The word paradigm (play /ˈpærədm/) has been used in science to describe distinct concepts. It comes from Greek "παράδειγμα" (paradeigma), "pattern, example, sample"[1] from the verb "παραδείκνυμι" (paradeiknumi), "exhibit, represent, expose"[2] and that from "παρά" (para), "beside, beyond"[3] + "δείκνυμι" (deiknumi), "to show, to point out".[4]

The original Greek term παράδειγμα (paradeigma) was used in Greek texts such as Plato's Timaeus (28A) as the model or the pattern that the Demiurge (god) used to create the cosmos. The term had a technical meaning in the field of grammar: the 1900 Merriam-Webster dictionary defines its technical use only in the context of grammar or, in rhetoric, as a term for an illustrative parable or fable. In linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure used paradigm to refer to a class of elements with similarities.

The word has come to refer very often now to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines this usage as "a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly: a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind."[5]


Scientific paradigm

The historian of science Thomas Kuhn gave paradigm its contemporary meaning when he adopted the word to refer to the set of practices that define a scientific discipline at any particular period of time. Kuhn himself came to prefer the terms exemplar and normal science, which have more precise philosophical meanings. However in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn defines a scientific paradigm as: "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers", i.e.,

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
  • how these questions are to be structured
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted

Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary defines paradigm as "a pattern or model, an exemplar." Thus an additional component of Kuhn's definition of paradigm is:

  • how is an experiment to be conducted, and what equipment is available to conduct the experiment.

Thus, within normal science, the paradigm is the set of exemplary experiments that are likely to be copied or emulated. In this scientific context, the prevailing paradigm often represents a more specific way of viewing reality, or limitations on acceptable programs for future research, than the more general scientific method.

A currently accepted paradigm would be the standard model of physics. The scientific method would allow for orthodox scientific investigations into phenomena which might contradict or disprove the standard model; however grant funding would be proportionately more difficult to obtain for such experiments, depending on the degree of deviation from the accepted standard model theory which the experiment would be expected to test for. To illustrate the point, an experiment to test for the mass of neutrinos or the decay of protons (small departures from the model) would be more likely to receive money than experiments to look for the violation of the conservation of momentum, or ways to engineer reverse time travel.

One important aspect of Kuhn's paradigms is that the paradigms are incommensurable, meaning two paradigms cannot be reconciled with each other because they cannot be subjected to the same common standard of comparison. That is, no meaningful comparison between them is possible without fundamental modification of the concepts that are an intrinsic part of the paradigms being compared. This way of looking at the concept of "paradigm" creates a paradox of sorts, since competing paradigms are in fact constantly being measured against each other. (Nonetheless, competing paradigms are not fully intelligible solely within the context of their own conceptual frameworks.) For this reason, paradigm as a concept in the philosophy of science might more meaningfully be defined as a self-reliant explanatory model or conceptual framework. This definition makes it clear that the real barrier to comparison is not necessarily the absence of common units of measurement, but an absence of mutually compatible or mutually intelligible concepts. Under this system, a new paradigm which replaces an old paradigm is not necessarily better, because the criteria of judgment are controlled by the paradigm itself, and by the conceptual framework which defines the paradigm and gives it its explanatory value.[6][7]

A more disparaging term groupthink, and the term mindset, have somewhat similar meanings that apply to smaller and larger scale examples of disciplined thought. Michel Foucault used the terms episteme and discourse, mathesis and taxinomia, for aspects of a "paradigm" in Kuhn's original sense.

Simple common analogy: A simplified analogy for paradigm is a habit of reasoning, or "the box" in the commonly used phrase "thinking outside the box". Thinking inside the box is analogous with normal science. The box encompasses the thinking of normal science and thus the box is analogous with paradigm. "Thinking outside the box" would be what Kuhn calls revolutionary science. Revolutionary science is usually unsuccessful, and very rarely leads to new paradigms. However, when they are successful they lead to large scale changes in the scientific worldview. When these large scale shifts in the scientific view are implemented and accepted by the majority, it will then become "the box" and science will progress within it.

Paradigm shifts

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn wrote that "Successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science." (p. 12)

Paradigm shifts tend to be most dramatic in sciences that appear to be stable and mature, as in physics at the end of the 19th century. At that time, a statement generally attributed to physicist Lord Kelvin famously claimed, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement."[8] Five years later, Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, which challenged the very simple set of rules laid down by Newtonian mechanics, which had been used to describe force and motion for over two hundred years. In this case, the new paradigm reduces the old to a special case in the sense that Newtonian mechanics is still a good model for approximation for speeds that are slow compared to the speed of light. Philosophers and historians of science, including Kuhn himself, ultimately accepted a modified version of Kuhn's model, which synthesizes his original view with the gradualist model that preceded it. Kuhn's original model is now generally seen as too limited.

Kuhn's idea was itself revolutionary in its time, as it caused a major change in the way that academics talk about science. Thus, it could be argued that it caused or was itself part of a "paradigm shift" in the history and sociology of science. However, Kuhn would not recognize such a paradigm shift. Being in the social sciences, people can still use earlier ideas to discuss the history of science.

The concept of Paradigm and the social sciences

Kuhn himself did not consider the concept of paradigm as appropriate for the social sciences. He explains in his preface to "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that he concocted the concept of paradigm precisely in order to distinguish the social from the natural sciences (p.x). He wrote this book at the Palo Alto Center for Scholars, surrounded by social scientists, when he observed that they were never in agreement on theories or concepts. He explains that he wrote this book precisely to show that there are no, nor can there be any, paradigms in the social sciences. Mattei Dogan, a French sociologist, in his article "Paradigms in the [Social Sciences]," develops Kuhn's original thesis that there are no paradigms at all in the social sciences since the concepts are polysemic, the deliberate mutual ignorance between scholars and the proliferation of schools in these disciplines. Dogan provides many examples of the non-existence of paradigms in the social sciences in his essay, particularly in sociology, political science and political anthropology.

Paradigm paralysis

Perhaps the greatest barrier to a paradigm shift, in some cases, is the reality of paradigm paralysis: the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking.[9] This is similar to what psychologists term Confirmation bias.

Examples include rejection of Galileo's theory of a heliocentric universe, the discovery of electrostatic photography, xerography and the quartz clock.

Other uses

Handa, M.L. (1986) introduced the idea of "social paradigm" in the context of social sciences. He identified the basic components of a social paradigm. Like Kuhn, Handa addressed the issue of changing paradigm; the process popularly known as "paradigm shift". In this respect, he focused on social circumstances that precipitate such a shift and the effects of the shift on social institutions, including the institution of education. This broad shift in the social arena, in turn, changes the way the individual perceives reality.

Another use of the word paradigm is in the sense of Weltanschauung (German for world view). For example, in social science, the term is used to describe the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way an individual perceives reality and responds to that perception. Social scientists have adopted the Kuhnian phrase "paradigm shift" to denote a change in how a given society goes about organizing and understanding reality. A “dominant paradigm” refers to the values, or system of thought, in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Dominant paradigms are shaped both by the community’s cultural background and by the context of the historical moment. The following are conditions that facilitate a system of thought to become an accepted dominant paradigm:

  • Professional organizations that give legitimacy to the paradigm
  • Dynamic leaders who introduce and purport the paradigm
  • Journals and editors who write about the system of thought. They both disseminate the information essential to the paradigm and give the paradigm legitimacy
  • Government agencies who give credence to the paradigm
  • Educators who propagate the paradigm’s ideas by teaching it to students
  • Conferences conducted that are devoted to discussing ideas central to the paradigm
  • Media coverage
  • Lay groups, or groups based around the concerns of lay persons, that embrace the beliefs central to the paradigm
  • Sources of funding to further research on the paradigm

The word paradigm is also still used to indicate a pattern or model or an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype. The term is frequently used in this sense in the design professions. Design Paradigms or archetypes comprise functional precedents for design solutions. The best known references on design paradigms are Design Paradigms: A Sourcebook for Creative Visualization, by Wake, and Design Paradigms by Petroski.

This term is also used in cybernetics. Here it means (in a very wide sense) a (conceptual) protoprogram for reducing the chaotic mass to some form of order. Note the similarities to the concept of entropy in chemistry and physics. A paradigm there would be a sort of prohibition to proceed with any action that would increase the total entropy of the system. In order to create a paradigm, a closed system which would accept any changes is required. Thus a paradigm can be only applied to a system that is not in its final stage.


  1. ^ παράδειγμα, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  2. ^ παραδείκνυμι, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  3. ^ παρά, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  4. ^ δείκνυμι, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus Digital Library
  5. ^ paradigm - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  6. ^ Slattery, Martin (2003). Key ideas in sociology. Cheltenham : Nelson Thornes. pp. 151, 152, 153, 155. ISBN 9780748765652. 
  7. ^ Nickles, Thomas (December 2002). Thomas Kuhn. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1, 2, 3, 4. doi:10.2277/0521792061. ISBN 9780521792066. "Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is probably the best-known and most influential historian and philosopher of science of the last 25 years, and has become something of a cultural icon. His concepts of paradigm, paradigm change and incommensurability have changed the way we think about science." 
  8. ^ The attribution of this statement to Lord Kelvin is given in a number of sources, but without citation. It is reputed to be Kelvin's remark made in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900. See the article on Lord Kelvin for additional details and references.
  9. ^ Do you suffer from paradigm paralysis?

See also

References and links

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