Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

The term paradigm simply means exemplar: it has been used in the philosophy of science to refer to a particular thesis about the nature and development of scientific knowledge and in linguistics to refer to relationships between signs.

explanatory context

Paradigm in the philosophy of science


In the philosophy of science, paradigm refers to a model of the nature of the development of science. A paradigm, in this sense, is an overarching conceptualisation of science within which scientists operate. It provides the guiding principles that enable science. The paradigm serves to provide a taken-for-granted view of basic accepted scientific propositions.

This work is most closely associated with the historian of science Thomas Kuhn. It has been developed widely in the social sciences. As a result of extensive discussion and usage in fields beyond the philosophy and history of science, the term paradigm has adopted diverse meanings to the extent that the original Kuhnian conception of the paradigm theory of science has been fundamentally corrupted in some cases.


See Kuhn's paradigmatic model for more detail.


Kuhnian paradigms

The paradigmatic model of the production of scientific knowledge derives from the work of Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn's paradigm thesis is a model of the mechanism by which science 'progresses'. It thus emphasises the developmental nature of the progress of science. The model presupposes that science 'grows' through shifts in the basic conceptions operated by the scientific community. This shift comes about as a result of the inability of the prevailing conceptualisation to deal with anomolies. Anomolies are observed phenomena that cannot be explained by existing scientific theory.


Paradigm shifts are relatively rare and constitute revolutions in theory. Such revolutions embody a fundamental shift of ideas and are not evident in the usual practice of science.


A paradigm is thus the prevailing conceptualisation of science (or of a scientific discipline) within which scientists operate in order to address problems. Kuhn regards a paradigm as a framework that constrains scientific activity through the embodiment of a set of guiding principles. Kuhn tends to view these guiding principles in two ways.

First, in a metaphysical sense . A paradigm embodies a subliminal metaphysical core that is quite incontrovertible but which is rarely explicit.

Second in an exemplary sense. A paradigm provides pragmatic guides to normal scientific activity in the shape of exemplary procedures and examples of work which exemplify the nature of the paradigmatic constraints on the scientist.

The sequence of events in science, according to the mechanism proposed by Kuhn, is from a pre-paradigmatic (or non-scientific stage) to the emergence of a paradigm that marks the beginning of the scientific stage of the subject as it allows for 'normal' scientific work to progress. This work leads inevitably to anomalies, to adjustments to theories within a particular paradigmatic conception, then ultimately to irresolvable anomalies and ad hoc amendments leading to a 'crisis' in the paradigm. A revolution takes place and a new paradigm replaces the old one, i.e. there is a 'revolutionary paradigm shift'. The new paradigm is characterised, eventually, by its ability to explain all that the old paradigm could, plus some of the anomalies. This is Kuhn's conception of 'progress' in science.

The work of normal science once again is to develop, articulate and specify the theory or theories embodied in the new paradigm and as before anomalies will appear leading to a further crisis and again, eventually, a paradigmatic shift. Thus the cycle goes on indefinitely.

An anomaly, for Kuhn, is an 'observational' result which the theory (or theories) within a paradigm is unable to account for but which has been produced within the paradigm. Only as anomolies begin to accrue, do they have an effect. As more anomalous observations become 'well corroborated'; as ad hoc adjustments and auxiliary hypotheses begin to contradict one another; as theories become self-contradictory in order to account for anomalies without transcending the paradigm, then the scientist, and the scientific community as a whole has to rethink the guiding principles of the paradigm.

The 'revolutionary paradigm shift' is, not a smooth adaptation of prior theories. A crisis is characterised by a disunity within the paradigm; by a large number of alternative theoretical conjectures. Ultimately, the work within the paradigm will lead to a crisis that needs a revolutionary resolution and from it a single new paradigm will emerge. The old paradigm, when reviewed from the perspective of the new appears as a ludicrous anachronism. The old paradigm thus fades out. The new one, after a period of time, is established as the set of principles for the scientist (within a given area of science).

The Kuhnian thesis has had a substantial impact on the sociology of knowledge and the philosophy of science.


Kuhn's objection to falsificationism

Kuhn's model evolves from a critique of Popperian falsificationism. Kuhn rejects falsificationism. He considers that Popper has characterised science in terms that apply only to its revolutionary moments. Kuhn argues that Popper has ignored 'normal' science, which is basically puzzle solving and which 'most clearly distinguishes science from other enterprises' rather than the occasional extraordinary scientific exploits that, of necessity, involve a return to philosophical debate.

Kuhn also rejects the whole notion of testability. He considers that science does not 'progress' through the testing and disposal of theories, which is so central to Popper's falsificationism thesis.

Fundamentally, Kuhn raises the old problem of the theory base of observation and suggests that, alhough Popper does not admit conclusive disproof of theories through observation, his adherence to his falsificationist position fails to confront the problems of the theory laden nature of observation. To devise 'tests' of a theory, Kuhn points out, would require going beyond that theory in order to conceptualise such tests. It requires a theory beyond a theory to frame hypotheses and tests of the original theory. To simply test from within is to develop the puzzles of 'normal' science (which may be resolved from within the prevailing theoretical context, or 'paradigm' as Kuhn calls it, or be added to the list of anomalies).

The framing of real tests, (ie. ones going beyond the theoretical framework) requires a psychological shift, or gestalt switch on the part of the scientist. It requires a new way of seeing. Such shifts are traumatic and not part of 'normal' science. Science does not progress through constant tests of theory, rather through an accumulation of anomalies as the result of normal puzzle solving activities of scientists.



Paradigmatic relations in linguistics

A paradigm is a vertical set of linguistic units that are distinct and separate from each other (such as the letters in the alphabet).


At the next level, the words of a language form a paradigm: the vocabluary. These words can be formed into syntagms (i.e. sentences or phrases) according to the rules of grammar.

Paradigmatic relationships refers to the analysis of relationships where the concern is on the opposition between elements that might replace one another.

Thus a unit in a paradigm has two dimensions of meaning. First, its relationship with and at the same time distinctiveness from its fellow units. Second its meaning is defined in opposition to others in its paradigm, and we therefore understand a sign by contrasting it with what it is not.

These are formal paradigms and syntagms. Registers are established by convention and refer to, for example, the paradigm of words suitable to a particular context

(e.g. a legal document).

Paradigmatic relationships are contrasted with syntagmatic relationships.

analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'paradigm' as:

A fundamental image of a science's subject matter used to distinguish one scientific community from another or to distinguish different historical periods of a single scientific discipline.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Kuhn's paradigmatic model



theory-laden nature of observation

Researching the Real World Section


McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary, available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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