ASSOCIATES (2010, November, v. 17, no. 2)


Bear Thoughts #14: Paradigms II: Still Not Just 20 Cents

exner.gifFrank Exner, Little Bear
North Carolina Central University


To continue with our discussion of paradigms ….

I found out about the pre-Kuhnian meaning of paradigm (… a word to describe a model or standard in any field) when I was researching Bear Thoughts #13. I don’t ever remember hearing the word before 1961. (That was when Kuhn published his book, and I was 17 years old that year.) Bear Thoughts #14 will look at paradigm in its current use, and try (at least) to discuss some of the social uses and misuses of the word.


If you are like me, you heard the phrase the new economy over and over again, first referring to Internet driven companies and then with regard to the housing industry. They only became bubbles after they burst. Until then they were new economies because the laws of classical economics were supposed not to apply. Clearly this idea was based on the erroneous assumption that a new product (or set of products) would reflect new business principles. If that had been true, it would have been a change of paradigm (or, at least, an additional paradigm). Since the old rules did apply, what was touted as a paradigm shift (a new model) was something else entirely (a self-defeating prophesy).

In 1998 I published an article called “From Drowning to Surfing: A Slogan’s Significance” which examined the social changes reflected in the switch from drowning in information to surfing the Internet. This comes closer to a pre-Kunian paradigm shift (i.e., the denotations of both drowning in information and surfing the Internet can be seen as model approaches to information), but surely paradigm must reflect a higher level of model than surface wording. As I said in Bear Thoughts #13 a paradigm shift (in the scientific sense) requires a change so fundamental that previous knowledge can’t accompany it. And, since this fundamentality has come to be expected of the paradigm concept, I see no reason not to extend it to the pre-Kuhnian meaning. By that definition, drowning in information and surfing the Internet are changes in the metaphor reflecting a change in our relation to information rather than a true paradigm switch (in other words, we can, and do, hold both drowning in information and surfing the Internet at the same time).

Elections are another example of something often proclaimed to be a paradigm shift but rarely is. The candidates are competing for current offices, or the taxes/bond issues are another in a long line of such measures. So the characteristic of fundamentality cannot be achieved. To become a true paradigm shift, the political structure must change (e.g., the first election after a new constitution is accepted). Care must be taken, however, to assure that the society instituting the new political structure created the new political structure. Otherwise what would have been a paradigm shift is just a duplication of other people’s efforts. (I don’t want to get into the question of whether or not the American Constitution is modeled on the Iroquois Confederacy, but that controversy gets to the heart of the issue.)

A final example of the misuse of the paradigm shift concept is something most of us hear almost every night. Sometime during our TV watching an advertiser (often a car company) will announce that they have just released the next generation of their product, and that it represents a true paradigm shift. This is silly hyperbole. First of all a change of generations is not a paradigm shift; it is just natural change. And second, if a true paradigm shift occurs, you will be struck by the unfamiliarity of the new object.


The overriding reason for the promotion of normal change to the status of paradigm shift is the human ego. We all want our work to be seen as spectacular. And what is more spectacular than a paradigm shift. It is a rather minor seeming thing to call a particularly clever idea a paradigm shift even though it isn’t. The problem comes when someone else takes advantage of our perfectly reasonable instincts to lead us astray.

The most common abuser of paradigm shift or new paradigm designation, as far as our daily lives is advertising, marketing, and public relations. These are people who, recognizing the strength of our connection to paradigms, make a conscious effort to make us believe that their product represents something of paradigmatic specialness. This intentional effort to manipulate us and our relation to the concepts, and other information, that allow us to live our lives is wrong, in my opinion.

It becomes dangerous, however, when we enter the realm of politics. Socrates noted that rhetoric was the most dangerous of the arts because it is so easy to lie. And nowhere does this danger show up more often than in a politician’s promises. Since a promise has no physical connection to the act that fulfills it, lies are the cheapest kinds of manipulation. If nothing else, the promiser can simply declare that things have changed since the promise was made, and, therefore, the promise is no longer meaningful.

What has this to do with paradigms? As rare as real paradigm changes are, and as common as the political promise to change paradigms is (either in those terms or others), we can assume that such a promise cannot (and therefore will not) be kept.

The same is true of propaganda which is the intentional manipulation of information and those receiving the information towards a goal defined by (usually) government. Paradigms are significant, again, because of our very tight connections to them. If we can be manipulated into considering something to be paradigmatic, then the subject will be of great importance to us. And that is half the problem faced by the propagandist.


There is a simple test of things that are supposed to be paradigm shifts. If you can go back to the old concept and still maintain the new information, it is a shift but not a paradigm shift. It may be that the information isn’t a great step forward; that is for each recipient to figure out. (I know I’ve said this before, but as overused and misused as paradigm is, I feel a need to repeat myself.)


Wow! That was a heavy slog! I hope it was useful though. Paradigms are one of the most overused and misused concepts in our world today. Indeed the concept has become almost meaningless. Think of the last time you heard it and whether you were astonished or not. I hope so but I doubt it.

See you next issue with a lighter (I hope) subject.


Exner, Little Bear, F. (1998). From Drowning To Surfing: A Slogan’s Significance. Journal of the American Society of Information Science, 49(1) P 92-93.

Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (Third edition). University of Chicago Press.