Memes and Messaging for Transformation


By Sandra Waddock – Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management; Councillor – SDG Transformations Forum for the Meta-Narrative Working Group.

Where do we begin if we want to help foster system transformation? Of course, in complex systems with the types of wicked problems facing companies, other institutions, and the world today, there any number of possible points where interventions might take place. I fundamental place to start is with the stories or narratives that we tell ourselves about what the organization or community or society, even the world, is and how it operates. Narratives and stories define our relationships to each other, to the organizations and institutions to which we belong, and, ultimately, to the world around us. Yet if we think about how stories and narratives are constructed, we can find an even more foundational element that is often overlooked as part of change processes and even more so in efforts to bring about transformational change. That foundational element is the memes out of which stories are constructed.

Memes can be words, phrases, images, ideas, symbols, art, and other artifacts, notes Susan Blackmore, who has studied them extensively. Memes are at the basis or foundation of the stories and narratives that we tell ourselves about how the world works. Indeed, the stories that shape our lives and our thinking are constructed from memes. Change agents frequently ignore the stories that shape thinking, attitudes, and organizational cultures. Even more often they neglect the memes that are used to build those stories and narratives.

The impact of that neglect is considerable when you think about today’s dominant narrative, which is almost solely economic, shaped over many years by conservative (neoliberal) economists and policy advocates. That narrative, sometimes called the neoliberal narrative, is deliberately constructed by think tanks, economics and finance textbooks, business curricula, and thought leaders. It fundamentally shapes the way people think and how they experience the world. Built on core memes of individual liberties and freedom, limited government, free markets, and free trade, neoliberalism is a dominant force today. Indeed so saturated are we with neoliberalism’s memes that we hardly recognize we live in its midst, just as we hardly notice that we breathe air constantly. Because of its dominance, we tend to believe its tenets unquestioningly.

If I am correct—and following thinking by David Korten—that if we can Change the Story, we can Change the Future (as the title of his recent book says), then we have to seriously ask a couple of questions. What memes are in use by economic and other initiatives bent on providing an alternative to neoliberalism? And how do these memes compare to neoliberalism’s memes? Sadly, research that I have recently finished (not yet published) suggests that what we can call progressive messaging is considerably more diffuse and less compelling or resonant than more conservative messaging of the type embedded in the tenets of neoliberalism. For example, the top six memes (here, single words), used by 126 progressive socio-economic initiatives in their aspirational statements are so generic that they might be used by any initiative—and do not provide a ‘flavor’ of the hoped-for impact or orientation of the initiatives. Those words, business, sustainab* (truncated to capture word variations), econom*, global, social, and develop*, do not really provide much focus to help guide observers to the collective values or purposes of these entities.

What I called a ‘meme gap’ becomes even more evident when we look at WordClouds that reflect not just single word memes but two-word combinations of words or phrases as depicted below. To get the data, I gathered the aspirational statements from 15 conservative and 15 progressive think tanks and ran them through a WordCloud program. The bigger the words, the more frequently they are used. Conservative think tanks (left WordCloud) are pretty much on message with neoliberalism’s tenets, as their aspirational statements highlight limited government, free markets, individual liberties, and free enterprise. In contrast, the progressive think tanks’ (right WordCloud) most used phrases are generic and mostly non-directional: tax policy, federal-state, public policy (which also appears in conservative word phrases), health care (also in conservative), research policy, and reducing poverty. Of these phrases, reducing poverty is the one phrase that most clearly seems to express progressive ideas.

If we go to three word phrases, the differences are even more striking. There is, in fact, only one three word progressive phrase with three appearances and that is ‘nation* tax polic*.’ In contrast, there are six phrases with three plus appearances in conservative think tanks’ aspirational statements—all of which are variants of each other and all of which closely reflect the neoliberal narrative: libert* limit* govern*, limit*govern* free, govern* free market, individu* libert* limit, privacy* civil liberti*, and free market peace.

While this study has clear limitations, it does begin to shed light on a key issue for progressive messaging. While conservative messaging appears to be highly consistent with neoliberal memes used in a variety of ways, the same cannot be said of progressive messaging. Indeed, there seem to be few consistent progressive messages. If I am correct that the stories that we tell, constructed of shared memes, help to shape thinking about the world and our relationships in and to it, then it is long past time for progressive to agree on some resonant, shared memes. Such memes can be used in a wide variety of stories and narratives to help shape a world that better recognizes values beyond financial values, establishes more harmony with Nature and her resources, while perhaps still encompassing important values about freedom and liberty.

Complete Paper

The complete paper, ‘Narrative, Memes, and the Prospect of Large Systems Change’ by Sandra Waddock is forthcoming in Humanistic Management Journal.

For Further Reading

  • Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine (Vol. 25). Oxford, UK: Oxford Paperbacks, 2000.
  • Waddock, Sandra. Foundational Memes for a New Narrative about the Role of Business in Society. Humanistic Management Journal, 2016, 1: 91-105, DOI: 10.1007/s41463-016-0012-4.
  • Waddock, Sandra. Reflections: Intellectual Shamans, Sensemaking, and Memes in Large System Change. Journal of Change Management, 2015, 15(4): 259-273. Link:
  • Waddock, Sandra. Shaping the Shift: Shamanic Leadership, Memes, and Transformation. Journal of Business Ethics, accepted

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2 thoughts on “Memes and Messaging for Transformation”

  1. Sandra,

    Thanks for this article about memes. I think you’re right that progressive forces for change lack a compelling and persuasive vocabulary to effectively broadcast their message.

    Much of what we have to say is academic and uninteresting to most people, using words like sustainable, regenerative, interdependent. Or, with the hope of presenting an attractive image of the future we talk about stewardship, equity, holism, even spiritual awakening. These are all important concepts but they’re not heard on Main Street and they don’t resonate in the halls of power. In short, they’re not good memes.

    Scientific reports don’t sway political or corporate decision-makers (except at the margins). Stark depictions of an apocalyptic future or bucolic images of peace and prosperity don’t engage the public’s attention, let alone inspire a global movement for change. So what kind of language, what kind of meme might actually work?

    Obviously it’s a tough question and I don’t have a ready answer. But here’s one way to go …

    A word that pops up frequently nowadays (you’ve used it in this article) is ‘wicked.’ It’s a term that means complex and resistant to solution; it’s often used to describe climate change, for example. It’s an evocative word not usually intended to convey a sense of good-versus-evil.

    Nonetheless, ‘wicked’ does carry that connotation and it makes me wonder if the language of morality is what we’re looking for. I’m not referring to issues of equity or social justice or rights, but something broader, deeper, more disturbing—something that captures the truly profound life-and-death ecological predicament we now face as a species. We’re facing a ‘wicked’ moment in history, so why not try to highlight its moral implications?

    Science doesn’t work. Neither fear nor hope have gained any purchase on the public mind. But morality touches everyone. We all have an innate sense of right and wrong, and we all respond, overtly or deep down, when good and evil do battle. Maybe that battle (whether real or metaphorical) can generate the new vocabulary we need for transformative change.

    Stephen Purdey

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