The definition of ambiguity tolerance has changed since its inception, and accompanying that change are changes in measurement and the research questions that interest researchers. Ambiguity is becoming more and more a core concept in the complexity of the nowaday society and in the multi-level and multicultural dimension in which we are living and working. Society is full of ambiguous level as much it is complex because not everything could be encompassed in only one level or concept. This has an impact on the research and collecting data that are more and more linked and influenced by these multilevel aspects.
Ambiguity can generate from many factors, including the fact that actors/researchers have imperfect information, multiple and even contrasting desires, an inadequate or limited understanding of the situation, of their own means and other people’s intentions, sometimes even scarce control over their own will, thus limited control over their course of action. Here we are concerned with the ambiguity that derives from imperfect information, misperceptions, cognitive biases, and other individual limitations. These have already been an object of extended investigation in the social sciences. What would be important to highlight is the relational dimension of ambiguity, the fact that the meaning of social action is contingent on how it is perceived by other individuals, and how it cumulates into a sequence of actions. Moreover, social actions might be multifocal, sometimes even deliberately oriented at providing noisy signals. Social sciences tend to think of ambiguity as a limitation, either as a distortion from the model of perfect information (and rational action) or a situation in which individuals and organizations are under stress, in which actors experience multiple and counteracting tendencies, a potential source of misunderstanding, wrong calculation, or a possible cause of unattended consequences. In contrast, it would be interesting to see ambiguity that permeates social actions and interactions as a necessary precondition for the unfolding of social relations, a buffer space that allows shifts in roles, fluid understanding, partial disclosure, and might contribute to preventing direct confrontation, and conflict.
Ambiguity is very important because it prevents the researcher from the risk of role reification, in which actors are stuck, crystallized into a set of categories and then expected to follow courses of action that are coherent with the labels we give them.
In this sense ambiguity and being open to the ambiguity inherent in the information collected is the basis of a good understanding of the context and being aware of the fluid setting of social and youth work.
Ambiguity, then, is a tool needed for complex research and even more real!
How to apply it in everyday work?
Try to draw (not write or describe) an ambiguous situation in which you had worked in or you had lived in.
Behind your drawing write 4 K-words that describe your understanding of the reality/situation.
Ask a colleague to have a look at your drawing and to write 4 K-words that describe the situation that he/she sees.
Try to identify which are the elements that could be ambiguous in the drawing and the level of interpretation of the drawing based on the personal experience of the people who are doing the exercise.
- How do you deal with the ambiguity in your life?
- Can you stay long in a situation that is not totally clear?
- Do you need to take always decision based on facts?
- What happens to you if you don’t know everything?