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Patterning problems: Language games

World Problems Project

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This project is in many ways an exploration of the use of language and the effects of its use on the distinctions which are accepted in international discourse. The question is to what extent use of legitimate-sounding problem names in practice signals the distinct existence of the named problems. Furthermore, to what extent problems can be effectively named without their having meaningful existence. This project is on the receiving end of documents naming problems. The names attributed may be intended to signal the existence of new problems. But the names used may effectively imply the existence of other problems to which analogous names have not yet been attributed (possibly because the relevant documents have not been received). These questions constitute a real challenge in any attempt to impose a greater degree of order on the rich use of language to evoke a response to concrete problems.

1. Emerging distinctions

In a project which is designed to be responsive to the problem perceptions of different constituencies and to the distinctions that they choose to make, the words used to denote problems acquire a special importance. In an international context, in which many problems have been identified, such constituencies may carefully choose an unusual combination of words to give greater precision to a problem, or problem variant, which they perceive others to have neglected when it has been associated with some better known problem. In order to sharpen perceptions new variant names may be formulated, especially (and most creatively) by journalists. The question then becomes when is the word combination to be considered as naming a new and distinct problem and when is it to be considered as a valuable synonym for an existing problem name.

The practice with newly-coined terms or euphemisms of popular currency is to add them as alternative titles to a problem, eg "white-collar crime" is also termed a "judgemental lapse" or "commercially inappropriate behaviour".

2. Artificial distinctions

Journalists provide a good example, since good journalism is in the business of reporting emergent issues and of naming them in a meaningful way. On the other hand journalists are under pressure to make recurring topics interesting by providing a new slant or angle. But the same may be said of politicians who are also in the business of naming problems which they believe may arouse the interest of their constituencies. A seemingly "new" problem may thus emerge into the literature purely because of skills with language and not because a real distinction has been made from some existing problem in the same domain.

3. Completing problem sets

A related concern results from any recognition of a problem series or set. If a set of problems has been recognized, such as: medical malpractice, legal malpractice, insurance malpractice, etc. These may be grouped under a broader problem such as professional malpractice (thus naming the set). It may become apparent that there is no problem on malpractice in some other domain such as "architectural malpractice" , raising the question of whether it should be included in this set in the absence of information indicating that the problem "exists". A search of the database may reveal that such material has accumulated under "irresponsibility", "unethical practices" or "negligence" in that domain. This may lead to redistributing material on all problems using those qualifiers for every domain. Such techniques compensate for the logistical difficulties in gathering and processing information for individual problems. There may indeed be information on architectural malpractice, but it may be quite impractical to allocate resources to obtaining it.

4. Naming an unnamed problem set

A similar concern results from the editorial recognition of a set of problems in the absence of any information on the broader problem implied by the existence of the elements of the set. Thus in the example above, if information was available on the disciplinary problems in the set but not on "professional malpractice" broadly, is it appropriate to create the latter problem in order to group the others ? This raises the very interesting question as to whether an unnamed set of problems constitutes a new problem in its own right, and the further question of the status of the set of sets of problems. The unnamed set may indeed be a meaningful problem even though at that level of generality it may not be currently recognized. It may be more appropriate to point functional cross-references to such a broader problem rather than to duplicate such references to a number of its sub-problems.

5. Problem generation using sets of categories

By taking a set of subject categories or even some set of problems, quite legitimate-seeming problem names can be "generated". Using the above example, "malpractice" could be combined with the complete set of professions (such as engineering, surveying, etc). In the case of "corruption" as a problem, how many narrower problems is it useful to open up if only information on "political corruption" is readily available ? Is it appropriate to combine "corruption" with the names of the major classes of activities: science, religion, culture, education, military, etc ? In such cases it is extremely unlikely that the combination is meaningless, and quite probable that such problems do "exist".

6. Problem generation using regional and group qualifiers

The previous point illustrates the possibility of identifying more specific problems by the addition of qualifiers:

7. Problem generation using negative "operators"

The editorial process of ensuring that a problem has an appropriately negative name leads to the accumulation in the database of problem names with a fairly limited set of negative qualifiers. These are used in the literature to denote problems when applied to members of the set of subject categories. For example:

These "negative operators" can also be used to generate problems. It may be that use of negative prefixes on positive values may disguise a fear of direct use of a negative. Some related issues are explored in the discussion of the link between such negative values and problems (see discussion in Section VZ). Care must be taken to avoid an accumulation of distinct problems in the same domain using negative qualifiers which are to varying degrees synonymous. This increases pressure for a more systematic approach.

8. "Nameless problems" versus "Problem-less names"

Whether in tidying up the database or in opening it to new problems suggested by the pattern of existing problems, there is clearly a fundamental issue which needs to be further explored as the database is developed. The techniques described above provide a way of broadening the scope of the database and introducing levels of order where sets of problems can be recognized. Given the desire to orient users to potential problems, "opening up" problems, in order to complete a set, increases sensitivity to information which can be usefully collected under the number prior to any editorial description of the problem. But these techniques can only be used with considerable caution. Sensitivity is indeed required to the existence of "nameless problems" implied by the relational context in the database. Providing such problems with a name so that they can be used to group already named problems introduces order into the database. It can create a focus for real problems on which information is scarce to non-existent. At the same time care has to be taken to guard against the creation of "problem-less names" and against shifting the centre of gravity of the project towards what amounts to language and word games.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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