Introduction to the field of Methodology for Handling Complex Societal Problems


Dorien J. DeTombe


Prof. Dr. Dorien J. DeTombe
Founder and Chair International - , Euro - , West-Euro- & Dutch Operational Research Research Group Methodology of Societal Complexity
Sichuan University, Chengdu, P.R. China
Chair International Research Society on Methodology of Societal Complexity
多莉恩·德通教授 华人民共和国四川省成都市 一环南路一段24 四川大学
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, EuropeTel: +31 20 6927526






The interdisciplinary demands for handling complex societal problems require a combination of knowledge coming from different disciplines. In order to establish this a new field of science is created.


Keywords: Complex Societal Problems; Methodology


Most large, and important real-life problems are complex societal problems, such as global environmental problems, flooding problems relating to large rivers, extending airports in crowded areas, traffic congestion and water supply problems. The field of complex societal problems also includes unemployment problems, poverty problems, healthcare problems, as well as organizational problems.

Complex societal problems are often ill- or multi-defined, hard to analyze and to handle. Knowledge, and data are missing or contradictionary, the causes of the problem are vague and it is often not clear in which direction the problem is going. Many phenomena, many parties, private and governmental are involved. The problem often has or will have a large impact on (parts of) society.


Complex societal problems themselves are interdisciplinary, involving aspects that are subject of study in several disciplines. The methodology for handling complex societal problems is multi-disciplinary. The scientists working in this field have backgrounds in different disciplines, and use methods derived from their original field combined with methods drawn from other fields. These combined methods are derived from fields like medicine, law, economics, social sciences, mathematics, computer sciences, technology, engineering sciences and operational research.


Handling complex societal problems costs much time, effort, and require a power base. This energy is not always used efficiently. This is due to the hazardous way of handling the problem by directly jumping to discussing solutions before analyzing or defining the problem. Structuring and guiding the process more efficiently can save much time, effort, and money. This can increase the quality of the outcome in terms of a more sustainable agreement or better solution for the actors.


The field of handling complex societal problems demands a multi-disciplinary approach in order to combine the existing methods and tools and to develop new approaches. Theoretical scientists, applied scientists, and practitioners can combine their methodological knowledge in a way that existing methods and tools can be applied and new methods and tools can be developed. Fruitful use of existing methodologies have been drawn from (cognitive) psychology, sociology, computer science, artificial intelligence, methodology, mathematics, engineering, system theory, chaos theory, philosophy and operational research.


A new scientific field methodology for handling complex societal problems was established to develop this domain. This effort is coordinated in the EURO Working Group 21 on Methodology for Complex Societal Problems. Over the past few years conferences and workshops have been organized on this subject, and scientists and practitioners from different fields from all over the world have met to exchange ideas on this new scientific discipline. Methodology for complex societal problems includes analyzing and handling all phases of the problem handling process from awareness of the problem to evaluation of the interventions.


There is no doubt that the new century will confront society with problems that are very difficult to handle. There seems to be a growing gap between the complexity of the problems faced by society and the human capacity to deal with them. More knowledge and imagination, better methods and more tools are needed for society to survive amidst these problems. In order to cope with these problems the academics working in the natural, social, and engineering sciences, should cooperate together to meet the societal demands.

New approaches are needed for handling societal problems in an interdisciplinary manner. However scientists are confronted with difficulties when trying to combine their efforts to meet this challenge. In order to combine their knowledge scientists should deviate from their standard practice. The time has come to broaden the scope. When it is accepted that social phenomena have their own rules and laws, why not combine the knowledge, skills, and methods drawn from the technical and natural sciences with the social sciences?


Methodology provides an adequate domain to discuss such a combination of scientific knowledge. Taking logic as a starting point in this domain, the question to consider is: how do we come to valid scientific knowledge? This is a key question for the sciences and this is the reason why methodology is an adequate context for interdisciplinary efforts to handle complex societal problems. In operational research it is a good tradition to use the best of its techniques not only to solve technical problems, and but also societal problems. In combining the ideas and methods developed in the area of the natural, technical, and social sciences for handling complex societal problems, new ideas and methods can be developed and some of the already existing ideas and methods can be integrated. Combining useful knowledge derived from several disciplines in a fruitful way to enhance the problem handling process of complex societal problems is the key question of this field.



DeTombe, Dorien J. (1999) A new field of science: methodology for handling complex societal problems. In Dorien J. DeTombe & Elmar A. Stuhler (Eds.) Complex Problem Solving: Methodological Support for Societal Policy Making. Research on Cases and Theories, Volume 6. Munchen/Mering: Hampp Verlag

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            ©Dorien J. DeTombe, All rights reserved, first published 2003