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Frederick Erickson

The concept of a paradigm shift was first introduced by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to describe a revolutionary change in the sphere of science that would forever change the common and universally accepted set of laws and assumptions with which natural scientist approach their subject and interpret their material in their attempt to understand the natural world. Although Kuhn himself limited the use of this concept to the sphere of natural sciences, many scholars of the humanities have often successfully made use of the concept in their respective fields.

However Kuhn had doubts about such random applications of the theory and these doubts are based on some well thought out arguments. For instance, unlike a natural scientist, “a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself”(The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). A natural scientist on the other hand can never consider or work with theories of earlier paradigm once a paradigm shift is complete.

Thus a natural scientist cannot work with the theory of light being transmitted through ether once that paradigm has ceased to exist and still claim his interpretations of the material to be correct. Nor is he allowed the luxury of believing that the sun circles round the earth once a paradigm shift regarding this has occurred. A student of the humanity, however, can still apply the Aristotelian theories of tragedy to a modern-day tragedy or make use of Marxism to interpret and explain economic occurrences.

This is because, unlike in the hard sciences, in the humanities there are no absolute right or wrong. The relativity of the laws of humanities is what makes them, according to Kuhn, unsuitable for the application of the concept of paradigm shift. According to Kuhn a Paradigm can be defined as a fundamental image of the subject matter within a science. It serves to define what should be studied, what questions should be asked, how they should be asked, and what rules should be followed in interpreting the answers obtained.

The paradigm is the broadest unit of consensus within a science and serves to differentiate one scientific community (or sub community) from another. It subsumes, defines, and interrelates the exemplars, theories, and methods and instruments that exist within it. However, Kuhn problematizes this definition by further defining ‘paradigms’ as exemplars, that is, concrete solutions to scientific problems and puzzles. This definition has in mind definitive laboratory experiments that serve as models or milestones for scientists.

But few social sciences have laboratory experiments that can function as exemplars or concrete solutions to puzzles. Thus the theory of ‘paradigm shift’ has little applicability to the social sciences according to Kuhn where few ‘revolutions’ occur, at least in the Kuhnian sense of the term. Nevertheless the concept of paradigm hift has been widely used in the humanities or the social sciences.

For instance, Handa, professor of sociology in education at O. S. E. University of Toronto, Canada, developed the concept of a paradigm within the context of social sciences. He defines what he means by “paradigm” and introduces the idea of a “social paradigm”. In addition, he identifies the basic component of any social paradigm. Like Kuhn, he addresses the issue of changing paradigms, the process popularly known as “paradigm shift. ” In this respect, he focuses on the social circumstances, which precipitate such a shift.

In this relation, he addressed how that shift affects social institutions, including the institution of education. Or in the post-positivist/positivist debate within International Relations Kuhn’s work with paradigm shift is credited as a foundational force behind the post-Mertonian Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. For Kuhn, the dominance of a paradigm allows for “normal science” as the paradigm is fleshed out (but not questioned in any fundamental way). Change occurs as normal science leads to findings that cannot be explained by the dominant paradigm.

As these anomalies mount, a crisis phase is reached and the science moves toward a situation where a new paradigm can arise that will better explain both what the old paradigm did as well as most, if not all, of the anomalies. Once the new paradigm is in a position of preeminence, the stage is set for the process to recur. But with the social sciences, there is no dominant paradigm, but multiple paradigms, and then the process described by Kuhn is called into question. Anomalies require the existence of an agreed-upon paradigm and without one it is hard to see how anomalous findings will come about, let alone create a crisis.

Rather, the crisis for the social sciences is the co-existence of multiple paradigms in basic disagreement. To sort this situation out, social scientist however has developed on the Kuhnian model of single paradigm to that of a multi-paradigmatic structure where contesting paradigms are incessantly in collision with each other. This multi-paradigmatic structure has allowed the student of the humanities to structure the subject into sets of paradigms and bring in greater discipline, organization and insight into the approach.

In other words, in spite of Kuhn’s opinion being different in the matter, an understanding of the paradigm has become a touchstone for a better understanding of the structure of the social sciences.

Works Cited Eckberg, Douglas E. “The Paradigm Concept and Sociology: A Critical Review. ” American Sociological Review 44: 925-937. Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Ritzer, George. 1980. Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science. Rev. Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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