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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Significance: Framework for interrelating incompatible perspectives

World Problems Project


1. Need for a common frame

Before achieving consensus for purposes of action, some framework needs to be developed within which the different problems can be interrelated prior to the determination of their relative importance. Geoffrey Vickers argues that: "The changes that will flow from all of these impacts are unpredictable and perhaps unimaginable, but we can prepare to recognize and understand them more quickly as they emerge, by finding some common frame within which to comprehend them."

2. Myth of consensus

Consensus does not have to be total for effective action to take place. Different constituencies can pursue different problems provided that there is some general understanding of how the different problems being tackled by different groups are interrelated, at least in the terms of each perspective.

3. Possible criterion for a framework

From the previous paragraphs, such a framework should be able to contain:

4. Recognizing the dynamic between incompatible perspectives

As things stand no existing framework even attempts to reflect such incompatible perspectives. And yet the dynamics of their interaction are the reality of social life. Just as in the case of the arms race, it is the action-reaction phenomenon between the protagonists that contributes directly to its continuation. In this connection it is valuable to recall the technique used, in very difficult times, by Diderot and d'Alembert, the editors of The Encyclopaedia (1751-1772). "The editors of The Encyclopaedia were well aware of the dangers they faced, and so they cleverly maintained an air of innocence throughout. By a brilliant device of cross-reference, however, they were able to annihilate the effect of an orthodox view in one article with the arguments expressed in another article to which the reader was referred."

In contrast to those times, the right view cannot be simply brought to light by a brilliant argument (or other device) cross-referencing the outmoded incorrect view. Nowadays, there are many intellectual and other authorities, each with its own set of arguments. It is no longer easy to determine which set of arguments protects an outmoded view, or by which view it should be replaced, since all the functionally significant groups (even amongst the sciences) compete in advocating their own perspectives and in criticizing every other perspective. The arguments of many of the groups may be well-documented, although the absence of evidence in the case of the others does not curb their advocacy or the sincerity of belief in their particular perspective.

5. Registering disagreement

It is however possible to envisage a framework in which the problems perceived by each group could be combined, or registered separately if there is disagreement, accompanied by their supporting arguments and the relationships perceived to other problems. The problems emerging from each perspective can be handled in this way. So can the focal points of disagreement. If the claims by one group for the existence or importance of a problem are contested by another, then the arguments of the counter-claim can be recorded with the claim.

6. Refining opposing perspectives

In contrast to the example of The Encyclopaedia, in such a case each group supplies its own brilliant arguments, annihilating or ignoring the competing groups. The functions of any editorial group are then limited to locating the best formulated argument for each position and for the problem inter-relationships which they consider significant. This task can best be performed with the collaboration of the interested groups, preferably through their representatives at the international level, whether inter- governmental, nongovernmental, or informal bodies.

7. Tolerance of ambiguity

Clearly the results of such an exercise would not satisfy those with a thirst for the immediate and final answer on any particular problem, because when any such final answer is contested, the aim would be to reflect the dissent, even of a minority group. As Abraham Kaplan (1964) has explained in discussing methodology in the behavioral sciences:

"The demand for exactness of meaning and for precise definition of terms can easily have a pernicious effect, as I believe it often has had in behavioral science. It results in what has been aptly named the premature closure of our ideas. That the progress of science is marked by successive closures can be stipulated; but it is just the function of inquiry to instruct us how and where closure can best be achieved.... That a cognitive situation is not as well structured as we would like does not imply that no inquiry made in that situation is really scientific... Tolerance of ambiguity is as important for creativity in science as it is anywhere else."

8. Providing contextual understanding

But irrespective of the scientific value of such a framework, it is a necessity to policy formulation. In discussing the problems of developing contextual knowledge John P Crecine and R D Brunner (1972) note: "It is not enough for the masses and the government to understand one another and to be able to communicate effectively. Knowing what the problems are, in and of themselves, seldom proves sufficient to improve situations. A different kind of knowledge and ability is required concerning the context of public- sector decisions and the workings of those societal mechanisms the public sector attempts to alter. Uncovering necessary contextual knowledge to support public policy moves is difficult at present and likely to becomes more so.....Little effort is made to determine the content or the timing of research to maximize its contribution to the solving of social problems. The means of achieving full employment of minorities in an urban ghetto, for example, is not a problem which an economist, a political scientist, or a sociologist alone is likely to solve. To the extent that scholars focus their attention on increasingly narrow details without relating the results to a more comprehensive map of society, they are not likely to provide public officials with the knowledge necessary to grapple effectively with the problems of society."

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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