Ordering the Undefinable
Identifying meaningful patterns of 'world problems'
- / -
Paper prepared for a special issue of Multilingua
This paper describes the approach currently being used to organize material
for the third edition of the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential (UIA, 1976; UIA, 1986; UIA, 1990).
This is a long-term programme of the Union of International Associations (Brussels)
benefitting from the database maintained for the annual publication of its
Organizations (UIA, 1989a; UIA, 1989b; UIA, 1989c).
The approach is guided by consideration described in a number of earlier
papers (Judge, 1984, 1985, 1986) which appear in the explanatory material
of the Encyclopedia in modified form.
The focus here is on the interrelationship between the conceptual, organizational
and logistical issues of gathering and ordering information on large numbers
of non-conventional, fuzzily defined, conceptual entities where comprehensiveness
of coverage is desirable.
The Encyclopedia, and the associated database, consists of two main parts:
World Problems: This currently
contains records on over 12,500 'world problems', linked by
some 60,000 relationships. Approximately half of the problem records contain
descriptive information covering the nature and incidence of the problem,
possibly with special claims or counter-claims by those involved in the
debate about the issue and its existence.
Human Potential: This part
is composed of a series of smaller sections which are similar in organization
to that on world problems but focus on: human development concepts (including
modes of awreness), human values, interdisciplinary concepts, metaphors,
The following discussion will only
focus on the first part, although the principles apply to both.
The special challenge of collection
of information on world problems lies in the following:
what is to be considered a 'world
problem', namely how should competing definitions and claims as to
what is, or is not, a world problem be handled?
extending coverage, beyond the
fashionable and administratively convenient short-lists of the 5 to 10
major problems (considered worthy of consideration at the policy level
by international institutions), to encompass the wider set of those identified
by other bodies
organizing the material in such
a way as to remain comprehensive and open to further extension of the
data set into specificity, whilst at the same time allowing suitable cut-off
points to avoid being swamped by the amount of material (where resources
do not permit it to be appropriately processed at the present time)
ensuring coverage from a wide range
of sources of sufficiently diverse disciplinary, ideological and cultural
processing specialized materials
using editorial resources which do not necessarily correspond to those
of the specialized material covered
Any publication which aims to be encyclopedic
is faced with a number of these challenges. The additional difficulty in
this case arises from endeavouring to interlink highly disparate conceptual
entities by a network of cross-references of two kinds:
broader/narrower: as is usual in a structured thesaurus,
except that here specific items are allowed to point to more than one
functional: in that an effort is made to reflect the
ways in which one problem either aggravates or alleviates another
In contrast to many other encyclopedic works, the emphasis is as much on
the interrelationships between the conceptual entities as on the entities
The flood of documents produced by international organizations contains a
very large number of facts, preoccupations, statements of belief, programme
proposals and criticisms of other initiatives. Faced with this flood, most
bodies survive by ignoring all but a small fraction of it. They endeavour
to carve out a small niche, cultivating a support network of similarly minded
bodies and formulating the most powerful strategy possible for them in order
to act on the problems they perceive. This includes undermining the initatives
of those whom they perceive to be causing or sustaining such problems.
Many coalitions of organizations have 'answers' to the current
crisis, however they choose to perceive it. The proponents of each such
answer naturally attach special importance to their own as being of crucial
relevance at this time, whether in the short-term or for tactical reasons,
or in the long-term as being the only appropriate basis for a viable world
society in the future. However this widespread focus on 'answer production',
a vital moving force in society, obscures both the significance of the lack
of fruitful integration between existing answers and the manner in which such
answers undermine each other's significance. The mind-set also fails to
recognize the positive significance of the continuing disruptive emergence
of new 'alternative' answers.
Amongst this multitude of answers, explanations put forward as objective,
rational and factually-based by scientific and government authorities are
increasingly questionable because of peer group, political, security, religious
and commercial pressures guiding evaluation and reporting. The many exercises
in producing global strategies based on an overview of extensive ranges
of problems are themselves far from free from such influences. They tend
to appear successful when they succeed in reducing the complexity of the
problematique. There is considerable confusion about the nature of integration
whether amongst the disciplines or especially in relation to policy initiatives.
The communication space of the international community is thus characterized
by claims and counter-claims attesting to or denying the importance of particular
problems, or questioning the manner in which they are defined. The challenge
is to determine what new kind of information tool could usefully reflect
this communication condition, offering integrative insights, but without
simply adding to the existing confusion. Adding to this challenge is the
fact that any such attempt is in many respects totally presumptuous -- particularly
when undertaken with limited resources.
'World problems' and their 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 which other sorts of 'problem' are perceived
having quite different characteristics.
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 (UIA, 1986, Section XP). But the guidelines
are treated as flexible and open to challenge as new information is received.
The main focus is on registering problems as perceived within different
constituencies, whatever their biases. The concern is not whether what is
perceived can be judged as factual by some suitably objective standards.
Rather the emphasis is 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 intent is to document the problems which
preoccupy people and move them to act collectively, whether or not such
concerns are considered as ridiculous from some other perspective.
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 phenomena. 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'.
A striking difficulty in gathering information on problems is the variety
of ways in which recognition of problems is avoided:
(a) Positive bias: Some inviduals and groups consider
that it is unhelpful to devote any time to recognizing problems. All effort
should be devoted to 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
(b) Solution bias: Related to the previous group,
are those who 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.
(c) Theory bias: 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.
(d) Agenda governed meetings: The normal proceedings
of international meetings are usually highly structured by agenda item.
If societal problems are to be discussed they are redefined as agenda items.
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
only distinguished with difficulty from routine administrative matters in
the proceedings. This is especially so when the main function of the assembly
is to review the work of other bodies which implement its directives.
(e) Political arena and government: 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 issues when they excite a significantly
powerful pressure group. The extent to which problems become issues, or
get lost in limbo, is to a large extent fortuitous. Many issues are deliberately
projected as problems when they might more usefully be considered as pseudo-problems,
which may nevertheless be sufficiently magnetic to attract short-term electoral
(f) Media: 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.
(g) Legislation: Legislation is concerned to proscribe
certain activities 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. Those of
special interest are the ones that escape these regulative constraints to
a significant degree - beyond the threshold level up to which the legislation
may be considered adequate.
Modes of problem perception
It is useful to attempt to identify alternative ways in which problems can
be perceived, as a means of increasing understanding of the constraints
on providing any satisfactory definition. This will also make evident the
difficulty of attracting any consensus on the global problematique. Whilst
it is possible to discuss these perceptual modes as models, a broader and
more insightful discussion results from treating such models as part of
a set of metaphors. The following are therefore discussed as metaphors of
(a) Ordered array: Problems can be viewed as constituting
an ordered array, like atoms in a complex molecule, or like an opposing
array of military units. This view would tend to be favoured by those who
are used to defining their environment in terms which favour management
and control, whatever the degree of simplification necessary. To deal with
obstacles they must be named and placed, preferably so that the hierarchies
of importance are evident.
(b) Disorder and chaos: Problems can be viewed as
synonymous with chaos and disorder. This view would tend to be favoured
by those who have lost control over their environment, or realize that they
are subject to more forces than they originally assumed. Problems are then
too confusing to present any stable or orderly features.
(c) Static structure: Problems can be viewed as forming
a static, semi-permanent configuration of elements. This view would tend
to be favoured by government agencies mandated to respond to particular
problems over an extended period of time. The view is reinforced by legislation
and regulatory procedures. The problems are seen to be unchanging or to
change quite slowly.
(d) Dynamic structure: Problems can be viewed as
constituting a dynamic, in which the problems arise in the dynamic relations
between non-problematic, static elements. As such the problems cannot be
readily located and named. They only exist as dynamic relationships changing
continuously. This view would tend to be favoured by those whose survival
depends on very short-term considerations, such as in politics, public relations
and certain forms of commercial trading.
(e) Continuous phenomena: Problems can be viewed
as forming a continuous, possibly 'seamless', field of tensions.
This view might be held by those favouring single-factor explanations in
terms of pervasive conspiracy, subversion or forces of evil. It would also
be held by those favouring field theories in which problems might emerge
as interference effects.
(f) Discrete phenomena: Problems can be viewed as
distinct phenomena with some form of boundaries separating them. This view
would tend to be favoured by those who need to distinguish or allocate mandates,
and divisions of responsibility, as well as by those in bureaucracies that
resist any attempt to establish any continuity between the problem they
are concerned with and those of other departments or agencies.
(g) Sharply defined phenomena: Problems can be viewed
as being directly experiencable. This view would tend to be favoured by
those concerned with the concrete reality of such problems as destitution,
torture and disease. For them, any other kinds of problem are unreal abstractions
of no significance, other than as distractions from the concrete reality
of human suffering.
(h) Implicitly defined phenomena: Problems can
be viewed as implying levels of significance greater than that immediately
present. This view would tend to be favoured by those who detect more fundamental
problems in conditions which may not themselves be experienced as problematic.
This might include the catastrophic long-term implications of seemingly
(i) Inherently comprehensible phenomena: Problems
can be viewed as comprehensible in terms of existing paradigms or through
their natural evolution. This view would tend to be favoured by pragmatists
and those with a scientific orientation for whom a satisfactory explanation
in terms of known factors must eventually be possible.
(j) Inherently incomprehensible phenomena: Problems
can be viewed as calling for explanation in terms of other frames of reference,
which may not necessarily be accessible to man. This view would tend to
be favoured by certain religious groups and in cultures sympathetic to belief
in other levels of being or realms of existence.
(k) Spontaneous phenomena: Problems can be viewed
as totally spontaneous events, happenings or catastrophes unconnected to
each other. This view would tend to be favoured by those who perceive chance
and accident to be prime explanatory factors, as in the insurance industry,
or important to the way they work, as with the media. It is also natural
to those in the political arena for whom events may be of more significance
than the multitude of interpretations placed upon them.
(l) Phenomena in a context of due process: Problems
can be viewed as subject to known laws as a part of definable processes.
This view would tend to be favoured by those endeavouring to model such
processes as in econometrics and related disciplines.
Clearly these different views are not mutually exclusive and overlap in
complex ways in the case of any group or discipline. The 14 views have in
fact been elaborated on the basis of work by W T Jones (Jones, 1961), who
developed 7 axes of bias by which many academic debates could be characterized.
The 14 views above form 7 pairs of extremes corresponding to the extreme
positions on such axes. Jones showed how any individual had a profile of
pre-logical preferences based on the degree of inclination towards one or
other extreme of each pair.
It would be useful to explore cultural differences in the perception of
problems as suggested elsewhere, especially by the work of Geert Hofstede
(a) Information collection
The Union of International Associations is fortunate in having established
a pattern of information exchange with many of the 20,000 international
organizations described in its Yearbook of International Organizations
(UIA, 1989a). The material received regularly is supplemented as a result
of periodically mailed requests. Special efforts are made to obtain access
to the extensive documentation of the United Nations Specialized Agencies
and other major intergovernmental organizations, such as OECD, the Council
of Europe and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Other sources used include:
Library research, notably at the UN Library (Geneva)
Selected international periodicals
Special requests to key resource people in a variety of fields
Coverage is extended by scanning sources such as the following:
Books in Print (USA, UK, International)
Encyclopedias and major reference books
Reference books on market research preoccupations
Control is maintained by allocating
an arbitrary number to each 'problem' as it is encountered, associating
one or more problem 'names' (incorporating useful descriptors)
to the number in the database, and indexing the result so that it is accessible
through any of the descriptors. Any material collected on that problem is
channelled into individual physical files bearing the corresponding number.
Whilst many techniques are used to
collect information from a wide variety of sources, it would be totally
inappropriate to imply that this procedure is capable of gathering all the
'available' relevant information. Neither time, financial resources,
nor personnel make this feasible, even if the information is not subject
to restricted access or stringent copyright protection. For example, resources
are not available for on-line searches of external databases. What is achieved
is achieved within quite definite constraints. In a specific instance a
book may be available on a problem in a distant library or for a certain
price. The cost of obtaining access to this information, which may be the
latest and best, may be too great. Qualitatively inferior information may
have to be used. This of course corresponds to the real world situation.
The art is to compensate for such inadequacies by presenting information
so that users are oriented toward the more appropriate source, even if not
precisely to it.
(b) Conceptual processing
Since the above procedure was initiated
in 1972 and has become increasingly an 'administrative' matter,
the ongoing concern is 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.
An overview of the conceptual processes
is presented in Tables 1 and 2. Clearly a major constraint on the purely
conceptual concern is the logistical concern with how to maintain documentary
control over the range of problems. 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.
Place Tables 1 and 2 about here
The use of arbitrary numbers as filing points has a number of advantages:
simplification of administrative
operations, movement of documents between files, etc
simplification of computer database operations
separation of administrative concerns from conceptual
concerns about the scope of the problem denoted by that number
This last point is of considerable
importance in an evolving system. As indicated by the sequence of points
in Table 1, information accumulates around a filing number which may have
a variety of words associated with it as partial, or even tentative, descriptors.
When a problem file number is first 'opened' as a 'new'
problem, the information associated with it and the descriptors used may
be quite tentative, especially in the case of complex problems. Thus whilst
some problems can be clearly labelled with unambiguos descriptors (e.g.
malaria, loneliness), others may eventually have a string of synonymous
descriptors associated with them. In the most complex cases, requiring a
string of descriptors, several variants of such strings, with different
combinations of synonyms, may become associated with the file number. For
example: (a) 'Inadequate welfare services for the aged' and 'Denial
of right to welfare services of the aged'
(b) 'Limited acceptance of human rights tracties', 'Non-satification
of human rights tracties', 'Failure of governments to implement
provisions of ratified human right agreements'.
Part of the challenge of the approach
is that with each new document purporting to identify a problem, the adequacy
of the database as a whole is challenged. Each such document may raise questions
as to whether it:
can be directly associated with
an existing number and its set of descriptors
necessitates additions to the descriptors,
namely does it suggest additional alternative names for the problem, or
a correction to the existing name
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
Place Table 3 about here
The point to be made is that editors
are attempting to identify a pattern of significance in relation to each
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 be filed. 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.
(c) Problem description
Problem descriptions are based on
the information which accumulates in the physical file bearing the same
number as the problem in the database. Editorial work on the descriptions
usually takes place after extensive work on the relations between the problems
in that domain. This means that when an editor examines the file and compares
the contents with the computer record, it becomes apparent whether items
in the file need to be physically moved to other locations because they
are more appropriate there, or whether photocopies of certain items need
to be made and transferred because they contain information relevant in
The editorial intent is not to provide
a final 'definition' of the problem but to indicate its 'nature',
to clarify the preoccupations of the constituency concerned by the problem.
The process resembles the procedures of a lawyer preparing a brief to present
his clients' case in the light most favourable to that client. The actual
text may therefore be either very precise, amounting to a definition, or
very loose, depending on the kind of problem. The text may be revised on
a number of occasions. Paragraphs may be moved into the description from
other problems as a result of the processes described above.
The quality of the description depends
above all on the availability of appropriate texts and the copyright constraints
surrounding them. One of the great merits of working with the documents
of international organizations is that much of their material is either
in the public domain or they welcome any use of it. Material prepared on
problems by international organizations has the additional merit that it
has already had national and cultural biases removed or at least attenuated.
This is of considerable importance because of a major resource constraint,
namely the question of language. Although the Union of International Associations
receives information in a variety of international languages, its publications
are normally in English only. And in the case of the Encyclopedia, non-English
material is rarely used in order to avoid translation costs. This inherent
bias is partially corrected by the use of international organization material
which is designed for publication in several languages and may indeed have
been translated into English from one of those languages.
In addition to the 'nature'
of the problem, other possible headings under which descriptive information
may be provided include: background, incidence, claim, counter-claim. Background
is used when some historical context is required for an understanding of
the problem. Incidence is used if there is some statistical or other information
indicative of the dimensions of the problem. Claim is used to present examples
of strong statements from bodies advocating priority attention to the problem,
especially when the statements succinctly dramatize the overriding importance
of the problem. Counter-claim is used for examples of statements from bodies
who consider the problem non-existent, totally mis-represented, or who deny
its importance as a problem and may even consider the 'problem'
to be a solution.
The use of claim and counter-claim
provides, when the information is available, a means of reflecting more
explictly the dynamics within the international community between advocates
and detractors of particular problem conceptions. The existence of such
dynamics is of course implicit in the juxtaposition of problems which may
easily be seen to be mutually exclusive.
(d) Problem classification
The approach to problem classification
is treated quite separately from the administrative question of providing
a filing point for information (whether physically or electronically). In
the first edition (UIA, 1976), problems were quite deliberately not classified
in any way -- other than under the arbitrary filing number. The principal
reason for this approach is that it was considered desirable to separate
the logistical issues of managing the information from the highly controversial
issues of how problems should be grouped. As has been argued elsewhere (Judge,
1981), classification is a highly political act - especially, when dealing
with 'world problems'.
With the development of the Yearbook
of International Organizations into a 3-volume publication in 1983,
the third volume (UIA, 1989c) entitled Global Action
directory by subject and region) was used to group together by subject both
international organizations described in the first volume and the world
problems from the 1976 Encyclopedia.
In a research oriented system it has
been considered desirable to create an information processing context in
which the manner in which the problems were grouped could be continually
reviewed. This is the approach taken with successive annual editions of
Global Action Networks. For each edition efforts are made to fine-tune
the thesaurus structure currently numbering some 3,000 categories. New categories
are added and the attribution of organizations and problems to categories
and category combinations is modified. The current edition incorporates
items from the second edition of the Encyclopedia (UIA, 1986b), including
world problems, strategies and human values.
The system of classification was developed
after examining the possibility of using other international systems (UIA,
1989c, Appendix). It was partly inspired by the system developed by Ingetraut
Dahlberg (Dahlberg, 1982) and partly by structural features of the periodic
table of chemical elements (van Spronsen, 1969). It was deliberately designed
to highlight integrative or interdisciplinary relations between categories.
The thesaurus is continually redesigned as a system of categories which
should in some measure reflect the systemic relation between the preoccupations
of international organizations.
A computer programme is used to reallocate
problems to categories whenever a significant number of thesaurus modifications
have been made. This is usually done annually. Interim changes are however
relatively easily made. During the editorial process, any change made to
indexed names results in the problem being reindexed and allocated to any
relevant categories associated with the new words indexed. At any time therefore
problems can be accessed via word, via specific subject category, via subject
group, or via various Boolean combinations of these elements.
In addition to this detailed classification,
the third edition (UIA, 1990) of the Encyclopedia will be presented with
the problems divided into major groups denoted by the letters A through
G. This is a techniques used in the Yearbook of International
to distinguish between degrees of internationality, in which G denotes 'national
organizations with international activities'. In the case of the world
problems, G denotes very specific problems (e.g. spinal bifida) in contrast
with B denoting major problems or problem categories (e.g. war, environmental
degradation) typical of many international agendas. Category A is used for
those more ubiquitous and fundamental problems which are not considered
sufficiently tangible to appear on the agendas of international organizations
but nevertheless figure in many international reports and documents (e.g.
apathy, corruption, greed, etc). Within these categories A through G, problems
are filed by their arbitrary number as in the Yearbook
of International Organizations. Part of the editorial process, from edition to edition
involves decisions on the appropriateness of any reassignment between the
A through G categories.
(e) Problem interrelationships
As indicated above, two main groups
of cross-references are provided between problems. These are the conventional
broader/narrower group and a group of 'functional' cross-references.
In the case of the broader/narrower
group, there are three well-established types: broader problems, narrower
problems, and 'related' problems. These have the usual meanings,
with the related category being used as a catch-all in those exceptional
cases when the relationship cannot be more appropriately expressed through
any of the other cross-reference types. In contrast to conventional use
however, a problem may have several 'broader' problems.
In the four types of functional cross-reference,
the described problem: aggravates (cited problem), is aggravated by (cited
problem), alleviates (cited problem), or is alleviated by (cited problem).
Clearly this group forms two complementary pairs. In certain cases a problem
may both aggravate and be aggravated by the same cited problem.
A problem may have any number of cross-references, but the maximum number
of any one type seldom exceeds 20. The 13,000 problems in the database currently
have some 60,000 cross-references.
It must be strongly emphasized that
no cross-reference can be considered 'permanent'. Cross-references
are treated more like pointers. During the editorial process pointers may
be modified into a more appropriate configuration. Typically a pointer from
Problem A to Problem B may be replaced by one from Problem A to Problem
C, plus another from Problem C to Problem B -- if Problem C appears to be
an appropriate intermediary. Some pointers may be more obvious and permanent
than others which are tentative or only approximate.
Clearly all the different forms of cross-reference interweave to form a very
complex network. When indicating functional relationships between problems,
the information available may not be sufficiently unambiguous as to whether
the pointer should be made to a broader problem or to a narrower problem.
Or the information may only mention the relationship to the narrower problem,
when the context suggests that it could be more appropriately made to the
broader. In this sense whatever indication is given can only be considered
tentative, subject to modification later in the editorial process for the
forthcoming edition (or for the one thereafter).
Computer programmes are used to test
for redundant patterns of linkages, such as both Problem A and a narrower
problem of Problem A indicated as aggravated by Problem B. Or, more subject
to query, several narrower problems of Problem A aggravated by Problem B,
which could possibly be replaced by Problem A aggravated by Problem B.
Interpolations and implications
(a) Problem naming
As noted above, problems are not necessarily
named in an unambiguous manner. There is no standard problem terminology.
As a result the same problem may be named in a variety of ways. But it is
also the case that different problems may be referred to by the same name.
A more specific problem may in one context be given the name of its broader
problem in another context. Some problems are more effectively named, or
are more widely acknowledged, under a metaphoric name (e.g. the greenhouse
In many cases the problem is not named
in such a way as to be recognizable as a problem. UNESCO, for example, has
at various times named major world problems so as to include 'peace'
and 'youth' as problems. Both peace and youth are values to many.
Peace is a major value and goal of UNESCO. The use of such words on their
own to name problems is therefore quite unhelpful. Peace and disarmament
are only problems in a very special and cynical sense explored by the Iron
Mountain Report (Lewin, 1967), or in the special sense of an 'unjust
peace'. Use of such words to denote problems therefore has to be questioned.
Quite different words may be called for in such cases to name meaningfully
the problem implied by such shorthand usage (for example, in the above case:
conflict and alienated youth).
Because of the variety of ways in
which a given problem may be named, especially when different constituencies
use different names for the same problem, there is a some difficulty in
locating and eliminating duplicates in the database. The question that must
then be asked is whether very different names are referring to the same
problem, to different aspects of the same problem, or to different problems.
And even if they are referring to distinct problems, is it appropriate to
reflect this distinction by attaching such names to different file numbers.
To restrain premature proliferation of problems in the database, especially
in the absence of adequate information, closely related problems may be
held as a single problem but with a string of (indexed) names for the different
problems. These can later be split off into separate problems when this
(b) Language games and 'problem generation'
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 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.
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 related concern results from any
recognition of problem series or sets. If a set of problems has been recognized,
such as: medical malpractice, legal malpractice, insurance malpractice.
And these are grouped under a broader problem such as professional malpractice.
This raises the question as to whether or not 'architectural malpractice'
should be included in this set in the absence of information indicating
that the problem 'exists'. 'Malpractice' could similarly
be combined with other 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'.
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 problems in the set but not on 'professional malpractice',
is it appropriate to create the latter problem in order to group the others
? Again, it is 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 in a number of its sub-problems.
Clearly such techniques can only be
used with considerable caution. But they do 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. Our attempt to get an
overview of the kinds of sets and sub-sets which might open up in relation
to any substantive kopie is presented in Table3. This is partly based on
parallel work on the human values database (which contains 2270 entries
and 14463 cross-references between them).
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.
(c) Relationship indication
It is useful to ask such questions as:
- which problems are not part of another problem ?
- which problems are not aggravated by other problems ?
- which problems do not aggravate other problems ?
- which problems do not alleviate some other problem ?
Whilst it is probable that there are only a limited number of problems which
are at the top of problem trees, it is less clear whether all problems are
parts of such trees. It is probable that for a problem to be a problem it
should clusters or aggravate some other problem, but whether problems linked
in this way form 'islands' separate from other similarly linked
problems remains to be explored. From an editorial point of view, it is
clearly important to focus on the first question, if only as a means of
detecting duplicate narrower problems. This question is also important in
the case of highly specific problems (such as some rare disease), which
it may not be useful to represent in the system at all, but for which some
broader problem can be usefully included, even if no information on it exists
(the class of such rare diseases, for example).
In the final published product the distinction between problem perceptions
substantiated by information received and those based on interpolations of
the kind indicated above is quite evident. The interpolated problems are
present in skeletal form, with name(s) and cross-references, but without any
other descriptive text.
Although the obvious purpose has been to produce a physical product, the
Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, any evaluation
should also cover the computer software developed to that end and the working
method it has made possible
(a) Product: The Encyclopedia is the visible result
of a programme, initiated in 1972. In its third edition, every advantage
has been taken of computer techniques to present the information in a comprehensible
form, despite the inherent complexity of that information. It is however
increasingly obvious, as discussed below, that there are limits to the ability
to present such information in the traditional linear text mode, no matter
how sophisticated the pattern of cross-references. To the average user,
such reference books are decreasingly useful -- or rather they only respond
to some of the user's needs.
(b) Software: The framework software used is Advanced
Revelation (running on MS-DOS within a Novell Netware environment). The
specially developed application programmes in this context are as much a
product of this initiative as the Encyclopedia itself. At every stage in
the evolution of this project, ways have been sought to increase the ability
of the software to enable new styles of editorial and research work. In
its current form, the software is an unusual hybrid between conventional
text processing of entry descriptions and database processing of relationships
between those entries. It also permits a form of hypertext movement through
the network of entries, as popularized recently by the Apple hypercard facility.
In principle the software could be used for any similar project requiring
continuing review and modification of the network of relationships between
entities, including possible redefinition and regrouping of those entities.
(c) Working method: Much has been written about the
change in writing methods with the advent of word processors. The relation
between author and text is dramatically transformed, whether in the details
of corrections and formatting, or in the creative implications of (re)structuring
the pattern of headings within a document. Building on such working techniques,
and others, has transformed the editorial approach to any given Encyclopedia
entry. Editors are decreasingly concerned with the task of editing the displayed
text, and increasingly concerned with how that text can be meaningfully
related to other texts. Editors make use of a range of software techniques
to call up groups of entry titles, sort them, refine the list, and check
details on particular entries, before editing the full description and linking
it to other entries. It is the fluidity of this editorial technique which
is in fundamental contrast to editorial approaches in more conventional
(d) Process: The Encyclopedia project has always
been seen as a long-term exercise, like its larger (but less complex) sister
publication: the Yearbook of International Organizations. Work on
these publications, and the related International Congress Calendar database,
is a continuing process in which information for any part may have value
for the whole. Any given publication elicits further source material from
interested parties, especially international organizations, which leads to
the continual improvement of the database as a whole, as well as ensuring
appropriate updates. Through this process, defects and inadequacies in any
one edition are gradually eliminated and a foundation is created for more
challenging reorderings of the data.
(e) Groupware: It is obvious that sophisticated tools and
complex databases are of little value without developing the skills of research
and editorial personnel. As has been noted in other contexts, the whole
approach to team work is transformed when people are linked together by
a computer network such that what one person updates at 11.20 affects what
others are doing at 11.21. The ways in which people think about what they
are doing and how they relate their tasks to each other is totally changed,
with many unexpected benefits.
Unfortunately space does not permit any discussion of the way in which the
parallel work on the human development part of the project is undertaken and
how conceptual entities there (e.g. human values, modes of human development)
are linked to problems. Human values are especially interesting because of
the challenge of multiple synonyms of varying significance in relation to
any one 'human value'.
Since the Encyclopedia project has been deliberately organized so that it
can continue to evolve, what has been achieved should be viewed as providing
a context for further innovations in managing information on fuzzily defined
meaning-complexes. Although the system is designed to facilitate the movement
of descriptive text to more appropriate locations, the real innovation will
most probably lie in new approaches to redesigning the 'skeletal'
network of cross-references between the nodes to which the textual 'flesh'
is attached. Switching metaphors, of special interest is the possibility
of detecting the long-distance 'highways' linking distant nodes,
and their relationship to the local 'roads' and 'pathways'
between nodes in more specialized domains.
In the future it is hoped to be able to use computers to represent such
networks graphically to facilitate new insights into the ways in which meaning
is articulated in the international community (Judge, 1987a). Work is also
being undertaken on the use of metaphors to offer new ways of comprehending
more precisely the dynamics of the relationships between such fuzzily defined
conceptual domains. (Judge, 1987b, 1988a, 1988b, 1989c).
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Association for Science and Technology. Group 8: Changing political institutions.
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