Memes and the persistence of organizational structures

Paper prepared for the
Symposium on Memetics:
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
15th International Congress on Cybernetics
Namur (Belgium), August 24-28, 1998


Hélène Giroux, Lecturer, Hautes Études Commerciales, Montréal QC Canada
James R. Taylor, Professor of Communication, Université de Montréal
François Cooren, Research Professor of Communication, University of Cincinnati

All return mail should be addressed to Professor Taylor at
3051 Cedar Avenue, Montreal, Quebec, H3Y 1Y8, Canada
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June 1, 1998

Memes and the persistence of organizational structures


An impressive body of discourse analysis of organizational communication has added credence to the view that organization emerges in communication, but, as Nardi (1996) observes, the problem of explaining organizational persistence remains unresolved. In this paper the authors propose a model of organizational persistence as a memetic phenomenon. We argue that structures of meaning that describe action are composed of a limited set of bases (the equivalent of nucleotides): agents, events, objects, recipients, intentions, etc. These bases are then strung together to produce structured units describing narratively based archetypes of action by means of which organization is both generated and understood. However, unlike DNA, such structures are single-stranded. We hypothesize that for them to replicate, the participation of other agents capable of playing a complementary role is necessary. We define such interaction as conversation. The equivalent of mRNA is thus the speaker of language, by means of which the patterns inscribed in the `memome' of the speaker are `read off' and produced as speech or written text. In linguistics this corresponds to the transposition of semantics into syntactics. Conversation is thus the process of conversion of narrative into action, mediated by language, and constrained by the forms of conversation (as studied in Conversation Analysis). Similarly, textualization is defined as the process of conversion of action into archetypal narrative or "making sense" (Taylor et al, 1996). The function of interaction is to give structure to the context of action in which communication is embedded (including material objects that enter into action). The social equivalent of the cell is thus the organization which is composed of the set of self-reproducing systems. Communication thus both organizes context, and explains it. It is the sum of material, symbolic and social elements that compose the `molecular soup' of the work environment that makes up organization, and not just communication. Nevertheless, communication is the carrier of structure, and explains organizational persistence.

Memes and the persistence of organizational structures


An impressive body of discourse analysis of organizational communication has added credence to the view that organization emerges in communication (Taylor & Van Every, in press), but, as Nardi (1996) observes, the problem of explaining organizational persistence remains unresolved. In our attack on the problem, we take the structuration theory of Giddens (1976, 1979, 1984) as our starting point.

Structuration as an explanation of organizational persistence

Giddens breaks with the established dualistic tradition of Western thought - the life forms of society and of the individual conceived as ontologically distinct levels of reality - by proposing a theory of duality, where both social and individual existences are co-constructed in the ordinary sphere of daily interaction. To accomplish this shift of perspective, he proposes to focus on the stream of activity which consitutes, without exception, the immediate experience of humanity (a version, perhaps, of Heidegger's concept of `thrownness'). That which must then be explained, sociologically, is the "continuity of practice" transcending the strictly local and time/space situated (what we described above as "persistence") which clearly characterizes social forms of organization whose continuities extend over time, and across space. His central hypothesis is that this is achieved through reflexivity, i.e., "the monitored character of the ongoing flow of social life" (Giddens, 1984: 3). Human action occurs as an uninterrrupted flow (that he calls a `durée'). It is experienced, however, as a structure of actions and reactions, each informed by human purpose. That which makes the continuous flow of conduct and cognition appear to be structured is what he calls "rationalization" (Giddens, 1984: 3). Such rationalization is "a routine characteristic of human conduct, carried on in a taken-for-granted fashion" (Giddens, 1984: 4) to produce the "encounters and episodes" that allow us to interpret life as motivated by intention and socially meaningful. That which explains persistence of organizational structure must thus be found within the rationalization process, as a central characteristic of it.

 It seems evident to us (although this is not Giddens' primary emphasis) that the rationalization of which he writes is accomplished as an effect of the mediation of language in a context of communication. If the monitoring of activity and its rationalization to generate a motivated universe of action is achieved by its representation in forms of language, as cognition or conversation, then it is the monitoring-->rationalization process, as an effect of languaging, that explains persistence: That which persists is not the transient instantaneity of the flow but its interpretation or symbolic representation. Since rationalized experience becomes in turn how the situations that frame subsequent activity are experienced (Weick's 1979 concept of enactment) it is in this way that people are enabled to discriminate the structural continuities that enable social life, as they migrate from one time/space configuration to another. It is this that makes social (as well as cellular) life not just organized, but self-organizing (Taylor, 1995). Our hypothesis is that the rationalization process can be explained as a memetic phenomenon. There is in other words a homomorphism linking social organizational and organismic cellular processes of self-organization. We take this to be not an exact model, but a loose analogy, and it is this analogy we are exploring.

The genetic analogy

The central unit of biological self-organization is the cell. The cell survives as an entity because it is self-regenerating (autopoïetic). We propose that, by analogy, human social organization is similarly self-regenerating, and that the role played by gene structures in biological reproduction has a memetic analog in organizational persistence, although the analogy is far from one-to-one, in that while language presumably has structuring properties analogous to those of DNA its role is not identical, and the process by which its patterns are reproduced manifest significant differences from those studied by geneticists. The purpose of this paper is to outline, in a very preliminary way, some of the commonalities and divergences.

 In exploiting the genetic model of cellular reproduction we inherit three concepts: replication, transcription and translation. In cellular reproduction, replication is accomplished by the splitting of the double strand of the gene to produce two identical copies. Transcription of the information encoded in the DNA requires the agency of mRNA which "reads" off the genetically encoded information and transfers it to the "manufacturing plant" of the cell where, assisted by enzymes, it is then "translated" into proteins. The proteins then become the active agents in sustaining the ongoing process. Each of these three stages, we propose, are also characteristic of the memetic cycle, even though the modes of accomplishment are by no means identical. We consider each of the phases in turn, beginning with transcription.

Memetic transcription

There is,as is well known, a genetic syntax: Strings of DNA are composed of one of four bases (nucleotides), grouped into triplets (codons), organized into larger structures (genes), then into chromosomes and eventually a genome. But there is also a semantics of genes: Genotypes map (in complex ways) characteristics of the phenotype. The organism is constructed out of materials whose patterns are genetically encoded: A gene can for example be conceptualized as the recipe for a specific protein. In a general way, this correspondence also characterizes the role of language with respect to social organization. Language is also distinguished by a hierarchy of levels, from phonemic to grammatical to narratively informed units to text. At the level of strings of elementary symbols (beginning with the sentence) language encodes social structures: "I just bought myself a new winter coat" is not just a statement in language, it is an encoded organizational event that supposes the existence of buyers and sellers, markets and stores, and institutional arrangements that govern them. Language, at the level of semantics, distinguishes actors, agents, events, actions, instruments, objects, exchange dynamics, process, place and circumstance. And it does so in a way that constructs time as a structured unfolding: a pattern of interconnected events. It contains, in other words, all those elements that allow organization to be constructed, cognitively, as a lived reality - "rationalized." Such semantic patterns, we further propose, correspond to a semionarrative patterning of meaning: mirrored in the single utterances and sentences of speech, but realized in suprasential configurations having their basis in story syntactics (Taylor, 1998; Cooren & Taylor, in press; Groleau & Cooren, in press; Robichaud, in press).

There is not space in this brief paper to develop this idea in full. Instead, we state as a working hypothesis that the semantics of language have precisely those properties of representation that make Giddens' theory of reflexive monitoring and rationalization feasible. Experience, once textualized, is made meaningful. The "meme" is (and here the parallel with the gene is evident) that component of language which is capable of mapping a single feature of organization. Our hypothesis is that when it is read off, in a context of conversational exchange, it also provides the template for the building of the elements of organization, as a discursively realized phenomenon. This transcription is what we term `actualization' (Robichaud, 1998). For such a hypothesis to be tenable, we would have to suppose that, in spite of the great variety of human spoken languages, the underlying semantic properties of all are the same. There is, fortunately, encouraging evidence to support this view that the semantics of language are characterized by patterns that are found universally in all the diverse tongues spoken by humankind (Bickerton, 1990).

It follows that the memetic equivalent of mRNA is speech. We assume that people, in speaking, draw on a repertoire of symbolic material - words, phrases, imagery, sayings, stories, analogies, lines of argument, etc. - that reflects stable properties of the speaker's semantic representation of the organizational world which formed him or her: He or she is transcribing memetically encoded patterns in the process of speaking. Again, given the constraints of this paper, we are obliged to enunciate this as a working hypothesis, without further defense.

Memetic translation

Proteins are constructed by adjoining amino acids to form the complex patterns which distinguish one protein from another. We hypothesize that the "proteins" of social organization are patterned sequences of consecutive, inter-related acts, equivalent to what Schank and Abelson (1977) described as "scripts." These authors draw, as a concrete example, on what they call a "restaurant script" to show that the actions of both restaurateurs and clients fit together interactively to construct an event or episode, not because the spoken interventions of those involved are self-containedly meaningful, but because the indexical expressions used by participants ("Table for two, sir?", "Smoking, non-smoking?", "Bill?") is a recognizable transcription of components of the script. That which is being produced is not just speech, but a meaningful interaction that contributes to the persistence of a social institution, eating at a restaurant. The role of language is double: to encode the pattern of the event (in what we call its "text") and to mobilize the practical elements going into a meal - food, kitchen, building, check-out counter, etc. - by supplying the necessary procedural guidance by means of which the material substructure of dining is effectively organized. In speaking the actors are actually acting out the organizational structure (Giddens' point). By analogy, this is how all organizations are constructed.

 There is, however, an obvious difference in the transcription processes of the cell and the human organization. In the cell, there is a direct transfer of the information encoded on one of the strands of the double helix, via the agency of mRNA, in the aligning of amino acids to form a given protein. In the organizational conversation, the production of a unit of organization necessarily supposes a mutuality of patterning: The restaurant customer and the waiter, for example, have complementary roles to play. The "double helix" of organization is thus constituted, not as a permanent binding of complementary strands, but as an occasioned event where the "code" of the organization will have been sucessfully realized if the occasioned `eventing' is regularly accomplished.

Memetic replication

The replication of the memetic pattern is thus intrinsically dependent on the dynamic of interaction. The persistence of cultural patterns, historically and geographically, gives empirical support to the idea that, in general, replication occurs, organizationally as well as biologically, with relatively constant fidelity. But it should be obvious that the process is contingent on situational variables, almost certainly to a greater degree than is the case for genetic replication. There is no reason to think, though, that the principle of replication is any less applicable to organizational as to organismic reproduction. All that is required is that the participants in the exchange find their model confirmed by their experience: The satisfied diner leaves with his or her `restaurant meme' once more confirmed, and thus replicated; the same goes for the restaurateur. On the other hand, the model accounts easily for innovation. A meme that is never realized in interaction will presumably decay, while, on the other hand, the actor exposed to a new situation, in interaction with people who have an encoded map of its script, is likely to quickly learn the complementary exigencies, and thus the memetic representation of the organization is adapted to prepare the actor for subsequent encounters of a similar kind. (Note that the learner acquires, not the same code as the first, but the complement.)

The self-organizing properties of the system

The internal dynamics of the cell include, of course, much more than the reproductive activities of the genetic system. That which explains the importance of the latter is that it accounts for the production of proteins, among which are to be found the enzymes that then become active agents in organizing the life of the cell and assuring the continuation of the reproductive cycle. We would argue that the function of communication, with respect to organization, is similar, in that it is by communication that the material preoccupations of organizational members are shaped, while at the same time the communication folds back onto itself, as Giddens proposes, to assure that the organizational pattern is replicated, and organization thus persists over time, and across space - the structurational hypothesis.

The organization is the cell

Under this hypothesis the organization is the cell of social life. Society is thus multi-cellular. An issue that the limits of this paper do not allow us to consider is that of how to establish the boundaries of the organization (for elaboration see Taylor & Van Every, forthcoming).


In Dawkins' initial treatment of memes he referred to them as "unit[s] of information residing in the brain" (p. 109) and described their propagation as "leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation" (p. 192). In a general way this is still how memes are principally conceived. Calvin (1996), for example, describes memes "as those things that are copied from mind to mind...from words to dances" and gives as examples advertising jingles and rumors (p. 18). Deacon (1997) similarly describes them as "bits of copied cultural information" (p. 115). In general, memes are seen to correspond to a cognitive pattern (or "cerebral code" in Calvin's terms) and the spread of memes as a phenomenon of pattern cloning in the brain.

 There are, as we see it, two principal problems with this way of characterizing the replication of memes. First, compared to genetic theory, it leaves the mechanism of imitation largely unspecified as a precise operation. It fails to explain why some patterns spread and some do not (an issue that has formed the matter of diffusion theory for more than a half century without producing any definite conclusion other than communicational). Second, it takes no account of the complementarity of patterns which, as the restaurant script illustrates, is an essential feature of cultural persistence. This latter omission may be traced to the dominance in memetic theory of considerations of cognitive dynamics and the relative neglect of communication. What we believe is that a reconsideration of the memetic problématique taking account of the role of language in communication provides both a more satisfactory explanation of the reproductive cycle, and a better account of the relation of memes to cultural persistence, as well as change.

 It is obvious that such a theory will have to take account of non-linguistic as well as linguistic patterning: cooking and playing the violin as well as conversing. This does not seem to us an insuperable extension of the theory, but it is not one we have the space to consider here. Stated very generally, the issue is not of how memes "leap from brain to brain" but how they connect up with practice and thus become reinforced (or decay) by either having, or not having, an application. Any memetic pattern that is not, to use Weick's term, enacted is unlikely to survive. The spreading of a meme is thus not a "leap" but is inevitably mediated by practice.


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