·        DeTombe, D.J. (1994) Defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems. A theoretical study for constructing a co-operative problem analyzing method: the method COMPRAM. Amsterdam: Thesis publishers Amsterdam (thesis), 439 pp. ISBN 90 5170 302-3

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 http://www.scu.edu.cn
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, EuropeTel: +31 20 6927526  DeTombe@nosmo.nl
http://www.complexitycourse.org/doriendetombe.html  www.doriendetombe.nl




1  DESIGN OF THE STUDY                                                                                        

    1.1   Introduction to this chapter                                                              

    1.2   Motivation of the theme                                                                   

   1.3   Defining the main concepts                                                                                 

           1.3.1  What are complex interdisciplinary societal problems?               

           1.3.2  General characteristics of complex interdisciplinary

                     societal problems                                                                           

           1.3.3  Analyzing and defining a problem                                                     

    1.4   Scientific importance of the study                                                      

    1.5   Importance of the study for society                                                   

    1.6   Kind of study                                                                                   

    1.7   Formulation of the research problem                                                  

    1.8   Research questions                                                                           

    1.9   Method of research                                                                           

    1.10 Theoretical points of view                                                                 

    1.11 Constraints and bottlenecks                                                                

    1.12 Theme of the study                                                                           

    1.13 Summary and conclusions                                                                 



1.0   Introduction


Chapter one begins with the motivation of the choice of the study and with a description of the scientific and the societal impact of the study. In this chapter the main concepts used in the study are introduced and explained. The research problem is formulated and operationalized as a set of research questions. Some of the theoretical and methodological starting points of the study are discussed, followed by the constraints and bottlenecks in the study. The chapter concludes with a general introduction to complex interdisciplinary societal problems.


1.1    Motivation of the theme


In spite of progress in the field of science and technology, humanity is still confronted with problems that seem very difficult to handle. At one moment everything seems to be under control, but then something unexpected happens.  Many social changes are so rapid there is hardly time to consider all the consequences of the changes. Scientists, technologists and politicians are confronted with problems for which they have no answers. For many new problems old solutions do not work. And this leads to a new confrontation with reality.


"Against a growing background of complexity and fragmentation, there will be no obvious answers to many of the problems on the global agenda..."

(Von Amsberg, 1991, p. 2)


"It is a profound irony that we should be confronted with so many problems at the same time in history when humanity is at a peak of its knowledge and power." (Botkin, Elmandjra & Malitza, 1979, p. 7)


It would seem that many societal problems are complex and hard to define, let alone to solve (Schön, 1983). There is a growing gap between the complexity and the capacity to deal with them which Botkin calls 'the human gap'.


"We call it a human gap, because it is a dichotomy between a growing complexity of our own making and a lagging development of our own capacities."  (Botkin et al., 1979, p. 7)


Contemporary complexity is caused predominantly by human activities. Global problems, currently the chief manifestations of complexity are, first and foremost, human problems, and are only secondarily attributable to natural causes (Botkin et al., 1979).


"...the development community is not only failing to respond to the challenge but is actually losing ground. The world is changing more rapidly than our capacity to manage, and the complexities and challenges seem to defy our tools, our wisdom and even our imagination." (Von Amsberg, 1991 p. 10, 11)


Examples of rapid societal and social changes are: the unexpected changes in Eastern-Europe in the period between 1989-1991, the spectacular growth of the number of so-called 'economic' refugees, the heightening of racial and ethnic conflicts[1], and the rise of nationalism. These changes evoke problems that can be characterized as complex interdisciplinary societal problems. They are changes that have a huge influence on society. These new situations need guiding. Governmental managers, politicians, managers of profit and non-profit organizations, and members of international committees are the people who, by profession, have the task of handling these problems. In order to do so, the scientists, the technologists and the politicians need to review the way they analyze and operate.



1.2  Defining the main concepts


The study is about analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems. These concepts require a definition. Each concept in the combination 'complex interdisciplinary societal problem' will be defined separately. The definition of the compound concept 'complex interdisciplinary societal problem' will be described in chapter two. Some general characteristics of complex interdisciplinary societal problems are described, followed by examples. This is followed by a description of what we mean by 'defining' a problem.


1.2.1  What are complex interdisciplinary societal problems?


A     The concept 'problem'

        Two kinds of problems can be distinguished: empirical problems[2] and             problems of knowledge.

    -   We may speak of an empirical problem when there is or will be, in the                       near future, a discrepancy between the actual situation in (a part of) the                           world[3] and the desired situation. Here formulating the problem is the first                    step toward changing the situation.

    -   Something is called a problem of knowledge when there is a lack of                     knowledge. Such a problem can comprise one or more questions for which                  one wants to find answers. Here the formulation of the problem is the first            step toward investigating the situation.


The problems we are focusing on in this study are problems that create or will create a discrepancy between the actual situation and the desired situation. These kind of problems are often combined with a knowledge problem.


B     The concept 'interdisciplinary'

The problems referred to in this study are problems that may be called interdisciplinary. By this we mean that the knowledge about the issues involved in the problem normally belong to more than one discipline. The division of knowledge into disciplines or fields is based on a distinction between subjects developed over centuries in scientific research, and in teaching curricula at universities and in primary and secondary education. Different disciplines or fields thus concentrate on different aspects of reality and different kinds of knowledge about the world. Even when disciplines have the same subject of study, they have a different approach, they use different methods and different techniques for analyzing the problems and are based on different concepts.

Within a discipline different domains can be distinguished[4]. The kind of problems referred to in this study not only include aspects that belong to the subject of study of different disciplines, but often also aspects that belong to the subject of study of different domains within one discipline. Although the major distinctions in scientific education follow the lines of the disciplines, there is also a smaller but noticeable distinction in content knowledge and sometimes in the problem handling approach between the different domains of a discipline[5]. In order to include problems that refer to two or more domains of a discipline we should, besides interdisciplinary problems, also speak of inter-domain problems. However because these problems can be approached in the same way as interdisciplinary problems, and because the problems we focus on often        contain subjects that are studied in different domains of one discipline as well as in different disciplines, we include inter-domain problems in the study of interdisciplinary problems.

For reasons of simplification we prefer to use the term interdisciplinary to indicate problems that contain subjects studied in different disciplines as well as within a discipline in different domains.


The importance of distinctions between disciplines and domains become evident when a person's education is considered. The discipline a person is educated in and the domain he or she has specialized in, determine the content knowledge  and the problem handling techniques that a person is familiar with. These shape the skills and direct the way a person deals with a problem. Education in a particular discipline and in a domain will also influence a person's view of a problem. Most of the experts, managers and scientists who are confronted professionally with complex interdisciplinary societal problems are educated in one domain of one discipline, unusually in two domains within one discipline or in two disciplines, and rarely more than two. Occasionally a person is educated in an interdisciplinary programme, but broadening the scope will often be at the expense of a loss of expertise in the different domains or in the different disciplines.


C             The term 'complex'[6]

          The problems we refer to in this study are complex. We use the word                     'complex' to indicate several aspects.

        - 'Complex' indicates that there are many subjects, objects, feelings,                          activities

 etc. involved. We refer to these subjects, objects, feelings, activities in general by the word phenomena. The word phenomena can indicate persons, groups, societies, organizations, buildings, education, ministries, but also finance, fear, activities etc.

    -  'Complex' indicates that the different phenomena are interrelated. All the               phenomena and their entanglement make it  difficult to analyze the                        situation.

        -          'Complex' indicates that the way the phenomena are connected to each                        other and influence each other is often not clear 

        - 'Complex' refers to the fact that the problems are dynamic in the sense that              they undergo changes in time                              

        - 'Complex' refers to the situation the problem creates. It is difficult to gain a        comprehensive view of the entire problem

        -          'Complex' also indicates that it is not immediately clear in which way the                      problem must be handled.

The complexity makes it difficult to analyze the situation.


D    The concept 'societal'

        Societal means that the problem has an impact on society, on society as a        whole or on an important part of society, such as on the education system,        on the political system, on the economy or a combination of these systems.



1.2.2    General characteristics of  complex interdisciplinary societal problems


Although each complex interdisciplinary societal problem has its own characteristics, there are some shared characteristics.  To mention a few (Klabbers, 1988a):


    1 There is uncertainty about the starting point, the development and the

        end of the problem

    2 Knowledge and data about the problem are incomplete or not directly                        available

    3 Many problems are only vaguely defined or not defined at all

        Botkin et al. (1979, p. 7)  argue:


                                                       "We are not certain whether the issues we identify are complete, correct, or correctly                                              stated."


    4 The problems often create a unique and sometimes an unexpected situation

    5  There are often many people involved

    6 The problems are hard to grip, let alone solve


Complex societal interdisciplinary problems are often embedded in a dynamic context as a result of which the problems change continually. This, combined with the unpredictability of the effects of interventions[7], makes it difficult to handle the problem.

It is not only difficult to give the 'solution' of a complex interdisciplinary problem, but sometimes even impossible: a definite 'solution' is often impossible to find. 'Solutions' are not at hand or may seem politically impossible at a given moment. Moreover, for many of these problems it does not seem to be possible to agree on  the optimal 'solution'.

Many problems cannot be 'solved', or at best can only be temporarily 'solved', or only a part of the problem can be 'solved'. Because 'solving' may suggests that the problem is solvable, which it often is not, we prefer to use to word 'handling' rather than 'solving' in this study.

By 'handling' we indicate the entire process of problem analyzing from awareness of a problem to the evaluation of the interventions. Handling problems does not always include performing the whole process.


1.2.3   Defining a problem


The main focus of this study is on defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems. What do we mean by 'defining' a problem? The process of problem handling can roughly be divided into two sub-cycles. The first sub-cycle is defining a problem, beginning with an awareness of a problem and ending with the conceptual model of a problem[8]. To define a problem is to define the conceptual model of a problem. This includes describing the problem, defining the relevant domain(s) for the problem, the relevant concepts, the main phenomena and the relations between the phenomena, and the theoretical ideas on which the description of the problem is based. The conceptual model of the problem can be represented by a verbal description and visualized by various graphical representations. The conceptual model is the starting point for the second part of the problem handling process. The second sub-cycle begins with the construction of the empirical model of the problem and ends with evaluation of the interventions.


1.3   Scientific importance of the study


In cognitive science most attention on problem solving is directed to small domain related problems that are solved by one person in a limited time. These are generally problems that are already defined and whose method and solution itself are known. Less attention is paid to the process of handling complex interdisciplinary societal problems. Many complex interdisciplinary societal problems are not defined. Before intervening in the problem, the problem must be clear. Therefore the first part of the handling process,  in which the problem will be defined, is most important. From the moment of awareness of a problem until the problem is defined, problem handling demands a structured approach. For this reason, we developed a method that supports this process.

In developing the method we make theoretical statements about analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems. Some of these theoretical statements are compared with aspects of a real life case in order to connect the study with empirical data.


1.4   Importance of the study for society


Only too often, people tend to think and act immediately in terms of solutions from the moment they hear about a problem. Even before it is clear what constitutes the problem, the problem is labelled and the suggesting of interventions is started. But complex interdisciplinary societal problems are not the well-defined domain related problems we work with in school, whose answers are provided on the last page of the textbook (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989).

The societal importance of this study is to make clear that complex interdisciplinary societal problems are seldom properly defined and to show it is necessary first to define them if one is to be able to suggest fruitful interventions.

Another benefit of this study is the development of a method for use in the process of defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems.


1.5  Kind of study


Little research exists on defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems. For this reason the study is an exploratory theoretical study that reflects on the scientific literature of problem handling in general, with an emphasis on the analysis and the definition of problems. In the search for arguments that can ground a method we discuss some of the relevant research literature on problem handling theories in the field of cognitive science. When necessary, we turn to other scientific theories to explain particular aspects. Since it is too early to formulate hypotheses, we formulate expectations.


1.6    Formulation of the research problem


There are many reasons why complex interdisciplinary societal problems are  difficult to handle, such as political constraints or unwillingness, financial constraints, time constraints, a lack of experience in handling these problems, the lack of a good method to structure the handling process, the complexity of the problem itself, to mention a few. Although there are many interesting subjects for research on this topic, the present study mainly focuses on finding a method and tools to support the problem handling process. Before we begin the search for a method and tools, we explore the character of complex interdisciplinary societal problems. This is formulated in the first expectation:


the character of the complex interdisciplinary societal problems is itself an important cause of the difficulty of handling these problems


The main issue of the study is:


what kind of method(s) and tools can support the problem handling skills of humans for analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems?


We assume that a good method and a set of suitable tools could improve the problem handling skills of people. A logical implication of this is that a better definition of a problem will give an advantage in suggesting interventions.

In policy making, scenarios[9] are often used to explore future developments of  problems. These scenarios are based on an empirical model of some of the main aspects of the problem.

Due to the lack of knowledge and data about the problem, the relation of a scenario of complex interdisciplinary societal problems to reality is weak. This results in expectation two:


models of complex interdisciplinary societal problems contain so much uncertainty that scenarios based on these models will also contain a large degree of uncertainty. This makes it hard to make reliable predictions based on these scenarios for the future development of the problem


In the search for tools, the study is mainly restricted to computer tools. The limits of the support a computer can provide are formulated in expectation three:


the computer can be a useful tool in assisting the human being in the process of problem handling, but it cannot replace the human being


Complex interdisciplinary societal problems are too large, too complicated and encompass too many disciplines to be handled by one person. Knowledge of different disciplines is needed. Therefore these problems should be handled by more than one person. The method that supports the problem handling of complex interdisciplinary societal problems should support the co-operative process. This is formulated in expectation four:


for analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems a method is needed that will support co-operative problem handling


Having explored these expectations we are able to formulate some of the demands that a method for supporting the defining of complex interdisciplinary societal problems should fulfill.


1.7  Research questions


Research questions related to these expectations are:


    1a    is handling complex interdisciplinary societal problems so                                   difficult because of the special character of these problems                                       (expectation 1)?

    1b    in what way do the problems that are studied in the field of cognitive

psychology differ from complex interdisciplinary societal problems and what are the similarities that are relevant for analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems (expectation 1)?

    2      what is the relation between a scenario of a complex interdisciplinary                 societal problem and reality (expectation 2)?

    3a    why can computer tools not replace the human being in the process of                handling complex interdisciplinary societal problems (expectation 3)?

    3b    in what way can the computer assist the human being in analyzing

 and          defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems (expectation 3)?

    4      what are the special aspects that a method for supporting the process of              analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems                             should possess (expectation 4)?


1.8  Method of research


The literature is studied in relation to the research questions. The results of the study have been published in several papers[10] as well as in this thesis. The methodology of this study partly follows the lines of the methodology for the social sciences developed by the psychologist De Groot (1969), a methodology which enables scientists to express statements about reality. This methodology is known as 'the empirical cycle'[11]


"...the empirical cycle is to serve as a basic construct in our logico-methodological approach to scientific inquiry, thought, and reasoning..." ( De Groot, 1969, p. 27)


The empirical cycle has the following phases (De Groot,  1969, p. 28):


"Phase I: 'Observation': Collection and grouping of empirical materials; (tentative) formation of hypotheses.

Phase 2: 'Induction': formulation of hypotheses.

Phase 3: 'Deduction': derivation of specific consequences from the hypotheses, in the form of testable predictions.

Phase 4: 'Testing': testing of the hypotheses against new empirical materials by way of checking whether or not predictions are fulfilled.

Phase 5: 'Evaluation': evaluation of the outcome of the testing procedure with respect to the hypotheses or theories stated, as well as with a view to subsequent, continued or related, investigations."


In other words: research begins with an observation of reality. On this basis, general statements about reality are formulated, special statements are derived from general statements, these special statements are compared with reality and the outcome is evaluated.

Because this is an explorative study, the study only takes into account the first two steps of the empirical cycle of De Groot: observation and induction. We will give a brief ouline of how these two phases are related to the study.


Phase I: 'Observation': Collecting and grouping empirical material; (tentative) formation of hypotheses


Before collecting and grouping empirical material there should be a realization of the fact that there is a problem that can be analyzed scientifically[12]. The awareness of the problem in this study is that the world is confronted with complex interdisciplinary societal problems, which often cause  anxiety, pain and trouble. Although this would appear to be a wide range of quite different problems, a closer look at these problems shows that they have certain things in common: they all have simultaneous influences on, or are simultaneously influenced by, many aspects of society. Realizing this, we can search for similar problems. Some of the observations of these problems are made in direct confrontation, some observations are made in discussion with other scientists, some by reading. The observations contribute to the theoretical ideas, which, in turn, are formed in interaction with the theoretical ideas. The observations are confirmed by video films, reports, comments in the public media, scientific and non-scientific[13]  literature. The observations lead to the conclusion that there are many problems that could be brought together under one concept: the concept of complex interdisciplinary societal problems. Based on this, some tacit ideas can be formed. It seems that complex interdisciplinary societal problems are very difficult to handle and that it is very difficult to find a good or even satisfactory answer to these problems.

The difficulty of handling these problems adequately suggests that it might be fruitful to examine some aspects of these problems scientifically. We do this in the expectation that a scientific analysis can shed some light and give some suggestions for handling these types of problems more adequately.


Phase 2: 'Induction': formulation of hypothesis


De Groot (1969, p. 29) reserves the term 'hypothesis' for a proposition


"...only if it is formulated in such a way that specific consequences can be derived from it in the form of concrete verifiable predictions by which it can be tested."


An explorative study like this is too early to form hypotheses. However, questions can be asked and expectations can be formulated. As indicated before we limit the study to the analysis of the structure of the problem itself as one of the causes of difficulty in handling these kind of problems, and to the development of a method and a description of tools that can help in the  analysis of these problems. The expectations and research questions are formulated in sections 1.6 and 1.7  of this chapter.


1.9      Theoretical points of view


Defining complex interdisciplinary problems can be viewed from different perspectives. It can be seen from the side of organization theory, political theory, cognitive science, chaos theory, learning theory, or computational theory etc. It can be treated mono-disciplinary and interdisciplinary fashion. The focus of this study will be interdisciplinary. This focus is restricted to the point of view of social science and especially of cognitive science, computer science and some aspects of chaos theory.

In the wide range of aspects that influence the definition of a complex interdisciplinary societal problem, we only focus on those aspects of problem handling which we assume are important for our argumentation. We discuss the problem space hypothesis of Newell and Simon (Newell & Simon, 1972) in order to see to what extent this paradigm is suitable for analyzing and defining complex interdisciplinary societal problems. We describe the different activities in the process of problem handling in order to underpin the method.

To  answer the question of what type of assistance the computer might provide in problem handling, Artificial Intelligence based programs for problem solving, in particular general problem solvers and knowledge based systems, and conventional programs such as (group) decision support systems and a simulation program will be discussed. In focusing on the relation between a scenario of a complex interdisciplinary societal problem and reality, we turn to systems theory and chaos theory, among others, to describe some of the issues we encounter.


1.10    Constraints and bottlenecks


Research constraints


In describing the problem handling process and in developing a method, we assume the problem will be handled in a democratic way. In some countries or at certain times in some countries[14], undemocratic ways of policy making are practiced. In such a situation, problems will be handled differently, and the method we support cannot be applied there. We restrict the study to the defining of complex interdisciplinary societal problems in democratic highly-industrialized societies that belong to the western culture. Although it is difficult to define precisely what is meant by a democratic highly-industrialized society. However one can imagine a democracy such as may be observed in countries of the EC, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1993.

A democracy, or a certain kind of democracy, is needed in order to be able to use a method of co-operative problem handling based on information exchange that considers the knowledge of each person in the problem handling group equally important. China in 1959, when Mao Tse Tung was the leader of the communist party, is an example of a country where the method cannot be used. At that time in China, even the slightest criticism led to exclusion of people from their profession or worse (Chang, 1991). We restrict the problem handling method to the western culture also, because not every culture will approach problems in the same way. The Western European point of view is mentioned, because it is possible that at least at some points people of other cultures might react differently to some of the problems. For instance, some people might consider poverty, flood disaster or disease as a punishment from a Higher Power or as a person's own karma, in which case their relation to the problem and the interventions could be different. However this does not mean that the method cannot be applied to countries which do not have a democracy. In that case there will be restrictions as to who can be included in the problem handling team. When an institution like UNESCO handles a complex problem in an undemocratic country, UNESCO must have the guarantee that the members of the institution who are working on the problem will be free to communicate and will have access to the information they need to handle the problem.

A complex interdisciplinary societal problem has an impact on different levels of society. In this study, we focus on the effect of complex interdisciplinary societal problems from the point of view of policy makers, especially of  governmental policy-makers. When there is a problem it does not automatically mean that there is any attempt to deal with the problem. Sometimes a problem will be neglected or not noticed at all. The study is restricted to problems that are noticed and which policy makers feel the need to handle.

The research is a descriptive study based on theoretical analysis. The method developed will not be empirically evaluated in this study.


Bottlenecks in problem handling


It would be naive to suppose that everybody has the intention of looking for an optimal way to handle a problem[15]. The world as it is known by its differences in power and wealth, is not ready to come up with solutions (if possible) that would benefit all people. Often more direct and selfish goals are aimed at. Literature about complex interdisciplinary social problems written from the point of view of the victims often emphasizes the political unwillingness of people who are in power, to handle the problem adequately for them (J. Smit, 1984; Glasbergen, 1992b; French, 1992).

Botkin (et al., 1979, p. 7) writes about human failures to handle complex problems adequately:


"...it is not only our capacity to cope which is in question but also our ability or willingness to perceive, understand, and take action on present issues as well as to foresee, avert, and take responsibility for future ones."


In this study we do not focus on all aspects that could interfere with the problem handling process. As indicated earlier, the political and personal unwillingness, hidden agendas, different political points of view, and personal benefits will in the main be neglected, although we are aware that these issues cause many complications. In this study the emphasis is on cognitive aspects and the study includes only some of the psychological  processes that might interfere with an optimal result.  However, in excluding certain aspects that do have a bearing we must beware of falling into the same trap as many other researchers on complex problems: of neglecting important aspects of the problem in order to make a complicated situation easier to understand, and in doing so excluding the essence of the problem.


1.11   Theme of the study


The world seems to be becoming smaller and more people, countries, governments and enterprises are involved in a complex everyday interaction. Modern communication brings the world and all of its problems closer together than ever before. 

The world is confronted with problems of pollution, exponential growth of some of the metropolitan cities, shortage of food in some areas, and unemployment (DeTombe, 1993b). 

The Club of Rome (Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens, 1972; Botkin et al., 1979) is one of the organizations that made the world aware that these problems have a great impact on society and require guidance. A very high price must be paid for the failure of scientists and policy makers to handle these problems adequately, sometimes even the price of (the quality of) human lives. Handling complex interdisciplinary societal problems adequately is very difficult. Decisions have to be taken at short notice, sometimes without even knowing in what direction a solution should be sought. Combined with the fact that the problem handlers are seldom explicitly trained in handling these kind of problems other than by experience, and that there is an absence of an adequate method of analysis, it is hard to approach these problems adequately. By improving methods of problem definition we hope to make, at least a part of the problem handling process more adequate.

A better analysis and definition of the problem will give a better conceptual model of the problem which, in turn, should give a better chance of handling the problem adequately.


1.12  Summary and conclusions


The world is confronted with problems that have a great impact on society and  seem to be hard to handle; even defining is difficult. These problems may be labelled as complex interdisciplinary societal problems. The impact of these problems on society makes it worthwhile to study these problems. This study emphasizes the defining of complex interdisciplinary societal problems. In order to find a way to improve the process of analyzing and defining, theories of problem handling are studied, particularly theories within cognitive science. Problem handling tools will be analyzed with an emphasis on computer tools. In studying the literature on problem handling we expect to find indications for developing a method of analysis and definition of complex interdisciplinary societal problems. In so doing we assume that a better definition of the problem will enhance the chance to improve the quality of handling complex interdisciplinary problems. The 'gap' between the complexity and the way we can deal with it is primarily a human gap rather than a technological or a material gap.

In this chapter the expectations and research questions to be analyzed in the study have been formulated. There is so far little research on the issue, and therefore the study will be of an exploratory, theoretical nature. The process of problem handling will be restricted to the point of view of policy makers in western highly-industrialized democratic countries.

In chapter two we explore what constitutes a problem and when a problem is solved. Then there is a brief historical review of some important contributions to the knowledge on problem handling. In this review the ideas of Newell and Simon (Newell & Simon, 1972) concerning their concept of a 'problem space' and their 'state-space-search' paradigm are discussed with respect to the way these ideas can support handling complex interdisciplinary societal problems. The chapter concludes with a comparison between problems dealt with in cognitive science and complex interdisciplinary societal problems.


[1]  See the conflicts in former Yugoslavia taking place in 1993 and 1994.


[2]  Empirical problems can also be called practical problems or real problems.


[3]   The word 'world' is used to indicate several things such as an individual, an organization, a society or (a part of ) nature.


[4]  In the discipline of mathematics the domains of algebra and geometry can be distinguished.


[5]   Sometimes the difference between domains of one discipline is greater than the distinction between two disciplines.


[6]   The word 'complex' is used here in the way it is often used in the social sciences. This is  different from the way the word 'complex' is used in mathematics. In mathematics the word is more rigidly defined.


[7]   Interventions are actions towards (some part of) a problem, performed in the hope or expectation that the action will reduce the discrepancy between the contemporary situation and the desired situation.


[8]   See figure 2 of section 3.3.3.


[9]   Scenarios are images of future developments.


[10]  See publications of the author in the reference list.


[11]  Although this is not an empirical study in the sense that hypotheses are formulated and tested with empirical data, we did make empirical observations that are the basis for this study.


[12]  De Groot (1969) refers to research on problems that are already defined. He does not emphasize the first sub-cycle of the problem handling process.


[13]  Especially political non-scientific literature on societal changes in East-Europe, documents on ecological problems and ego-documents of racism.


[14]  As in Germany in the period between 1933-1945.


[15]  Besides this it is often not possible to say what an optimal solution is and how it will look.

See for more publications of Dorien J. DeTombe

See for lectures of Dorien J. DeTombe


Ó Dorien J. DeTombe, All rights reserved, update September 2003