A Perspective of Social Messes

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Wicked problems.

The dominant way of social planning, as Rittel and Webber argued, is mechanistic, whereas many of the problems we face are complex. It means problems difficult to describe, too big to fully understand, and there are various perspectives of what is happening which inhibits agreement, and they call such problems wicked problems.

When both the dynamics of the problem and the social environment is complex, Elliot talks about wicked messes, and Horn social messes. Another wrinkle is when the social complexity involves coercion, power games, or violence. I am not aware of any approach geared to understanding this high-level social complexity.

The first problem is agreeing what we mean by complexity. To most, from a mechanistic perspective, complexity is a state that one may identify and analyze in order to bring it under control. I take the position complexity is a perspective of reality, with many components interacting, unique properties emerging from the interactions, what emerges is in constant flux, and the flux is both stable and unstable at the same time. One may gather knowledge of the components through analysis, i.e., by reducing what interest me to its components, as mechanistic planning does, but that tells me nothing about their interactions and the emerging properties. Understanding that requires synthesis, i.e., connecting the components to find the interactions and from that, emergent properties. In short, mechanistic planning leaves out an important part and perspective of the reality involved.

Secondly, humans are biologically, psychologically, and socially immensely complex. Some understanding of that complexity is required to better understand social messes. A bare-bones outline of what that social complexity may look like is as follows.

We interact with the social world via the biological potential we are born with, and social world we are born in, which not only shapes and prunes the biology, but also a personal sense of identity we may call an I. Humans evolved to work together in groups for survival, a sense of belonging, and to feel of value, or grow a self-esteem.

From our interrelationships and interactions with others in groups, we take on and integrate shared values norms, behaviors, habits, etc., from which emerges a social identity, or sense of us. From the interaction between the personal I and social we, a sense of self emerges we may call a me.

To meet collective goals requires different roles, and we evolved to attach value to those roles which we rank socially. We signify the value of roles with social status, which feeds back to our self as a measure of how much others value us, which affects how much we value ourselves.

Social rank is also at the basis of emerging hierarchies, which, conceptually, can be divided into prestige-based and formal hierarchies as above. We voluntarily assign status based on prestige, which means we can also withdraw it, hence those with prestige-based status are obliged to use their status and power democratically through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise, as opposed to formal hierarchies. Status in formal hierarchies flows from assigned authority, hence power is more likely to be used to intimidate, coerce, or for violence, which can be through social sources of advantage.

Social status gives you access to and control over resources, of which there are various kinds, which means their unequal distribution, and social advantage to those who control it, and social inequality. Not only do you get social rewards with status, you can expect better outcomes biologically, economically, and socially, which spills over to your descendants.

Because we are all different along many dimensions, we experience the world differently, which means disagreement and conflict is inevitable. Disagreement and conflict are not what matters, it is how we manage it, and the outcome depends on esteem, social rank, social status, the type of hierarchy, power dimensions, etc. When we engage with each other, the question is not only what are we doing, but, more importantly, what is going on amongst us and how does that influence what we are doing.

If you start from a foundation of reality as complex, and use that for understanding the complexity of social dynamics, wicked messes become less opaque. Note, I’m not suggesting that gives us more control, far from it. It becomes apparent that politics and bureaucracy are obstacles to change, and the way forward is around it, not through it.

As Flyvbjerg pointed out in his analysis of project failures and Strümpfer in his incubated learning approach, you can build shared understanding in smaller groups, who are more creative and innovative than large dinosaurs. Their ideas can be trialed and adapted, and using the complexity concept of self-similarity, rolled out on a larger scale, continuously trialing and adapting to local contexts, which may overcome political and bureaucratic inertia.

But, as they, and the model presented here also show, if there is intimidation, coercion, and violence in the background, the only options are to submit or resist, or, for a planner, to walk away from the problem. And the sad reality is, resistance is doomed to eventually repeat the same outcome covered in a different layer of paint.

To conclude, by changing our mindset and beliefs, one can understand social messes, and there are approaches attached to the changed mindset that can be usefully employed, but if the mess is truly wicked, there is little you can do.