University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Criteria: Problem disguises and problem evasion

World Problems Project


Considerable difficulty was experienced because the available material, from whatever source, rarely provides a comprehensive and succinct description of a problem as a problem. There seems to be a variety of ways by which societal problems are transformed and diluted by processes in society with different perspectives. Such processes may also be seen as ways of evading or avoiding recognition of problems.

1. Assemblies, conferences (agenda items)

Such occasions are usually highly structured by agenda item. If societal problems are to be discussed they are reconceived as items in the conference process. As such it is their procedural features and disturbance to the current activities of existing bodies which come to the fore. In this context problems are distinguished with difficulty from routine meeting agenda items. This is especially so when the main function of the assembly is to review the work of other bodies which implement its directives.

Agenda items may give rise to resolutions. Again these may concern societal problems, but it is only by careful examination that problem-oriented resolutions are distinguished from other types of resolution. For example, research on UN ECOSOC resolutions by UNITAR categorized resolutions and their paragraphs according to 10 categories: recognition of issues ("identifying, defining, assessing importance of, and commenting upon substantive problems, facts, conditions, events and causal connections external to the UN"), delineating potential UN participation in world problems, setting standards and goals, creating or modifying UN organization, establishing programmes and strategies, detailed implementation, information transfer and coordination, monitoring and evaluation, exhorting governments, and internal administration.

Only 5% to 7% (depending on the level of analysis) were concerned with recognition of issues, and even this percentage included "restating, reiterating or making reference to information on substantive problems, needs, facts, states, and conditions."

2. Administrative reports on substantive problems

The report of the Director-General of UNESCO (mentioned above), identifying world problems and supplying each "with a brief and general description", typifies the confused nature of problem descriptions currently available. Thus with respect to the first problem, human rights, the nearest equivalent to a description is the statement that:

"The Organization's constitutional responsibilities with regard to human rights may be summed up as follows (a) to assist in combatting all forms of discrimination; (b) to promote certain fundamental rights, such as the right to education; (c) to extend the opportunities for leading a more satisfactory life, at the individual and community levels, through participation in scientific advancement and in cultural life and access to full and objective information."

The societal problem under (a) is "discrimination", but it is embedded in a concern with UNESCO's own constitution, which surely is irrelevant to any description of the problem. In addition the problem is described in terms of combatting such discrimination. Again what UNESCO does about the problem is surely irrelevant to any description of it, unless the problem is in fact that of "combatting discrimination", namely the strategic, tactical, and logistical problem of combatting discrimination. This is not the external problem of discrimination but a problem internal to the organizational system in some way related to the undefined external problem.

Similar difficulties could be brought to light with respect to the eleven other problems. The descriptions are all embedded in preoccupations with organizational and program goals (or, in some cases, with the theoretical preoccupations of the predominant discipline, or of the department responsible for formulating the description).

3. Political arena, government (issues)

In the political arena societal problems are merged into the maze of issues which galvanize the political process. Issues, as with news, may be very short-term, highly personalized or concerned with threats to the credibility or image of some establishment unit. Problems only become identified as issues when they excite a significantly powerful pressure group. The extent to which issues become issues, or get lost in limbo, is to a large extent fortuitous. Many issues are deliberately projected as problems when in fact they are only pseudo-problems, which may nevertheless be sufficiently magnetic to attract short-term electoral support. Power groups appropriate issues as a means of establishing relevance to a constituency. Once the dramatic appeal and novelty is lost relative to other issues, a problem issue is discarded.

4. Administrations, agencies, secretariats (programmes)

Many organizations hold that too much effort is put into recognizing problems, whereas the real need is for solutions. The documentation from such bodies tends to recognize problems in passing or by implication only. Their material reports on the range of programmes they are implementing (with emphasis on their success), whether or not such programmes can be related to specific problems or not. In a number of cases, especially with bureaucracies, it is legitimate to ask whether the programmes are simply memorials to problems that have long disappeared or have completely changed their form.

Administrative bodies and agencies tend to work in terms of programme and budget items. The problems, supposedly defined at a plenary or planning meeting, are here disguised and defined by the action programmes agreed upon. Just as intelligence has been defined as "what is measured by an IQ test", the problem becomes "that which the programme is designed to combat". A secretariat official of one major intergovernmental agency, questioned about material on illiteracy, put the point very simply by stating: "Illiteracy is not our business; we are concerned with literacy programmes." At any stage up to or following its full recognition, the problem may be absorbed into some section of the administrative apparatus. It is internalized so that it is almost impossible to distinguish (from the organization's perspective) between action to solve the problem and the routine activity of the administrative section, or even between the external problem and the internal administrative or political difficulties in solving it.

5. Public relations, public information (symbols)

A problem has to be transmuted by a public relations operation into a symbol in order for it to permeate the world of images. There are many symbols which do not represent problems. The process of conversion into a symbol involves a simplification, a dramatization and a humanization. This may strip the problem of subtle cross-linking relationships to other problems, introduce ambiguity, and may even distort it beyond recognition by those who originally defined it. The symbol of the problem is designed to incite to specific action, not to facilitate new thinking about the nature of the problem or whether or how to act against it. Where the public information is disseminated by an organization or agency with programmes designed to reduce or eliminate the problem, it is in the agency's interest to concentrate its information on the success (however partial) of its programmes, rather than the gravity (however great) of the problem. This is best demonstrated by an examination of the catalogues of photographs available to the press from intergovernmental agencies. Only a very small percentage attempt to illustrate the problems, most illustrate actions to solve the problems.

6. Journalism, newsmedia (events)

Journalism tends to focus on events, news items and stories, possibly illustrative of an underlying social problem. But more often than not, the problem is interpreted to give meaning to a personalized event rather than vice versa. Nevertheless this sector is possibly least reluctant to record, if in over-dramatized form, the announcement of an unforeseen problem.

7. Legislation and treaties (crimes)

Legislation is concerned to proscribe certain activities (abuses, offences, etc) which create or constitute societal problems. A body of legislation may be conceived as a set of contained problems - problems "behind bars". All crimes may be considered problems. The societal problems of interest are those that escape from these constraints to a significant degree - beyond the threshold level up to which the legislation may be considered adequate. An international agreement may signal the presence of a world problem, and may of course contain it, if properly implemented. The difficulty is to determine when legislation disguises the presence of uncontained problems. Much legislation is a compromise and has often been deliberately designed to focus on the more obvious manifestations of a problem. Other dimensions of a problem, including various sub-problems, may not be recognized by the legislation. Legal loopholes ensure that certain problems remain unrecognized and uncontained.

8. Insurance (risks)

The insurance sector of the economy is not concerned with problems as such but is concerned with risks. Risks may however be considered as potential problems. In this sense the insurance sector is the most explicitly concerned with the definition of problems. These problems are in most cases defined in terms of the financial interests of the insurers. The insurance sector may however prove to be a rich source of information on the incidence of many problems.

9. Business (markets)

Business, especially the service sector, depends on the ability of entrepreneurs to detect problems for which people are prepared to pay for some form of remedy or preventive facility. People vulnerable to such problems constitute well-defined markets. Advertising addressed to specific markets is often structured to identify the problem explicitly and may even use the term "problem". The question is how to distinguish markets based on problems of interest to this section from other markets. The scope of this approach is indicated by the 18,000 market research studies published annually (Marketsearch, 1988). And is there a point at which the commercialization of a problem remedy can be said to effectively contain or tame the problem so that it is no longer problematic in any sense of interest to this section of the Encyclopedia ?

10. Celebration of values (visions)

Some individuals and groups consider that it is unhelpful to devote any time to recognizing problems. All effort should be devoted to emphasizing positive values, appropriate visions of the future, and the necessary actions to give form to such visions. The documentation from such bodies tends to be "problem-free", except for a marked tendency to identify some other bodies as unconstructive (or even evil) in promoting opposing initiatives. There is little effort to face up to the problems opposing implementation of the visions, or to recognize the problems that such implementation will cause for others.

11. Religion (sins)

Historically religions have played a major role in clarifying the values in the light of which social problems such as poverty or injustice are perceived. But such problems tend to be perceived by religions as being a consequence of sins and vices (Judeo-Christianity) or afflictions (Buddhism), which are not usually considered as problems in their own right. There is a distinction between what a religion perceives as a sin and what secular society chooses to perceive as a problem, especially in the case of sins or afflictions of the mind having little recognizable impact on society.

12. Conflicts

Conflicts, whether violent or not, may be considered as a definite manifestation of a problem. The turbulence of the conflict, in its very concreteness with all the visible side effects, tends to obscure the underlying problem. Those involved in a particular border conflict naturally tend to resist interpretation of their conflict as an instance of the general problem of border conflicts.

13. Documentation (subjects)

Clearly all problems which form the subject of an article or book should be detected by documentation, library and abstracting systems. This is so, but only as "subjects" completely merged into the multitude of other subjects which are the preoccupation of classification systems. Unfortunately, subject headings and descriptions fail to detect problems which are not yet labelled by an accepted descriptor - namely those at present defined by a phrase or a mathematical relationship (eg between resource flows). Nor do the documentation systems detect problems noted in the body of a text.

14. Research disciplines (conceptual puzzles)

Groups of academic orientation, are primarily interested in new theories suggested by the phenomena associated with a problem. Academic literature of any quality can only refer to problems in passing, as an illustration of the steps in a theoretical argument. The situation is somewhat different in the case of the applied sciences explicitly concerned with bringing academic knowledge to bear on a problem. Here however the concern tends to be solution oriented, namely how to remedy the problem, rather than documenting its nature and extent.

The problems detected by disciplines are normally intimately bound up with the characteristics of the theory or model used to research them. T S Kuhn clarifies the relationship between research problems and societal problems in the following quotation (1962): "Bringing the normal research problem to a conclusion is achieving the anticipated in a new way, and it requires the solution of all sorts of complex instrumental, conceptual, and mathematical puzzles... It is no criterion of goodness in a puzzle that its outcome be interesting or important. On the contrary, the really pressing problems, eg a cure for cancer or the design of a lasting peace, are often not puzzles at all, largely because they may not have any solution... One of the things that a research community acquires with a paradigm is a criteria for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or will permit its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time. A paradigm can, for that matter, even insulate the community from those socially important problems that are not reducible to puzzle form, because they cannot be stated in terms of the conceptual and instrumental tool the paradigm supplies... One of the reasons why normal science seems to progress so rapidly is that its practitioners concentrate on problems that only their own lack of ingenuity should keep them from solving."

An external societal problem may be internalized by the discipline, as is the case with administrative agencies, such that it is impossible to distinguish (from within the discipline) between action to solve the problem and the normal advance of theoretical knowledge within the discipline, or even between the external problem and the internal theoretical or practical difficulties in solving it.

The situation is further complicated by the relationship between the problem as researched and the problem as perceived by the body concerned with the formulation of policy. Yassin El-Ayouty (1971) makes the point: "There are certain misconceptions held by the operational official as regards what research should do for him. An important misconception is the operator's assumption that the solution of his problem would be primarily advanced through the mere collection of facts. In this regard, the operator may erroneously conceive of the research process as an exercise aimed at providing him with specific replies or answers to questions or problems which he has selected for research. As a result of this misconception, the operator finds the problems, as researched, appear different from those in which he, the action man, is interested. The disappointment of the operator does not stop only at finding that he is no nearer to the answers he is seeking through research than when he began. It is compounded by the fact that the whole research process may appear to be a complicated way of saying the obvious. As to the researcher, he may have his own frustrations in responding to the demands of policy through research. As his research proceeds, his conviction may grow that the action official has asked the wrong questions, and that the concepts and categories in which the policy problem has been posed are neither meaningful nor useful. If he reformulates the problem or restates the questions, the result may be that his customer, the action official, makes little or no use of his investigations."

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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