Operationalising Memetics

Paul Marsden (PaulMarsden@email.msn.com)
Tue, 10 Mar 1998 12:17:16 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <PaulMarsden@email.msn.com>
To: "memetics" <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>
Subject: Operationalising Memetics
Date: Tue, 10 Mar 1998 12:17:16 -0000

1998 Symposium on Memetics - Proposal

Operationalising Memetics - Suicide, the Werther Effect, and the work of
David P. Phillips

One of the major challenges currently facing memetics is the issue of how to
successfully operationalise the paradigm and begin generating a body of
theoretically informed empirical research. Whilst the continued development
of the theoretical groundwork that underpins memetics is of crucial
importance, the future success of memetics qua academic discipline may
depend not so much on elaborate theoretical constructs, but on the research
findings of empirical memetics. This operationalisation of memetics will
involve not only subjecting memetic theory itself to empirical testing, but
also assessing how useful the paradigm may be in describing, explaining, and
ultimately predicting the sociocultural patterns and phenomena that are the
traditional foci of the social sciences. However, the transition from
theory to practice is not unproblematic, and this paper will explore the
possibility of empirical memetics by reviewing the work of the sociologist
David P. Phillips who has been publishing empirical research on cultural
contagions since 1974. It will be suggested that a number of practical
lessons and guidelines may be drawn from Phillips' research, and an outline
for operationalising memetics will be proposed based on his research.

Two centuries ago Goethes novel The Sorrows of the Young Werther was
published and widely read throughout Europe. The story, in which the hero
commits suicide, was widely held to provoke readers into committing suicide
themselves. As a consequence of this "Werther Effect" the book was banned
in several areas. For memetics, this event is of significance because it
was perhaps one of the first tacit acceptances by those responsible for
setting social policy that culture may act like a contagion. However, a
century later the sociologist Emile Durkheim rejected the cultural contagion
thesis in his seminal treatise Le Suicide, and it was not until 1974 when
the Werther Effect became the focus of empirical testing.

Two years before Richard Dawkins coined the term meme, the sociologist David
Phillips published an article in the American Sociological Review with
evidence to support the claim that suicide could be shown to behave as a
cultural contagion. He showed that exposure to suicide in media stories was
a significant variable in accounting for US and UK suicide rates (Phillips
1974). Specifically, Phillips correlated media coverage of suicides
positively suicide rates during the month following the reported suicides.
In a similar way he correlated aeroplane and car accidents, murder and
violent crime rates to mass media reporting. (Phillips 1977, 1978, 1979,
1980, 1983, 1986). In doing so Phillips pioneered, and to a large extent
pre-empted the operationalisation of memetics by to attempting to map the
spatio-temporal spread of behaviour through society. Whilst Phillips made
no explicit reference to memetics, he argued that patterns of behaviour in
society could be understood as cultural contagions (Phillips 1980) each with
specific incubation periods, specific modes, and specific channels of
infection. This paper will review Phillip's empirical work, and use his
methodology for outlining a general method for conducting empirical

Phillips, D.P (1980) Airplane Accidents, Murder, and the Mass Media:
Towards a Theory of Imitation and Suggestion in Social Forces vol. 58: 4
(June) 1000-1024
Phillips, D.P. (1977) Motor Vehicle Fatalities Increase Just after a
Publicised Suicide Story in Science 196: 1464-65
Phillips, D.P. (1978) Airplane Accident Fatalities Increase Just after
Newspaper Stories about Murder and Suicide in Science 201: 748-750
Phillips, D.P. (1979) Suicide, Motor Vehicle Fatalities, and the Mass
Media: Evidence towards a Theory of Suggestion in American Journal of
Sociology 84 : 1150-1174
Phillips, D.P. (1983) The Impact of Mass Media Violence on US Homicides in
American Sociological Review 1983, Vol. 48 (August) 560-568.
Phillips, D.P. (1986) Clustering of teenage Suicides after Television News
Stories about Suicide in The New England Journal of Medicine Vol. 315 (Sep)
Phillips, D.P.(1974) The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive
and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect in American Sociological
Review Vol. 39 (June) 340-354

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
e-mail PaulMarsden@msn.com
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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