Problematizing ‘wickedness’: a critique of the wicked problems concept, from philosophy to practice

Nicholas Turnbull, Robert Hoppe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The concept of ‘wicked problems’ is a major current in the fields of policy analysis and planning. However, the basis of the concept has been insufficiently examined. This re-examination of its conceptual basis explains the origins of the limitations and flaws in the wicked problems concept. This paper analyzes and rejects the notion of 'wicked problems' on philosophical and practical grounds. We argue instead that the policy sciences already had better conceptualizations of public problems before Rittel and Webber’s flawed formulation. We return to this literature, and build upon it by reframing 'wickedness' in terms of higher and lower levels of problematicity in problem structuring efforts. In doing so we offer an alternative, novel combination of the philosophy of questioning and the policy work approach to policy practice. 'Wickedness' is reconceptualized as problematicity, conceived as the distance between those who question or inquire into a policy problem. This is primarily a political distance, articulated in terms of ideas, interests, institutions and practices. High problematicity arises only when wide political distances are explicitly maintained, such that partial answers cannot be reached. Practitioners deal with problematicity by a dual practical strategy of balancing closing-down and opening-up sub-questions to the problem in order to structure them such that they become amenable to action through partial answers. This simultaneously incorporates a politics of negotiating political distance via partisan adjustment and serial strategic analysis. The argument constitutes a theoretically and practically superior alternative to the ‘wicked problems’ perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)315-337
JournalPolicy & Society
Issue number2
Early online date2 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2018


  • Wicked problems
  • Questioning
  • Distance
  • policy work
  • unstructured problems
  • problematology


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