Subproblems Thesis Statements

It all begins with the right subproblem decomposition

The right analysis begins with the right questions. The System Improvement Process (SIP) tells us that these are the three key questions:

1. What are the critical subproblems?

2. What are the root causes of each subproblem?

3. What are the high leverage points for resolving the root causes?

Get the first question right and the rest are so much easier. Get it wrong and the rest are insolvable. Thus finding the right subproblems is the key to solving the sustainability problem.

The first question asks "What are the critical subproblems? How can I best divide the one big problem into smaller subproblems, so each can be solved individually?" SIP has already mostly answered the first question since it comes with the three subproblems present in all difficult social problems:

1. How to overcome change resistance
2. How to achieve proper coupling
3. How to avoid excessive solution model drift

The analysis discovered there are two proper coupling subproblems in the sustainability problem. This gives the analysis a total of four subproblems. Here they are:

Subproblem A - How to overcome change resistance

There are strong forces resisting change, as represented in the change resistance icon. This subproblem is the crux of the overall problem because if change resistance is not overcome, the other subproblems cannot be solved.

Note the R in the icon. That signifies a reinforcing feedback loop. The analysis shows there are powerful reinforcing feedback loops causing the very high change resistance we see to solving the sustainability problem. Understanding these loops is critical for solving the change resistance subproblem.

The basic loops involved may be seen from two viewpoints. One is described in detail in Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem. The high level diagram from that paper is shown. Quoting from the paper:

Intermediate causes is the problem to solve. When symptoms of those causes begin to arrive or a few forward-looking thinkers spot those causes and figure out the consequences, unsolved problem symptoms starts to grow. This activates the Problem Commitment loop. This causes force committed to favor change to start growing, which activates the Forces Favoring Change loop. If the model contained only the loops below the dotted line, growth of the middle loop would eventually increase adopted proper practices enough to reduce the intermediate causes to an acceptable level, which would solve the problem.

But the human system is not that simple. A third loop sits atop the other two, silently lurking, just waiting to be activated. That occurs when known proper practices start growing. This increases anticipated loss for some agents, causing the Forces Resisting Change loop to spring into action. If loop amplification is strong enough, change resistance will be high enough to overwhelm efforts to get the known proper practices adopted. The result is solution failure.

Our analysis has discovered two possible systemic root causes of why the upper loop exhibits such high gain. These are instances of the two high level root cause classes shown. The root cause of why techniques enhancing resistance succeed must be resolved first, since this resistance also applies to changing agent goals that conflict with the common good.

Root cause analysis and modeling allow us to clearly see powerful feedback loops like Forces Resisting Change. Once they are revealed we can find their root causes and resolve them.

The second viewpoint of the source of systemic change resistance is modeled by the Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace, as shown. This model is briefly explained in the Dueling Loops glossary entry. It's the main model for the analysis.

The forces resisting change emerge from the Race to the Bottom loop. Since this is a reinforcing loop it can become so strong it can overwhelm the other forces in the system. Only by understanding such loops in depth can we find their root causes and resolve them.

There's some good news here. Once the Race to the Bottom collapses due to resolving the root cause of change resistance, the Race to the Top goes dominant. If it stays dominant for a long time, this leads to levels of optimization of democratic government that have never been seen before. It appears that all political units suffer from medium to high levels of Race to the Bottom dominance. Once that vanishes for several generations, the human system can enjoy the cornucopia of benefits certain to emerge, as politicians compete to see who can deliver the most benefits to optimize the common good of all. The analysis calls this the Permanent Race to the Top state.

Once we've overcome change resistance we can move on to the other subproblems.

Subproblem B - How to achieve life form proper coupling

Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems properly, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. Here the two systems are the top two life forms in the social system, corporations and people. They are improperly coupled because the right balancing feedback loops are missing.

As I'm writing this (in November 2011) a political storm is raging outside. The Occupy Movement has occupied dozens of city centers in the US. The movement appeared as frustration boiled over about the excessive control large for-profit corporations and the super rich enjoy over the vast majority of citizens. This has caused high income inequality, the 2008 recession, and high joblessness.

My wife and I went downtown to the occupation in our own city, Atlanta, one Saturday. Chatting with the protesters for a few hours, I could detect no deep understanding whatsoever about the forces they were up against. This is normal. Then we marched to the capital and listened to speeches. Again, there was no deep understanding of the problem they sensed needed solving. There was only anger, wish list demands, and well crafted rhetoric. That changes little, I thought, as I quietly listened.

A few months ago I attended an environmental organization conference at the state level. It was small, about 70 people. Most had been working away on the sustainability problem for years, with little progress. That seems to have caused attendance to fall by half over the last decade. It was a silently demoralized group. Chipper on the outside, despondent inside. The national leader of the organization flew in for half a day and gave a speech. He connected well. But he had nothing new to offer other than another direct action campaign on the burning of coal in the US. It was going well because the alternatives have recently become cost effective. But the problem it solved was a drop in the bucket. And it was a drop in the bucket too late, considering how many millions of tons of CO2 coal burning power plants have pumped into the atmosphere. This organization is changing little, I thought, as I quietly listened.

Just yesterday I visited the Club of Rome's website. I was briefly a member of the US branch and tried to introduce the concept of root causes analysis. The folks were friendly at the international level, but I got nowhere. So I thought I'd see how the organization was doing. There on the international website's About page was this statement:

The Club of Rome is focusing in its new programme on the root causes of the systemic crisis by defining and communicating the need for, the vision and the elements of a new economy, which produces real wealth and wellbeing; which does not degrade our natural resources and provides meaningful jobs and sufficient income for all people. The new programme will also address underlying values, beliefs and paradigms.

So maybe my work did nudge the elephant. "Root causes" was not there before. But if you examine the site you will find no real analysis, no real root causes, and hence no significant progress on the problems they're working on. Just look at the above quote. One does not find and fix root causes by "defining and communicating the need for" a wish list of what you want.

The Club of Rome, the environmental organization, the Occupy Movement, and thousands of other public interest organizations are trying their best to solve their problems. Most sense there are powerful forces holding them back. But those forces remain invisible because they have not brought the right tools to bear on the problem. If those tools were well applied, they would come to about the same conclusions that our analysis has: that of all the root causes of the sustainability problem and other common good problems facing the world, at the very bottom lies a single ultimate root cause. It's the cause of the other three root causes. (This is explained later on this page.) If we can fix the bottommost root cause, all these common good problems will solve themselves in record time because the most powerful agent in the system will now be working for the common good of all instead of for itself.

That agent is Corporatis profitis, also called the New Dominant Life Form or large for-profit corporations. Because it's dominant and Homo sapiens is not, the system pursues short term profit maximization goals instead of long term quality of life goals. Until that changes the sustainability problem is insolvable.

Subproblem C - How to avoid excessive solution model drift

Solution model drift occurs when a solution model gradually drifts away from its original ability to solve a problem, due to the problem changing and/or the solution being watered down, mismanaged, etc. If too much drift occurs the solution can no longer solve the problem.

"Solution model" is used instead of just "solution" to allow use of the Kuhn Cycle. This powerful abstraction let's us see that all solutions to big problems are continually in danger of excessive model drift. Thomas Kuhn found that a field's attempted solutions to its problems started in Prescience, then became mature enough to be Normal Science, which established the field. But as time went by, exceptions were discovered the theory (the solution) could not explain (could not solve). The more unexplained phenomenon there were, the worse the Model Drift became. Finally, when there were so many things the model of explanation could not explain, it entered the Model Crisis phase. At this point the field was unable to solve its important problems because its solution model was broken.

Click a node to read about it.

That's where the world's solution to the sustainability problem is today. Until attempted solutions are based on a conceptual solution model that works, they will continue to fail.

This has happened innumerable times in science and business. The universal path forward is to declare the old solution dead, as The Death of Environmentalism Memo did for some in 2004. That terse memo declared that:

We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live. (page 10)

Ever since then, some environmentalists have been in the Model Revolution stage, where they are earnestly striving to create a breakthrough that will lead to a solution that works.

Once that's found the Paradigm Change phase begins. The task here is to sweep away the old paradigm, the one based on the old solution model that everyone had been taught and had used for most or all of their life, and replace it with the new paradigm. This is usually not easy because people are so habituated to the old paradigm. Even worse, they use the old paradigm to judge the new one by. Until mountains of proof emerge the new paradigm is better, this causes most of the field to reject the new paradigm, which makes it all the harder for it to become accepted and begin collecting proof it works. Finally, when the field has mostly accepted the new paradigm, it become the new Normal Science and the Kuhn Cycle is complete.

But the cycle usually take a long time. That's why the System Improvement Process made Model Drift a subproblem, so we can find and resolve its root cause and thereby accelerate the Kuhn cycle.

In the sustainability problem the solution model is the decision making model used by governments to solve common good problems. That is clearly in the Model Crisis stage.

Subproblem D - How to achieve environmental proper coupling

Finally we arrive at the last subproblem in the problem solving sequence. Yet it is this problem that problem solvers have started with first, because it's universally seen as the problem to solve. That one must start elsewhere to solve the problem is counterintuitive. That's why a problem solving process that fits the problem should guide your every step.

In this subproblem the economic system is improperly coupled to the environment. The right feedback loops are missing. Economic growth has caused the world's ecological footprint to grow so large its unsustainable, as this classic graph shows.

The advantage of framing the problem in terms of improper coupling is we can identify the specific systems involved and think at a high level for how to connect them with the right feedback loops. This transforms the problem into its simplest form. The right feedback loops will center on some sort of balancing loop, as indicated by the B in the subproblem icon. A balancing feedback loop seeks to reach a goal of some sort. If the behavior of interest is above the goal, as it is in the graph, the balancing loop put the breaks on the system it's controlling.

Note the two reinforcing loops. Each increases social improper coupling, which makes that subproblem and the sustainability problem worse and even more unsolvable. The problem is a nightmare of difficulty due to hidden feedback loops like this.

The real complication, the one that makes the problem so hard to solve, is the change resistance problem in turn causes successful opposition to solving common good problems. That in turn prevents solution of everything the dashed arrows point to. Since one of these is the life form proper coupling problem, it has become nearly impossible to solve that problem. That's why the largest change resistance of all is anything that would reduce the power of large for-profit corporations, as well as their chief ally, the rich.

So how can we solve the sustainability problem? The diagram shows that if we can solve the change resistance subproblem, then opposition to solving everything else melts away.

For an example of how that can be done, see the solution elements for subproblem A.


(1) Regarding "the failed state phenomenon that about 58 nations find themselves in." See The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, by Paul Collier, 2007. This analyzes the traps keeping 58 nations in a dire state of poverty, political instability, frequent war, and low ability to focus on other problems like environmental sustainability.

I.  Types and Content

There are four general conceptualizations of a research problem in the social sciences:

  1. Casuist Research Problem -- this type of problem relates to the determination of right and wrong in questions of conduct or conscience by analyzing moral dilemmas through the application of general rules and the careful distinction of special cases.
  2. Difference Research Problem -- typically asks the question, “Is there a difference between two or more groups or treatments?” This type of problem statement is used when the researcher compares or contrasts two or more phenomena. This a common approach to defining a problem in the clinical social sciences or behavioral sciences.
  3. Descriptive Research Problem -- typically asks the question, "what is...?" with the underlying purpose to describe the significance of a situation, state, or existence of a specific phenomenon. This problem is often associated with revealing hidden or understudied issues.
  4. Relational Research Problem -- suggests a relationship of some sort between two or more variables to be investigated. The underlying purpose is to investigate specific qualities or characteristics that may be connected in some way.

A problem statement in the social sciences should contain:

  • A lead-in that helps ensure the reader will maintain interest over the study,
  • A declaration of originality [e.g., mentioning a knowledge void or a lack of clarity about a topic that will be revealed in the literature review],
  • An indication of the central focus of the study [establishing the boundaries of analysis], and
  • An explanation of the study's significance or the benefits to be derived from investigating the research problem.

II.  Sources of Problems for Investigation

The identification of a problem to study can be challenging, not because there's a lack of issues that could be investigated, but due to the challenge of formulating an academically relevant and researchable problem which is unique and does not simply duplicate the work of others. To facilitate how you might select a problem from which to build a research study, consider these sources of inspiration:

Deductions from Theory
This relates to deductions made from social philosophy or generalizations embodied in life and in society that the researcher is familiar with. These deductions from human behavior are then placed within an empirical frame of reference through research. From a theory, the researcher can formulate a research problem or hypothesis stating the expected findings in certain empirical situations. The research asks the question: “What relationship between variables will be observed if theory aptly summarizes the state of affairs?” One can then design and carry out a systematic investigation to assess whether empirical data confirm or reject the hypothesis, and hence, the theory.

Interdisciplinary Perspectives
Identifying a problem that forms the basis for a research study can come from academic movements and scholarship originating in disciplines outside of your primary area of study. This can be an intellectually stimulating exercise. A review of pertinent literature should include examining research from related disciplines that can reveal new avenues of exploration and analysis. An interdisciplinary approach to selecting a research problem offers an opportunity to construct a more comprehensive understanding of a very complex issue that any single discipline may be able to provide.

Interviewing Practitioners
The identification of research problems about particular topics can arise from formal interviews or informal discussions with practitioners who provide insight into new directions for future research and how to make research findings more relevant to practice. Discussions with experts in the field, such as, teachers, social workers, health care providers, lawyers, business leaders, etc., offers the chance to identify practical, “real world” problems that may be understudied or ignored within academic circles. This approach also provides some practical knowledge which may help in the process of designing and conducting your study.

Personal Experience
Don't undervalue your everyday experiences or encounters as worthwhile problems for investigation. Think critically about your own experiences and/or frustrations with an issue facing society, your community, your neighborhood, your family, or your personal life. This can be derived, for example, from deliberate observations of certain relationships for which there is no clear explanation or witnessing an event that appears harmful to a person or group or that is out of the ordinary.

Relevant Literature
The selection of a research problem can be derived from a thorough review of pertinent research associated with your overall area of interest. This may reveal where gaps exist in understanding a topic or where an issue has been understudied. Research may be conducted to: 1) fill such gaps in knowledge; 2) evaluate if the methodologies employed in prior studies can be adapted to solve other problems; or, 3) determine if a similar study could be conducted in a different subject area or applied in a different context or to different study sample [i.e., different setting or different group of people].Also, authors frequently conclude their studies by noting implications for further research; read the conclusion of pertinent studies because statements about further research can be a valuable source for identifying new problems to investigate. The fact that a researcher has identified a topic worthy of further exploration validates the fact it is worth pursuing.

III.  What Makes a Good Research Statement?

A good problem statement begins by introducing the broad area in which your research is centered, gradually leading the reader to the more specific issues you are investigating. The statement need not be lengthy, but a good research problem should incorporate the following features:

1.  Compelling Topic
Simple curiosity is not a good enough reason to pursue a research study because it does not indicate significance. The problem that you choose to explore must be important to you, your readers, and to a the larger academic and/or social community that could be impacted by the results of your study. The problem chosen must be one that motivates you to address it.

2.  Supports Multiple Perspectives
The problem must be phrased in a way that avoids dichotomies and instead supports the generation and exploration of multiple perspectives. A general rule of thumb in the social sciences is that a good research problem is one that would generate a variety of viewpoints from a composite audience made up of reasonable people.

3.  Researchability
This isn't a real word but it represents an important aspect of creating a good research statement. It seems a bit obvious, but you don't want to find yourself in the midst of investigating a complex research project and realize that you don't have enough prior research to draw from for your analysis. There's nothing inherently wrong with original research, but you must choose research problems that can be supported, in some way, by the resources available to you. If you are not sure if something is researchable, don't assume that it isn't if you don't find information right away--seekhelp from a librarian!

NOTE:  Do not confuse a research problem with a research topic. A topic is something to read and obtain information about, whereas a problem is something to be solved or framed as a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution, or explained as a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation.

IV.  Asking Analytical Questions about the Research Problem

Research problems in the social and behavioral sciences are often analyzed around critical questions that must be investigated. These questions can be explicitly listed in the introduction [i.e., "This study addresses three research questions about women's psychological recovery from domestic abuse in multi-generational home settings..."], or, the questions are implied in the text as specific areas of study related to the research problem. Explicitly listing your research questions at the end of your introduction can help in designing a clear roadmap of what you plan to address in your study, whereas, implicitly integrating them into the text of the introduction allows you to create a more compelling narrative around the key issues under investigation. Either approach is appropriate.

The number of questions you attempt to address should be based on the complexity of the problem you are investigating and what areas of inquiry you find most critical to study. Practical considerations, such as, the length of the paper you are writing or the availability of resources to analyze the issue can also factor in how many questions to ask. In general, however, there should be no more than four research questions underpinning a single research problem.

Given this, well-developed analytical questions can focus on any of the following:

  • Highlights a genuine dilemma, area of ambiguity, or point of confusion about a topic open to interpretation by your readers;
  • Yields an answer that is unexpected and not obvious rather than inevitable and self-evident;
  • Provokes meaningful thought or discussion;
  • Raises the visibility of the key ideas or concepts that may be understudied or hidden;
  • Suggests the need for complex analysis or argument rather than a basic description or summary; and,
  • Offers a specific path of inquiry that avoids eliciting generalizations about the problem.

NOTE:  Questions of how and why about a research problem often require more analysis than questions about who, what, where, and when. You should still ask yourself these latter questions, however. Thinking introspectively about the who, what, where, and when of a research problem can help ensure that you have thoroughly considered all aspects of the problem under investigation.

V.  Mistakes to Avoid

Beware of circular reasoning! Do not state that the research problem as simply the absence of the thing you are suggesting. For example, if you propose the following, "The problem in this community is that there is no hospital," this only leads to a research problem where:

  • The need is for a hospital
  • The objective is to create a hospital
  • The method is to plan for building a hospital, and
  • The evaluation is to measure if there is a hospital or not.

This is an example of a research problem that fails the "So What?" test. In this example, the problem does not reveal therelevance of why you are investigating the fact there is no hospital in the community [e.g., there's a hospital in the community ten miles away]; it does not elucidate thesignificance of why one should study the fact there is no hospital in the community [e.g., that hospital in the community ten miles away has no emergency room]; the research problem does not offer an intellectual pathway towards adding new knowledge or clarifying prior knowledge [e.g., the county in which there is no hospital already conducted a study about the need for a hospital]; and, the problem does not offer meaningful outcomes that lead to recommendations that can be generalized for other situations or that could suggest areas for further research [e.g., the challenges of building a new hospital serves as a case study for other communities].

Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. “Generating Research Questions Through Problematization.” Academy of Management Review 36 (April 2011): 247-271; Choosing and Refining Topics. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Ellis, Timothy J. and Yair Levy Nova. "Framework of Problem-Based Research: A Guide for Novice Researchers on the Development of a Research-Worthy Problem." Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline 11 (2008); How to Write a Research Question. The Writing Center. George Mason University; Invention: Developing a Thesis Statement. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Problem Statements PowerPoint Presentation. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Procter, Margaret. Using Thesis Statements. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Thesis and Purpose Statements. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Thesis Statements. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Tips and Examples for Writing Thesis Statements. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Walk, Kerry. Asking an Analytical Question. [Class handout or worksheet]. Princeton University; White, Patrick. Developing Research Questions: A Guide for Social Scientists. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2009.


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