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What are social problems?

Navigating “tame”, “wicked” and social problems

In the last decade, social innovation and social entrepreneurship have received growing attention form both scholars and public media. Even though social innovation can take place outside entrepreneurial activities, and social entrepreneurship doesn’t necessary lead to innovative outcomes, the two terms have something in common: they both point at social problems. But precisely, what is a social problem?

A definition of social problems

Literature on social problems has long being based on Hart’s (1923) studies. Yet, the definition of social problems hasn’t changed ever since. According to Hart, a social problem is indeed “a problem which actually or potentially affects large numbers of people in a common way so that it may best be solved by some measure or measures applied to the problem as a whole rather than by dealing with each individual as an isolated case, or which requires concerted or organized human action.” 

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Here are some examples of social problems:

1) economic problems (i.e. poverty, unemployment)

2) health problems (i.e. living conditions, access to health systems)

3) political problems (i.e. immigration, civil rights)

4) socio-psychological problems (i.e. racism, gender inequality)

5) educational problems (i.e. access to education)

6) environmental problems (i.e. climate change)

The work of Hart has been extremely valuable in drawing academic attention to societal problems. However, no practical guideline about how to concretely solve social issues was provided. Thus academics started digging into this topic, unraveling their connection with “wicked” problems.

“Tame” vs “wicked” problems

Horst Rittel first used the term “wicked problem” in the early 1960s, during his lectures at the University of California. Later on, “wicked” problems got formally described as “ill-defined, ill-formulated problems, with confused information and ramifications in the whole society, and multiple stakeholders involved“. Because of such a lack of clarifying traits, societal problems are usually considered as wicked, whereas problems faced by scientists and engineers are mostly seen as “tame”.

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As a matter of fact, “tame problems” are univocally definable, and have non-ambiguous information, clear and well-known logics of approach, and findable solutions. And let’s be clear here: such characteristics do not make tame problems easy to be solved!

Now, back to wicked problems. Their internal wickedness and complexity make them quite similar to social problems. As a matter of fact, there are substantial overlaps between the two concepts. For instance, there is no definitive formulation of a “wicked problem“. Also, solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but simply good-or-bad. Something that, to some extent, definitely applies to societal problems too.


Head and Alford (2015) claim that “most major public policy problems are wicked”. They also mention typical social issues such as poverty, crime, child abuse, as problems characterized by internal wickedness. Truth to be told, they are not the only scholars stating that societal problems and wicked ones are essentially the same thing.

In conclusion, societal problems are multifaceted and ill-defined by nature. They have been repeatedly considered “wicked problems” by scholars, in contrast to those described as “tame” ones. When we talk about “social problems“, we usually refer to certain conditions potentially leading to negative outcomes for society.

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