Written by Sandra Waddock, Boston College Carroll School of Management (cc) 2020
In a powerful book published in 1986 called Images of Organisation, management scholar Gareth Morgan vividly demonstrated how the metaphors used to describe organisations shape perceptions of who these organisations are. Metaphors are one type of meme. Memes [in this case speaking of Meme’s beyond colloquial internet memes] are the basis on which the stories that we tell are built. In Morgan’s case, these stories are about organisations and indicate different perspectives about ‘how things work here’ and who ‘we’ are in that particular context.
Memes are, in the thinking of Susan Blackmore, who has written extensively about them, core units of cultures that when successful transfer readily from one person’s mind to others. Memes are ideas, phrases, words, images, symbols, metaphors, and brands that are at the heart of how we humans understand things. Memes are the units out of which we compose stories and narratives, for example, in Morgan’s case about organisations.
Memes are ideas, phrases, words, images, symbols, metaphors, and brands that are at the heart of how we humans understand things
Morgan’s book—and its different ‘stories’ about organisations—helped reshape thinking about organisations, particularly companies. In Morgan’s telling, organisations could be viewed as machines, living organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, systems in flux and transformation, and instruments of domination, among others. Each of these perspectives tells a different story about the nature, purposes, and functioning of the enterprise. Each metaphor is based on a different core meme—core idea—that shapes understanding of the organisation, is easily identifiable, and resonates as at least somewhat appropriate with many people. The perspective—the story and its related memes—strongly influences attitudes towards a given enterprise—as well as practices, attitudes, and behaviors within it.
So it is with the narratives and stories that shape our lives. Really important and foundational stories in different contexts are what anthropologists call cultural mythologies. Stories and narratives are central to any human enterprise, whether it is a business organisation or whole economies, and indeed to what makes us human. These stories are the ones that tell people in those communities what it means to be part of that community; they are the ones that most people are familiar with and that really make one culture different from others. The memes on which such cultural mythologies are built shape and form attitudes, beliefs, and ultimately behaviors.
Today, particularly in the so-called developed world, we are living under what is sometimes called a meta-narrative or meta-story. Such metanarratives are like umbrellas in that they cover numerous aspects of the culture or system. In doing so, they provide a kind of roadmap to what it means to be part of this system, culture, or community. The dominant metanarrative in the world—at least before the Covid-19 pandemic hit—is that of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the economic theory that tells us that the purpose of the corporation is to ‘maximise shareholder wealth’, that companies and economies should pursue continual and unending growth in profitability, markets, and market dominance. Neoliberalism also notes that what matters is intense competition in purportedly free markets and in a globalised world where trade is also supposed to be free. It tell us, in contrast to scientific evidence from biology, that humans are self-interested profit maximisers. It focuses whole economies on constant growth of financial wealth, often as measured in share prices on stock exchanges, rather than any other important human values.
The dominant metanarrative in the world—at least before the Covid-19 pandemic hit—is that of neoliberalism
Mantras associated with neoliberalism assert several important memes in the way of slogans. One is that ‘There is no such thing as society’, to use the words of Margaret Thatcher, one of the theory’s dominant proponents during the 1980s. The other, also from Thatcher, is TINA, the idea that ‘There is no alternative’ to capitalism, even to the extreme form of capitalism dominant in the world today. A third meme, stated by then US President Ronald Reagan involves reducing the power of government, ‘Keep government off our backs’, advocating for laissez-faire governments.
Such memes have consequences in real life. These ideas influence how companies behave—in cutthroat competitive fashion rather than more collaboratively or making decisions in the interests of short-term profitability rather than long-term strategic considerations. Companies sometimes seek ‘efficiency’ at whatever costs to workers, the natural environment, or local communities might be involved even if that means layoffs, pollution, clear cutting of forests, cruel animal husbandry practices, or other so-called “externalities”. The diminishment of governmental effectiveness since the 1980s is a direct result of these beliefs—with significant consequences that have become very apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic in some countries. Neoliberalism with its core memes is an important metanarrative—cultural mythology.
Once a myth like neoliberalism gets established, and it does so when key memes get repeated over and over by others (or replicated from mind to mind, as Susan Blackmore might say), it is very hard to change. The problem is that experts are educated in the context of field-specific paradigms that tell them how their field operates, how to do their work, and what is and is not important. Shifting paradigms—beliefs, attitudes, mindsets, and expertise—requires new education, insights, and an openness to new ways of thinking and doing research.
Shifting paradigms—beliefs, attitudes, mindsets, and expertise—requires new education, insights, and an openness to new ways of thinking and doing research.
The idea of creating wellbeing economies is meant to provide powerful, resonant counter-memes to today’s dominant narrative. Particularly in the context of the global pandemic now afflicting the world, the idea of wellbeing for all, where ‘all’ includes all of nature as well as well as all human beings, may well begin to resonate. Values associated with creating a wellbeing economy move away from financial wealth maximisation as the core purpose of economies towards fostering what gives life to our societies and the economies that support them, subordinating economies to the broader societies in which they operate. Some of the values associated with wellbeing economies (which might differ in different places) are, but share a common set of values (i.e., memes):
Societies and their economies are human creations that need to be designed to be:
- Based on relationships and connectedness to self, others, and nature.
- Measured/evaluated by collective wellbeing without dignity violations of humans or other living creatures.
- Oriented towards life-giving/affirming design principles that recognize cyclicality, development into complexity without continual growth, and flourishing for all.
- Recognized as human creations integrally connected to nature.
The question for WEAll and all organisations working to change our economic system, is how to bring these values—these new memes—into widespread and resonant being throughout society. What new stories can we tell? What new narratives can we develop? What are the powerful memes that will resound broadly and create activism and demand for wellbeing—not ‘wealth’ when wealth really only serves to create what the British art critic John Ruskin called call ‘illth’—the opposite of wealth, which in its original meaning has to do with wellbeing, health, and wholeness. That is the real wealth a wellbeing economy seeks.
For Further Reading
Blackmore, S. (2000). The meme machine. Vol. 25. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.
Blackmore, Susan. (2000). The power of memes. Scientific American, 383(4): 64-73.
Summer, Claire (2020). Telling the Story of What WEAll Need. <https://wellbeingeconomy.org/telling-the-story-of-what-we-all-need-blog-by-claire-sommer>
 To use the framing of Donaldson & Walsh (2015).