A paradigm is a set of concepts, thought patterns, or research methodologies that form a particular view of understanding or interpreting the world.
Each paradigm provides a structured and coherent way of thinking, influencing how ideas are organized, validated, and applied.
For example, the scientific method, involving testing variables in controlled settings to determine results, is a central paradigm shaping ways of thinking today. Most people rely on the scientific method as a way of understanding the physical world, and rely on it for everything from building bridges to developing cures for diseases.
A paradigm often goes unquestioned until it’s challenged by new ideas or changing circumstances, potentially leading to a paradigm shift, where an entirely new paradigm supersedes the old one.
For example, the heliocentric model of the universe (which places the sun at the center of the universe) revolutionized human understanding. Before this paradigm shift, the geocentric model was dominant (placing earth at the center). The new heliocentric paradigm changed not just astronomy but affected philosophy, religion, and other fields, altering our perspective of humanity’s place in the universe.
Examples of Paradigms
1. Scientific Paradigms
Scientific paradigms are comprehensive frameworks that encompass a set of concepts, methods, and philosophies within a scientific discipline.
Scientific paradigms shape how scientists observe, understand, and interpret phenomena in the world. Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962), introduced the term “paradigm” into the philosophy of science.
Kuhn argues that scientific paradigms guide research and determine what should be observed, the type of questions asked, how they should be structured, and how the results should be interpreted (Kuhn, 1962).
Paradigms in science are crucial as they set the agenda for research within a given field, providing scientists with shared assumptions and a common language.
They dictate acceptable theories, models, and experiments, and establish the standards against which scientific work is evaluated.
Example of a Scientific Paradigm
The scientific method, a systematic procedure for making discoveries and expanding scientific knowledge, is the dominant scientific paradigm today (Diesing, 2017). It generally involves the following steps:
- Observation: Noticing and describing phenomena that occur in the world.
- Questioning: Asking about the observed phenomena.
- Hypothesizing: Predicting the outcome to the question.
- Experimenting: Conducting tests to validate or refute the hypothesis.
- Concluding: Interpreting the data and making conclusions that lead to new observations and questions.
The scientific method places a high value on empirical evidence (i.e. data obtained through direct observation or experimentation). This emphasis on evidence helps ensure that scientific theories and claims are based on verifiable facts, which lends credibility to the conclusions drawn from scientific research (Chalmers, 2013). Furthermore, this paradigm has a self-correction methodology, where scientists seek to disprove their own and others’ work, and this is acknowledged and respected, which helps to lead to improvements in knowledge over time.
Other examples of scientific paradigms include:
- Newtonian physics
- Einstein’s theory of relativity
- Quantum mechanics
- Evolution by natural selection
- Germ theory of disease
- Plate tectonics theory
- Big Bang theory
- Standard Model in particle physics
- Copernican heliocentrism
- Cognitive behavioral therapy in psychology
2. Sociological Paradigms
There are three major sociological paradigms that have dominated sociological thought over the past 130 years.
These are: functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactions (Wilson, 2017).
First, we had functionalism, promoted by Durkheim and Merton, which argues that all social institutions have a special role in society, helping to maintain order and balance. It focuses on the effects and social functions of institutions on society – both intended (manifest functions) and unintended (latent functions).
Second, conflict theory emerged, which examined how social institutions don’t necessarily bring about stability, but rather, how they sustain and distribute power, often in ways that negatively affect the marginalized in society. Marxism and feminism are emergent from this paradigm.
Third, we have symbolic interactionism, promoted by Max Weber, which holds that we shouldn’t look at how social institutions shape society, but rather how everyday interactions between individuals shape society, norms, and values from the bottom-up rather than top-down.
Example of a Sociological Paradigm
Functionalism is a dominant paradigm in sociology which aims to explore how social institutions such as schools, government, and the family each have their own important role in maintaining stability and order in societies.
Other examples of sociological paradigms include:
- Structural functionalism
- Conflict theory
- Symbolic interactionism
- Feminist theory
- Critical race theory
- Postmodern theory
- Social constructivism
- Queer theory
- Marxist sociology
3. Economic Paradigms
Economic paradigms refer to worldviews and perspectives on how economies function and, therefore, how they should operate.
Some paradigms, like neoliberal economics, hold that government intervention is inherently harmful because it causes distortions in markets (Becker, 2017). Others, like Keynsian economics. hold that government intervention can help to generate stability in markets. This is based on the idea that the volatility of aggregate demand causes market inefficiencies, and government spending can smooth out these inefficiencies.
Of course, we also have more radical paradigms, such as Marxism, which is based on a social critique of capitalism, and argues for government or collective ownership of the means of production to weed out exploitation that occurs under a market system.
Example of an Economic Paradigm
Neoliberalism, a dominant economic paradigm in the final decades of the 20th Century, holds that government intervention in markets should be minimized in order to achieve market efficiency and increased productivity (Becchio & Leghissa, 2016). This paradigm underpinned the privatization of state-controlled capital, such as powerlines and railways, and steadily introduced market forces to institutions such as schools, with the goal of stimulating productivity through competition.
Other examples of economic paradigms include:
- Keynesian economics
- Neoliberal economics
- Marxist economics
- Classical economics
- Austrian economics
- Supply-side economics
- Behavioral economics
- Game theory
4. Educational Paradigms
Educational paradigms refer to perspectives on how learning occurs, and underpin both educational research and modern teaching strategies.
In the early 20th Century, behaviorism in education was dominant. This approach held that learning should occur through rewards, incentives, disincentives, and consequences. It endorsed learning through repetition (known as rote learning) as a key way to instil knowledge in students.
By the mid-20th Century, constructivism emerged as the dominant paradigm. Constructivism held that teachers should encourage cognitive processes – evaluation, mulling over ideas, and higher-order thinking – in order to stimulate learning, rather than simply incentives and consequences. This new paradigm led to a change in teaching strategies, with greater focus on discovery learning, groupwork, and active experimentation.
Example of an Educational Paradigm
Play-based learning is an early learning educational paradigm that emphasizes the importance of play for cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. This paradigm flipped the idea of play in educational settings from something idle and distracting, to a central feature in a good learning environment.
Other examples of educational paradigms include:
5. Technological Paradigms
Technological paradigms refer to distinct patterns or models in technology development and innovation, shaping how we understand, approach, and utilize technology.
These paradigms are often characterized by key breakthroughs or innovations, and may shift due to new inventions, regulations, or societal changes.
The main divide in technological paradigms has been between centralized (or mainframe) computing and distributed (or personal) computing. Centralized computing, dominant until the mid-20th Century, saw computing resources owned and managed by a single entity. This single entity would provide services and information to multiple users through connected terminals.
There came a shift in technological paradigms with the advent of personal computing in the 1980s. This was characterized by small, relatively inexpensive machines that allowed for individual ownership and control. It started with desktop computers then progressed to laptops and smartphones.
However, the late 20th and early 21st Centuries have seen a merging of these paradigms in the form of cloud computing, which combines the centralization of resources with the personal accessibility and control of distributed computing.
Example of a Technological Paradigm
The Internet of Things (IoT) represents a current technological paradigm, reflecting a shift toward interconnected devices and systems (Buyya & Dastjerdi, 2016). This paradigm emphasizes the seamless flow of data and communication across a variety of platforms, enhancing our ability to interact with and control our environment. IoT has transformed many areas, from home automation to industrial processes, creating an entirely new landscape for innovation and development.
Other examples of technological paradigms include:
- Personal computing
- Internet communication
- Mobile technology
- Cloud computing
- Artificial intelligence
- Cryptocurrency/blockchain technology
- Virtual reality/augmented reality
- Quantum computing
- Internet of Things (IoT)
- Machine learning
A paradigm is a way of thinking that underpins our subsequent thought patterns, research methodologies, and professional practices. They underpin ideologies, worldviews, and have real-life consequences.
Each paradigm provides a structured and coherent way of thinking, and different paradigms emerge as dominant within society at different times in different fields.
Becchio, G., & Leghissa, G. (2016). The Origins of Neoliberalism: Insights from economics and philosophy. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Becker, G. S. (2017). Economic theory. New York: Routledge.
Buyya, R., & Dastjerdi, A. V. (2016). Internet of Things: Principles and paradigms. (Eds.). New York: Elsevier.
Diesing, P. (2017). Patterns of discovery in the social sciences. Los Angeles: Routledge.
Emery, F. (2016). Educational paradigms. In The Social Engagement of Social Science, a Tavistock Anthology, Volume 3 (pp. 230-263). Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1st ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, T. P. (2017). Normative and interpretive paradigms in sociology. In Everyday life (pp. 57-79). London: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]