The Problem with Paradigms – Day Two

Carol A. Hand

I would like to begin by again thanking Rosaliene Bacchus for nominating me to participate in a challenge: “Three Quotes for Three Days.” Rosaliene, who can be found at Three Worlds One Vision, has a fascinating background. She was born in Guyana, later migrated to Brazil where she worked as an international trade professional, and then moved to Los Angeles where she completed her first novel and began work on her second.

The rules of the challenge are:

1. Three quotes for three days. (Done for Day One. See below.)
2. Three nominees each day (no repetition). (Well – this is a problem of paradigms. I much prefer volunteers.)
3. Thank the person who nominated you. (Done.)
4. Inform the nominees. (See # 2 above.)
5. And it doesn’t have to be three successive days. (Thankfully!)

On Day One of the challenge, I focused on Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) work.

“Bronfenbrenner’s description of individuals embedded within ever larger systems of relationships made sense to me, but I wondered how many people in the tribal communities I worked with at the time had heard of him or his theories. My life had opened up possibilities that many others were denied.”

“Understanding different worldviews requires the ability to shift paradigms. Next, I will turn to Thomas Kuhn to explore the process of “scientific revolutions,” the next step I took in my journey of discovery years ago.”

Thomas Kuhn “was an American physicist, historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term paradigm shift, which has since become an English-language idiom.” (Wikipedia)

Writing the Day Two post for the challenge began after I read the two horoscopes I sometimes consult in the morning, Pisces and Aquarius. I was born on the cusp between these two signs. The message for Aquarius inspired me to tackle this rather weighty discussion about paradigms.

“Remember, the hardest prison to escape from is your own mind.” (Huffington Post, November 25, 2016)

The horoscope’s advice also reminded me of Theodore (not his real name) and the many people who only wanted to help him. It was in the late-1980s when I learned about Theodore’s situation. I was meeting with a team of health and human service providers who were assisting me with the development of a series of workshops for men who were caring for older relatives (Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care). Our conversation veered from the topic when one of the providers described Theodore’s situation.

Theodore was in his late 80s, the sole caregiver for his wife, Grace (not her real name), who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. He was a retired business executive who was used to exercising control over his life and others. Forced retirement and then dealing with his wife’s illness had been challenging. He had overcome many difficulties because he was resilient. But any vestiges of control over his life were suddenly shattered. He failed his vision test because of advancing macular degeneration and lost his license to drive.

He had recently met with the provider who was sharing his story, not to request services, but to simply tell her that his wife, Grace, didn’t really have Alzheimer’s. He knew she didn’t. When he drove places with her in the front seat beside him, she could always tell him when to stop. Although the thought of Theodore driving concerned me, I still admired his spirit of adventure and resilience.

Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care (C. Hand, 1991, artist Caren Caraway)
Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care (C. Hand, 1991, artist Caren Caraway)

The conversation quickly shifted with each provider offering solutions for Theodore’s dilemma. Some were simple, like those from the person who oversaw senior centers, transportation services, congregate noon meals for elders on weekdays, and home delivered meals for elders who couldn’t drive.

We can transport Theodore and his wife to the senior center every day. That way their needs for good nutrition and socialization will be met.”

I don’t think that’s his most pressing need,” said the provider who worked with the mental health agency. “He needs counseling.”

The daycare provider who had voiced Theodore’s dilemma with her colleagues disagreed. “No. I think his wife needs to come to the adult daycare center every day. We will be able to make sure she has access to proper nutrition and proper care.”

Each provider around the table saw Theodore’s dilemma from her own unique vantage point. After listening patently and respectfully for a while, I posed a simple question. “Has anyone asked Theodore what his concerns are and what he proposes as solutions?” No one had thought to do this because each one knew what was best for him. After all, they were all kind and competent professionals, trained and seasoned experts in their fields.

A problem with paradigms is the fact that, like the macular degeneration that was robbing Theodore of his sight, we can all too easily become blind to alternative ways of viewing problems. Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigms carries two distinct but interrelated meanings.

“On the one hand, it stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by members of a given community. On the other, it denotes one sort of element in that constellation, the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science.” (p. 175)

Paradigms, those taken-for-granted ways we analyze problems and identify solutions, provide blueprints for action that we have been dressaged to perform without thinking.

“In the metaphorical no less than in the literal use of ‘seeing’ interpretation begins where perception ends. The two processes are not the same, and what perception leaves for interpretation to complete depends drastically on the nature and amount of prior experience and training.” (p. 198)

According to Kuhn, change comes from those who have not yet been completely socialized into the paradigms of a discipline, sometimes leading to a long struggle he refers to as a scientific revolution. He uses a comparison with political revolutions to illustrate the process of change.

Tug of War (Microsoft Word Clip Art)
Tug of War (Microsoft Word Clip Art)

“Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. In much of the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is a prerequisite to revolution.” (pp. 92)


“Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favor of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all.” (p. 93).

The edition of Kuhn’s book that I read ends with a postscript.

“Having opened this postscript by emphasizing the need to study the community structure of science, I shall close by underscoring the need for similar and, above all, for comparative study of corresponding communities in other fields. How does one elect and how is one elected to membership in a particular community, scientific or not? What is the process and what are the stages of socialization into the group? What does the group collectively see as its goals; what deviations, individual or collective, will it tolerate; and how does it control the impermissible aberration?” (p. 209)

Michel Foucault’s (1979) work, Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, suggests some answers to the questions Kuhn and Bronfenbrenner raised.

To be continued…

Work Cited:

Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thomas S. Kuhn (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.



Interestingly, as I sought clip art images to illustrate “revolution” I became aware of my own limited paradigm assumptions. I’m ending with another way to think about revolutions…

A Different Kind of Revolution?
A Different Kind of Revolution?

Image: A Different Kind of Revolution (Wikimedia)




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