On the Social Diffusion of Sophisticated Ideas
The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Vol. 3, No. 10, 2009
14 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2012 Last revised: 14 Oct 2012
Date Written: 2009
Why do certain complex ideas — e.g., scientific, political or economic theories — spread in society, become a matter of debate, while others do not? How and why does the content of complex ideas change the more they are debated by the wider public? How does communicating expert knowledge affect public discourse and political decision making? I argue that in order to identify and possibly predict the social fate of a complex idea, one must explore how lay people understand it. Drawing on cognitive theory and historical research, I propose a theory that describes the social diffusion of complex ideas as a consequence of how lay people construe the relation between those ideas and their perceived real-world contexts. In contrast to the conventional view, the theory suggests that changes to the conceptual content of a complex idea are not an inevitable tradeoff of the spreading process; instead, these changes are what make the idea salient at the individual level, and therefore foster its social diffusion. The article includes a short summary of the historical investigation from which the theory has emerged.
Keywords: cognition and culture, relevance theory, analysis of beliefs, lay comprehension, public opinion
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