The Transformational Change Challenge of Memes Around Marriage Equality

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Sandra Waddock of Boston College, Steve Waddell of SDG Transformations Forum, and Paul S. Gray of Boston College. They recently published an article in Business & Society entitled “The Transformational Change Challenge of Memes: The Case of Marriage Equality in the United States,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the impact and innovations of this research:]

Shifting norms around marriage equality in the US provided a perfect setting to look at the role of changing memes in a major cultural transformation and draw insights from the process. Marriage equality—or the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals to marry—literally transformed the role of same sex relationships. Such relationships were outlawed and considered a “mental disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association until 1974. In 2015, they were brought within the social pillar of marriage across the nation when the US Supreme Court ruled marriage equality a constitutional right. We used an abbreviated case study with empirical work on core memes associated with the transformation used in a variety of public media.

Memes are core units of culture, according to Susan Blackmore who studied them extensively. They include widely replicated words, phrases, symbols, and images. We studied how the usage of key phrases or memes shifted in the media and scholarly work. Memes studied included gay rights, same-sex partner, civil union, gay marriage, freedom to marry, domestic partner, same-sex marriage, and marriage equality. The thinking behind our study, articulated by Waddock earlier, was that memes provide the foundation for societal narratives that influence thinking, attitudes, and ultimately behaviors, policies, and practices. We wanted to know whether the memes associated with marriage equality had shifted along with activists’ strategies to inform the public narrative.

The results, presented in a series of charts, suggest that indeed transformational change towards marriage equality in the US was accompanied by corresponding shifts in the popular use of different terminology. The chart below illustrates these shifts, highlighting the use of eight different memes describing what ultimately was known as marriage equality from 1970-2015 in the US’s two leading newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. As activists focused in on marriage equality, three key memes begin to take off: first, gay marriage, followed by same sex marriage, and in the ten years before the Supreme Court’s ruling, marriage equality. Other more in-your-face terms like gay rights, which had earlier been the leading meme, while still in use, experienced a decline in usage over the same period.
Systemic transformation like marriage equality is never easy and is fraught with conflict as the case attests. What is too often overlooked, however, is the vital role that the underlying language—or memes—plays in shifting the contextual narrative, which in turn can help change attitudes and ultimately behaviors, policies, and practices as happened in this instance. Nine particular insights into transformation are identified in the article.

Further reading:
Blackmore, S. (2000). The meme machine (Vol. 25). Oxford, UK: Oxford Paperbacks.
Waddock, S. (2015). Reflections: Intellectual shamans, sensemaking, and memes in large system change. Journal of Change Management, 15(4), 259-273.

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