LogoMarsden, P. (2000). Forefathers of Memetics: Gabriel Tarde and the Laws of Imitation.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 4.

Forefathers of Memetics: Gabriel Tarde and the Laws of Imitation

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
"Meanwhile, let us not forget that every invention and every discovery consists of the interference in somebody's mind of certain old pieces of information that have generally been handed down by others. What did Darwin's thesis about natural selection amount to? To have proclaimed the fact of competition among living things? No, but in having for the first time combined this idea with the ideas of variability and heredity. The former idea, as it was proclaimed by Aristotle, remained sterile until it was associated with the two latter ideas. From that as a starting point, we may say that the generic term, of which inventions is but a species, is the fruitful interference of repetitions."
Gabriel Tarde, The Laws of Imitation p.382

One way to conceptualise memetics is as a stance that seeks, using a selectionist rationale, to interpret the human social world in terms of the ongoing differential reproduction of traits describing that social world (Marsden 1999). Reproduction in the social world may occur at many levels; objectified individual acts are replicable and can become typified and habitual, thereby becoming practices, themselves reproducible, and through typified reciprocal interaction, institutions can emerge with roles that serve their own propagation (cf. Price and Shaw 1998). Through this multi-level sociological dance of reproduction, we both produce and are produced by the social world. The idea is that by employing a selectionist rationale, essentially the Law of Effect and perhaps a heuristic of inclusive memetic fitness, memetics may come to provide some purchase on how acts, practices and institutions provide for their own self-emplacement in a world where the products of variation outnumber the capacity for subsequent selection and reproduction.

Such a memetic research focus is not, however, without precedent; a century ago, one of the founding fathers of sociology, Gabriel Tarde, outlined a programme for sociology in his treatise, Les Lois de l'Imitation that has much in common with this memetic project (The Laws of Imitation 1890, translated 1903, reprinted in English 1962 to which page references here refer). The purpose of this short research note is to familiarise those participating in the construction of a memetic perspective with Tarde's model, a model that certainly has historical significance for contemporary memetics, and possibly theoretical significance as well.

Gabriel Tarde was born in Sarlat, the Dordogne, France in 1843 where he grew up to become a lawyer and juge d'instruction. Early on in his career, he observed that particular crimes appeared to spread in waves through society as if they were fashions. Becoming increasingly interested with how this epidemiological aspect of criminal activity might be just one instance of a more general feature of the social world, Tarde published a number of papers in the Revue Philosophique between 1880 and 1901, including a paper entitled, "Darwinisme naturel et Darwinisme social" (Tarde 1884) which developed this idea and outlined a general research programme for sociology.

Basically, what Tarde proposed was a different way of looking at the social world, not from the perspective of the individual or the group, but from the point of view of the products, acts and ideas that were used to classify those individuals or groups. By focusing on how these features were differentially reproduced, Tarde suggested it was possible to infer certain regularities or laws that appeared to pattern the social world. In 1890, he presented his arguments along with a preliminary set of "laws" in his major work, Les Lois de l'imitation, and in doing so provided researchers with model for interpreting the social world. The key point of distinction of Tarde's model, over other emerging sociological models such as the structural sociology of his compatriot Emile Durkheim, was that social organisation and the social relations describing that organisation were understood as a means for the more ultimate goal of propagation.

"Self-propagation and not self-organisation is the prime demand of the social as well as of the vital thing. Organisation is but the means of which propagation, of which generative or imitative imitation, is the end." Tarde 1903/1962: 74
By `generative imitation', Tarde referred to a process of invention that he conceptualised in terms of the combination of existing imitations, that is, the "fruitful interference of repetitions", whilst he used the term `imitative imitation' to denote the propagation of inventions and their imitations across time and space. It should be clear that such an inclusive understanding of imitation as denoting general products and processes of repetition in the social world is very different from the more restrictive use of the term adopted by some meme theorists (e.g. Blackmore 1998) who, following comparative psychologists, employ the term to denote only acts socially learned by observation that are then performed. Rather, Tarde wished to stretch the already more inclusive meaning of the French word imitation and imbibe it with a deeper meaning to refer to the general class of objects that were reproduced in society and the various processes that were instrumental in their reproduction, "whether willed or not willed, passive or active" (xiv).

Tarde's basic argument was that human history could be usefully interpreted as a "career" of imitations, trajectories of inherited inventions through populations that differentially survive an ongoing culling process of "counter-imitation", that is, rejection (154).

"All resemblances of social origin in society are the direct or indirect fruit of the various forms of imitation, - custom-imitation or fashion-imitation, sympathy-imitation or obedience-imitation, precept-imitation or education-imitation, native imitation, deliberate imitation, etc. In this lies the excellence of the contemporaneous method of explaining doctrines and institutions through their history. It is a method that is certain to come into more general use." (14)
So central and universal to the human condition was imitation thus conceived for Tarde that he went so far as to suggest that society itself could be defined as imitation insofar as societies could be described in terms of populations of individuals with common imitated traits who are apt to share imitations (68)
"What is society? I have answered: Society is imitation". (74).
The primary task of Tarde's proposed sociology was to identify the variables that appeared to influence whether an object of imitation would become successful, that is, get reproduced, in order to explain how some imitations came to be selected over others (110-111).
"Our problem is to learn why, given one hundred different innovations conceived of at the same time - innovations in the form of words, in mythical ideas, in industrial processes etc.- ten will spread abroad, while ninety will be forgotten." (140)
Tarde's answer to this question was to propose a number of general laws that seemed to pattern the differential reproduction of imitations, which he divided into those that had an apparent logical quality, and those of an extra-logical or less rational nature. Specifically, the "logical laws of imitation" (140-188) proposed by Tarde were that:
  1. The origination of an invention involves the recombination of existing imitations, and this origination will be influenced by the social context and abilities of those involved with the recombination.
  2. The success of an imitation in spreading geometrically from its point of origination will be a function of its fit, that is, compatibility, with the environment of existing imitations.
  3. The selection, that is, adoption of an imitation occurs either through "substitution" involving a "logical dual" and "struggle" between two alternatives, or through "accumulation", a process entailing a logical union of imitations.
Tarde also noted that it was important to understand the success of competing imitations as a function of the power held by those with vested interests in the reproduction of those imitations (169). Although, he did not couch it in such terms, I have suggested that this insight may provide a useful rationale for interpreting the differential propagation of imitations in terms of relations to the means of reproduction (Marsden 1998).

Tarde's principal "extra-logical influences" (189-365) stated the following:

  1. The reproduction of ends generally precedes the reproduction of the means to those ends (194-213). In other words, in Tarde's view, goals tend to be imitated before the actions that serve to attain them are adopted. For example, the imitation of a goal, say to become rich, will generally antecede the adoption of imitations employed to further this goal.

  3.  Imitations tend to propagate through a process of stratified diffusion from those perceived as superior to those who perceive them as superior (213-243). For example, traits originally associated with celebrities and otherwise privileged tend to trickle down to those who associate them with such traits.
Tarde also made several observations pertaining to what he suggested were general tendencies in the spread and selection of imitations. For instance, he suggested that in democratic populations the voice of public opinion increasingly becomes the authority whose example is copied, whilst traditional and expert authority wanes (229). Similarly, he proposed that imitative activity, including generative imitation, tends to be proportional to population density (239), thereby allowing for the faster spread and development of imitations in cities than rural areas. Additionally, Tarde noted a general shift in the mode of social reproduction from custom, that is, endemic horizontal transmission, to fashion - epidemic horizontal transmission (244-255).

In an observation that would be at home with Brodie's memetic reconceptualisation of social influence literature (Brodie 1996), Tarde also raised the possibility of engineering a successful imitation independently of any truth or utility that imitation may have. To engineer a successful imitation, or meme in today's parlance, Tarde suggested that it might to suffice to present the invention (mutant imitation) as a descendent of an endemic part of culture into which it is to be introduced:

"...assume the mask of the enemy and besiege existing custom by unearthing some ancient custom long since fallen into discredit and rejuvenated for the needs of her cause..." (261)
Although Tarde's proposed research programme was somewhat eclipsed in sociology by Durkheim's more structural approach, his work comprising over 5000 published pages (Clark 1969) became the inspiration for innovation adoption research in applied sociology, particularly rural sociology (Ryan and Gross 1943) and medical sociology (Katz 1961). Likewise, Tarde's model underpins much that passes for diffusion research in marketing (Bass 1969, Rogers 1995), whilst in psychology his framework influenced the thinking of Baldwin (1894) and more indirectly Mead (1934).

For researchers in memetics, any potential contribution of Tarde has yet to be realised, but it is hoped that this brief introduction to one of the forefathers of memetics might serve as a creative stimulus for the `generative imitation' that will come to define our enterprise.


Baldwin, J. M. (1894). Imitation: A chapter in the natural history of consciousness. Mind, 3:25-55.

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Blackmore, S. (1998) Imitation and the definition of a meme.  Journal of Memetics Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/blackmore_s.html

Brodie, R. (1996). Viruses of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Seattle, WA: Integral Press.

Clark, T. (ed.) (1969) Gabriel Tarde on Communication and Social Influence, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Katz, E. (1961) The social itinerary of social change: Two studies on the diffusion of innovations" in W. Schramm (ed.) Studies of Innovation and of Communication to the Public Stanford, CA.

Marsden (1998) "Evolutionary sociology reinterpreted". Unpublished paper presented to the Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences, University of Sussex, June 1998.

Marsden (1999) "Review of Thought Contagion: How Beliefs Spread through Society by A. Lynch" Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/2/2/review4.html.

Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: Uiniversity of Chicago Press.

Price, I. & Shaw, R. (1998) Shifting the Patterns: Breaching the Memetc Codes of Corporate Performance, Charlford, Glos. Management Books 2000.

Rogers, E. M. (1995) The Diffusion of Innovations (4th ed). New York. The Free Press.

Ryan, B. & Gross, N.C. (1943) "The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities" Rural Sociology 8:15-24.

Tarde, G. (1890) Les Lois de l'Imitation, Paris 3ème éd. revue et augmentée 1900.

Tarde, G. (1884) "Darwinisme naturel et Darwinisme social" Revue Philosophique XVII; 607.

Tarde, G. (1903) The Laws of Imitation, translated by E.C. Parsons with introduction by F.Giddings, New York, Henry, Holt and Co.

Tarde, G. (1962) The Laws of Imitation, translated by E.C. Parsons with introduction by F.Giddings, reprint, Gloucester, MA, Peter Smith.

© JoM-EMIT 2000

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