What is meant by paradigm shift?

Published: July 23, 2018 3:10 AM

A paradigm is a pattern, an example, or a model of something. It also means a perspective, a standard. A paradigm is a way of looking at something.

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A paradigm is a pattern, an example, or a model of something. It also means a perspective, a standard. A paradigm is a way of looking at something. The word ‘paradigm’ pops up many times in academics, science, and philosophy and the business world. The information that the Earth is round is a paradigm. Likewise, Nicolaus Copernicus researched that the Earth revolved around the sun. Although he was not the first scientist to propose it, his bold return to the theory (first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the third-century BC) had significant and far-reaching effects in the evolution of scientific thought. Galileo Galilei described the law of the pendulum. It gave birth to clocks. In modern times, physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking discovered black holes and the cosmos. Newton is credited with the laws of motion. Each invention has brought about a paradigm shift—in our living and thinking.

A paradigm shift, which is also called radical theory change, is a concept identified by American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96); it is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. Kuhn described scientific work done within a prevailing framework as paradigm. His 1962 book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ talked about the term ‘paradigm shift’, which has since become an English-language idiom. People tend to use the word paradigm shift loosely sometimes.

Kuhn made several notable claims in his book concerning the progress of scientific knowledge which scientific field undergoes periodically. It does not solely progress in a linear and continuous way, and that these paradigm shifts open up new approaches to understanding what scientists would never have considered valid before, and that the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria. Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable (not able to judge by the same standards), i.e. they cannot be compared with reality. Thus, our comprehension of science can never rely wholly upon ‘objectivity’ alone. Science must account for subjective perspectives as well, since all objective conclusions are ultimately founded upon subjective conditioning. If there are few scientists working on a theme, each one will be having a different viewpoint on it. This means a single notion can have different meanings when seen from different perspectives. The perspective each person adopts influences what is considered central or obvious. Some perspectives can appear as obscure.

Since the 1960s, the notion of a paradigm shift has also been used in numerous non-scientific contexts to describe a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events, even though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the physical sciences.

A truth about paradigm shift is that it is sporadic. In the modern world, we have gotten so used to creative destruction—it refers to the non-stop product and process innovation mechanism in scientific, education and business world. The concept was coined by Joseph Schumpeter (1942), who considered it ‘the essential fact about capitalism’. A paradigm shift can be defined as an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way, which Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’.

We have often observed sporadic paradigm shifts in business management; one such is a shift from a profit-centric to societal outlook. Business organisations need to shoulder social responsibilities because when society improves, their business also improves. People appreciate organisations that have ethical and social values. Corporate social responsibility is a corporation’s initiatives to assess and take responsibility for the company’s effects on environmental and social wellbeing.

There are many paradigm shifts occurring in medicine today. The biggest shift is happening in the field of psychiatry. The world is seriously concerned about mental health. Most medical scientists and pharmaceutical companies are researching on the underlying pathology of mental diseases and treating it. The paradigm shift towards treating psychiatry as an important and valuable field is slow, yet the tides are turning in its favour. It is amusing to see that in a world where we know so much, where technology is so advanced that varied information is available to a person in split seconds, we still have not been able to discover the mystery of the human brain and what exactly is mind and its full effects on the body.

Another paradigm shift in medicine is the issue of over-specialisation. As more information is exposed because of the internet, it is deemed unfeasible to be well-versed in everything and so specialities began to arise and collaboration between teams of doctors have started working together. The problem is that this trend of over-specialisation has led to an undetermined amount of doctors consulting on one patient case. This makes the patient feel disconnected from care and more confused due to often contradictory instructions placed by various expert doctors.

The field of education is under paradigm shift at all levels. In a globalised marketplace with advancing technology, it is a pressing concern for educators and policy-makers to help students learn and develop, and prepare students for life after graduation. According to the US Department of Labor, 65% of today’s grade school students will end up employed in jobs that have yet to be discovered. The question before educators and policy-makers is, how can schools adopt to the changing demand of skills and digital revolution?

In the words of Sean Covey, paradigms are like reading glasses, when you have incomplete paradigms about anything in general, it’s like wearing glasses with wrong lenses, which affect how you see everything.

Vidya Hattangadi
(Management thinker and blogger)

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