Clumsy Solutions for Wicked Problems
Solving wicked problems involves mobilizing different actors, different forms of knowledge and different
practices. In short, it requires messy solutions.
what UC Berkeley Professors TODAY’S LEADERS INCREASINGLY FACE Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called ‘wicked problems’. Issues such as climate change, health governance, poverty and income inequality are highly complex, and have proven stubbornly resistant to resolution by the tried-and-tested tools of analysis.
Part of the problem is that the complexity and fluidity of wicked problems precludes finding a single, correct solution. Solving these problems involves mobilizing different actors, different forms of knowledge and different practices. In short, it entails finding ways to harness and activate pluralism.
In the decades since Rittel and Webber’s seminal publication, the field of organizational studies has created a rich reservoir of theories and practices to tackle wicked problems. But how well do these approaches really help us deal with wicked problems? And can we predict which approach is most likely to overcome them?
In this article we will argue that the Theory of Socio-cultural Variability — or ‘Cultural Theory’ for short, pioneered by anthro- pologist Mary Douglas — provides a powerful contribution to answering these questions.
Cultural Theory 101
Cultural Theory postulates that four ‘ways of life’ are the building blocks of social life: individualism, hierarchy, egalitarianism and fatalism. Every social domain — from a kindergarten to an international regime — is said to consist of an ever-changing mix of these four ways of organizing, justifying and perceiving human relations. Case study evidence from a wide range of domains suggests that one way of dealing with wicked problems is through forms of governance that creatively and flexibly combine these four ways of organizing social relations.
Even though these ways of organizing and perceiving emerge in opposition to each other, Cultural Theory shows that they are also dependent upon one another. Furthermore, they all contain a ‘kernel of truth’ as to how people can and would like to live, and as a result, social diversity and disagreement comes