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Social institutions, technologies, and ideologies and conceptual frameworks are comprised of memes (cognitions) linked together into coherent bundles according to organizing principles called “paradigms.” For instance, a government or economy is comprised of the memes which define the roles of all actors in the system, the rules and processes involved, and the underlying principles which inform and guide it (the paradigm). This is true of informal as well as formal institutions, across levels of organization, including everything from religions and industries to popular beliefs and customs of all kinds.

Memes and paradigms are in constant flux, evolving by several interrelated mechanisms. At core, as in biological evolution, is the variable reproductive success of the underlying memes. Memes, like genes, are packets of information which reproduce (are communicated), mutate (change in the various minds of those to whom they are communicated), differentially thrive (sometimes in direct competition, and sometimes due merely to contextual circumstances), and thus evolve (those mutations that are more reproductively successful proliferate while those that are less so fade away). Memes and sets of memes can also be combined in novel ways through intentional human effort to innovate, producing new memes and sets of memes from the consciously mediated synthesis of existing ones.

The relative reproductive success of memes is driven by a combination of reflexive and reflective individual human responses. Motivating these responses are psychological and emotional predispositions, general utility, and localized utility, blended into both rote and strategic interactions. The localized utility of certain memes and sets of memes can coalesce into social institutional power (often originated by, and implicitly underwritten by, access to physical force), allowing the imposition of paradigms that yield differentiated costs and benefits to those organized under them.

The evolution of technological memes and sets of memes, for instance, is driven at one level by general utility (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology), from which individuals involved in their creation, production and utilization draw localized utility, and, when combined with facilitating organizational memes, can give differentiated power to those groups of people with differentiated access to them or ability to utilize them for maximum benefit. The evolution of popular beliefs, on the other hand, is driven more by identifiable and inherent psychological and emotional predispositions, in a process of adaptation to and articulation with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of utility (which in turn adapt to and articulate with memes and paradigms evolving under the lathe of psychological and emotional predispositions).

Social institutions (including social institutional purposive systems that program human behavioral phenomena, or social institutional “technologies,” but excluding other technologies that program natural phenomena) coalesce around organizational adaptations to technologies of all kinds, as well as in both haphazard (decentralized, organic, and cumulative) and intentional (centralized, purposive, and punctuated) response to collective action and (to a lesser extent) time horizon problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems; in brief, collective action problems are situations in which individual rational self-interested behavior leads to worse outcomes for everyone involved than could be achieved through mutual commitment to cooperative action, and time horizon problems occur when the discounting of future costs and benefits leads to a sub-optimal short-sightedness in rational self-interested individual and collective behavior).

Separating out social institutions from non-social-institutional technologies (i.e., what we normally think of when we think of “technologies”), we can discern four social institutional modalities: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are authority structures comprised of formal rules centrally enforced by means of explicit rewards and punishments. Markets are mutually beneficial systems of exchange, in which one’s share of the benefits of collective action is determined by the market value of their contribution to it. Norms are unwritten rules diffusely and informally enforced through the social approval and disapproval of others. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame).

Actual social institutions and social institutional paradigms are comprised of blends and hybrids of these modalities, articulated with technologies, responding to a combination of the organizational demands and opportunities presented by technologies, related and independent collective action and time horizon problems, and the demands and opportunities posed by the diffuse organic psychological and emotional reflexive reactions to all of these other changes.

The various social sciences, with differing focal points but considerable overlap, examine the dynamics of the various aspects and various overlapping and cross-cutting organizing principles (“paradigms”) of this social institutional landscape. Though differing disciplines and schools within disciplines often utilize superficially conflicting or incompatible theoretical lenses, much of the perceived mutual exclusivity of perspectives evaporates when these perspectives are combined under the umbrella of a comprehensive social systems paradigm such as the one I am describing here (much as string theory in physics reconciles quantum mechanics and relativity).

Paradigms shift when a new guiding principle is used, or an old guiding principle is used in a new way, in the social institutional as well as social theoretical context. Changing physical power sources, for instance (such as the advent of the steam engine or electrification), creates rippling new challenges and opportunities, a need to adapt architecturally, organizationally, and economically to the new principle. The change from monarchy to popular sovereignty that occurred during the 17th-19th centuries in several Western European and Western European derived nations reversed the principal-agent relationship between government and populace (transforming the government from principal to agent, and the populace from agent to principal), accompanied by continuing cascades of social institutional and ideological accommodations and adaptations. (Interestingly, the political ideology in the United States today that is rooted in 18th century American Revolutionary ideology is based largely on the anachronistic rejection of government as principal and populace as agent that motivated the American Revolution).

Revolutions (whether political, technological, economic, or cultural) are essentially just such paradigm shifts, in science catalyzed by an accumulation of anomalies within an existing paradigm; in technology by limits imposed by existing technologies combined with “opportunity niches” provided by the current technological and economic landscape (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology); in politics by the limits imposed by the current regime on certain empowered or ready-to-be-self-empowered interest groups and the opportunities they perceive (e.g., American Independence, African American Civil Rights, various post-colonial national independence movements); and in culture by the diffuse organic adaptations and adjustments that ripple through the institutional landscape as a result of these other changes, involving a combination of aesthetics (fine arts, music, cuisine, etc.), entertainments and public celebrations, and psychologically and emotionally motivated cognitive adaptations and reactions.

There are two types of processes that memes can undergo during their residence in a human mind: 1) They can be implicitly accepted intact and modified only unconsciously and unintentionally (if at all), or 2) they can be worked on, in conjunction with and through utilization of other memes, critiqued, evaluated, intentionally modified, synthesized, and/or woven into a larger cognitive framework. Technological memes as discussed by Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology, for instance, undergo the second process.

Sometimes and to some extent these clash with sets of memes associated primarily with the first process, memes that are reproduced as elements of authoritative traditions, taken as “gospel.” Sometimes and to some extent the two types of meme processes articulate with one another in mutually reinforcing and synergistic ways. And these two interactions can occur simultaneously between the same two sets of memes. It can be argued, for instance, that though the memes of the Medieval Catholic Church and the early products of modern science were often and most obviously in conflict with one another, they were also in some ways mutually reinforcing, the monotheism at the heart of Catholicism providing a coherent “creation” for science to explore.

The conflicts themselves can generate or invigorate particular social institutional innovations. The rise in popularity of home schooling in the United States, for instance, emerges to a large extent from the aversion of some religious fundamentalists to the secularized secondary socialization provided by public schools. 

The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, afficianados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized shared knowledge to particular opinions or judgments, rumors or observations or shared jokes rustling through them like a breeze through tall grass.

Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.

Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.

If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have billions of distinct colors and trillions of distinct shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with their unique set of genes, by their unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

Precise analyses of various kinds -political, economic, and cultural- can be organized under this paradigmatic umbrella, articulating with one another in new and more robust ways. In future posts, I will frequently explore specific historical developments, current events, and political, economic, and social issues in the light of the framework outlined above (as I have in fact done in many previous posts). Much is gained by creating an accommodating and encompassing analytical language through which to explore and examine the complex and subtle dynamics of the world in which we live.

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