Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

Status message

You are currently in UIA's online document archive. These pages are no longer maintained. To search the full archive click here.

The Encyclopedia is currently undergoing redevelopment !

5.10 Problem perception and levels of awareness

1. Degrees of immediacy of pain

Awareness of problems could be characterized in terms of the directness of the experience of that problem as a pain or a painful tension, with which it is possible to identify. Degrees of immediacy might then range as follows:

  • Experienced by oneself: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually
  • Experienced by one's immediate family: nuclear family, extended family and dependents (possibly including favoured animals)
  • Experienced by one's peers: friends, neighbours, colleagues, associates
  • Experienced by known others: acquaintances, friends of friends, public figures, role models
  • Experienced by unknown fellow citizens: same tribe, race, religion or ideology
  • Experienced by any unknown human being: ...however distantly located
  • Experienced by other entities: in other realms of nature (animals, plants), possibly in their collective form (herds, species, forests)
  • Experienced by inanimate forms: the pain of polluted rivers or degraded land
  • Experienced by the Earth as a whole: the pain of Gaia.
2. Problem-need hierarchy (beyond Maslow)

The study of human needs has developed on Maslow's concept of a hierarchy of such needs. Implicit in any categorization of needs is a categorization of problems associated with fulfilling or failing to fulfil those needs. One categorization of human needs is that of Carlos Mallmann, during the course of work in the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the United Nations University (1986). He distinguishes the following:

  • Maintenance needs: nutrition, rest, exercise, reproduction, shelter
  • Protection needs: prevention, cure, restitution, defence
  • Affective needs: self-esteem, friendship, sexual love, family love, attachment
  • Understanding needs: psycholization, socialization, education, observation
  • Autonomous participation needs: liberty, independence, autonomous decision-making
  • Recreation needs: self-recreation, social recreation, recreation in the habitat
  • Creation needs: creation by oneself, creation of social and habitational environments
  • Meaning needs: self-realization, historic and prospective meaning, religious meaning and Weltanschauung
  • Synergy needs: authenticity, solidarity, justice, altruism, responsibility, beauty, ecological equilibrium
It has been argued that, to the extent that such needs constitute a hierarchy, the earlier needs must be adequately fulfilled before attention can be devoted to the later ones. Some have questioned this as reinforcing bureaucratic tendencies to give priority to the earlier needs at the expense of any attempt to allocate resources to problems arising from inadequate fulfilment of the later ones. It is clear that the proportion of resources allocated to "higher" needs is low and easily neglected or discounted, as in the case of "peak" or self-realization experiences. There is even the irony that only through allocation of resources to the disputed "higher" needs is any solidarity felt with those having "lower" needs.

There would seem to be an inverted hierarchy complementing that above and grouping the attention accorded to corresponding problems. The two hierarchies, like two triangles, intersect somewhat as in the Star of David symbol. The apex of the inverted triangle is indicative of the relatively small amount of attention accorded to the concrete maintenance problems, especially the intractable problems like hunger (which are easily accepted by others as an unfortunate fact of life). Whereas the broad base of that triangle is indicative of the widespread attention given to (the rhetoric concerning) the problems relating to the higher needs like justice.

This may be another way of looking at a phenomenon described by analogy to the Peter Principle of career advancement. Namely problems tend to get abstracted to a level at which little can be effectively done about them, neglecting any focus at those levels amenable to action. Rhetoric can be used very elegantly to conceal the absence of effective action, precisely by focusing on the urgency of needs defined at a level where concrete action is necessarily difficult and slow to show results.

3. Complexity of response to problems

"Enemies", as dealt with by the approaches to problems detailed earlier, are essentially external, objective realities - or at least are assumed to be so. But this need not necessarily be the case. As noted earlier, perception of problems is very much a product of a particularly Western mindset. It is possible that the following open up other levels of understanding and response to problems:

(a) Higher order problems: Just as there are basic maintenance problems (cf hunger, shelter), so there are logistical problems of responding to them (cf maldistribution of resources), and problems of principle in recognizing the more concrete problems (cf violation of rights to food, shelter). There may be problems of failure of conceptualization which undermine initiatives to recognize the problems of principle, or failure of the political will to act upon them. Beyond these may be fundamental weaknesses in the ideology or belief system in terms of which the preceding responses are undertaken. There is thus a case for more detailed exploration of higher order problems and the implications for dealing with those of a lower order. Of course the terms "higher" and "lower" imply a questionable bias, since those which are most existentially threatening can also be considered to be of the "highest" order.

(b) Contradictions: The convenient ways in which thinking has developed have tended to conceal the presence of essentially embarrassing "contradictions", which may constitute a special class of problems. These tend to be detected only when two or more problem-free perspectives are juxtaposed, although such juxtaposition may in itself be considered quite unreasonable.

Examples might include major discrepancies: between percentage salary increases accorded to employees and to executives; between mortality rates in developing and industrialized countries; between energy use per capita in developing and industrialized countries; between the rights and privileges accorded to different classes in any society; between the effective rights of men and those of women.

Thus whilst it may be considered reasonable to treat malnutrition in developing countries as a problem calling for action and the over-indulgence in foods in industrialized countries as another (at least to some), the coexistence of these problems may not be considered as an acceptable third problem in its own right. Rather any such perception may itself be considered as disruptive or subversive, and as such symptomatic of a problem in its own right.

(c) Problem complementarity: Much has been made of the inappropriateness of dealing with problems in isolation (cf ignorance and unhygienic food preparation) as has been the early practice of "specialized" international agencies. Integrated approaches are increasingly sought, implying some sense of a system of problems. Perhaps beyond that is the recognition of a basic complementarity of certain problems, each evoking the other. Personal insecurity and excessive fertility may be a case in point, especially in developing countries. Psychological insecurity and substance abuse may constitute an equivalent complementary pair typical of industrialized countries. There may also be complementary triplets and quintuplets, whose detection is as yet beyond current facilities of conceptualization, given the emphasis on faculty-biased specialization.

(d) Tetra-lemmic problem articulation: Within the Western mindset favoured by the international community, a problem either exists or it does not. For other cultures, the situation may be more complex, as suggested by the work of Kinhide Mushakoji (Scientific Revolutions and Inter-Paradigmatic Dialogue, 1978). As noted in the Japanese examples cited in an earlier note, a problem may both not exist (in the explicit reality) whilst existing (in the implicit reality). An individual may move smoothly between both realities. Furthermore, there is a fourth condition in which a problem may be considered to neither exist nor to not-exist. This may be the most fruitful way of recognizing problems of "corruption".

(e) Paradoxical responses to problems: Within the Western mindset, a problem can always be solved if sufficient resources, of an appropriate kind, are allocated to the task. It is believed that there is always a technical solution, even though the "real" problem is the lack of political will to make available the required resources. But work in the field of psychotherapy suggests that there may be many kinds of problem (possibly including "lack of will") that respond much more readily to counter-intuitive strategies.

Paradoxical therapeutic strategies, ostensibly encouraging a client's negative or maladaptive behaviour, have been used with great success in working with difficult individuals, couples and families (Leon F Seltzer, Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, 1986). Although seemingly irrational and sharply opposed to the kinds of expectation that clients bring to therapy, they appear to owe much of their effectiveness to the very unorthodoxy that has so often rendered their use controversial.

(f) Zen of problem response: Intractable problems, like intractable enemies, can evoke unusual responses. The Eastern martial arts have developed through a philosophy in which it is the very energy of the opponent which is used to reorder the situation for mutual benefit. Such arts may of course be used to achieve a lower order response in which the opponent is neutralized. But such responses obscure the significance of those of higher order, beyond the "zero-sum game" of winners and losers. This may be more appropriate in dealing with the most challenging of opponents.

Of special interest is the expectation that there is something to be learnt, some insight to be gained, from the interaction with a really challenging problem. In a real sense the interaction, undertaken appropriately, dissolves or redefines the boundaries between the two parties and their environment, so that a new situation comes into being. This contrasts completely with lower order responses in which one of the parties is neutralized without effectively challenging or redefining their contextual situation. From a different perspective, it may be that problems can be usefully viewed as "koans", essentially insoluble within the mindset with which they are initially approached.