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).

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