Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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1.3 Consequence for approaches to societal problems

1. Complexity

The unsuspected complexity of social problems aggravates the situation noted above. As noted in the Bellagio Declaration on Planning (1969): "Social institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political, and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines... Diagnosis is often faulty and remedies proposed often merely suppress symptoms rather than attack the basic cause... Complexity and the large scale of problems are forcing decisions to be made at levels where individual participation of those affected is increasingly remote, producing a crisis in political and social development which threatens our whole future... Scientific attack on these problems of complexity and interdependencies is a matter of the utmost urgency...".

Given this complexity of the social problem environment, the question arises as to whether the conceptual tools used to handle this complexity are themselves adequately complex. In terms of Ashby's (1958) Principle of Requisite Variety, only a greater amount of variety (or complexity) in a regulator can control the variety present in a given system; only variety can destroy variety.

2. Inadequate conceptual tools

While the complexity and danger of the problems tend to increase at a geometric rate, the knowledge and manpower qualified to deal with these problems tend to increase at an arithmetic rate (Yehezkel Dror, 1969). There is therefore a real danger that the conceptual tools applied to problems are insufficiently complex to contain them and guide the allocation of resources to appropriate programmes of action. Because the interdisciplinary and integrative focus is an intellectual no-man's-land, little is known about it. The potential it represents goes largely unrecognized.

There is real danger that such tools may not be adequately developed and used, since the increase in complexity of the world, the rapidity of change, and the need to focus on specific current political issues may tempt those with power to use simplistic conceptual tools. However, there is also the danger, because of limited understanding of the nature of integrative concepts, that they may be used by the few to out-manoeuvre the many.

3. Incoherence of interdisciplinary initiatives

The interdisciplinary movement therefore both exists and has reasons to exist. But, as Kenneth Boulding (1956) notes: "...there is a good deal of interdisciplinary excitement abroad. If this excitement is to be productive, however, it must operate within a certain framework of coherence. It is all too easy for the interdisciplinary to degenerate into the undisciplined. If the interdisciplinary movement, therefore, is not to lose that sense of form and structure which is the "discipline" involved in the various separate disciplines, it should develop a structure of its own".

Boulding conceives the elaboration of this structure to be the task of general systems theory. However, given the plethora of integrative concepts currently in use within the movement in its broadest sense, the modest task of attempting to clarify the nature of such concepts and their relationship to one another is of some significance at this time. No other conceptual tools appear to be adequate to the task of grasping the complexity with which society is faced.

4. Conflicting interdisciplinary approaches

One of the difficulties is the long-standing competition between "cybernetics" and "general systems", with the former appealing primarily to engineers and the latter to social and biological scientists. This has given rise to unhelpful dynamics between the two groups.

A second difficulty is that both groups have little sympathy with "non-scientific" insights into possibilities of integration, whether from psychoanalysis or from the arts. General systems is only open to interdisciplinarity on its own pre-established terms. One exception to this is the attempt by Jeffrey Stamps (1980) to marry the insights of general systems with those of humanistic psychology to provide a general systems theory acknowledging the place of the human individual (see comment in entry KD2220).

A third difficulty arises from the non-self-referential nature of general systems theory. This is ironical in that a number of authors linked with the general systems enterprise have explored issues of self-reference. The difficulty is perhaps best illustrated by the relationship between the work of Prigogine and Jantsch (who were colleagues). Prigogine's group has carefully avoided any but the most tentative exploration of the social significance of the breakthroughs for which he received the Nobel Prize. Jantsch has taken Prigogine's work, related it to other initiatives from both the hard and the soft sciences and produced an exciting synthesis oriented towards policy and management problems. Unfortunately he died before being able to relate his contribution to the implications of the work of Bohm. He did however make extensive use of self-reference in relation to mentation, especially with regard to values and to the evolution of consciousness. Whilst the more concrete aspects of his work on self-organization remain central to general systems, the paradoxical problems for consciousness of comprehending (or failing to comprehend) any particular form of integration are outside the general systems domain of concern. Yet it is precisely such questions which illuminate the inability of general systems to offer insights relevant to the global problematique

5. Epistemological challenge

One of the striking features of papers on interdisciplinarity is their essential sterility. Interdisciplinarity has not proved to be productive. It has not revealed any method of moving forward.

David Bohm (1980) is one of the few to have indicated a way forward. Following a useful description of fragmentation and its consequences in all domains he states: "...some might say: 'Fragmentation of cities, religions, political systems, conflict in the form of wars, general violence, fratricide, etc, are the reality. Wholeness is only an ideal, toward which we should perhaps strive.' But this is not what is being said here. Rather, what should be said is that wholeness is what is real, and that fragmentation is the response of this whole to man's action, guided by illusory perception, which is shaped by fragmentary thought. In other words, it is just because reality is whole that man, with his fragmentary approach, will inevitably be answered with a correspondingly fragmentary response. So what is needed is for man to give attention to his habit of fragmentary thought, to be aware of it, and thus bring it to an end."

He then continues by saying: "It is clear that we may have any number of different kinds of insights. What is called for is not an integration of thought, or a kind of imposed unity, for any such imposed point of view would itself be merely another fragment. Rather, all our different ways of thinking are to be considered as different ways of looking at the one reality, each with some domain in which it is clear and adequate. One may indeed compare a theory to a particular view of some object. Each view gives only an appearance of the object in some aspect. The whole object is not perceived in any one view but, rather, it is grasped only implicitly as that single reality which is shown in all these views. When we deeply understand that our theories also work in this way, then we will not fall into the habit of seeing reality and acting toward it as if it were constituted of separately existent fragments, corresponding to how it appears in our thought and in our imagination, when we take our theories to be "direct descriptions of reality as it is."

Bohm asks: "How are we to think coherently of a single, unbroken, flowing actuality of existence as a whole, containing both thought (consciousness) and external reality as we experience it?" (1980, p.x) He points to the nature of an answer through his discussion of the "implicate order", of which man is directly aware to some degree, as it relates to the "explicate order" in terms of which society and conceptual systems are structured.