Dancing With Demons: Pathogenic Problem Solving


  • Kathleen S. Long Optima Research Group, Inc.


autopoiesis, second-order cybernetics, social systems design, epistemology, wicked problem, vicious circle, complexity, sustainability


This paper explores the way in which we define and deal with social problems such as crime and proposes a new way of thinking about them. Criminality, poverty, illiteracy, addiction and child abuse are some of society's most acute and intractable problems. Despite countless attempted remedies, these complex social problems have continued to grow around the world. Although we have developed systems to address these problems, their operation routinely increases problem severity and scope. They are, in effect, perfectly designed to grow the very pathologies which they were designed to eliminate. To confront these paradoxical outcomes, I took a trans-disciplinary approach to develop a new systemic view for designing systems to cope with the emergent meta-problems. Anchored in second-order cybernetics, and ethnography, this research re-contextualized the problem within a self-reproductive economy of interaction and meaning-making, drawing its boundaries on the basis of its systemic operations and conditions of connectivity across intersecting roles related to the problem-solver, the problem host and the identified problem itself. The result is a model of pathogenesis as nested interactions appearing iteratively from individual to societal levels, revealing a self-referential, recursive and paradoxical structure. Within the multitude of self-referential systems, both biological and social, this research provides a new framework which exposes those factors that initiate, reinforce, escalate and perpetuate unintended evolutionary consequences and identifies specific alterations required to systemically produce beneficial results. An ethnographic case study from the criminal justice system serves as the starting point for this research which provides the basis for an innovative systems methodology relevant to understanding the human condition, and a model for effective, sustainable decision-making processes.



How to Cite

Long, K. S. (2006). Dancing With Demons: Pathogenic Problem Solving. Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2006, Sonoma, CA, USA. Retrieved from https://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings50th/article/view/336



Human Systems Inquiry