Epidemics and Endemics (formally adventure and duration memes)

Paul Marsden (PaulMarsden@email.msn.com)
Tue, 2 Jun 1998 11:12:10 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <PaulMarsden@email.msn.com>
To: <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>
Subject: Epidemics and Endemics (formally adventure and duration memes)
Date: Tue, 2 Jun 1998 11:12:10 +0100

Derek wrote

>If I interpret you correctly, the distinction you make between
>adventure memes and duration memes is essentially the same as
>Sperber (1985) makes between what he calls 'epidemic and endemic
>Sperber writes (1985, p.74):
>'For instance, a representation can be cultural in different ways:
>some are slowly transmitted over generations; they are what we
>call traditions and are comparable to endemics; other
>representations, typical of modern cultures, spread rapidly
>through a whole population but have a short life-span; they are
>what we call fashions and are comparable to epidemics.'

>This is epidemic modelling, and there are no shortage of current
>epidemic models. For endemic modelling (your duration memes) we
>have to turn to Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981, p.53) who write:
>'The theory of endemics is still in its infancy. It may be of
>importance for....improving our understanding of the maintenance
>of social customs and habits that are...present over long periods
>of time.'
Yes, the study of traditions and structural patterns in society (traits,
practices and more generally institutions) that survive and determine the
content of experience for successive biological generations.

>In fact. the only convincing demonstration that these authors make
>of a recent cultural 'epidemic' is the change from bow-and-arrow
>to crossbow in hunting. This spread recently and rapidly through
>the whole population (possibly due to the selective advantage it
>gives to hunting ability).

Yes, but with technology, the mode and relationship to the means of cultural
reproduction - e.g. lines of mass media, are changing. Change is
accelerating in society, squeezing endemics in time and stretching them in
space to produce epidemics. Fashions and fads now behave as epidemics.
(BTW I have an article based on this appearing in the next issue of the
academic journal Marketing Planning and Intelligence entitled Marketing the
Mind Virus, which uses the Tamagotchi as an example of a social epidemic to
introduce memetics to a new audience based on this theme. Also perhaps
relevant is the paper on operationalising memetics I am giving in Namur
drawing on cultural contagion research in suicide ). Epidemics can be
measured, and memetics can be operationalised as the structural epidemiology
of traits, practices and institutions in society.

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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