1. (Epistemology; nowadays rare) The idea, first finding voice in Thomas Kuhn’s spectacular The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that any academic discipline comprises not just a body of canonical knowledge, but a language, world-view, hierarchy, intellectual tradition and social organisation which, prevents you from credibly sounding off about it until you have fully assimilated it and, basically, been indoctrinated by it. Not that it has ever stopped the JC trying.
2. (Management consultancy, distressingly common): A fashionable idea someone else had recently that you are now cottoning on to that promises to, but won’t, profoundly change the commercial world.
3. A hierarchy or power structure: the political organisation around an idea, that confers authority on those who have qualified themselves to husband that idea.
Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms
In its sensible state, a paradigm describes how a scientific discipline operates, and how scientific theories are challenged and fall. As Thomas Kuhn observed, contrary to what Karl Popper’s falsificationism would suggest, one does not abandon an accepted scientific theory just because you come across some contradictory evidence. As much as anything else, to do that would be profoundly wasteful. All that work down the drain because of some tiny inconsistency with canonical theory like, oh, say all astronomical bodies in the universe are accelerating away from each other in a way that cosmology just can’t explain. Instead, you tap the dial, you re-run the experiment, you devise “numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications” — you know, dark matter, alternative universes, hidden spatiotemporal dimensions, string theory — to eliminate the apparent conflict. Scientists of a given discipline — a “particular community of specialists” — are imaginative in their defence of the status quo.
All this takes place inside what Kuhn describes as a “paradigm” — a “particular coherent tradition of scientific research” governing not only the theory but the education, instrumentation, rules and standards of practice. The community comes together around a corpus of basic propositions which it can then apply in developing further propositions, burying the basic ones ever further in the foundations. The more of these applications there are, and the more useful, and pervasive, the paradigm becomes, but the more incentive to its members have to defend it. The scientific community decides not just what laws and rules are the approved ways of answering your question, how, and who, gets to be suitably qualified to ask testing questions, and even what sort of questions are appropriate to ask. This is a tremendously important insight: If paradigm governs not just answers, but what questions may be asked, who may ask them and how they should be framed, then the job of ensuring theories satisfactorily answer all questions asked of them becomes quite a lot easier. In this way, scientific research itself can only develop by reference to the paradigm, and not the other way around: observation is theory-dependent.
A paradigm thus has “exclusive jurisdiction” over its own subject matter. One can only pronounce on a scientific problem once one has been fully inducted into it: biologists will not take seriously the biological assertions of derivatives lawyers, or religious clerics, for example. Clerics who take biology exams and refuse to renounce their religious beliefs will fail, and thereby will never be able to authoritatively comment on biological matters. But the same thing would happen if Richard Dawkins entered the seminary. So plenty of scope — need, even — for cognitive dissonance.
This is not malicious
Now note here: none of this is malicious, requires a conspiracy or involves the wanton suppression of dissident voices. The development of a paradigm is a thoroughly natural — inevitable — mode of social development. Those who defend the sacred texts of the organisation by interposing barries are doing no more than the essential work of ensuring the research programme, such as it is, has continuity and longevity. If any random can kick away any pillar of the edifice, no matter how structurally important, your paradigm cannot grow and will not survive. These are basic survival mechanisms. The more sophisticated the paradigm becomes, the more precious do those foundational propositions become. String theory, for example, is a young discipline, has not yet fully covered and has very few common axioms, there is still much debate about all of them, and all are more or less expendable. Newton’s basic laws of mechanics, on the other hand, are so deeply embedded that they inform much contiguous science to this day even though they were falsified a century ago. The effort of re-writing the entire scientific canon to accommodate mathematics which is far harder than newtons, and which for the most part makes almost no difference, is just not worth the effort.
The universality of paradigms
Now, as buzzword-brandishing MBAs amply illustrate, the intellectual concept of a paradigm is by no means confined to scientific discovery. Indeed, it has something of the “universal acid” of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea about it — once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and you start seeing it everywhere. Religious orders function in exactly the same way. So do political ones. So do lawyers. So do industry associations. So do other academic disciplines. So do sports clubs. So do dissident protest movements. So does any social organisation with a common goal. It has to. This is the definition of a social organisation. Paradigms resemble Daniel Dennett’s “universal acid” because that is exactly what they are: paradigms arise from an evolutionary process. The community that constitutes a paradigm evolves to be the way it is. It gradually iterates over time. This is the universal acid.
Paradigms are systems
Being social organisations with complex structure and rules with new members coming into the community and old ones leaving it, we should regard a paradigm as a complex distributed system. The stocks, flows and feedback loops are designed so that it can continue to develop, but so that its basic fundamentals are protected. Feedback loops and flows that don’t deliver that will lead to the paradigm crumbling.
It is in a paradigm’s nature to be homogeneous
It is hard to see out of the paradigm once you’re inside it
Once you are infused with the learning of the paradigm, it is hard to see out of it: all questions and their answers are sought, delivered and construed within the social and logical rules the paradigm implements. So even well-intended attempts to break out fail. For example, the following question in a staff survey asks:
Management drives innovation in the firm?
This invites employees to comment the firm’s innovation, to gauge its success. But what of a firm which persistently witters on about implementing chatbots, alternative legal service delivery and whatever other new-age guff that catches the chief executive’s eye? It may waste billions of dollars in fruitless pursuit of vague strategies, but the employee who wishes to answer that can either select “seldom” — which isn’t true, and will only encourage the chief executive to run more quixotic attempts to solve intractible problems with coding acquired from the proverbial school leavers in Bucharest — or “always”, which will give the management team the validation that they are looking for. This is truly “seeing like a state”.