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Method: Response to diversity

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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1. Challenge of diversity

In contrast to many recent studies of world problems, or of the component units of the other sections of this publication, one intention of this project is to explore the consequences and difficulties of attempting to handle much larger numbers of units and their interrelationships.

Clearly the methods which are useful in the study of 5 to 10 units, the resulting conclusions, and the manner of their presentation, might have to be modified if it were considered admissible to focus on up to 100, or up to 1,000, or up to 10,000 units. Since the results and the value of studies of 5 to 10 major units have been, and continue to be, extensively explored (with questionable improvement in the ability of society to control itself), it may prove useful to give attention to a somewhat different approach.

2. Tolerance of diversity

The headings below are for different orders of magnitude. Under each heading a very rough attempt has been made to indicate what kinds of things are detected if the detail of a still higher order of magnitude is not to be tolerated. The point being that political debate would seem to limit itself to magnitudes 0 and 1. Social science investigations presumably venture into magnitude 2 (given that populations are seldom reduced to more than 100 classes) and some way beyond. In contrast with this relative intolerance of detail, biologists and chemists are obliged to work with a degree of variety corresponding to magnitude 6. (Biologists tolerate the existence of about 1,000,000 recognized plant species and a similar number of animal species; chemists tolerate the existence of about 1,000,000 recognized molecular compounds.)

3. Orders of magnitude

4. Identification with detail

By contrast, the sections on perceived world problems in this Encyclopedia cover in each case over 10,000 items (Order of magnitude 4). Those on values and modes of awareness cover over 1,000 items (Order of magnitude 3). The argument of this project is that people and organizations clearly identify with concepts distinguished at this level of detail. It is less easy for them to identify in any operational way with items distinguished at lower orders of magnitude, especially at level 0 or 1, although it is clearly in terms of concepts at level 0 or 1 that people can be temporarily swayed by the media.

5. Weakness of international information

Through the various international statistical series maintained by the United Nations Specialized Agencies (and published in their various Statistical Yearbooks), details are available on the number of cinemas, newspapers, radios, libraries, and so on, per capita in each country. But no systematic collection of information is publicly available on, for example, the number of local, regional, or national organizations in different areas, even in developed countries. The first type of data could be considered as covering methods of informing, instructing, or influencing individuals or groups - namely, the downward flow from centres of power and excellence. The second, and missing, type covers methods by which individuals and their minority groups express, protect, and further their particular interests and blend them into those of society as a whole.

Such devices are the channels through which individuals participate in society, refine definitions of values, and mould the direction of development. Bertram Gross notes: "It is the intricate network of the subsystems that, more than anything else, establishes the framework of social structure." (The state of the nationals; social systems accounting. In: Social Indicators, R A Bauer (Ed). Cambridge, MIT Press, 1966, p.194).

Serious questions are raised when the International Labour Office's Yearbook of Labour Statistics has data on industrial disputes and accidents, but no data on trade unions. Until data is available and attention is focused on the social devices (and their interrelationships) through which individuals initiate their own participation in society, it is questionable whether theories and policies based on aggregation of data on the social devices by which they can be influenced and controlled will result in policies which respond to (rather than create) social problems, or will be considered meaningful by individuals or the smaller groups which represent their special interests.

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