Embracing complex social problems, Carvalho and Mazzon (2019)

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Embracing complex social problems | Emerald Insight

Embracing complex social problems

Hamilton Coimbra Carvalho, Jose Afonso Mazzon

Journal of Social Marketing

ISSN: 2042-6763

Publication date: 18 September 2019 



This paper aims to expose the inadequacy of social marketing to tackle complex social problems, while proposing an expansion in the discipline’ conceptual repertoire. The goal is to incorporate complexity tools, in particular from the system dynamics field, and the promotion of mindware within a true transdisciplinary paradigm.


This paper uses literature review to support the proposed theoretical development. It also presents a short case study.


Most problems that plague our modern societies have a distinctive complex nature that is not amenable to traditional social marketing interventions. Social marketing has simplified the problem of bringing about societal change by thinking that upstream social actors can be influenced in the same way as downstream individuals. This paper shows that this is not the case while proposing a framework to close this gap.

Research limitations/implications

The proposed framework is a theoretical one. It depends on further refinements and actual application to wicked problems.

Practical implications

Complex social problems – or wicked problems – remain widespread in modern societies. Moreover, they are getting worse over time. The paper presents a proposal to redefine the limits of the social marketing discipline so it can be more useful to tackle such problems. Practical approaches such as measuring the success of mindware in the marketplace of ideas are implied in the proposed framework.

Social implications

The increase in complexity of social problems has not been accompanied by an evolution in the discipline of social marketing. The lack of proper conceptual tools has prevented the discipline from contributing to tackling these problems effectively. Some interventions may actually worsen the underlying problems, as illustrated in the paper.


This paper identifies two major gaps associated with the social marketing discipline, in particular the lack of complexity and systems thinking and the forsaking of ideas (mindware) as a legitimate goal of the discipline. This realization corroborates the claim that boundaries among disciplines are often artificial, hindering the proper understanding of complex social problems. In turn, only the use of adequate conceptual lenses makes it possible to devise interventions and programs that tackle actual causes (instead of symptoms) of complex social problems.

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Embracing complex social problems | Emerald Insight