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Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts

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'Paradigm'1 has become one of the most overused buzzwords in the corporate world today. 'Paradigm shifts' and 'creating a new paradigm' has become the fallback solution to problems from low revenue to... lack of revenue. Still, very few people actually understand what a paradigm is, how it functions, or where the theory came from. This entry is an attempt to explain the concept of paradigm.

Linguistic Paradigms

Although this is all but forgotten today, the word paradigm had its origin as an obscure bit of linguist jargon. It derives from the Greek verb deiknumi, 'pointing out or exhibiting something', and the preposition para, 'side by side', which then becomes para-deigma, a pattern, model or example. A linguistic paradigm is the pattern of conjugation or declension that one has to memorise in order to be able to conjugate verbs or decline2 nouns. For instance, when studying Latin, every student learns the handy pattern3:


and thus for any other Latin verb of the first conjugation the student doesn't need to memorise new forms, but can simply use the same pattern while replacing the 'am' part with the particular root for the verb in question. It sounds much more complicated than it really is, because in essence all you do is use the proven example of a pattern and apply that pattern to all other things of the same type.

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn was trained as a 20th-century physicist. One day, while preparing for his doctoral dissertation, he attempted to read Aristotle's Physics, the most influential work in the field of physics until Newton. Kuhn found that despite his extensive schooling in physics, he was completely unable to understand anything Aristotle was saying - in fact, it sounded like nonsense. Since he contended that (a) Aristotle, often considered the greatest thinker in the entire western world, was not an idiot and (b) he (Kuhn) was likewise not an idiot, nor was he an outsider to physics, there was only one possible answer: when Kuhn and Aristotle talked about physics, they didn't really mean the same thing. From this revelation, which he later likened to a gestalt shift4, Kuhn came up with a new system of understanding science and scientific change in which a new scientific theory is actually so fundamentally different from the previous one that they are not even mutually understandable (this is called incommensurability theory). He expanded this beyond just scientific theories, however, to the entire mindset of any given scientific community, which he called a paradigm.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Eventually, he formed an entire system for the method by which one paradigm is replaced by a succeeding one, which he published in a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. One of the main criticisms of Kuhn is that he muddled the concept of paradigm, by having it mean the scientific worldview on the one hand (which includes such basics as what sort of things the universe is made of, what the proper methods of answering questions are, even what questions are the proper ones to ask) - and on the other hand by limiting it specifically to a function more like a linguistic paradigm, of an examplary book which sets the standards for all those things just mentioned. Examples of this second definition of paradigm include Aristotle's Physics and Newtons's Principia as well as books like Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Marx's Communist Manifesto. Even Kuhn's Structure itself could be considered a paradigm. One of the best examples of a paradigm in its exemplary method of teaching is Marvin Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.

Paradigm Shifts

A paradigm sets the standard for the way in which scientists 'do' science. In other words, it sets up problems for scientists to solve in order to further expand the reach of the paradigm. Kuhn called this type of science normal science or 'puzzle solving'. Rarely, a scientist may stumble upon a fact that cannot be solved using the existing paradigm. These types of observations are called anomalies and tend to cause a crisis in the paradigm. Eventually, either the paradigm adjusts to incorporate this new knowledge, or else it must be discarded entirely and a new paradigm created. It is this process that is called a paradigm shift. Examples of paradigm shifts are hard to point out5 but perhaps the best-known example is the Copernican Revolution. In that case, the Aristotelean paradigm of the sun rotating around the earth was discarded and replaced by a new paradigm in which the earth rotated around the sun6. The paradigm was shifted and thus allowed all kinds of new work to be done in the field of astronomy.

Paradigm Theory Today

All the previous information was a summary of Kuhn's theory. The problem is that under much review by other historians of science, it turns out that his theories don't hold up that well. It is rarely that clear cut and the understanding of paradigm is so vague that they paradigms are practically impossible to identify. Nevertheless, while Kuhn was being soundly rejected by scientists and historians of science, he was quickly accepted by thinkers in other fields, particularly in business. Everyone now views business problems as the result of an old, outdated paradigm, and the solution as a new paradigm which will better allow understanding of the marketplace. Thus, what was once obscure linguistic jargon is now obtuse business jargon due to a long a convoluted route through history and science.

1Pronounced 'para-dime'2Meaning form rather than turn down, although anyone who has studied Latin has been tempted to decline to learn any more nouns3For the verb amo, meaning 'to love'4When the brain completely reinterprets its input, giving the viewer a fundamentally different view of the world despite not actually viewing anything different, as for instance when the white candlestick changes into two black faces5Mostly because once the new paradigm is in place it tends to stamp out knowledge that there ever was another paradigm6Gross oversimplification alert

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