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What Other Disciplines Can Learn From Community Psychology about Addressing Wicked Problems

What Other Disciplines Can Learn From Community Psychology about Addressing Wicked Problems by  Linda Silka

Many disciplines are discovering that the problems they are working on are “wicked problems.” Wicked problems, as Brown, Harris, and Russell (2010) point out, are ones that have innumerable causes, are interconnected with other problems, and rarely have a single acceptable solution. Wicked problems are more common than not. Researchers often expect that they can solve such problems by relying on traditional research methods, yet hundreds of studies can be carried out and the answer as to what should be done can still be up in the air. This is new territory for many disciplines, and they are experiencing significant challenges.

To solve wicked problems, researchers are discovering that they need to learn new strategies for approaching science:

  1. Researchers with different kinds of expertise need to put their heads together,
  2. scientists and decision makers need to interact regularly and become more familiar with each other’s worlds, and
  3. citizens and laypeople need to be involved in the research.

Where Might Guidance Be Found

The question then is where disciplines can look for examples in what for them is this new arena. Where can they look for guidance? Community psychology can be an important place for researchers to look. Community psychologists have long worked on these kinds of problems: problems that have innumerable causes, are interconnected with other problems, and rarely have single acceptable solutions. Community psychologists have worked on problems that cannot be solved without partnership and that cannot be understood without drawing on diverse perspectives. They have investigated problems for which empirical data is only part of the answer and for which policy and action must be kept in mind.

Sustainability Science as an Example of Research Areas Confronting Wicked Problems

Sustainability science is illustrative of areas struggling to figure out what to do in this new arena of wicked problems. Sustainability is a rapidly growing international field of studies. I’ve been fortunate to be a team member of one such project: the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) in the state of Maine in the United States ( Over one hundred faculty members from campuses throughout the state representing dozens of different disciplines are working with stakeholders to come up with solutions to diverse and urgent sustainability problems. And SSI is just one of many such large scale sustainability initiatives (Hart et al, 2016). The authors of Tackling Wicked Problems (Brown, Harris, & Russell, 2010) point to the international need for such initiatives because of “…the chronic inability of narrow solutions to inform sustainable decisions in times of social and environmental change” (p.3). The authors go on to note that it is important to find ways “to frame the issues other than giving up or persisting with solutions that prove to be part of the problem” (p.3).

Often, the issue of doing useful sustainability research has been described as countering the traditional loading dock approach (Cash, Borck, & Patt, 2006). In the loading dock approach, individual researchers do research simply taking for granted that someone in the end will find that research useful and will be able to use it for action, policy, and the like. Often such is not the case; the research is not useful and doesn’t get used. Strategies for countering the loading dock approach need to include:

(1) Finding ways to do research from the outset that link knowledge to action.

(2) Ensuring stakeholder-researcher partnerships are central to the research in order to increase the likelihood that the research will be useful.

(3) Building interdisciplinary approaches so that the studies are not hemmed in or constrained by disciplinary habits or rituals that don’t translate beyond a particular discipline (Brown, Harris, & Russell (2010) call this moving “beyond disciplinary confinement” (p. 17)).

(4) Taking into consideration how programs and interventions might scale up or otherwise prepare for implementation in a variety of contexts.

There is the potential that sustainability researchers can learn a great deal from how community psychologists have tackled such issues; community psychologists have much to offer. Moreover, the benefit can be bidirectional. By looking at what is going on in sustainability science, we as community psychologists might see how we need to change or what we might do differently. Below are four examples to start this discussion about cross learning to address wicked problems.

1. Organizing Research From the Outset With the Goal of Linking Knowledge to Action

Others could learn from community psychology’s well-honed ways of doing research that links knowledge with action. Detailed illustrations of such practices are available in the Community Tool Box, in journals such as the American Journal of Community Psychology, or in guides such as Community Participatory Research. Part of what is so valuable about these community psychology resources is that they go well beyond highlighting findings and outcomes. These resources delve into process and they illustrate how outcomes are obtained and obstacles overcome. And, they do not ignore the context in which the knowledge moves to action and thus encourage evaluation of the importance of contextual factors.

Yet sustainability scientists are unlikely to look at our settings and see themselves and their problems mirrored there. In sustainability studies, research might concern, for example, something like bee colony collapse in which the pollinators crucial for many of major food crops worldwide have suddenly gone into rapid and dramatic decline. Researchers have been unable to identify what is causing this collapse and therefore what actions should be taken. There are so many possibilities about causes: what the fields adjacent to bee colonies are like and whether habitat destruction is occurring, the ways in which bees are now transported across great distances and under potentially stress-producing conditions, or new combinations of chemicals that are now in the atmosphere. Finding ways to work with bee keepers and farmers and policy makers is important to figure out what kinds of research can lead to action. Researchers are exploring ways to build what they are calling the Bee Mapper Assessment Tool to put together many factors from many different perspectives to ensure the usefulness of research results in leading to action.

Could sustainability researchers draw on community psychology work for lessons? Can we as community psychologists do a better job of making our lessons transferable, showing what leads research to be valuable to action questions? As community psychologists continue to expand what they conceive of as community (e.g., Is it physical? Is it online? Is it a locale? Is it a workplace?), we may find our research tools and approaches can be extended to these different settings and are amenable to providing insights about these different settings.

2. Focusing on Building Stakeholder-Researcher Partnerships

Researchers in sustainability and other areas can learn from community psychology about overcoming the challenges of building productive research partnerships. Again, books such as Participatory Community Research and hands-on resources such as the Community Tool Box offer many suggestions. Such resources are filled with rich examples of how groups come together to form a partnership, what the different stages are in a stakeholder-researcher partnership, and what strategies are likely to be successful for dealing with challenges such as the ubiquitous power differences. These resources highlight emerging best practices that others can learn from and thus keep from having to start from scratch.

Community psychologists, in turn, can learn from the challenges that sustainability researchers are making visible through contexts that are so different from ours. Sustainability stakeholder-researcher partnerships investigate such challenges as resource management in coastal areas, for example, where clammers and scallopers compete for use of scarce coastal resources and where policies that help one group might hurt the other. The status and resource differences between clammers and scallopers raise important challenges for partnership, as does the timing of work and events. Partnerships have begun framing their work as “working the tides,” capturing by the very name the ways in which the timing of coming together is a key component to effective collaboration. And sustainability partnerships are drawing on Ostrom’s (2007) research on “commons” in which partnerships are dealing with resources that are shared as opposed to individually owned (e.g., oceans as opposed to farm fields). Such cases can provide us as community psychologists with new examples to think about in terms of how partnerships work under different settings and the implications this might have for generalizable advice we might offer.

3. Ensuring that Disciplines Work Together and Integrate Their Approaches

Researchers are coming to recognize that as they tackle wicked problems they need to bring together knowledge and approaches from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. But how to achieve this is unfamiliar and unclear. From community psychologists they could learn about strategies for bringing together different strands of knowledge from different disciplines and subdisciplines. Community psychologists have done this with all sorts of issues (e.g., poverty, prejudice, conflict, cooperation, youth, aging). We know the challenges and opportunities and have identified some best practices. Researchers such as those studying sustainability might learn from this. But their topics are so different we need to think about how we make our work translatable and transferable. Some sustainability researchers, for example, are studying renewable power. To investigate tidal power, for example, such as in Eastern Canada and Maine where some of the largest tides in the world offer great potential for harnessing sustainable tidal power, it is crucial to bring together those who fish and those who study fish habitat, engineers who investigate underwater technology, those who lead and study sea-based recreation opportunities, those who study ocean conditions, and those who have deep understanding of the history of the usage of these tidal basin. Bringing these groups together is no easy task and sustainability partnerships are looking for models for how to build ways to work together across differences. Community psychology can provide many different ideas and examples that might stimulate problem solving and innovation.

4. Preparing to Tackle Questions of Scale-Up

To turn the tables a bit, community psychologists might learn from seeing how sustainability scientists have tackled the problem of scale-up. One of the key struggles that sustainability researchers are confronting is how to do research that looks for solutions that scale up: approaches that work at the community level but which also work at regional, national, and even international scale. In community psychology we have generated knowledge of how to work at the community level with all of its face-to-face characteristics and interpersonal interaction opportunities. Although sustainability researchers seek to understand the challenges communities face, these research partnerships are also asking questions about larger scale where not only are people not face to face, but where there may be emergent properties (properties that do not arise at the community level) as well as where there may also be overlapping and conflicting patterns of control and responsibility that complicate the kinds of solutions that can be put into place. Sustainability partnerships studying watersheds, for example, look at small neighborhoods, parts of states, and even whole regions that cross national borders. They work to identify viable solutions across these scales where people are sometimes operating face to face and other times not, where people can sometimes spend time together and other times not, and where people can sometimes build trust in familiar ways and sometimes have to invent new strategies. And sustainability partnerships are thinking about how to confront this and what strategies might work. Community psychology might learn from looking at the scale problems that sustainability scientists confront and considering how similar problems may need to be addressed when in community psychology we attempt to use our practices at different scales.

Overarching Implications about the Validity of Our Research Approach

Finally, there are larger Implications about research that should not be lost: community psychology illustrates a powerful research model. Good science is not inevitably about theory-testing, hypothesis testing, or honing of theories from a single disciplinary perspective. In community psychology we do not have to shoehorn our work into a tight box of research practices that emphasize experiments and hypo-deductive positivist approaches that are ill-suited to the kinds of wicked problems we confront. We don’t have to become, and shouldn’t feel compelled to become, experimental psychologists. Instead we can continue to point the way to engaged research approaches that are better suited to studying and solving the kinds of wicked problems that many disciplines are increasingly coming to understand are crucial to address. Community psychology has much to offer as scientists in many areas begin to reflect on the need for different strategies to solve problems.


Brown, V. A., Harris, J. A., & Russell, J. Y. (Eds.). (2010). Tackling Wicked Problems: Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination. London: Earthscan.

Cash, D. W., Borck, J. C., & Patt, G. P. (2006). Countering the loading-dock approach to linking science and decision making. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 31(4), 465-494.

Hart, D. D., Buizer, J. L., Foley, J. A., Gilbert, L. E., Graumlich, L. J., Kapuscinski, A. R., Kramer, J. G., Palmer, M. A., Peart, D. R., & Silka, L. (2016). Mobilizing the Power of Higher Education to Tackle the Grand Challenge of Sustainability: Lessons from Novel Initiatives. Elementa, 4, 1-5.

Jason, L. A., Keys, C. B., Suarez-Balcazar, Y., Taylor, R. R., & Davis, M. I. (2004). Participatory Community Research: Theories and Methods in Action. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ostrom, E. (2007). A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(39), 15181-15187.


Linda Silka Linda Silka

Dr. Linda Silka is a social and community psychologist by training, with much of her work focusing on building community-university research partnerships. Dr. Silka was the former Director of the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and is now Senior Fellow at the University of Maine's George Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.  Prior to moving to the University of Maine, Dr. Silka was a faculty member for three decades at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she directed the Center for Family, Work, Community, served as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Community Outreach and Partnerships, and was Professor of Regional Economic and Social Development. Recent research partnerships she has facilitated include the NIEHS-funded Southeast Asian Environmental Justice Partnership and the New Ventures Partnership, the HUD-funded Community Outreach Partnership Center and Diverse Healthy Homes Initiative, and the Center for Immigrant and Refugee Community Leadership and Empowerment. Silka has written extensively on the challenges and opportunities of building research partnerships with diverse and has consulted internationally on how to build community-university research partnerships.

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