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Ordering the Undefinable

Identifying meaningful patterns of 'world problems'

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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 Yearbook of International 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:

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:

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:

In contrast to many other encyclopedic works, the emphasis is as much on the interrelationships between the conceptual entities as on the entities themselves.


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'.

Problem avoidance

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 initiatives.

(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 support.

(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 the problematique.

(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 innocent phenomena.

(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 (Hofstede, 1980).


(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:

Coverage is extended by scanning sources such as the following:

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:

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:


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 several places.

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 Networks (classified 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 Organizations 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 effect).

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 is justified.

(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'. 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 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:

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 databases.

(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).


Ingetraut Dahlberg. ICC - Information coding classification; principles, structure and application possibilities. InternationalClassification, 9, 1982, 2, pp. 87-93.

Geert Hofstede. Cultures consequences: international differences in work-related values. Sage, 1980.

W. T. Jones. The romantic syndrome; toward a new methodology in cultural anthropology and the history of ideas. The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1961.

Anthony Judge:

Leonard C. Lewin. Report from Iron Mountain on the possibility and desirability of peace. Dial Press, 1967.

Union of Internation Associations:

Union of International Associations / Mankind 2000. Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential. UIA and Mankind 2000, 1976, 1136 p. [commentary]

J. W. van Spronsen. The periodic system of chemical elements: a history of the first hundred years. Elsevier, 1969

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