Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts

Andrew Finn

Thomas Kuhn popularized the concept of "paradigm" in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Among other things, Kuhn argued that paradigms are like over-arching theories that guide specific areas of science. A paradigm is essentially a particular view of the world. Paradigms emerge to provide an overall framework for understanding particular phenomena. The paradigm gains acceptance if the community of interested scientists agrees that it fits with most of the observable data.

Paradigms Are One Category of "Ideas"

Ideas and concepts (such as danger, big, anxiety, IQ) are mental images and not objects – they are not things observable in the real world. Theories and paradigms join several concepts together and attempt to approximate what is observable in the physical world. In that sense, all concepts, though they may be very useful (such as mathematics, philosophy, or triangle), are “fictions.” That is, they do not exist in the real world. One can find objects shaped like triangles in the physical world, but one cannot find “triangle” in the physical world.

In this view, paradigms, scientific theories, philosophies, and mathematics can never be “true.” Why? Because they are simply models - approximations constructed in the world of ideas that provide a useful way to interpret the physical world. We consider them useful because they lead to useful applications or useful ways to structure knowledge. Those that do not prove to be useful (the flat Earth view of the world, bloodletting as a cure for disease) are eventually discarded by all but a few.

Paradigms in Science

Paradigms provide models upon which "particular coherent traditions of scientific research" can be based. For example, the scientific method itself is a paradigm (though which "science" views the world: a traditional Western, empirical, quantitative approach to studying things). Another example of a paradigm is the theory of evolution. Evolution is the underlying structure which best fits the observable evidence in fields as diverse as biology (the evolution of species), geology (the evolution of the earth), and cosmology (the evolution of the stars, the galaxies, and the universe). A third example is Newtonian mechanics. This was the basic paradigm for physics until Einstein came a long and demonstrated that relativity was a better fit to the available facts – a better approximation to the real world. It’s not that mechanics was “false” and relativity “true.” Newtonian mechanics fit most of the available data found in the everyday existence of human beings, but broke down at extremes of mass and speed. But as a model, it was – and is – still very useful when dealing with the engineering, construction, and use of the technology and artifacts that people use in everyday life. Newtonian mechanics has been replaced as the dominant paradigm in physics, but it is not “false,” because it never was “true.” It is simply a model of how things work, and is either useful for one’s purpose or it is not useful.

Like theories, paradigms are "useful fictions." Like theories, they provide a framework upon which we can hang many or most of the observable facts (data) and better see the relationships among those facts. Paradigms are often theories that help define entire areas of study ("disciplines").

But the notion of paradigms that shape our world-view has been expanded beyond science to everyday life. Kuhn’s original focus was on the creation, testing, and replacement of major scientific theories with better theories – closer approximations to the observable data. Today, the term has been popularized to refer to things as simple as beliefs, attitudes and tastes. In this sense, a paradigm is analogous to a set of glasses one puts on. If the lenses are yellow, we see the world as yellow. After a while, we forget we have decided to look at the world through yellow lenses – we simply believe that the world is yellow. In the discussion that follows I will refer sometimes to the scientific meaning of paradigms (major world-views of science) and sometimes to the popular one (a particular approach to a particular issue).

Paradigms as Lenses

Once a paradigm (or model) is established or accepted, an interesting thing happens – it shapes how we interpret facts. Take someone who believes in a paradigm that holds that many UFO sightings are extra-terrestrial beings visiting the planet Earth. How do they interpret new evidence? An exhaustive government study of existing evidence and a report dismissing the extraterrestrial claims would probably be taken as more evidence for a cover-up. Ambiguous evidence is often be interpreted as favoring the theory.

Or listen to a talk show where the host is politically quite liberal or quite conservative. Virtually every event that occurs in the world is interpreted through a liberal or conservative lens. Typically new data points (facts) that appear to contradict the host’s paradigm are twisted to fit the existing (preferred) model. If you’re conservative you can see this in liberal thinking, and if you’re liberal you can see this in conservative thinking. But it’s hard to take off our own lenses and see the world “as it really is.” I put that in quotes because as soon as we enter the world of language and ideas and human communication, we must take on some paradigm, some perspective. And whether we're looking at a house, a mountain, or an issue, the perspective we take frames what we see.

Since all knowledge is created in human minds, and from some specific perspective, postmodernists argue that no one can legitimately claim to see the world as it really is. We each have our own eyes and ears, and our own mind and history of previous experiences - and so the world occurs differently to each of us.

This is where the scientific method comes in – it is designed to keep researchers from injecting their personal views into their data collection, data analysis, and conclusions. Researchers (are supposed to) rely on the scientific method to minimize bias and mistakes. While the scientific method provides a rigorous structure to keep scientists from their own biases, since they are human beings they are subject to the tendency to make sense of the world, find patterns, and emerge with a structure of beliefs that holds together.

But Kuhn argued that the scientist’s paradigm itself becomes a trap. He argued that scientists do a reasonable job of assessing data when considering alternative paradigms and theories. But once a scientist takes on a particular paradigm or theory, they see data that supports this view quite well, but they overlook contradicting data quite easily.

“Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternates. But that invention of alternates is just what scientists seldom undertake except during the pre-paradigm stage of their science's development and at very special occasions during its subsequent evolution. So long as the tools a paradigm supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it defines, science moves fastest and penetrates most deeply through confident employment of those tools. The reason is clear. As in manufacture so in science - retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it. The significance of crises is the indication they provide that an occasion for retooling has arrived.” - Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (p. 76)

Paradigm Shifts

A paradigm shift occurs when there is a “crisis” in a particular field. The crisis is always related to the fact that the old paradigm can no longer account for enough of the existing evidence to be believed by a majority of people. At the same time, there is typically strong enough evidence to indicate that a relatively new paradigm is a better structure through which to view the available evidence. At first, such new approaches are often rejected, even ridiculed. Copernicus and Galileo both had better paradigms, but they both suffered for leading the scientific revolution – for being too far ahead of their times.

It takes time, but eventually the old view is replaced by the new view, because it is a better approximation to reality (it fits better with the available evidence). For example, Newtonian mechanics was the primary paradigm in physics until the 20th Century when Einstein's theory of relativity was demonstrated to be a better approximation of the physics of the universe.

"[Individuals who break through by inventing a new paradigm are] almost always...either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change....These are the men (sic) who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them." - Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Paradigms in Society, Business, and Our Personal Lives

The term "paradigm" has been popularized in the last 20 years and some very minor trends, such as changes in consumer preferences for music, clothes, or soda, have been touted as paradigm shifts. Rather than be a purist and refuse to recognize that the language of paradigms has been co-opted by business and industry for smaller trends, let’s go with the flow. And it is possible to find examples within business, government, or education of changes so profound that, at least within those particular fields, they merit the title of a "paradigm shift."

Can you think of several good examples? Here are some specific fields where, if you consider the developments in that area, you can probably think of one or more paradigm shifts that have occurred in last 100 years:


airline reservations



personal communication



information retrieval



financial transactions



health care industry




computer industry

COMM 470 students - please bring to our next class a list of several examples of major shifts from an old paradigm to a new paradigm and several examples of minor shifts (be sure to list “from what” and “to what”).

Relevant Links

Professor Frank Pajares’ (Emory University) chapter by chapter outline of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Professor Tim Healy (Santa Clara University) overview of Kuhn and paradigms (brief)

Reality Check - Buddy can you paradigm?

Biography of Thomas Kuhn


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