Why Business Can Alleviate Wicked Social Problems?

Social Innovation Insight
4 min readMay 26, 2022

Whenever there are humans, there are social problems, only matters to what extent. So what is the social problem? From the time we are living now, we face climate change, social injustice, homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, health care, aging challenge, technology exclusivity and etc on a global level. And all of them are so-called ‘wicked social problem’, which is coined by Webber and Rittel in 1973.

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They introduced the term in the context of distinguishing problems that are complex, involving so many different systems, and yet no clear answers. They also proposed ten characteristics of wicked social problems:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping sign, which means there are no signals to show they are solved.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but only better or worse.
  4. There is no way to test the solution.
  5. Every solution is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong.

As wicked social problems are so unique, complex, and cannot be solved easily, then are there any methods to mitigate them and their effects? Researchers found that many of these problems are entangled with markets, so corporations may play a role in improving our society, to pursue a ‘common good’ as a goal of marketing.

Image source: Pexels.com

Some researchers have studied the relationship between marketing and wicked social problems, and proposed several metatheoretical frameworks and theories:

  1. Systems theories. It includes but is not limited to service ecosystems theory, social ecology and behavioral ecological systems theories, complexity theory and complexity economics, and structuration theory. Basically, it assumes that systems are continually evolving, and highlights the relationship between each market and network agents, which could apply to understanding the interconnections between markets and wicked social problems.
  2. Practice theory. It focuses on a wide range of routinized practices and processes in market systems, from micro, meso, and macro levels. Such as how CSR, brand activism, and corporate philanthropy, contribute to or mitigate a wicked social problem.
  3. Institutional theory. This theory is concerned with the relationship between institutions and their external environments, such as norms, rules, and beliefs, so that it can be applied to examine the breadth and depth of wicked social problems.
  4. Socio-material theories. It includes both human and non-human actors and how they network and affect each other. Regarding wicked social problems, understanding stakeholders and what is contributing to the problem have the capacity to mitigate wicked social problems.
  5. Social and cognitive psychological theories. It studies consumer behaviors, their emotions, attitudes, intentions, social groups, identity, and other factors in individuals or groups that could be used to illuminate agent actions that contribute to wicked social problems.
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We face numerous social problems and their consequences every day worldwide. Given that many of these problems are entangled with markets, business leaders and researchers should acknowledge their responsibility to help alleviate them. Marketing for a better world is not just a slogan, but actually a possible way to mitigate wicked social problems.

This is article is an abstract of a research paper: UNRAVEL-ing gnarly knots: A path for researching market-entangled wicked social problems.


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Originally published at http://socialinnovatorshome.com on May 26, 2022.



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