From: Kate Distin (email@example.com)
Date: Tue 29 Mar 2005 - 19:22:06 GMT
This didn't get through last time - trying again.
-------- Original Message --------
Date: Sat, 26 Mar 2005 11:36:51 +0000
From: Kate Distin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Section on Durkheim as promised.
Durkheim: social facts as memes?
Sociology is another area to which meme theory might be applied. For
over sixty years, critical reception to Émile Durkheim's theory of
"social facts" has almost always been adverse. By contrast, the thirty years since Richard Dawkins first introduced memes have yielded generally favourable criticism of his hypothesis. Yet I suggest that the essence of Durkheim's theory bears a striking resemblance to the idea of memes as autonomously existing transmitters of cultural information, and furthermore that to consider his social facts as memes is to resolve their most serious problems.
"A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of
exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way
of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same
time existing in its own right independent of its individual
Durkheim's starting point is the uncontroversial assertion that there
are certain duties and priorities that are defined externally to the
individual member of society, and that he inherits rather than chooses.
His language of communication and the currency he uses, for example, are
both decided for him. Durkheim says that such aspects of society exist
outside the individual. Moreover, they exercise coercive power over
him, since he cannot choose not to conform to them. If he were to
decide to speak a different language, for instance, then he would no
longer be able to communicate; if he tried to break the law then he
would be punished; if he abandoned the common dress code then he would
be ridiculed. Society imposes such practices on him independently of
his will, claims Durkheim. The fact that he may choose to conform to
them most of the time will mean that he does not notice their imposition
- but as soon as he rebels in any way, their constraints will be felt.
Such phenomena are "social facts", distinct from and existing
independently of both biological and psychological facts. They are not
biological in nature "since they consist of representations and of
actions", and they are not facts of psychology because the latter "exist
only in the individual consciousness". Instead, their medium is
society, and their source is external to its individual members.
We are to take literally the autonomous existence of social facts, and
this point is emphasized by Durkheim's distinction between the facts
themselves and their incarnations in individual members of society. The
first mistake to avoid is the thought that any feature of society will,
if enough people have it in common, be a social fact; there is more to
the collective aspect of social facts than this. Even a thought that
everyone has will not necessarily be a social fact. Rather, if it is a
social fact then everyone will have it: "it is a group condition
repeated in the individual because imposed on him".
The repetition of certain ways of thought and action will give them a
rigidity and an isolation from the particular events in which they are
manifest. They acquire a reality in their own right, and are never
wholly reproduced in the individual's application of them, since they
exist even at times when nobody is applying them. This is because
"collective habits" are manifest not only in the successive performances of them but also, more permanently, in verbal communication, education, and written records. Thus we can contrast the social fact with its
"reincarnation" in the individual: "the social fact is a thing distinct from its individual manifestations".
Durkheim claims that evidence for this distinction, and for the
independent existence of social facts, is provided when those facts are
measured statistically. Currents of public opinion alter from time to
time: the annual birth, marriage or suicide rate, for instance, will
vary between decades and between cultures. When such statistics are
compiled, the individual cases are contained indiscriminately within
such figures, so that the individual circumstances that resulted in the
relevant phenomenon are neutralized. The statistic obtained thus
isolates the social fact from its individual occurrences, demonstrating
its existence "independent of the individual forms it assumes in its
The claim that there exist social facts, independent of the members of
society about which they are facts, may be received with incredulity.
Such "facts" can seem rather mysterious and unconvincing. It seems to
me that Durkheim's main error has been to fail to recognize the nature
of the "independence". The initial distinction, between two types of
thought and action, seems right: some thoughts would not be thought
unless you had done so and some acts would not have taken place unless
you had so acted, whereas there is other information that would exist
even if you did not believe in it, and other activities that would go on
even if you never took part. It seems true, too, that the latter kind
of thought and action are often coercive in nature (e.g. the claim that
it is wrong to steal, and the act of using English pounds for commerce
Familiarly, Durkheim's mistake is to confuse the true fact that the
existence of such ways of thinking and acting is independent of you (a
particular individual), with the false assertion that they do not depend
for their existence upon any form of realisation. It seems hard to
believe that a way of thinking or acting could exist if nobody had ever
taken part in it. In order for this to be the case, it would have to
have some other medium of existence. Durkheim has already mentioned
that social facts exist not only in individuals' applications of them,
but in education and written records too. A social fact could therefore
survive in a book, or in some other semi-permanent record - but the
record must still be a record of something.
The question thus arises of the source of social facts, and another
problem for Durkheim's thesis is that it is only one generation deep.
He claims that an individual will inherit and be coerced by social facts
about a previous generation, but makes no attempt to explain how those
facts came into existence. Yet in order to be inherited, they must be
inherited from somewhere.
It appears to me that social facts' difficulties are resolved if we view
them through the lens of meme theory. In particular, the independent
and coercive nature of the phenomena characterized as social facts,
which is so problematic for Durkheim's account, is plausibly explained
There are striking similarities between the two postulates. Memes, it
has been argued, exist autonomously: the representational content that
is their basis exists independently of the individuals in whom they are
replicated. Like social facts, they are types rather than tokens.
Similarly, both postulates exist over and above their individual
manifestations, amongst which there may be quite a degree of variety.
In the case of memes, their individual manifestations have been compared
to genes' phenotypic effects, and one of the most significant aspects of
a meme is this executive power: its ability to produce certain effects -
ways of acting and thinking - in its possessor. Another way of phrasing
this property might be to describe memes as coercive. Once more the
parallel can be drawn with social facts.
Another feature that social facts share with memes is their one-way
effect on society: a popular idea or way of acting will be popular
because it is a meme/social fact; an idea or way of acting will not
merely become a meme/social fact because it is popular. A useful
analogy may, at this point, be drawn with genes. It is in general true
that people with replicas of the same gene will be related. On the
other hand, a chance mutation that gives me a gene identical in
structure to one of yours does not mean that I am related to you.
I do not think that Durkheim would object to the comparison being drawn:
recall his denial that social facts were merely biological, on the
grounds that they are "representations". Moreover, the distinction that
he takes so much trouble to draw, between a social fact and its
individual manifestations, is exactly parallel to that between a meme
and its phenotypic effects.
On the other hand the latter contrast is less mysterious than
Durkheim's: the crucial point is that a meme is a replicator, whereas a
social fact is a single, collective phenomenon. In order for a "way of
thinking or acting" to retain its existence independently of the
individuals who apply it, surely it needs to be replicated in those
individuals, rather than shared amongst them. Returning to genes, this
is what gives them their longevity. A particular one of my genes will
not literally survive after my death; rather, its replica in my children
will remain. It is this ability - the ability to make copies of itself
- that gives a gene its autonomy.
Meme theory also solves Durkheim's two main problems: his implausible
claim that social facts exist independently of any manifestation, and
the single-generational nature of his theory. It seems true that
culture is the medium of social facts, but what is culture? In
replicator terms, it is a meme pool: a combination of all the different
meme banks (brains, books, etc.). Compare this with the gene pool,
which is a combination of all the different gene banks (organisms) in a
population. In the case of genes, it is in sexual reproduction that
they mix and mutate, producing different combinations of recessive and
dominant genes, and hence new phenotypes. Similarly, then, in the case
of memes it is the process of interaction and replication that gives
rise to mutations, different combinations and the resulting new phenotypes.
Therefore if we regard social facts as memes, then the claim that they
exist in the medium of culture means merely that they are protected by
residing in larger "stores" of content, and that those stores enable
them to survive and replicate, via interaction with other "stores".
Thus it is true to say that a social fact has an existence independent
of any particular store in which it has been replicated, but false to
say that it would still somehow exist if there were no copy available
for replication in any store.
There is already a huge store of memes resident in any culture; so
Durkheim is right to say that any individual is the subject of many
social facts in the creation of which he has played no part. On the
other hand, replication goes on all the time, via such activities as
teaching and conversation. The social facts that affect me were not
simply established in my parents' generation, and will not be passed on
unchanged to my children's generation. The source of the new social
facts that are emerging all the time is the interaction between existing
social facts: the interactions between memes.
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
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