World Problems Project
Patterning problems: Concept refinement process
World Problems Project |
The above procedure was initiated in 1972 and has increasingly become
a purely "administrative" matter, especially since the proportion of new
problems or new classes of problems continues to diminish. The ongoing
concern is therefore much more with the conceptual processes whereby the
"problem" associated with any given number is clarified through the naming
(descriptor allocation) process. This may involve grouping different problems
under one number or splitting one problem into several different problems.
An important question is the clarification of relationships to more general
and to more specific problems.
There are two major constraints to be borne in mind in the following
(a) The logistical constraint of ensuring that any changes, whether
inspired by information gathered or by the concept refinement process,
should not jeopardize maintenance of documentary control over the range
of problems at this stage of the programme. This especially governs decisions
on the degree of specificity explicitly permissable within any group of
problems -- namely to what level of detail are numbers to be allocated
to problems. In other words, the need for appropriate cut-off points.
(b) The information gathered also imposes constraints on what degree
of "concept refinement" is appropriate without distortion. This is a major
issue given the differences in quality of information and the differences
in interpretation of "facts" in different documents, even those supposedly
of equivalent quality. It is especially difficult when the original information
is vague and defines the problem using a loose terminology or when the
terminology used is precise but applies to a more general or a more specific
problem. It is obviously also difficult in the absence of adequate information
on a problem whose existence is only suggested by the pattern of information
in the database.
In both cases the decision is ultimately a matter of editorial judgement,
relying on a multiplicity of documents to suggest the most appropriate
compromise until further information becomes available.
An overview of the concept refinement processes is presented in Figures
1 and 2 in the previous note. It is important to understand that many of
these processes occur in parallel or are undertaken simultaneously by editors
working on the network of problems from different computer workstations.
Some are discussed below.
1. Problem identification
Once the bulk of the material has been filed by problem (as described
above), the filed documents are then individually re-examined to locate
descriptions of other problems which are then transferred to appropriate
existing files or made the subject of new files. This is an integral part
of the process of identifying relationships between problems. Scanning
the material brings out possible variants on the name of the problem, which
have to be distinguished from names which are more appropriately associated
with other problems (which may need to be entered into the database). Variant
names, even colloquialisms, may be vital as providing alternative means
for locating the problem through the index. Also to be distinguished are
various kinds of non-problem, according to the criteria guidelines, which
appear in the documentation as problems or are identified by problem names.
Such poorly-formed problems are coded as low-priority items in the database,
not to be included in the published volume unless there is later reason
to change their status.
2. Problem clustering
Because of the fuzziness of problem names, some of which take the form
of phrases of some length, detection of duplicates is a major concern.
The challenge is that similar names may have been associated with significantly
different problem descriptions. The question then becomes whether to merge
the two problems or to associate both names with one description and rename
the other problem to distinguish it appropriately. Another challenge is
the question of whether variants or aspects of a root problem should be
distinguished as separate problems or merely as alternative names of that
root problem. Here the decision may be strongly influenced by the amount
of material available on a "variant", suggesting that it merits separate
treatment. This tendency may be restrained to some degree by the process
of systematization discussed below.
3. Problem (re-)naming
A high proportion of the documentation on problems makes use of loose
terminology, especially in the case of the less tangible problems. Problems
are often identified by positive terms more closely associated with the
values attached to their solution. Implicit anthropocentric qualifiers
may be omitted. An effort is therefore made to sharpen the negative aspects
of the name to give greater focus to it. Clearer descriptor phrases may
be discovered in the literature. Colloquial descriptors are added when
they facilitate access to the problem. Different names may have been engendered
by the need for politically correct euphemisms, eg "unethical" instead
of "corrupt"; "unsalubrious" instead of "dirty". The ability to add alternative
names is also used as a way of grouping into one problem the names of problem
variants when it does not (yet) seem appropriate to treat these as separate
problems, although it is useful to maintain an index trace on them. The
significance of a collection of names attached to a problem thus varies
depending on whether it can be considered well-defined or simply as a loose
cluster of concerns around an ill-defined "proto-problem".
4. Adequacy of problem names
In the case of complex problems, the varying adequacy of sets of problem
names may be illustrated by Figure 3 (below). There the problem to which
reference is being made, to which the number refers, and which the descriptive
text is intended to encompass, is indicated by a circle. The names associated
with that problem are indicated by the lines, each line representing one
Fig. 3A: In this ideal case in which the set of problem names
encompasses and contains the content, although each name is in itself inadequate.
Fig. 3B: In this case the content implied is larger than that
effectively encompassed by the set of names. The set does however share
a common centre of reference with the content.
Fig. 3C: In this case the set of names implies more than the
content. The problem is of lesser scope than the set of names implies.
The names and content still share a common centre however.
Fig. 3D: In this development of the ideal case (Fig. 3A), implications
of two of the names, combined with a third, serve to delineate an additional
problem, distinct from the main problem. This suggests the need to split
off the subsidiary problem, removing from the main problem the name which
contributes to its enclosure.
Fig. 3E: In this case the set of names no longer shares a common
centre with the content, and as such is no longer adequate. There are aspects
of the problem which are not captured by the names, and the names imply
a problem which does not exist.
Fig. 3F: In this case the set of names is inadequate to the content,
even less so than in the case of Fig. 3B.
Using the convention of Figure 3, other cases could be indicated, notably:
• Case of a circle without lines, which would indicate a problem for
which no names had been found (a "nameless problem").
• Case of set of names without a circle, which would indicate names
referring to a non-existent problem ("problem-less names");
Other possibilities include cases of single or parallel lines in various
positions in relation to a circle. Of special interest is a line which
extends much beyond the circle which it intersects.
Figure 3. Illustration of varying adequacy of sets of problem
names (lines) in relation to substantive content (circles)
This approach provides an interesting way of exploring patterns of
problems denoted by circles of different sizes, which may or may not overlap.
Lines may intersect or be tangential to different circles, the whole forming
a partially ordered pattern. Where several lines enclose an area, there
is the possibility that a circle may be detectable.
There may be a case for using computer graphics to explore such patterning,
with the object of determining whether there are ways of massaging the
relationship between names and content into more ordered patterns. Of even
more interest is the possibility of using a three-dimensional representation
to extend the power of the geometric metaphor.
The geometrical convention may also be used to explore the ways in which
underlying problems are conceptually contained. It provides a visual illustration
of how problems may escape containment. As such it might be used as a way
of mapping "problem-space" and the conceptual response to it.
5. Responding appropriately to source material
Much material available on problems makes what can easily be treated
as exaggerated claims for particular problems whilst disparaging others.
A careful balance must therefore be sought between sensitivity to unusual
(even seemingly ridiculous) problems and detachment from the seemingly
evident importance of currently fashionable problems (however eminent the
legitimating authorities). This calls for openness to unforeseen perspectives
and reservations concerning institutional and ideological hyperbole. Given
the disproportionate amount of information on fashionable problems, this
balance must be sought so as to give useful amounts of information on problems
which may be of quite different significance.
6. Elaboration of logical context
Few, if any, problems exist in isolation. Many problems are defined
as much by the context of other perceived problems as by any particular
textual description that can be given to them. Most problems can be considered
as "part of" some broader problem. Many problems therefore group together
more specific problems. These relationships form problem hierarchies. Because
of the variety of ways in which problems can be so grouped, any one problem
may be part of several different broader problems. Effort must therefore
be made to position a given problem within a context of broader problems,
if necessary using it to group more specific problems. The problem needs
to be named so as to distinguish it effectively from both the broader and
the narrower problems. The process of "tidying up" such relationships is
a continuing one, which may be dependent on the availability of some new
document clarifying the pattern. Difficulties may be created because of
conflicting perspectives in the literature on how certain problems should
be grouped. At any particular point in time, there is always more that
could be done which would take more time than resources permit. Some hierarchies
must necessarily be left in a crude state. The logical framework around
any problem may be more or less subject to further change.
7. Problem classification and section attribution
Because of the potential complexity of a problem's logical context,
any effort to classify problems neatly by subject according to conventional
principles has been resisted. An alternative approach has been developed
which is used annually to group problems and organizations in Volume 3
of the Yearbook of International
Organizations in a pattern of some 3,000 categories. In large part
this classification is done automatically on the basis of descriptors in
the problem title and constitutes one of the online editorial tools for
exploring the database. The process of editing was further facilitated
by attributing a section code to each problem. This is a pragmatic effort
to group problems so as to distinguish those which tend to be higher in
any logical hierarchy from those lower in the hierarchy (using the letter
codes A through E). Other codes, notably F, are used for exceptional cases.
During the editorial process the code attributed to a problem may be modified
to position it more usefully within this pragmatic system, as well as to
give it a lower editorial priority. (The significance of these codes is
explained in more detail in the following note on Classification and
8. Identification of functional relationships
Just as few problems exist in logical isolation, so few are independent
of each other. Most problems aggravate some others directly, and in their
turn are aggravated by others. Some problems reduce others, or are reduced
This information may be present in the material collected on one problem
thus enabling the relationship to be inserted. It may, however, only be
present in the affected problem, so that the relationship gets automatically
inserted in the former (given the relational nature of the database), even
when there is no confirming documentation there.
Just as with the logical relationships, the documentation may suggest
functional links to other problems at a level which is too general or too
specific because the database structure is already more finely articulated.
Again it is a matter of editorial judgement how this is to be handled.
No relationships may be indicated in the documentation, in which case it
may be appropriate to insert those that are obvious. In many cases, the
insertion of obvious functional links is more appropriate than the use
of "see also references" (which is effectively the significance of the
"Related problems" relationship).
A major difficulty in inserting functional relationships is that of
ensuring that they are made between the appropriate levels of problem hierarchies.
Thus it is not useful to show all the narrower problems of Problem A as
being aggravated by Problem B, when it suffices to show Problem A as being
aggravated by B.
Whereas in some cases the logical and functional relationships between
problems are reasonably clear and distinct, in others this is far less
so. Problem A may both aggravate B and be aggravated by it. It may be far
from clear of what problem Problem A is a part. These difficulties emerge
particularly in the case of problems allocated to Section PF, and may be
one reason why they are so allocated.
9. Confrontation with new documents
Since so many problems and relationships are now present in the database,
an important process is that of challenging the existing database with
new problem-focused material. Each such document may raise questions as
to whether it:
• can be directly associated with an existing problem number and its
set of descriptors;
10. Systematization of problems
• necessitates additions to the descriptors, namely does it suggest
additional alternative names for the problem, or a correction to the existing
name, or revision of the names attached to a whole set of problems;
• calls for the creation of a more general or a more specific problem,
possibly requiring that some existing problem should have its scope and
descriptors modified to make it more general or more specific;
• implies the existence of a whole new category of problems previously
unrepresented in the database.
Although the prime emphasis is on registering those problems detected
in available documentation, as these build up in the database certain patterns
are suggested. The extent to which this patterning can be allowed to influence
the inclusion or exclusion of problems is discussed in later notes.
The question is then to what extent the problem names should be rationalized.
Again these are matters for editorial judgement, where the editorial resources
are available. Some tentative steps have been taken towards such rationalization,
but much more is called for as the opportunities become clearer. This process
is important in preparing sets of problems to be checked from a particular
perspective by external authorities.
11. Systematization of problem relationships
As noted above, when entering problem relationships into the database
it is quite difficult to avoid redundancy. Computer programmes can be used
to highlight certain redundancies, and even to eliminate some of them.
But it is a matter of judgement as to how far this process can be allowed
to go. For example, if 75 per cent of the narrower problems of Problem
A are aggravated by Problem B, can these explicit relationships be replaced
by a single relationship between A and B ? But what if the percentage indicating
such aggravation is only 50 or 25 ?
12. "Massaging" the database
The point to be made is that editors are attempting to identify a pattern
of significance in relation to each problem number, but the question always
remains as to whether that pattern is stable and well-formed or whether
some portion of that significance should not be moved to a distinct number.
This depends not only on editorial judgement but on whether some constituency
believes that a problem is distinct from the problem where it would otherwise
It should be stressed again that the database is designed to reflect
not "facts" but perceptions of facts, however questionable they may appear
in the eyes of others. The editors do not attempt to determine what is
the most "authoritative" view, but rather what views are representative
of significant constituencies (which normally would include those that
are widely considered as authoritative). Decisions as to what are representative
views, even if conflicting, are assisted by the international context within
which the information is obtained.
13. Constraining the anticipatory function
In the light of the above points and the discussion of patterning in
the following notes), to what extent should the database perform an anticipatory
function? It is clear that seemingly credible problem names can easily
be "generated" by appropriate combinations of descriptors from descriptor
sets (in a manner reminiscent of Ramon Llull's category generator).
The availability of such descriptor sets encourages the recognition
by the international community of problems which may or may not exist.
Just as there are "letterhead organizations", there may be descriptor-generated
problems (for which project funding may even by sought). Such problems
may emerge into the literature as a result of efforts by delegations or
the media to appear innovative. Given the institutional resistance to the
recognition of new problems however, systematic explorations of such a
procedure suggests an approach to identifying potential problems rather
than allowing them only to be registered in a haphazard manner as information
is found on them.
Perhaps category generators could usefully be developed to draw attention
to categories of problem which may be neglected in conventional decision-making.
In this project the procedure has only been systematically adopted in the
case of economic sectors and endangered species. It is as a means of ordering
problems at different levels of specificity, particularly in order to avoid
isolated excessively-publicised entries (eg endangered panda, or
endangered monkey-eating eagle) where more general entries would be more
appropriate (eg endangered bears, or endangered birds of prey, respectively).
The question remains, however, as to whether the distinctions between
problems, generated using different verbal "operators", correspond to valuable
nuances with which people identify, or whether such distinctions are purely
contrived in order to arouse emotive effects through their novelty.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential