Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia

Mike Featherstone, the left sociologist, writes: “For many academics in the social sciences and humanities, especially those influenced by cultural studies, what was seen as more important [than the possibility of a global culture] was to resist the violence of abstraction committed against the complexity of real life.”

Too right, I add.

Cease and desist orders should have been issued long ago against use of “wicked problems” so globally in the practice of policy analysis and management. As for academics, they too know that more nuanced sets of terms for complex policy problems are required than the originating “wicked” and “tame” dichotomy.

Fair enough, but good enough? Differentiation and nuance may actually reinforce a “there” that still isn’t there.

–How so?

My own answer is that wicked problems are best understood as part of a genre in literature, which enables very different statements and competing positions to be held without them being inconsistent at the same time. Literary and cultural critic, Michael McKeon (1987/2002), helps us here:

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.

In McKeon’s formal terms, “the genre of the novel is a technique to engage epistemological and socio-ethical problems simultaneously, but with no particular commitment than that.”

Intractability appeared not only as the novel’s subject matter but also in the intermixed conventions of how these matters can be raised. This was the way nostalgia for a simpler past was categorized and talked about at the time.

–My view is that the literature on wicked problems is part and parcel of this longstanding 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 complexities take center place in wicked problems both by virtue of context and content (or force and field, if you prefer).

I am not saying wicked problems are fictitious (even so, there is the well-known truth in fiction). Rather, I am arguing that pinning wicked problems exclusively to their substance (e.g., 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 (e.g., by the historical conventions to articulate and to discuss such matters).

Again, 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 other types. Such 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 vesselled intractability.

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

Wicked policy problem are complex problems that have yet to be recast in light of their very complexity. As with so much in contemporary policy and management, wicked problems end up as exaggerations: Even where they may be true as far as they go, the truth of the matter needs to be pushed further. Problems aren’t wicked when they are hard problems that profit from being left open.

Principal sources

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

On complexity enabling recasting, see blog entries: “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Incompletenesses,” and “Poverty and war”

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