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Paradigm, from the Latin and Greek meaning “to show side by side”, first appeared in English in the 15th century with the meaning of a typical example, a pattern, a model, or an archetype. Until the 1960s, use of the word was largely limited to the fields of grammar and rhetoric. Today, a quick Google search of the term paradigm reveals the word being applied to everything from diplomacy, trade, education and journalism to cell phones, fast food, shopping malls and charter fishing. The word paradigm has been adopted by many fields to refer to a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind: the prevailing view of things, the worldview, the mindset, the cultural stories, the cosmology, the box outside of which we so often try to think.

History of the term paradigm

In 1962 historian of science Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he used the word paradigm to refer to the generally accepted conceptual, philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific discipline or community.[1] A scientific paradigm includes theories, laws, rules, models, concepts, practices, assumptions, values and knowledge. It shapes and determines what can/will be observed, what experiments should/will be performed and how they should be conducted, what sorts of questions can/will be asked, and how results can/will be interpreted.

Kuhn argued that the history of science could best be described as a series of scientific revolutions, during which old paradigms give way to new ones. Paradigms are strongly resistant to change, with its adherents holding confidence that the paradigm will eventually answer all questions and solve all problems. To believe otherwise would be to admit that the current paradigm is partial and incomplete, leaving its adherents feeling the discomfort of uncertainty. Because of that intense discomfort, people will not abandon one paradigm until a credible alternative is available; this is known as paradigm shift.

Kuhn also argued that it is not possible to understand one paradigm through the concepts, standards, measures or terminology of a second paradigm, or to make meaningful comparisons between the two. Different paradigms represent radically different worldviews. An average member of the current dominant American culture may experience quantum mechanics as incomprehensible, or any speculation regarding intelligent beings from other planets as silly notions held by the mentally ill, or faith healers as merely scam artists. Standing in one paradigm, other paradigms can look absurd or insane.

See also


Authors: Tim Bennett & Sally Erickson