Sociological Theory Paradigms

Sociology 2111

Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Friedrichs, Robert W., 1972 (2nd ed.). A Sociology of Sociology. The Free Press: NY. The Structure Scientific Revolutions.

In1962 Thomas Kuhn, one among a new breed of historians of science who are tutored in the ways of the behavioral as well as the natural sciences, published a slim volume entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Whatever one's judgment may be of its central thesis, one thing was soon made abundantly clear: The essay itself has stirred a revolutionary reappraisal of the life history of a science among both historians and sociologists.

Completed under the stimulus of a year at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, it offered a completely new perspective by which one might come to understand the maturation and growth of a scientific discipline. Its central thesis is that the communal life of science, rather than being dictated by the formal logic that justifies its methods of verification, demonstrates considerable affinity to the life-cycle of the political community. Indeed, Kuhn's posture is quite literally a "radical" one, for the political community that he offers as a pattern is not the constitutional community that fits the ideological proclivities of the contemporary West but rather-as the title of the volume would indicate-the revolutionary community.

Kuhn rejects as insufficient the traditional image that portrays a science as but the linear accumulation of one verified hypothesis after another, broken simply by periods of greater or lesser growth in specific sub-disciplines. Even a notion as fundamental to the orthodox discourseof scientists as "progress" is questioned, for the revolutions of which he would speak are seen to alter the fundamental images of reality that provide a science with its stable base-thus disallowing any easy assessment in scalar terms. Kuhn would argue, in fact, that major shifts in empirical and/or theoretical models are grounded in what are essentially conversion experiences in which a new "world view" competes almost ideologically with an older frame of reference. There is no simple, clean-cut movement from "error" to "truth." What appears is a competing gestalt that redefines crucial problems, introduces new methods, and establishes uniquely new standards for solutions. At the moment of polarization the devices and procedures that mediate differences in perspective and evidence in "normal," non-crisis science fail. Advocates of alternative models talk past one another, for there is-at least for that moment-no fully institutionalized framework of substantive assumptions that both accept. Personal factors, aesthetic predilections, the age, role, and private interests of individuals, and sub-specializations all are involved. Persuasion ratherthan proof is king.

For those intimately acquainted with the family squabbles that have erupted among sociologists over the past generation or two, a number of tempting illustrations may have already come to mind. If so, I would like to shift the blame from Kuhn to myself. I-or Kuhn draws his case from evidence provided by the natural sciences largely, in fact, from physics and chemistry. Indeed, he is quite explicit in contending that a science must have reached a level of maturation beyond the mere eclectic assemblage of competing "schools" to qualify for inclusion beneath the umbrella he raises. But if one were to apply Kuhn's posture to the behavioral sciences, it would be possible to conceive of the divisive struggle currently being waged within sociology not as humiliating proof of the discipline's relative immaturity but as evidence of its coming of age. It might enable us to begin safely to ignore the incessant demand that we profess ourselves worthy of the label "scientific" and instead get on with both the routines and the revolutions that are thereby our nature. Rather than running in embarrassment from evidence of fundamentally competitive models, we might find we were justified by them.

The thesis developed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions need not be expected to apply in detail to sociology-or to any of the behavioral or social sciences. Kuhn would be the last to profess that it did. Indeed, he suggests a number of potential disparities quite explicitly. Nor would it be correct to infer that I have found the match a complete one, for it should be quite obvious to even the most single-minded devotee of sociology that her history is much more attenuated than that of her neighbors in the physical and biological sciences. Still, the argument Kuhn has fabricated has not only captured the imagination of sociologists of science, but has moved beyond into the realm of general speculation concerning our professional nature and destiny. The issue, then, is no longer whether the thesis warrants application to sociology, but how long we should entertain it as a reasonable hypothesis without attempting to assess its plausibility in terms of the facts at hand.

I have been forced to the conclusion that Kuhn's thesis is far too intriguing to allow it to remain but an engaging possibility. If through systematic confrontation with the empirical evidence presently available its applicability to the biography of sociology can be denied, a burgeoning range of speculative hypotheses can be laid to rest. If, on the other hand, it were sustained, the self-understanding achieved might be enormous. As with all social research, the exercise would not claim finality-simply the responsible and imaginative testing of an hypothesis through the application of pertinent, publicly documented experience. Indeed, the first portion of the volume is even more modest. It does not purport to have initiated a series of case studies in depth or to have been responsible for gathering original data. As suggested above, it seeks only tee assay its viability "in terms of the facts at hand." Later segments of the volume, however, are less reticent. Rather than merely applying Kuhn's stencil to "the empirical evidence available," they attempt to spell out the potential implications of the Kuhn thesis for sociology's future and for its relationship with the humanities.

If it is deemed in the process to step beyond the confines of a sociology of sociology, so be it. Still, it would seem wise not to judge even the latter sections prematurely, for the definition of the scope of the first term in the phrase "sociology of sociology" is of course contingent upon a resolution of the last term.

Much the larger portion of the activity we have come to designate as scientific, Kuhn acknowledges, falls under the rubric "normal"; that is, the participants share a common "paradigm." The latter term has become particularly popular among sociologists of late because it communicates the notion expressed by the term "model" without invoking that word's physical imagery. A paradigm is an "example," but one that is typically linguistic in base rather than physical, a conceptual reference rather than a perceptual one. But it is a prime example that serves as a common frame of reference, a "definition of the situation" that provides a basic focus of orientation. "Normal science" proceeds within the confines of a single paradigm, a relatively "classic" study or experiment that has been sufficiently compelling to shape a discipline's sense of where its problems lie, what its appropriate tools and methods are, and the kinds of solutions for which it might settle. It is grasped before a conceptual schema, a "law," a theory, or a set of methodological postulates are articulated and communicates a "sense of the real" that elicits commitment and out of which further commitments are then drawn. Without such a paradigmatic foundation, all problems, all methods and tools, all "facts," and all criteria for identifying solutions are likely to appear equally relevant. With it one is possessed of map and compass; the gradual linkage of percept to concept becomes cumulative and relatively routine. Although such "normal science" demands skill, imagination, and perseverance, it is similar to solving a complex jigsaw puzzle. That is, the rules are known; one is assured that the pieces will eventually fit with another and that there are both enough and yet not too many. That this may not be the case-indeed, is not-is never a major burden while gradual headway in ordering the bits and pieces within the frame is clearly being made.

The initial consolidation of a discipline about a single paradigm is typically accompanied, Kuhn suggests, by its acquiring a recognized place in the larger scientific community and curriculum, developing its own journals, and elaborating into specialized sub-disciplines. The individual scientist need no longer begin each empirical or theoretical venture anew, creating his own first principles, his own language, methods, and standards. Rather, the common base is made clear in textbooks, with the history of the substantive area appearing to have led inevitably to the present paradigm. Those few who are unable to accept the consensus thus achieved are written of as beyond the scientifc pale or returned to the problematic realm of philosophy which an empirical science would seek to leave behind.

With the paradigmatic base thus secured, the group or community turns its attention to what is essentially mop-up work. Members focus on those facts and theories that are seen as most relevant in the paradigm's terms. The more imaginative extend them to related areas through analogy and prediction. Constants are identified and quantitative laws are drawn. The few who would still operate in terms of other paradigms are simply ignored, for the discipline has concluded that there is no other scientifically justified stance for the given area. That the product of such normal science sacrifices novelty for precision and new departures for detailed explanations is to be expected and is, indeed, its strength. Such science progresses rapidly because it is not distracted by alternate frames. It narrows the range of meaningful problems sufficiently so that only the limited ingenuity of the particular scientist involved should inhibit their successful solution. Socially important problems that are not easily contained within the paradigm are simply put aside.

A scientist perceives little of this process self-consciously. His professional education takes place, typically, within the confines of a single paradigm. The structures that guide him are simply the -,vay his science is. He learns them as lie learns his mother language and the norms of his personal life: by internalizing as "real" the "reality" of those about him. The "rules" lie lives by are raised to the level of consciousness only if and ,vhcn the paradigm itself is shaken. Only then does lie begin to subject them to critical examination and admit debate about them. And all this would appear to be to the good for it protects normal science from being distracted by novelty that fails to penetrate to the heart of its paradigm. Normal science is rigid; it does not readily countenance threats to its foundation. Since that initial consensus-or, if the discipline has changed its paradigm before, its new -"constitution"-had been paid for at such a high price, there is understandable reluctance to exchange it for an other without extreme provocation. Normal science is continually burdened by inconsistency and uncertainty; they are its everyday fare and provide the puzzles for which it seeks answers. Only when they take the form of persistent anomalies may their base be legitimately questioned.

But even when anomalies of major dimensions do arise, they are treated initially as "counterinstances" that demand adjustment on the part of the earlier frame. Ad hoc modifications are brought into play that enable the established paradigm to cover the instance. Evidence per .re is never by itself sufficient to light the fuse of revolution, scientific or political, for evidence has never been all neatly stacked in one direction. A scientist is by nature continually pushing against the frontier of the inexplicable; it does not startle him. He sees it simply as one more challenge to his ingenuity. And furthermore, he did not originally accept the paradigm on the basis of evidence but rather on the authority of text and teacher. If the anomaly persists, however, it will attract increasing attention-and from the discipline's more prominent figures. If it still resists resolution, the feld will be defined increasingly in its terms. That is, the subject matter of the discipline will begin to center about the problem. More ad hoc arrangements will be suggested from increasingly disparate directions. In the process the routines of normal science will become blurred and quarrels will break out over how to interpret the common paradigm. But the reason the paradigm itself has remained relatively un-suspect is that there is no generally acceptable alternative. And science cannot proceed without a paradigm, for it by definition represents a scientist's fundamental frame of reference. The destruction of the old must await the candidacy of the new; the two must occur simultaneously. To have it otherwise would be to reject science itself. The effort to fill the hiatus is likely to force some within the community involved to apply what had been the largely implicit assumptions of the older paradigm in -in increasingly conscious fashion, focusing upon its elementary structure perhaps for the first time since its original acceptance. Such conscious attention to fundamentals has as one of its features an increased interest in philosophical analysis. Normally, Kuhn contends, the practicing scientist finds the speculative nature of philosophy of little interest. Those who have dabbled in it and whose projections are highly marketable because of their personal scientific prominence almost invariably lose status among their peers in the process. Yet a significant minority appear forced, when faced with a persistent anomaly, to re-examine the roots of their scientific assumptions some to reassess the implications of the epistemological path they had chosen to tread.

Not unexpectedly, those who contribute most centrally to the fabrication of the new paradigm are apt to be relatively young and/or new to the discipline, men whose training and careers to that date had escaped the rigidities that were normal to socialization within the traditional paradigmatic framework. The more mature-although they may contribute significantly to the discovery of the anomalies that set the revolutionary process in motion have been wed much too successfully and long to the earlier model. Indeed, the brightest minds of the generation dominant at the moment are apt to prove the most intransigent; they are the ones who will marshall the rcarguard action and stand most stubbornly against the new claimant. Some will not be converted; they will simply be by-passed. Indeed, the revolution does not so much seek any direct conversion of the mass membership of the community but rather tries to capture those key figures who are the "gatekeepers" to the texts that guide the younger generation through the discipline's rites of passage and on into full responsibility- in the field. A key to the maturity of a science, Kuhn points out, lies in the degree of dependence upon textbooks throughout the apprenticeship period. In the most fully developed sciences a student is not likely to be pushed beyond acquiring textbook knowledge until lie moves on to his own creative research. Thus the text plays a role much more equivalent to "holy writ" in the natural sciences than it does in the social and behavioral sciences or in the humanities.

"Extraordinary science" entails, then, a sharp break from the cumulative march of "normal science," a temporary return to a situation much like that confronting the discipline prior to its original consolidation. There is no longer a clear-cut and secure path to guide one's choice of method. Hypotheses that might have been rejected at other times as extravagant are condoned; the air-professional meetings, the journals-is filled with dissent and rancor; philosophical forays are launched. The actual "revolution" occurs, however, only when an alternate paradigm and its advocates and supporters are primed and ready.

The term "revolution" is appropriate, Kuhn argues, not only because the new paradigm is incompatible with its predecessor, but also because there is no institutionalized conceptual framework that will encompass and mediate between the two-at least at the time. If there were, it would in fact be the reigning paradigm. This is not to say that there are no commitments, no implicit "rules" of the highest order, that frame one's identification with the larger community of science. Kuhn is quite clear about this, although he does little more than to suggest that they have to do with an obligation to extend the scope and precision with which the world is ordered.

Normal science fails just as, in times of revolution, the normal channels of political discourse fail. Simple "proof" is insufficient because those adhering to the traditional paradigm and those supporting the new one use their separate paradigms in that paradigm's defense and because neither, at the time one is confronted with the choice, can claim to have integrated all empirical phenomena confronting the discipline. One must first step into one frame or the other-remain in faith or risk the new faith-before evidence for or against the new paradigm is sought. Nor can one argue that the successful new claimant to orthodoxy is able eventually to include the earlier; the earlier would have been changed in the process. What may be included is the capacity to order the phenomena that had been ordered successfully by the former. The retention of the earlier paradigm as in fact but a special, restricted case of the later one denies the earlier its original integrity and would threaten the integrity of the new.

The acceptance of the new frame is apt to call forth a new definition of the discipline itself. Certain old issues will be discarded as "unscientific" or relegated to the gray zone of applied science. Others that had been peripheral at best will now take the center of the stage, may perhaps be viewed as archetypical of that entire branch of science. Methods and tools will change, as will the standards or criteria for identifying solutions. Theory that had appeared earlier to have been developed inductively and around which specialized sub-disciplinary concerns had come to be centered will be recast, as will the boundary lines of the sub-disciplines themselves.

The "world" that engages a scientist, Kuhn argues, is not simply an environment acted upon by a denatured epistemology mediated by a neutral language. Rather it is the joint product of a particular normal scientific tradition, with its associated vocabulary and grammar, and an environment. This means that after a revolutionary episode, the scientist must be re-educated in terms of a new image of the world. The shift in perception is analogous to a switch in visual gestalt-the pieces may be the same but the totality now takes on an entirely new order. Although scientists and philosophers have long sought a set of symbols and a logical framc that would emancipate them from the "subjectivity" of an implicit context, they have made little or no headway. The presumptive base remains. And when the gestalt that is imbedded in that base changes, a scientist finds himself confronted with a new world. It might appear strange that such all-pervasive revolutions have not been routinely acknowledged as an inherent aspect of the life history of a science. But there is a very good reason for their relative "invisibility." We pointed earlier to the integral part played by textbooks in a mature science and the crucial role their "capture" plays in the transition to the new paradigm. The key to such lack of awareness lies in the fact that when the textbooks are re-written in terms of the new gestalt, the "history" of the discipline-insofar as it appears in the texts at all-is rewritten as well. There is no partisan intent involved. The writers themselves now see the discipline's history through the new paradigm, and in all good faith select, rephrase, and emphasize as the main current Of the discipline that thread of research and theory, among the many threads that had been spun, which indeed led most directly to the new gestalt. The rest, like forms Of prehominid man-ape that succumbed to the vicissitudes Of geological change and biological competition, are simply dropped from the lineage, although their ancestries and successes were, to a crucial moment, just as significant as those that survived in the new paradigm. A science that hesitates to forget its fathers, Whitehead warned us, is lost. No wonder, then, that science appears even to those most intimately involved as linear and cumulative. With each revolution the discipline re-draws its family tree. "Progress" in the achievement of "truth," however, is not guaranteed by the succession of one paradigm after another. The frames are too limited-too culturally relative, the sociologist would put it-to provide a firm basis for applying either term. Within a single gestalt that is, within a given phase of "normal" science-the former may well be quite appropriate. But "truth" would apply to neither. We know only the route we have taken, not the goal to be attained. Within the context of that lineage we may be in a position to claim only that one paradigm is more satisfactory than another. The ultimate paradigm stands inviolate.

The general thesis that Kuhn proffers, then, stands in the highest tradition of the sociology of knowledge and its more youthful progeny, the sociology of science. What we seek to discern in the venture ahead is the degree to which it may justifiably serve as a stencil for a sociology of sociology as well.

The University of Minnesota is a equal opportunity educator and employer.

Copyright: © 2001, John Hamlin
Last Modified: Tuesday, 28-Aug-2001
Page Coordinator: John Hamlin