What Is a Paradigm Shift? Definition, Example, and Meaning

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 or the information revolution since the 2000s.

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.
  • There is often resistance to a new paradigm coming from incumbents.
  • 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 by the rise of quantum mechanics.

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

Types of Paradigm Shifts Through Business History

A major paradigm shift in business was the birth of industrial capitalism in the late 1700s in Europe and then later in America. Industrialization saw the rise of factories, urbanization, and a shift from craft goods to mass-market products. A related example is the assembly line, which created a substantial paradigm shift in the auto industry and all other areas of manufacturing as well. This greatly increased the division of labor as individual workers began to focus on one specific task instead of having a broad breadth of knowledge and skills related to the whole production process.

More recently, technology has emerged to create new paradigms. The internet, for example, turned out to be groundbreaking, creating a paradigm shift in how people get their information, communicate, work, 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. Moreover, physical newspapers have largely given way to digital versions and the way we communicate has shifted from telephone landlines to social media posts and messaging.

How to Manage Paradigm Shifts

A company that does not foresee, or indeed resists a paradigm shift can lead to its demise. Brick-and-mortar companies that did not establish an online presence in the late '90s into the 2000s learned this lesson quickly. Seeing what customers want and where their preferences are headed is crucial, and should be backed up by data.

Being nimble and leaning into new technological advances or trends is one way to adapt. The tech giant IBM, for example, got its start making custom computing devices for large organizations like firms and governments. In the 1980s and '90s it pivoted to personal computing and software. In the 2000s to 2010s it again shifted its focus to technology and business consulting and artificial intelligence (AI) offerings including its Watson system. In the 2020s it again changed course and moved into cloud computing and infrastructure. For years now, IBM no longer makes physical computers.

Reacting quickly and appropriately to impending paradigm shifts has a lot to do with the long-term success of a business.

Resistance Against Paradigm Shifts

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.

Examples of Paradigm Shifts

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.

Who Came Up With the Idea of Paradigm Shifts?

Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, identified paradigm shifts in scientific research programs. These occur after science-as-usual (what Kuhn called "normal science") continues to accumulate anomalies that can no longer be explained by the current set of theories and methods. As these anomalies grow that challenge the prevailing paradigm, new theories and methods are developed that challenge the status quo, ultimately leading to a crisis. While incumbents will often rise to discount these challengers, eventually a new paradigm may sweep over and replace the old guard.

What Does it Mean that Different Paradigms are Incommensurable?

Paradigms are incommensurable with one another, meaning that they essentially "speak a different language" or hold contradictory belief systems. Thus, practitioners who are working in different paradigms see the world in fundamentally different ways and have difficulty communicating or collaborating with one another.

What Are the Stages Leading to a Paradigm Shift?

According to Kuhn, Science proceeds in the following stages:

  1. Pre-paradigmatic science
  2. Normal science
  3. Accumulation of anomalies
  4. Crisis
  5. Establishment of a new paradigm
Kuhn's Stages to Paradigm Shift
Kuhn's Stages to Paradigm Shift.

Can a Person Experience a Paradigm Shift?

While not exactly the way the term was intended, individuals can experience what is essentially a paradigm shift if their worldview or ideology fundamentally changes to a new state from a previous one. People that convert to a new religion, for instance, can go through a paradigm shift. If the new way of thinking or belief system fully replaces the old one, the paradigm shift has occurred.

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  1. The History of Science Society. "Thomas Samuel Kuhn."