Complex social problems

For the most part, the reasons why social problems exist are either considered self-evident or left unexplored. But there is one major exception.

The most significant body of work to identify the reasons for social problems draws on complexity theory (Tapsell & Woods, 2008;Westley, 2008; Westley, Zimmerman & Patton, 2006). Through this lens, social problems emerge out of complex interactions between increasingly interconnected systems (Westley, 2008). Social problems are seen as situated in contexts that they shape and by which they themselves are shaped.

The implication is that social problems cannot be falsely extracted from the dynamic network of relationships that influence their causes, effects and how they are understood (Moore & Westley, 2009).  Rather than treating problems as ‘complicated’ challenges amenable to being broken down into fixable components, social problems are complex ones that are

“messier and more ambiguous in nature; they are more connected to other problems; more likely to react in unpredictable non-linear ways; and more likely to produce unintended consequences” (Burns, Cottam, Vanstone & Winhall, 2006, p. 8).

Westley, Zimmerman and Patton (2006) illustrate the challenge of working on complex problems by comparing it with two alternatives – a simple problem, such as baking a cake, and a complicated one, such as sending a rocket to the moon. They use as their example of a complex problem the raising of a child.  Unlike the work on the cake or the rocket that lend themsleves to training and predictable results, raising a child comes with no manual, no guarantee of success (whatever that means :)) and no absolute control over the influences in the environment or choices they make (sadly :)).

Viewing social problems as complex shifts the attention away from finding forumalaic approaches to resolve them – there is no generic 10 step plan to solving social problems. Instead the implication is that to study social problems is to explore the interactions and relationships between individuals and their environment that take place over time.  It is in observing the networks and patterns of activities associated with social problems that solutions might become evident – but no promises.


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