Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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1.6 Distinguishing uses of the Encyclopedia

This Encyclopedia is concerned with the management of information on key concepts and challenges of international significance. This information must necessarily take the form of words whose usage is confused by the conflicting patterns of associations that they evoke in practice for particular groups of users, whether official or otherwise. At its most concrete level, as a reference tool, the Encyclopedia clarifies the many descriptions of both world problems and understandings of human development. But the challenges to policy-making in turbulent times lie beyond this concrete level. They are more concerned with how the complex relationships between questionable definitions can form the basis for coherent, sustainable initiatives in a society characterized by intractable differences.

In this sense, the challenge of the Encyclopedia is to give form to a comprehensible "union of international associations". Here the "associations" reflect the variety of patterns of connotations through which any seemingly unambiguous concerns can be reframed, even to the extent of institutionalizing them. "International" emphasizes the systemic globality through which vigorously defended functional territories are linked. And "union" highlights the challenge of discovering new ways of interrelating incompatible perspectives that are more respectful of complexity than those of the past.

The task is complicated by the need to fulfil immediate practical needs for information without disguising the complexity within which that information is to be found. This challenge may best be seen in terms of a series of levels at which the information in this Encyclopedia is organized.

At each level:

  • What are the entities
  • What are the relationships
1. Empirical level (as a conventional directory)

(a) Reference tool: Usually unrelated pieces of information are assembled into a framework organized for conventional reference book access. Descriptions of world problems or understandings of human development are provided on the basis of documents from international organizations and periodicals. Where appropriate an often emotional "claim" or "counter-claim" is included to give some sense of the passions and controversy aroused by such perceptions.

(b) Significance: The editorial focus at this level is to sharpen descriptive texts in the manner of a legal brief justifying a particular position. There is necessarily a word-oriented bias in identifying and naming the entry for indexing purposes. Alternative names and common euphemisms may be also be used to facilitate access. The intention is to define the problem in relation to the terms used by ordinary people rather than be tempted by some sophisticated conceptual framework. The coverage is deliberately broad to capture the wide range of issues to which people of different persuasions are sensitive.

(c) Challenge: At this level the concern is adequacy of coverage and the logistical difficulties that this implies. The word-orientation calls for a balance between rationalizing grammatical variants in names and enriching possibilities for keyword access.

2. Logical context level

(a) Reference tool: The previous level provided users with direct access to a multitude of isolated entries via indexes. Here the concern is to cluster the entries, identifying broader problems and narrower problems, for example. In this way entries are positioned in relation to each other. Users can shift from the generic to the specific, manoeuvring through hierarchies as in more highly structured reference books. These cross-references are given within each entry.

(b) Significance: This level raises the question as to whether a group of problems, for example, can itself be considered as a problem, or a class of values as a value. The easy use of words by which problems are identified and named in the literature casts doubt on the substantiality of what is named in this way. Can problems really be broken down into smaller problems or clustered into larger problems? Are some of these seemingly distinct problems merely facets rather than parts, especially when their identity is so dependent on a carefully turned phrase? Efforts to organize problems into neat hierarchies are easily challenged, as is the case with the taxonomic organization of animal and plant species.

(c) Challenge: A principal concern is whether to merge several sparsely documented problems together and whether to split a problem complex into more specific components.

3. Functional context level

(a) Reference tool: The previous level gives users a sense of part/whole relationships. Here the concern is to give some sense of how different entries affect each other through a pattern of cause and effect relationships of different kinds. Such relationships also introduce a time dimension in that one thing tends to occur before another. The information at this level therefore clarifies the network of systemic relationships. These cross-references are given within each entry. There is therefore a hypertext aspect to the organization of the data that is evident in its use as an interactive database.

(b) Significance: The question of what is being related, raised at the previous level, is further reinforced here. How well bounded is the described conceptual entity that it should be held to have functional relationships with others? How clear is the relationship? Are such pointers better understood as having a probabilistic rather than a definitive character, namely is there some probability that this problem will aggravate that one? How are functional relationships at a class level to be distinguished from those at a more specific level? These all effectively query the systemic boundaries imposed by the user on the data.

(c) Challenge: New ways need to be found to explore functional relationships. A first attempt, described in Section TZ (Volume 2), concerns the analysis of relationships for vicious loops. Such loops linking problems enable the level of analysis to be shifted in an operationally meaningful way.

4. Classification level

(a) Reference tool: It is readily assumed that problems and values can be unambiguously classified in some useful way. This Encyclopedia deliberately challenges that assumption and avoids conventional approaches to classification as being inadequate to the degree of complexity implied by the information. Users are instead offered an unusually rich set of cross-references between entries as noted above. An experimental classification system in Volume 3 of the complementary Yearbook of International Organizations also clusters problem names with international organization names by subject.

(b) Significance: The opportunities for more appropriate responses to configuring sets of problems, values and the like, are the concern of the following levels.

(c) Challenge: As one experimental basis for more complex forms of classification, value polarities (clustering value synonyms and antonyms) are ordered as a matrix of value functions. Such a matrix is seen as a first step in providing a bridge between human values (namely "positive" values), problems (namely "negative" values), strategies, and human development.

5. Alternative perspective level

(a) Reference tool: The previous levels tend to disguise from the user the conceptual challenge associated with many of the entries. There are often alternative perspectives from which the validity of the description can be partially or completely denied as being an exercise in misconception or even disinformation. The use of "counter-claims" therefore offers a means of highlighting the nature of the bias associated with the entry.

(b) Significance: Such opposing perspectives are important to an understanding of the ideological dynamics of any system of problems as they are perceived in society. Any denial of systemic significance aids understanding of how a system of entities can be simplified and even impoverished. It helps to explain why coherent strategic responses are undermined through competing perspectives. Such counter-claims suggest ways in which problems can be reframed.

(c) Challenge: The previous level focused attention on a single matrix as a basis for ordering the pattern of functions common to values, problems, strategies and human development. Here there is a concern to explore other matrix patterns, whether more or less complex.

6. Complementarity level

(a) Reference tool: The previous levels treat each type of conceptual entity (problems, values, human development concepts, strategies) in isolation. Here their complementarity is stressed. In fact problems can only be detected in the light of values, and are indeed effectively named only by including negative values in their descriptors. Organization strategies only acquire significance if they are responding to problems. Users are therefore provided with a means of accessing problems through a values index (see Section V) and through a strategies index (see Volume 3). Human development concepts can also be accessed through a values index (in Section V). Such tools have not previously been available.

(b) Significance: Concern shifts here from a single type of entity to entities in couples (problems-values, values-human development, strategies-problems, and the like). Conceptually each member of a couple affects, colours and redefines the other. A strategy is constrained by the definition of a problem, but a problem is also effectively defined by the strategy through which an organization approaches it. Problems are both a consequence of human development and a challenge to it. The merit of the Encyclopedia lies in juxtapositioning such seemingly incommensurable conceptual entities. It stresses the need for integrating orientations towards values, towards human development, towards problems and towards solution strategies, for example.

(c) Challenge: Here the concern is with the ability to recognize complementarity, notably that vital to system viability. What values are important in relation to what problems? How does human development increase sensitivity to what values whilst provoking the emergence of certain problems through its excesses?

7. Mapping level

(a) Reference tool: The previous levels endeavour to capture complexity for the user by broad coverage, sensitivity to detail and tracing networks of relationships of a number of kinds. At each level conceptual and systemic boundaries are brought into question in new and more fundamental ways. Here the concern is with providing the user with means to configure such seemingly disparate information in a more integrated manner. The ordinary tools of indexes and cross-references are inadequate to this challenge. As described in Section TZ (Volume 2), the user needs visual maps of some kind to highlight integrating features whilst respecting both systemic coherence and the conceptual discontinuities between complementary concerns. At this level the preoccupation in this edition is therefore with mapping experiments.

(b) Significance: At this level the question raised is that of how to grasp higher orders of complexity, notably in relation to policy issues. New tools are required to navigate successfully through networks of associations by identifying pathways of significance. Some form of conceptual scaffolding is required to hold together disparate elements until integrating understanding emerges.

(c) Challenge: Such tools suggest the need for a clearer understanding of conceptual pathways, especially those that "circumnavigate" the problematique as a whole, traversing many functional domains. More concretely this relates to the concern of overlaying problem maps with those of the set of government agencies in any country to highlight the challenges of governance in a new way.

8. Self-constraining configuration level

(a) Reference tool: The previous levels assume that the patterns of information which users need to comprehend can be satisfactorily displayed on a flat surface, whether as lines of text, as a matrix or as a map of a network. This assumption precludes investigation of the possibility that the integrative dimensions of such information may only be understandable when mapped onto a spherically curved surface -- as has been so made so obvious in the case of maps of the planet. At this level the preoccupation in this edition is therefore with mapping experiments.

(b) Significance: In endeavouring to constrain the network of problems, much is made of the need for an appropriate set of institutional checks and balances whether within the international community or within any country. However efforts at elaborating such a framework tend to be marked by tokenism, fragmentation, lack of coordination, and ineffectual implementation or erosion of commitment. It is therefore worth exploring the possibility that these are in part due to lack of any sense of "functional roundness" in favour of a commitment to "flat" structural and strategic plans.

(c) Challenge: Here the concern, discussed in Section TZ (Volume 2), is to discover ways to give stability to non-planar arrays such that they are effectively self-constraining at a "global" level. How can intractable differences be used to bring about new structures and ensure their stability? This property of globality is important not only to the information relating to the planet, and to any holistic sense of quality of life, but also to the integrative understanding that is called for at this level. The understanding possible at this level may well be metastable, easily fragmenting into patterns of associations if no other constraint is provided.

9. Transformational level

(a) Reference tool: The previous levels are all essentially descriptive, even though the descriptions must take into account progressively more fundamental challenges to any one definition as a basis for global consensus. At this level the user needs guidance in moving between alternative mappings or clusterings of entities and relationships. Alternative mappings may be based on different degrees of complexity or on different types of structure. Such guidance is basic to any understanding of transformation between alternative perspectives. At this level the preoccupation in this edition is therefore with mapping experiments.

(b) Significance: Dialogue between groups with fundamentally different ideological or strategic perspectives needs to be facilitated by information tools which offer pathways between such frameworks and between different levels of complexity. Higher degrees of complexity may need to be held in abeyance until confidence is acquired with frameworks of lower complexity that may be quite sufficient for immediate needs. Users need to be able "zoom" in and out of displays according to the level of complexity required. They also need to be able to "flip" between alternative frameworks, especially as the basis for dialogue between groups preferring one or other framework.

(c) Challenge: Some of the challenges of want amounts to continuous structural transformation, allowing for both complexification and simplification, are outlined in Section TZ (Volume 2).

10. Metaphoric level

(a) Reference tool: Information overload is a characteristic of the times. Potential users increasingly suffer from "explanation fatigue". New conceptual tools are required to configure very large quantities of information into patterns that are both memorable and meaningful. In this edition stress is placed on the potential of metaphor in this respect.

(b) Significance: Metaphor is vital to the communication of new policy, new vision and to dialogue during the processes of governance. It is a major unexplored resource to bypass the rigidities of many conceptual processes which inhibit the emergence of new and more integrative structures based on more subtle patterns of organization. Metaphor is often the only means to deal comprehensibly with complexity.

(c) Challenge: It is not that the use of metaphor needs to be introduced to the processes of policy-making and institutional design, rather it is that such processes tend already to be trapped in metaphors that are in some measure inappropriate to the challenges faced by society. There is a need to be able to move flexibly between policy-relevant metaphors and to cultivate new metaphors as required. See commentary.

11. Bridge-building

In conventional approaches difficulties arise because of the confusion between words and their semantic connotations. Words have to be used to communicate but are never sufficient to carry the complexes of meanings to which they point. Efforts to produce sets of 5 to 10 words to carry understandings of basic values essential to world governance, sustainable development and peace on the planet are therefore doomed as exercises in tokenism, political symbolism or academic sympathetic magic.

It is useful to recognize levels at which value, problems and human development can be fruitfully discussed:

  • word level (constructive and destructive)
  • semantic level (polarities)
  • semantic clusters in matrices (tables)
  • spherical mapping (Rio)
  • alternative spherical mappings (Rio and others)
  • complementary spherical mappings in a set; gears
  • ordered set of complementary mappings.
A bridge has to be built between:
  • the word level through which problems and values are identified in all their rich variety and multiplicity
  • the semantic clusters which reduce that variety, grouping synonyms and related notions, and transcending the paradoxes of the positive features of negative values and the negative features of positive values
  • the functionally integrated sets of these semantic clusters which correspond to operational responses to the complexity of dealing with the world through sustainable strategies (ministries)
  • the representations of these sets that facilitate comprehension of the complexity that they subsume as conceptual scaffolds

It is by focusing on lists as adequate conceptual scaffolds, and by assuming that the words in them successfully carry universally the meanings which some may be able to associate with them, that confusion arises.