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Atavism, layering and subversion: Understanding great social challenges of today through the lens of cultural contingents

Journal article
Authors Mirek Dymitrow
Rene Brauer
Slobodan Arsovski
Jadwiga Biegańska
Published in Geographical Reviews
Volume 51–52
Pages in press
ISSN 1409-908X
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Economy and Society, Unit for Human Geography
Mistra Urban Futures
Pages in press
Language en
Keywords unsustainability, great social challenges, wicked problems, wicked solutions, cultural contingents
Subject categories Human Geography, Social Sciences Interdisciplinary, Cultural Studies, Sociology


Great social challenges of today no longer come one by one. What makes them great is their ever-greater entanglement in one other and across multiple levels, including landscapes, regimes and niches. To this background, a major challenge facing many countries today is how to successfully address issues of interlocking problems of unsustainability caused by cultural contingents. We argue that while the social problems of today have gone wicked, we still imagine them as if they were tame. Tame approaches to wicked problems, in turn, are likely to spawn “wicked solutions”, i.e. purported counteractions that are so conceptually unsuitable for the problem at hand that they can even overwhelm the wickedness of the wicked problem. This makes it so much more difficult to resolve. In this paper, we present three conspicuous examples in this dimension: cultural atavism, artificial layering and pathological subversion. We argue that acknowledging wicked solutions as different from wicked problems is a first step to mitigate the daunting effects that may arise when the two intertwine.

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