would seem that while one or two might develop similar norms, universality or near-universality would be quite unexpected.


    My question for the list (and I hope it is relevant) is this: can memetics play any part in explaining why these norms should arise in different societies as they have? Perhaps it would be useful to take the example of murder for fun as the norm that is prevalent in many societies, though I am sure there are others that may be more suitable (after all, I am just an undergraduate trying to make sense of both sociology and memetics!).




    Dylan Kissane


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