What Is a Paradigm Shift?

The term paradigm shift refers to a major change in the worldview, concepts, and practices of how something works or is accomplished. A paradigm shift can happen within a wide variety of contexts from scientific research to industry.

Paradigm shifts in industry often happen when new technology is introduced that radically alters the production process or manufacturing of a good or service. These shifts are key drivers in many of the processes that a society undergoes such as the American Industrial Revolution.

Key Takeaways

  • A paradigm shift is a major change in how people think and get things done that upends and replaces a prior paradigm.
  • A paradigm shift can result after the accumulation of anomalies or evidence that challenges the status quo, or due to some revolutionary innovation or discovery.
  • The concept was first formalized by physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn.

Understanding Paradigm Shifts

Although the notion of paradigms has been around for quite some time, the concept of paradigm shifts was explored by American physicist and philosopher Thomas Samuel Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn characterized a paradigm shift as a revolution that challenges and ultimately takes the place of a prevailing scientific framework. These challenges arise when the dominant paradigm, under which normally accepted science operates, is found to be incompatible or insufficient with new data or findings, facilitating the adoption of a revised or completely new theory or paradigm.

Paradigms are important because they define how we perceive reality and how we behave within it. Everyone is subject to the limitations and distortions produced by their socially conditioned nature. For instance, before Einstein physicists took Newtonian physics for granted. That paradigm was then challenged with the rise of quantum mechanics.

Such shifts have become much more frequent in the past hundred years, as the industrial revolution transformed many social, scientific, and industrial processes. These processes are likely to become even more commonplace in the future as our rate of technological advancement increases.

Paradigm Shifts in Business

In the business world, a paradigm shift is often a change in the perception of how things should be thought about, done, or made. A paradigm shift can require entire departments to be eliminated or created. In some cases, millions or even billions of dollars of new equipment need to be purchased while the old equipment is sold or recycled.

Reacting appropriately to impending paradigm shifts has a lot to do with the long-term success of a business. An example is the assembly line, which created a substantial paradigm shift in the auto industry and all other areas of manufacturing as well.

The internet also turned out to be groundbreaking, creating a paradigm shift in how people get their information, communicate, and shop. E-commerce companies like Amazon and eBay have capitalized on this new paradigm, while many brick-and-mortar department stores went out of business.

Special Considerations

Ideas capable of creating paradigm shifts aren’t always well received at first. Those found in the scientific world often result from scientists working initially on the fringe. Their controversial research is perceived as misguided or a dead end. While skepticism and inquiry are integral parts of the scientific process, sometimes a scientist does have a revelation, which leads to a paradigm shift. The weight of scientific and public resistance to the new paradigm can sometimes provoke ridicule.

While not instantly accepted, if a fringe science is proven to rest on sound footing, momentum slowly builds against the established paradigm.

Those who occupy an existing paradigm will often be quite reluctant, or even hostile, toward contradictory theories or evidence that challenge their worldview or practices.

Example of a Paradigm Shift

The internet created a paradigm shift in the way financial services and stock markets operate. Orders for securities can now be placed online directly by the client and are sometimes executed in seconds.

Before the internet, a client would have to call their broker, who would write out an order ticket for the broker's record, then call the firm's floor broker to execute the trade. Stock quotes are now widely available through multiple sources thanks to modern technology, whereas people needed ticker machines installed in their offices 100 years ago. All of the old-time equipment such as order tickets, fax machines, and ticker machines are now obsolete, thanks to the paradigm shift brought on by modern technology.