Wicked problems

Scholars criticize the notion of “wicked problems,” arguing that more nuanced sets of terms for complex policy problems are required than the originating “wicked” and “tame” dichotomy. Fair enough, but good enough? Such differentiation may actually reinforce a “there” that still isn’t.

The crux is the intractability associated with wicked problems from the start. “By now we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies)” (Rittel and Webber 1973). Again, note the subsequent contribution distinguishing the “more or less” in problem intractability.

That, though, isn’t what worries me about the association with intractability. It’s the narrative discrepancy in commonplaces like “wicked problems are seemingly intractable problems” or “wicked problems seem to be [or “are considered to be”) intractable.”

The implication is that we may be misperceiving them as (more or less) intractable when in fact they aren’t. Then again either something is intractable–more or less, if you wish–or it isn’t. There is no “seems” or “seemingly” about it, once you have defined intractable. At some point then, wouldn’t misperceptions start being dispelled? So, is it misperception or not? Or what?

An answer is that there is an intertext at work that allows such different statements—texts—to be held without being contradictory at the same time. Literary and cultural critic, Michael McKeon (1987/2002), identifies one such intertext:

Genre provides a conceptual framework for the mediation (if not the “solution”) of intractable problems, a method for rendering such problems intelligible. The ideological status of genre, like that of all conceptual categories, lies in its explanatory and problem-“solving” capacities.

This is to say that “the genre of the novel is a technique to engage epistemological and socio-ethical problems simultaneously, but with no particular commitment than that.” To put McKeon’s argument in my terms, the early English novel became its own genre when exemplary novels of that time were characterized in both context and content by complex and at times conflicting positions. Intractability appeared not only as the novel’s subject matter but also in the intermixed conventions of how these matters can be raised.

My view is that the literature on wicked problems is part and parcel of this writing genre. This literature’s content is not only about the intractable, but also its governing context is as historically tangled and conventionalized as that of the English novel. Masses of complexity take center place in wicked problems both by virtue of context and content (akin here to “force and field,” respectively). Even were the notion of wicked problems to make singular sense, that lucidity would betray the complicated context as to what we take to “make sense” in these times and places.

I am not saying wicked problems are fictitious (even so, there is the well-known phenomenon of truth in fiction). Rather, I am saying that pinning wicked problems exclusively to their substance (i.e., wicked problems are defined by the lack of agreed-upon rules to solve them) misses the fact that the analytic category of wicked problems as such is highly rule-bound (i.e., by the historical and social conventions to articulate and to discuss such matters).

How so? Return to the scholarly literature’s attempt to differentiate “wicked” and “tame” problems into more nuanced categories. Doing so is like disaggregating the English novel into romance, historical, gothic and others. That is, such a differentiation need not problematize the genre’s conventions. In fact, the governing conventions may become more complex for distinguishing the more complex content, thus reinforcing the genre as a vesseled intractability. Conventions structure the world so as to make wicked problems possible.

So what? If wicked problems are to better addressed, altogether different conventions and rules—what Wittgenstein called “language games”—will have to be found under which to recast these. . . . well, whatever they are to be called they wouldn’t be “intractable,” would they?

Until such recasting, we are, I think, left somewhere between “Though to/hold on in any case means taking less and less/for granted…” and “to lose/again and again is to have more/and more to lose…” (Amy Clampitt’s lines from “A Hermit Thrush” and Mark Strand’s lines from “To Begin”). By necessity, the search for a “more or less” (in)tractable becomes one of “more and more” or “less and less.” The granularity of our existing policy scenarios–“the devil is in the details!”–remains the starting point.

Principal sources

On wicked problems, start with: Rittel, H. and M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.

On genre, see: McKeon, M. (1987/2002). The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740. 15th Anniversary Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.

On intertext, see: Riffaterre, M. (1990). Fictional Truth. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.

Related blog entry: “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable.”

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