4/1 – The Transdisciplinary Meme

April- June 2014 / Feature Articles

Sue L.T. McGregor

Sue L.T. McGregor

Sue L.T. McGregor

This article introduces the idea of creating and spreading a transdisciplinarity meme (herein called the TDMeme). After defining meme, an overview of a recent attempt to meme map climate change will be shared (Karafiath & Brewer, 2013). Then, the model emerging from this memeatic strategy will be used to introduce the idea of a TDMeme. The TDMeme would help spread the idea of bringing a transdisciplinary approach to address the wicked problems facing humanity, of which one is indeed climate change. When addressing wicked problems, Ewoldt (2014) affirmed “that there’s no ‘solution’; however, there is a realistic response, although the outcome remains uncertain, and [the consequences of doing nothing or the wrong thing] become more dire with every passing day” (p.2). This paper proposes that one realistic approach to addressing wicked problems is the TDMeme.

Meme Defined

The concept of a meme (sounds like gene) was conceived by Dawkins (1976) as a way to convey the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. A meme is a unit that carries cultural ideas. Examples of culture-carrying units include ideas, songs, theories, dances, habits, practices, videos, social media, and values. Memes travel through media, cultural traditions and day-to-day social interactions and communications. A meme is an idea, behavior, concept or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Indeed, like genes, memes self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. As the meme is spread around, it changes and adapts over time as it is passed from one generation to another. Examples of powerful memes include Obama, Bieber, the Harlem Shake, Twerking, and Gangnam Style. These memes and others have become household names.

Karafiath and Brewer (2013) noted that people can become infected with a meme. Once infected, they either embrace it or try to “fight it off” (p.1) by denying its existence or by trying to change things so the meme goes away. Other people seem to be protected from the meme by ignoring its existence and going about their lives. They have not been infected. “Whatever messaging worked to infect” the people inflicted with the meme, did not work on the rest of the culture (p. 1, emphasis added). Karafiath and Brewer suggested that good memes spread and bad memes do not, because people’s minds are attracted to good memes that fulfil a psychological need. A bad meme, heavy with negativity, gloom and conflict, tends to not spread as rapidly as a good meme. This meme uptake reflects the reality that in order for a meme to propagate, it has to be “appealing to the masses” (p. 6). If the entire landscape for a meme is dark, the meme lacks any power to spread.

Meme Mapping Model

Karafiath and Brewer (2013) used the example of the ClimateMeme (global warming) as a message that has not spread, and compared it to other memes that were well received by the populace, including Gangnam Style and Mayan Calendar. They affirmed that the ClimateMeme “exists in the mind-space” (p. 4) of people along five polar dimensions: (a) harmony-disharmony, (b) survival-extinction, (c) cooperation-unity, (d) momentum advance-stall, and (e) elitism-vanguard. They concluded that all communication attempts to convey the message that we are experiencing irreversible global warming have failed entirely. If we want people to move beyond denial, disengagement and crippling fear about the world coming to an end, we have to “find better memes that spread more easily” (p. 6).

When Karafiath and Brewer (2013) analyzed over 5000 Twitter comments on climate change and global warming, they realized that anything to do with the “inspiring dimensions of human experience have been left out” (p. 7). This finding means that people engaged with the ClimateMeme see negativity, gloom and doom and not love, sharing, innovation, collaboration, entrepreneurship and creativity. “Human-induced climate change is a planetary threat to the entire human tribe. And yet most members of the human tribe manage to deny it, have a cynical opinion and avoid thinking about it (or acting upon it) in their daily lives. There is something larger going on…what are the belief systems in place that are blocking the climate change conversation from happening” (Brewer, 2014, pp. 1-3)? Karafiath and Brewer (2013) suggested that people are not engaging with the current rendition of the ClimateMeme because it is not resonating with a positive view of the future. They believed that if people can be infected with “new cultural associations” (p. 7) pertaining to global warming, a different, more hopeful, ClimateMeme can be spread amongst the population.

To that end, they identified a strategy for introducing what they called ClimateMeme2. This new meme (comprising five dimensions) would use defining memes to tell positive stories about protecting the planet for the future – promoting a can-do spirit. Second, immune deficiency memes prevent the ClimateMeme2 from spreading, so they have to be identified and accommodated. Hostile memes (e.g., conspiracy theories, character attacks and self-doubt) have to be identified, deconstructed and eliminated because they seek to perpetuate the current ClimateMeme (through denial, disengagement and hopelessness) (Karafiath & Brewer, 2013).

Fourth, parasitic memes latch onto the current ClimateMeme and distract people’s attention from the real issues. Like a parasite, they use the ClimateMeme to spread themselves. Karafiath and Brewer (2013) explained that parasites do not “cause significant damage on their own but they add burden to the inquiry” about climate change and global warming (p. 7). These parasites need to be identified so their exploitative and distracting power can be made transparent and minimized. Finally, in contrast, if ClimateMeme2 is to succeed, we have to find and propagate symbiotic memes that are mutually beneficial because they strengthen ClimateMeme2. They assist spreading the ClimateMeme2 when “it is currently too weak to do so on its own” (p. 7) (see Figure 1, developed by the author). They proposed that the five aforementioned, life affirming memetic poles better serve to inform the cultural DNA of ClimateMeme2, those being love, sharing, innovation, collaboration, entrepreneurship and creativity.

Figure 1 Meme Uptake Strategy (Karafiath and Brewer, 2013)

Figure 1 Meme Uptake Strategy (Karafiath and Brewer, 2013)

In a related initiative, inspired by Graves (1974), Beck and Cowan (1995) coined the term vmeme, with the superscript V standing for values. A vmeme is a cultural DNA map. People holding different vmemes see the world differently because vmemes are thinking patterns that direct human behaviour. vmeme is a concept used to refer to a core, collective intelligence that prevails at any given time in civilization. vmemes compete for dominance in the human consciousness, so that when one vmeme gains dominance, humans are said to have evolved to the next level. Karafiath and Brewer (2013) aspired to spread ClimateMeme2 so it becomes part of this collective intelligence.

Emergence of a TDMeme

Karafiath and Brewer (2013) have created a very useful tool for mapping the proliferation (or not) of cultural memes (see Figure 1). This tool will now be applied to the idea of creating and infecting people (in a good way) with the TDMeme. In effect, the intent is to convince people of the merit of bringing a transdisciplinary approach to addressing the pressing, complex problems facing humanity, including but not limited to climate change, unsustainability, unequal income and wealth distribution, loss of ecological even planetary integrity, uneven growth and development, compromised human potential, and lack of peace, security and justice in a globalized world.

Those embracing the idea of transdisciplinarity ardently believe that the longstanding disciplinary meme, multi-disciplinary meme and interdisciplinary meme are insufficient to deal with the nature of the complex problems facing humanity. Transdisciplinarity is an emerging counter-meme, one that advocates transcending disciplinary boundaries and merging with other sectoral perspectives to address the messy dilemmas (some say multilemmas) we are confronting. For example, instead of addressing the planet-altering process of global warming by using only science and economics, with complicit, enabling politics thrown in for good measure, transdisciplinarity would have us draw on those as well as turn to other perspectives in addition to the voices of those living out their lives within the fallout of global warming (e.g., droughts, floods, desertification, deforestation with attendant loss of basic subsistence, community resiliency, even survival). Insights from non-disciplinary sectors (especially civil society) hold the promise of generating much more realistic responses to the world’s polycrises, remembering that there are likely no solutions only inclusive, provisional responses.

Wicked Transdisciplinary Problems

There are no solutions per se because of the nature of transdisciplinary problems, which are often referred to as wicked, messy problems. Wicked problems have no obvious solution, are interpreted differently by different stakeholders and any efforts to solve them almost always cause other problems. Examples of wicked problems include global environmental issues (climate change), health pandemics, water resource management, poverty and energy issues (e.g., what to do when oil resources run out).

Rittel and Webber (1973), who coined the term wicked problems, felt wicked was akin to malignant (in contrast to tame or benign), vicious (as in vicious circle), tricky (like a leprechaun) or aggressive (like a lion). Wicked problems are characterized by (a) uncertainty; (b) inconsistency of needs, preferences and values; (c) an unclear sense of all consequences and/or the cumulative impact of collective action; and, (d) fluid, heterogeneous, pluralistic participation in problem definition and solution (Carley & Christie, 2000). A wicked issue is incomplete, contradictory and it has changing requirements. There are complex interdependencies, and it is often difficult to reach consensus (Turnpenny, Lorenzoni, & Jones, 2009).

Batie (2008) called wicked problems “social messes” (p. 1176) that are never solved; they just become better or worse, or the solution is deemed good enough. Rittel and Weber (1973) characterized wicked problems as ill-structured issues that have human relationships and social interactions at their center. What the problem is depends upon who is asked – different stakeholders have radically different views and understandings of the complex issue with no correct view, and they have different views of what constitutes an acceptable solution. There are no given alternative solutions because there is an immense space for options. Within that space, those involved have to negotiate and collectively exercise judgments, all the while juggling conflicting interests and priorities (Conklin, 2006).

Nicolescuian TDMeme

Solving such complex and twisted problems requires a new knowledge meme, what this paper is calling a TDMeme. The main approach tendered in this paper stems from Basarab Nicolescu’s approach to transdisciplinarity. He conceives it as a new methodology to create knowledge, which entails an integrated combination of (a) disciplinary work, (b) scholarship between (multidisciplinarity) and among disciplines (interdisciplinarity), and (c) knowledge generation beyond academic disciplines and across sectors external to the university, at the interface between the academy and civil society (de Freitas, Morin, & Nicolescu, 1994; Nicolescu, 2002). The intent is to understand the world, and do so by co-addressing the complex wicked problems now facing humanity. Through problem solving and perspective integration, new knowledge emerges that did not exist before.

Succinctly, Nicolescu (2002, 2010) has worked out three philosophical axioms for transdisciplinarity. First and foremost, there are Multiple Levels of Reality and the movement between these realities is lubricated or mediated by what he calls the Hidden Third (i.e., transdisciplinary ontology). This mediator, or hidden agent, manifests when diverse actors with divergent perspectives, yet keen interests in addressing a wicked problem, come together. While engaged in creating this new knowledge, this collection of people use inclusive logic (instead of Classical exclusive logic). Inclusive logic assumes that things that are normally seen as antagonistic or contradictory can temporarily be reconciled to create new transdisciplinary knowledge (i.e., the Logic of the Included Middle). The resultant knowledge (i.e., transdisciplinary epistemology) is characterized as very complex, emergent, embodied (owned by everyone) and cross-fertilized.

In short, people from all walks of life (Multiple Realities) enter a fecund middle ground (a zone of non-resistance, ripe with potential and possibilities) prepared to remain open to others’ viewpoints as they use inclusive logic to temporarily reconcile contradictions, while respecting emergence, synergy and fusion, leading to the integration of ideas to form new complex, embodied, and cross-fertilized knowledge that can be used to address the complex problem.

Zurich TDMeme

Nicolescu’s (2002) approach contrasts with that stemming from the Zurich school, which views transdisciplinarity as a new type of research, called Mode 2 research (see Gibbons et al., 1994), informed by the post-normal science perspective (see also Nowotny, 2003). In Mode 2, multidisciplinary teams are brought together for short periods of time to work on specific problems in the real world to generate applicable findings for the real world. This contrasts with Mode 1, which involves accumulation of disciplinary-bound knowledge. The Zurich TDMeme does not advocate axioms for knowledge generation, as does the Nicolescuian approach. It calls instead for context-driven, problem-focused work involving some combination of existing disciplinary knowledge, but not new transdisciplinary knowledge created using a new methodology. Transdisciplinarity is conceptualized as problem-focused with an emphasis on joint problem solving at the science, technology and society interface, but does not have as its crux a new methodology for co-creating transdisciplinary knowledge that emerges during problem-solving.

Meme Discussion

Those intrigued with creating and spreading a TDMeme must craft their message properly, and then stay on message. As evidenced by Brewer’s (2014) blog entry on Why is global warming such a conversation killer?!!, staying on message is not an easy task. Indeed, even crafting the message is a huge communication problem. The point here is that a TDMeme informed by Nicolescuian transdisciplinarity would send a different message than would one informed by the Zurich school. Each of those messages will resonate (or not) with the mind-space of people struggling with wicked problems.

If, for example, people wanted others to embrace the Nicolescuian TDMeme, they would have to clearly articulate how it is different from the Zurich TDMeme, respecting that any transdisciplinary approach is better than none at all. Both approaches want to address complex problems facing humanity that cannot be solved from separate disciplinary or sectoral approaches. The Nicolescuian TDMeme advocates that actors employ a radically different methodology for creating knowledge, one that is predicated on chaos theory, quantum physics and living systems theory. The Zurich TDMeme advocates for people to respect the merit of finding synergy at the society, technology and science interface (rather than problem solving in isolation). Their approach merges post-normal science with Mode 2 knowledge production, but not with new philosophical axioms worked out from quantum physics and aligned sciences.

It goes without saying that people will be drawn to one or the other of these and other TDMemes because it fulfills a psychological need. Once infected, people will be inclined to spread their TDMeme to others because they believe it carries pertinent cultural ideas about what is the best approach when dealing with transdisciplinary wicked problems. Depending upon which TD camp people are situated within, they may feel disposed to protect themselves from other TDMemes by ignoring their existence. The TDMeme uptake depends on whether the ideas it espouses appeal to the masses.

From a more overarching perspective, as Karafiath and Brewer (2014) indicated, if the entire landscape for a meme is dark, the meme lacks power to spread. This is indeed the situation faced now for the future of any TDMeme, what with the dominance of disciplinary-meme thinking. Transdisciplinarity was introduced as a concept in 1970, while disciplinarity has been around for centuries (Jantsch, 1972). To confound matters, TDMemes are not yet household names, unlike multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary memes. The latter have held sway because they remain confined within the stable, disciplinary walls of higher education, distanced from the transient and shifting realities in civil society. Asking people to problem solve at the academy-civil society interface, using a foreign approach to co-create knowledge, does not bode well for TDMeme propagation. The idea is simply too foreign to many people, jeopardizing the ability of the TDMeme to spread from person to person, or for it to replicate and adapt as it is spreads from one generation to another.

Meme Uptake Strategy Model

But, Karafiath and Brewer’s (2013) meme uptake strategy model gives us hope (see Figure 1). For instance, we can say that if advocates of either TDMeme can deal with immune-deficiency, parasitic and hostile memes, while developing clear communications about defining and symbiotic means, the spread of the TDMeme is more assured. First, this means advocates for a TDMeme have to identify competing (immune deficiency) memes that are interfering with the spread of transdisciplinarity. Those memes include the hegemony of disciplinarity and normal, positivistic science. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success. The former narrative applies especially to the disciplinary and interdisciplinary memes (Kelly, 1994).

Second, TDMeme advocates have to identify memes that are hostile to the TDMeme, leading people to resist and fear it. McGregor and Volckmann (2012) identified a range of hostile memes including faculty’s fear of compromised promotion, tenure, and funding, as well as suspicions that arise when higher education partners with industry. Third, by identifying parasitic memes that are distracting people from focusing on the emergent TDMeme, advocates of transdisciplinarity can mitigate their parasitic power. One such parasite that has latched onto transdisciplinarity is interdisciplinarity and the more recent hybrid – or hyper-interdisciplinarity.

Fourth, to ensure clear messaging and staying on message, advocates for a TDMeme have to develop defining memes that tell positive stories about attempts to employ the TD approach (see Du Plessis, Sehume, & Martin, 2013; McGregor & Volckmann, 2011). Fifth, and most importantly, they have to find and propagate symbiotic memes that can assist in spreading the TDMeme, which some say is too weak yet to spread on its own. Transdisciplinarity is a relatively new, nascent approach to knowledge creation, competing with longstanding multi- and interdisciplinarity (Du Plessis et al., 2013). Transdisciplinarity is “a rather elusive concept” that continues to evolve (Jahn, Bergman, & Keil, 2012, p.1). Possible symbiotic memes, which are sympathetic to the TDMeme, are complexity thinking, integral thinking, spiral dynamics, and generative thinking.

TDMeme’s Potential

The idea of a transdisciplinary meme is very new. A 2014 Google Search using the term generated zero results. This lacuna is important because memes are attracted to or repelled by minds at different levels of readiness for the cultural idea (Lucas, 2012). It is hard for people to be ready for a TDMeme if they are not aware of it, or, if aware, are not comfortable with it or do not accept its basic tenets. In the case of a TDMeme, people are being asked to set aside their comfort level with Newtonian and Cartesian thinking, normal science, and positivistic, empirical ways of knowing. In their place, they are being asked to embrace an approach couched in quantum physics, chaos theory and living systems theory. McGregor and Volckmann (2011) illustrated that when people do embrace the TDMeme, they are hooked, despite the challenges inherent in adopting such a radical change in scholarship and knowledge generation through problem solving (as is the case with the Nicolescuian TDMeme), rather than for problem solving.

Inspired by stories of success (the defining memes), advocates for a TDMeme can persevere in their attempts to infect people with the transdisciplinary imperative. Once infected, people are more inclined to purposefully place the TDMeme in their mind-space and use it to approach wicked problems. Memes go through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences its generative potential. They spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts (Kelly, 1994). Not surprisingly, once TDMemes come into existence, once they become a part of the cultural DNA, they can self-replicate, mutate and respond to people’s acceptance or resistance to their existence. They can morph into something that deeply resonates with the global cultural psyche, especially those engaged with wicked problems on behalf of humankind. Twentieth-century cultural DNA can be rewritten using transdisciplinarity.


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 About the Author

Professor Sue LT McGregor, PhD is a Canadian home economist and Doctoral Program Coordinator in the Faculty of Education, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Prior to that, she was a member of the Human Ecology Department for 15 years. Sue’s work explores and pushes the boundaries of consumer studies and home economics philosophy and leadership, especially from transdisciplinary, transformative, new sciences, and moral imperatives. In 2010, she was appointed Docent in Home Econom- ics at the University of Helsinki. She is a member of the IFHE Research Committee, a Kappa Omicron Nu Research Fellow, a Sustainable Frontier Research Associate, and a long-time Board member of the International Journal of Consumer Studies. She has delivered over 35 keynotes/invited talks in 10 countries, has over 120 peer-reviewed publications, 11 book chapters, and six monographs. She published Transformative Practice (2006) and her new book, Consumer Moral Leadership, was released in May 2010 (Sense Publishers). She received the 2009 TOPACE international award for her work on transdisciplinary consumer/citizenship education.  She is the Principal Consultant for The McGregor Consulting Group (founded in 1991). http://www.consult mcgregor.com/ Email: sue.mcgregor@msvu.ca

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