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Why New Scientific Fields Need Branding

We live in an age of information overload. Humanity now creates more information in a year than it did in a millennium — most of which does not get translated into knowledge. A mere trickle manages to become wisdom acted upon by society.

This is a serious problem. And it has a solution:

New scientific fields need to be branded and marketed so that the knowledge they embody can be learned and put to use where needed. Simply sitting behind the curtain in an ivory tower won’t cut it in today’s media deluge of (mis)information.

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I say this as a practitioner who currently has the task of branding a new field of science. My collaborators and I are in the middle of a process to birth the field of cultural evolution by forming a scientific society that coordinates research, builds community, and informs the synthesis of knowledge that makes up this vibrant, multi-disciplinary field.

We have a rare advantage in that most people have never heard of cultural evolution. They don’t know it exists. People working on social change all over the world have no idea that a scientific body of knowledge is perfectly situated to transform their practices — away from poking around in the darkness and into a mode of rigorous design science for guided evolution of social norms, ideas and stories, technologies, institutions, and practices.

But first, the story needs to be told. It must have iconic images associated with it. Just like the Coca-Colas and Harley Davidsons of the world, the field of cultural evolution needs to be carefully constructed around belief systems and identities, emotional sensibilities and artifacts. In a word, it needs to be branded.

What does it mean to brand something? According to marketing expert David Airey, the definition of an iconic brand is this:

It should offer the “go to” product or service within its market, delivering what people think of first when they want what the brand sells. So if I’m looking for something online, I think of Google. If I want a quick sandwich made with care, I think of Subway. If I want to furnish a house without spending a fortune, then there’s IKEA.

So what do people currently think of when trying to create social change? Where do they go to learn about it? Many apply to MBA programs or perhaps get a degree in public administration. Or they go into psychology because this is a field that studies human behavior. Maybe — if they are especially savvy and outside the mainstream — they enter a history program specializing in social justice or social movements, or get their degree in public health where they sift through case studies of large-scale prevention programs designed to improve health outcomes.

What they don’t do is think of just one iconic place that is the “go to” for social change. And in today’s world of converging global threats (think climate change) and dysfunctional institutions (how corrupt the political process has become), there are a LOT of people wanting to work in the arenas of positive social change.

It is easy to think of iconic brands in the business world. Simply grab your iPhone or hit up that running shoe store. But what about intellectual domains? People need to know where to go so they can learn things they need to know.

There was a TED Talk fad a few years ago — when people thought this was the place to learn about “ideas worth spreading”. But in the long run this learning environment proved inadequate for creating systemic and structural change (which is desperately needed now and in the future).

Watching an 18 minute talk can be inspiring and informative, but it doesn’t produce the results young people are looking for in our broken world today.

Which is why I feel so strongly about branding cultural evolution successfully. People need to know that a proper integrative science is coming into existence at the very juncture in history when it is needed most. Humanity is going through the most turbulent period of global change our species has ever known — and we are flying blind while doing it because we don’t have the conceptual tools to make sense of it collectively. At least not yet.

So imagine five years from now that there has been a successful marketing effort to spread the gospel of cultural evolution.

  • When a terrorist bombing strikes some public space in the world, people automatically think about the research on identify fusion in tribal rituals that give rise to loyalty bonds. Or maybe they think about the various ways that wealth inequality and economic desperation provide breeding grounds for pathways to radicalization.
  • When a political contest is clearly shown to be corrupt, people think in terms of incentive structures that “select for” deception, lying, polarization, and turning off the majority of voters to preserve status quo systems of power.
  • When a new technology appears on the scene, people recognize how it arose through iterations in the past as part of the “adjacent possible” for any evolutionary search algorithm that is exploring the possibilities for matching previous technologies to new problems.

Insights such as these should be common sense. They aren’t because few are learning about the science of cultural evolution. Similar things can be said about advances in the social sciences writ large — or in other arenas likecollaborative finance, organizing practices for social movements, materials research for breakthrough engineering designs, and much more.

The richness of new knowledge is mostly being neglected and overlooked in our information-excessive media landscape. It is time to start promoting stories about what is known to supplant the promotion of stories designed to obfuscate and confuse.

Let us begin to apply what we know about how to spread ideas to the process through which new ideas are created. From this day forth, every new science will need to be branded and marketed if it is to provide value to its constituents — and to society overall.

4 Comments

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4 Comments

  1. david ronfeldt says:

    Much as I agree with what you are after, I thought from the beginning that “cultural evolution” lacks distinctiveness for creating a new field. Partly because I have seen that phrase, along with “social evolution” and “political evolution”, many times over the years.

    I suggest you find a term to put in front that would indicate something new and special is going on. Partly because of work I am trying to do on people’s space-time-action perspectives, my suggestion is “cognitive”. As in “cognitive cultural evolution” or “cognitive-cultural evolution” or “cogni-cultural evolution” — i.e., CCE theory.

    Or find a better term to put before or after “cultural”. Otherwise, difficulties may persist with branding “cultural revolution” by itself. Though I will still be pleased if you succeed.

    The sub-fields of space, time, and action/agency studies is somewhat interesting for all this. Sociologists interested in space do not have a brand name that I can recall — though “spatiology” sometimes appears. For a set of psychologists who study time following a methodology pioneered by Philip Zimbardo, “time perspectives theory” has taken hold (as I recall). Among psychologists who study agency per work by Albert Bandura, “social cognition theory” is the name of a sub-field. There is no term for someone (me) who would like to insist that space-time-action orientations be studied as a bundle, and not just singly. That is why I have wondered about “cognitive cultural theory” as a label.

    Onward.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      I like the way you are thinking about this, David. Having an additional “modifier” term to clarify and hone how this effort is different from those in the past may be very helpful in its own right — though selecting such a term would be a very political process for the community (as it it so diverse) that runs the risk of fragmenting it before it gets established on solid ground.

      I am also noticing how the terminology of “cultural evolution” is accepted and understood across the diverse communities in my professional networks — where there are quite a few researchers alongside a much larger and more heterogeneous web of social change practitioners. The vast majority of these people have loosely been exposed to terms like “social evolution” without much clarity about what it means. The CE terminology is not used as much — which means it is less contaminated in their semantic associations for the discourses they are part of.

      Where it gets most thorny is in the academic history of scholarship around socio-cultural evolution (e.g. controversies around sociobiology, social darwinism, social eugenics, etc.). Many of these discourses are profoundly fractured and polarized in ways that have made progress difficult-to-impossible in the past.

      A beacon of hope can be seen in the open collaborative mindsets of younger researchers who have already joined our society. They are often young enough (myself included here) to feel like those historic squabbles are part of an antiquated past. If we can establish normative practices around the thinking of this cohort, we might be able to leap forward without getting too bogged down.

      It’s going to be quite an exercise in culture design!

  2. david ronfeldt says:

    all good points. if generational shifts and other matters can make “cultural evolution” brandable, that would be good outcome.

    but before i quiet down and slip away, i’d suggest one more term in case options become desirable someday: “the new evolutionism” (assuming someone didn’t already come up with it). my suggestion reflects branding success of “the new institutionalism” as a recent sub-field in political science, and also the legacy of “evolutionism” as presented in past writings by stephen k. sanderson.

    onward.

  3. j.Baldwin says:

    Joe,
    A couple of thoughts…Don’t think about what to call it. Think about what you want it to be known as/for; and remember that people habitually truncate names, e.g.
    Coca-Cola becomes Coke;
    Federal Express becomes FedEx;
    Sears & Roebuck becomes Sears, etc.
    Maybe Cultural Evolution becomes Cevolution (pronounce long-e, “see-volution). “Cevolutionary science.”
    Known as/for:
    Coke: The Real Thing
    FedEx: The World on Time.
    NIKE: Just Do It.
    Cevolution: See Change.
    If I could, to improve the mark I’d use a macron (the long-vowel, horizontal line above the “e”). Just a thought.