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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Criteria: Definitions

World Problems Project

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World problems may be readily defined for particular purposes, but such definitions do not exhaust the complex significance of problems. There is a need to continue exploring how such problems should be thought about.

1. Nebulous characteristic of problems

Problems are strange nebulous entities having a shadowy existence. They may be described or bounded by negatives - as "the substantial, unwanted discrepancies between what exists in a society and what a functionally significant collectivity within that society seriously (rather than in fantasy) wants to exist in it." (R K Merton, 1976).

(a) Subjectivity: The shadowy nature of problems derives from the fact that they represent in part an objective state of affairs and in part a subjective state of mind. Thus a UNESCO expert meeting on violence reporting on its definition notes: "What do we mean by violence. That depends on who "we" are." But even this objective quality may be questioned.

"Problems and solutions are, however, based on the perceptions of individuals. They are not objective conditions of the real world. They are subjective constructions - what Kenneth Boulding would call "images" of the real world - although such perceptions may be and often are shared in roughly the same form by many people. Nevertheless, problems may appear in different forms to different people. What is a critical problem to one person may appear unimportant, or even not a problem at all, to another person. To paraphrase Boulding, a problem is what somebody perceives as a problem; and, without somebody or something to perceive it, a problem is an absurdity." (T J Cartwright, 1973). In the words of Donald Schön in discussing problem-setting in social policy (1979): "Problems are not given. They are constructed by human beings in their attempts to make sense of complex and troubling situations. Ways of describing problems move into and out of good currency."

The emergence or disappearance of the discrepancies noted above may be affected by raising or lowering standards or by the improvement or deterioration of social conditions. "We must therefore be prepared to find that the same social conditions and behaviours will be defined by some as a social problem and by others as an agreeable and fitting state of affairs. For the latter, indeed, the situation may begin to become a problem only when the presumed remedy is introduced by the former.....There is no paradox then in finding that some complex, industrial societies, having a comparatively high plane of material life and rapid advancement of cultural values, may nevertheless be regarded by their members as more problem-ridden than other societies with substantially less material wealth and cultural achievement. Nor is there any longer a paradox in finding that as conditions improve in a society (as gauged by widespread values), popular satisfaction may nevertheless decline." (R K Merton, 1976)

(b) Fuzzily defined problems

Statements supposedly defining "world problems" may lack any precision permitting a specific problem to be identified. This is illustrated by the answer of Margaret Thatcher to a question to identify "the most pressing international problem". She responded: "The great unknown is whether Gorbachev's bold reforms of the Soviet system can be taken to completion. To us, this would mean a freer society with a proper rule of law and a genuine respect for human rights. Such a change would have an effect on so many other nations and on how people see socialism -- which is not about human beings at all. Socialism is about economic plans and people having to conform to them, not about government serving the fundamental dignity and freedom of the individual. The fact that we are even considering the possibility of such a change in the Soviet Union is an enormous step forward." (International Herald Tribune, April 1989).

(c) Problems as boundary phenomena

The domains, noted earlier, through which problems are disguised and evaded, each have problems of vital internal concern. The problems of interest in this section are, however, those which appear to have some existence "out beyond" the various conceptual frameworks which society has evolved to respond to unforeseen social change of an unexpected nature. Such problems overflow and are not contained by such frameworks.

Problems then indicate the presence of an "outside" with respect to society - uncontained processes. It is almost as though the layers of problems and matching procedures internal to organizations, disciplines, legal systems, politics, etc, constitute a distorting factor, hindering and even blocking the perception of a problem. Every attempt is made to perceive the problem within some familiar framework, if it is not possible to deny its existence altogether.

There is therefore a parallel within such different domains between the following statements about Problem "X", where "X":

Each sector experiences great difficulty and reluctance in grasping the problem as a negative condition in its own right. Each sector rapidly separates its attentions from the social and human impacts of the problem, reinterpreting it and transforming it. This reduces the significance of its particular content and diverts attention to the various formalistic features of the manner by which the original problem is contained and encapsulated. The problem is converted into: a story, an issue, a case, a programme focus, an agenda item, etc. This is accompanied by an effort to concentrate more upon what is being done to remedy the problem situation than to clarify the nature of that problem.

(c) Solutions as problems: Even the distinction between problems and solutions is blurred and confused. A supposedly less desirable state of affairs is conveniently called a problem situation and the more desirable situation is termed the solution situation. But as Bertram Gross (1971) notes: "..all solutions create problems. Adequate solutions lead to large problems. Good solutions create fantastic problems." He cites the consequences of successful agricultural development in developing countries. Frank Trippett (1972) notes: "The politician can appeal solely to the boundless and inextinguishable nostalgia of the human race. So he talks about "problems" for which he proposes "solutions"... But he does not solve these problems, simply because from the folkloric world he can scarcely see, let alone touch, the actual world. His is a phantom reality. The very things he calls problems are, in fact, solutions in the real world." He cites the unemployment problem as a conventional solution to economic problems, and the urban problem of overcrowding as a solution to the problems of housing increasing numbers of people.

Donald Schön (1976) notes, however, that there have been increasing difficulties with the "problem-solving" perspective and that a sense of inadequacy has begun to spread among practitioners of social policy and among the public at large. The social situations have turned out to be more complex than was supposed. According to Schön, it becomes increasingly doubtful in the case of social policy that we can make accurate temporal predictions or design models which converge upon a true description of reality. "Moreover, the unexpected problems created by our search for acceptable means to the ends we have chosen reveals...a stubborn conflict of ends traceable to the problem setting itself."

2. Problem definability

It can be easily assumed that what is meant by a "world problem" can be readily defined. Undoubtedly this is so in some cases and for some constituencies. The special challenge is to respond to the worldview of those labelling as a "problem" a perception which is totally without meaning in another framework. From this second framework, in turn, other sorts of "problem" may be perceived, possibly with quite different characteristics.

(a) Problems as undefinable phenomenon: Whilst it is possible to produce conceptually neat definitions of what constitutes a problem, it could be argued that in its most genuine sense a problem is essentially, and paradoxically, an undefinable phenomenon. Definitions can be projected onto the perceived phenomena. But what characterizes a problem is the inability to encapsulate it within an appropriate definition. This is not to deny that a definition cannot be provided for "poverty", for example. It is rather that, to the extent that the definition meets the formal requirements of a particular discipline or school of thought, the theoretical refinement required by any methodology (economics, for example) will effectively deprive it of the meanings it has to the poor who experience it existentially as a problem. In a sense a problem is that which does not lend itself to being encompassed conceptually. In effect it is an "anti-concept" network of such problems might even be viewed as an "anti-theory".

(b) Absence of accepted definition of a problem: Possibly for such reasons, there is no generally accepted definition of a "world problem" and there is considerable debate about the nature of a "social problem" (see below). No attempt is therefore made at a final definition of a world problem at this stage. The distinction between "world" problem (as "global" problems) and "world-wide" problems (as present in many countries, but without significant transboundary effects) is occasionally stressed. In this sense, world problems are those of the world as a whole, whereas world-wide problems are those of parts of the world or of particular groups around the world. Although there may be circumstances under which some such distinction is appropriate, the approach here is to establish the universe of problems - the problem context - within which users may determine those problems which merit identification as global as opposed to world-wide.

(c) Documenting perceptions of problems: In order to build up as comprehensive a data base as possible, the criteria for problem inclusion and exclusion were initially kept to a minimum. The emphasis during the selection procedure is not on whether adequate proof existed that a problem is a valid and significant one according to some objective standard. Rather, the emphasis is placed on including those "problems" which well-established constituencies indicate as significant in terms of their own frame of reference - even when the validity and existence of the problem is challenged by the perspective from some other frame of reference. The emphasis is thus on documenting what people believe to be factual, irrespective of whether that belief is challenged by others as being totally subjective and ill-founded. The problems documented are those which preoccupy people and move them to act, individually or collectively, whether or not such concerns are considered ridiculous from some other perspective. In effect, problems are sought which are identified as being of importance by some functionally significant collectivity that manifests itself in some way at the international level (whether as an organization or through self-selected groups of spokespersons).

(d) Problem existence engendered by belief systems: This open-ended approach permits the registration of all the problems perceived as real, whether or not, as Stafford Beer suggests, most of the problems with which society believes it is faced, are bogus problems generated by theories about social progress and the way society works. The existence of information questioning the validity of a perceived problem is treated as information about that problem. Each perceived problem is envisaged as having a certain probability of existence for some groups in society and is therefore treated like a proposition carrying annotations commenting on its validity - but it is included.

3. Some definitions

(a) Social problem: Sociologists usually consider a social problem to be an "alleged situation that is incompatible with the values of a significant number of people who agree that action is needed to alter the situation" (E Rubington et al. The Study of Social Problems, 1981). In this same study five more specific definitions are noted:

(b) Global problem: Tibor Asboth in a report for UNESCO defined a "global problem" as having the following attributes: long-term, persistent, pervasive, affecting many people, the "ownership" of the problem being difficult to establish, the characteristics of the "solution" being unknown, and with proposed solutions requiring new styles of cooperation for implementation (World Problems and their Perception, 1984).

(c) World-wide problem: A distinction is occasionally made between a global problem, affecting the world in its entirety, and a world-wide problem as existing in many countries but without special significance at the global level.

4. Use of pragmatic guidelines

The approach taken has been to avoid any well-formed definition. Instead a set of guidelines is used to include or exclude particular types of "problem" arising in different source materials. But the guidelines are treated as flexible and open to challenge as new information is received. Two basic techniques were used:

(a) Recognition in published documents: Problems registered had to be based on published documents. The documents preferred were those arising from the work of international organizations, which cover most matters which have emerged as being of more than national significance. However, use was also made of material from other publications. Individual responses to a questionnaire sent mainly to international organizations were used only as an indication of the existence of a problem for which published documents were required.

(b) Determination of cut-off points for exclusion of detail: Criteria were progressively elaborated to reduce the inclusion of very detailed problems which were nested within other problems. In other words, when a distinct hierarchy of problems was encountered (eg problems relating to commodities, or to the extinction of species) suitable cut-off points were selected within the hierarchy below which more detailed problems were not considered (eg a commodity class level within a classification of commodities).

This approach led to the elaboration of:

These are discussed in other Notes on Problem disguises and problem evasion and on Problem naming.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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