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Assessment: Strengths and weaknesses

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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The strengths identified below may, from a different perspective, be understood as weaknesses. Similarly, the weaknesses identified may, under other circumstances, be considered strengths.

1. Strengths

(a) Range: The principal strength of this publication lies in the range of information presented, often derived from inaccessible documents, reflecting a broad spectrum of cultures, ideologies, disciplines and belief systems. Many of the topics are little-known, however vitally relevant they may appear to those who are especially sensitive to them.

A significant proportion of the information is of a kind that is normally avoided or ignored by institutions and academic disciplines, because there are no adequate procedures or frameworks for handling it. Many of the topics are therefore of a kind not to be found in available reference books, whether because they fall between conventionally recognized categories, or because they threaten them in some way (as with some types of problem).

(b) Juxtaposition of contrasts: A second strength lies in the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated kinds of information (e.g. problems, values, human development) which emerge as complementary and call for the recognition of a pattern of relationships between them. The organization of the Encyclopedia is designed to permit very extensive cross-referencing of various types. It allows relationships, whether logical or functional, to be indicated in a much more precise manner than in other contexts.

(c) Juxtaposition of opposing perspectives: A third strength is the deliberate presentation of information so as to confront opposing viewpoints, whether through the arguments supporting or denying the existence of a particular problem, by matching constructive and destructive values, or by opposing strategies and counter-strategies. Wherever possible, entries indicate the limitations of the perspective presented. The structure of the Encyclopedia therefore guards against dependence on any one particular perspective. Each may indeed be appropriate in particular circumstances, but it is more probable that it is only on the whole "gene-pool" of perspectives that humanity can safely depend in a turbulent social environment during a period of vulnerability to nuclear, ecological and food crises of an unpredictable nature.

(d) Exploration of the limits of language: A fourth strength is the exploration, both through the variety of information and through a number of editorial experiments, of the limitations of language in distinguishing both problems and responses to them (values, modes of awareness, etc). The approach used has made it possible to present sets of fuzzy categories, such as values, in a way which allows them to be usefully related to harder categories of information. Many neglected categories have been "opened up" in a manner which allows the significance of such distinctions to be explored. The approach usefully questions assumptions about the adequacy of language in responding to the global problematique and designing integrative strategies.

(e) Global, "top-down" approach: A final strength lies in the blending of the above strengths to stress the context within which problems and possibilities emerge. The result is a "high-context" initiative offering insights which are difficult to obtain from the conventional "low-context" approaches usually favoured. It represents a continuing effort to incorporate detail into a global context, without allowing specific concerns, however currently fashionable, to unbalance the whole.

2. Weaknesses

(a) Coverage of particular items: The principal weakness of the publication lies in the inadequacy of information on particular items. Whilst many of the entries are adequate, or more than adequate, there are exceptions where more appropriate information could usefully have been included. This is a direct consequence of the "top-down" method that was oriented to culling information from many sources. This did not permit (because of limitations on editorial resources) follow-up on particular items. This defect is also partly a consequence of the bias in favour of "opening up" neglected topics, as opposed to extending information on well-documented topics.

(b) Avoidance of classification: A second weakness for many is the absence of any scheme through which the large amount of information is ordered. To this extent it may appear as a "grab-bag" collection of disordered information of varying quality and significance. As is pointed out however, the absence of a classification scheme is deliberate because one of the fundamental challenges is the design of an adequate scheme that would be non-trivial and minimize distortion. The method used minimizes distortion and provides an information structure with which classification experiments can be undertaken, some of which are presented in this volume.

(c) Limited indication of sources: Despite the inclusion of a 10,000 item bibliography in this edition, a third weakness lies in the limited indication of sources, particularly since in recognizing the existence of a perspective in the international community it would be desirable to indicate what group or constituency holds a given view. The difficulty in including bibliographical references comes again from the method used. In the case of United Nations material, for example, literally tons of documents were scanned for the rare paragraphs defining a problem. In preparing the final entry, the file used might contain photocopies of many such paragraphs. It was not considered feasible to allocate scarce resources to time-consuming bibliographic work when the objective was to cross-reference the entry to the international body directly concerned with a topic, whether or not that body provided information on it. Indeed one of the basic difficulties in obtaining information on world problems, for example, lay in the fact that the bodies most concerned with an issue were frequently unable to supply a succinct description of it. More useful texts often came from other sources commenting in summary form on the issue.

(d) Incompletion: Although in its third edition, the Encyclopedia remains incomplete. With each edition the criteria are broadened, thus broadening the scope. Because of the emphasis on range and globality, gaps appear in the resulting pattern. Because of the "top-down" approach to information retrieval, these may remain unfilled. As an ongoing programme, the Encyclopedia reflects the defects of "work-in-progress" in response to evolving recognition of possibilities whereby it may be improved, rather than the strengths of a product completed in the light of a well-defined concept.

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