Shades of wickedness: Attempting to advance the conceptualization and operationalization of wicked problems

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The concept of wicked problem (WP) has recently gained increasing prominence in public policy (Ferlie et al. 2011, Head 2008, Head and Alford 2013) and in the social sciences at large (Camillus 2008, Meckenstock et al 2015, Burns et al. 2013). Initially, Rittel and Webber (1973) used 10 characteristics to define WPs, but they remain silent about their possible combinations and intensities. Furthermore, these characteristics are quite abstract and difficult to use in empirical analysis. Consequently, they are rarely used as analytical categories and scholars often revert to wickedness as a binary concept (tame-wicked). Head (2008) intends to increase the analytical depth of the concept and suggests conceptualizing a WP as a combination of the dimensions “complexity”, “uncertainty” and “value divergence” of stakeholders involved. In his view, WPs are those problems that are characterized by simultaneously showing high levels of two or three of these dimensions. The paper, however, does not explain in more detail what these three dimensions exactly are, how they could be measured and how combinations of different levels will lead to different shades of wickedness. This academic exercise becomes highly relevant, if we manage to connect different types of interventions to different shades of wickedness in order to cope with WPs. Our paper tries to make progress in that direction by first developing a more detailed operationalization of the three wickedness dimensions. Second, based on the results of step 1, we will report the results of a field experiment in which respondents were invited to categorize different WPs according to (combinations of the three dimensions) to see how people perceive possible variations. Third, we will discuss to what extent such a more detailed conceptualization can be used on different levels of analysis (e.g. global, sectoral, organizational or team level).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 14 Apr 2016


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