“Paradigm” refers to a fundamental set of assumptions about reality and the appropriate ways of studying it. A discipline is said to be paradigmatic when there is general agreement within it as to basic statements of fact, background knowledge, research practices, warrants for claims and evidence, and criteria for accepting new knowledge.
Applied originally to natural sciences, and later extended to all forms of scholarship, the concept of paradigm is directly traceable to Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) The structure of scientific revolutions. That book was part of a sociology of science movement that went on to include Berger and Luckmann’s The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge (1966) and Latour and Woolgar’s (1979) Laboratory life: The social construction of scientific facts. In Kuhn’s formulation, a paradigm was first an achievement by a scientist or group of scientists that was both extraordinary and anticipated, and then sufficiently open-ended that it attracted other scientists and provided for their work. Watson and Crick’s double-spiral helix model of DNA is a good example of a paradigmatic achievement. It organized scientific thinking and practice in the field of genetics and certainly has provided work for geneticists for more than 50 years. Initially a proposed solution, it has become the received view (or accepted explanation) for how cell replication works. It is this widespread acceptance and nearly total absence of dissent by any qualified scientist that nominate the model as a paradigm. The science associated with the achievement becomes paradigmatic and normalized and the principles that accorded the achievement become foundational and incontrovertible.
In a normalized science, the daily work involves the accretion of expected results using hypotheses that develop from the implications of the theory and highly conventionalized methods that are appropriate to the theory. The process of this daily work builds a mosaic of where the theory works (the research hypothesis was supported) and where the experiment failed. The shift in attribution is important to note. Successful experiments demonstrate the efficacy of the theory; unsuccessful experiments demonstrate a failure of the experimenter. In this manner, normalized science preserves its theory despite the appearance of contradictory evidence or anomalies. Over the course of time, however, contradictions and anomalies can build to where the exploration of alternatives becomes possible or even encouraged and the potential for a new paradigmatic achievement rises. As these alternatives are explored, rival explanations develop that vie with one another and the normalized view. With sufficient competition the field loses its normalized status and becomes pre-paradigmatic, with multiple explanations available and none capable of commanding it. Some practitioners adhere to the old, some to one of the new; and others float among those available as they position themselves in the field.
Importantly, Kuhn’s argument is not about truth but about the human practice of science. A theory is paradigmatic not because it is true but because it attracts practitioners who can accomplish their goals with it. The double helix indeed may not be true, but, no matter, it provides the mainstream for the current science of genetics.
If we use that last sentence as the criterion, we would have to conclude that communication science is not normalized. There is no mainstream. There are certainly pretenders to the crown, and there are major theoretical families that attract a number of practitioners, but none has achieved a command of the field. Communication, therefore, can be described as a pre-paradigmatic science with multiple constellations of theories, each making its bid as the best available. This is not to say that each constellation is equally distributed.
A particular practitioner could easily spend her entire career interacting with likeminded colleagues, crafting normalized studies, publishing in favorable journals, and teaching the principles of her received view. She would, of course, encounter and respect dissent, but such dissent would be considered wrong or more likely simply irrelevant. From this standpoint, the practitioner could easily argue that the practice in which she participates is the normalized science of the discipline and that the theories she supports are both foundational and incontrovertible. It is clear evidence of the pre-paradigmatic status of communication that such arguments appear regularly in our journals, in association meetings, in our classrooms, at the bar, and over coffee. Claims in these arguments to be the paradigm or even a paradigm are part of the political activity for ascension that are hallmarks of a pre-paradigmatic science. We will recognize communication as a normalized science when those arguments are as rare as the arguments against the double helix.
Kuhn’s formulation of paradigm and normalized science works quite well across all forms of scholarship. For example, Stuart Hall (1980) argued for the then presence of two opposing formulations for cultural studies, one experiential, the other structural. He went on in that article to propose a third, selecting elements from his opposing forces and adding elements of his own. It does not appear that Hall settled anything, as multiple authors have proposed other formulations since 1980 (cultural resistance, community, hybridity, postcolonialism, transnationalism, etc.). It is arguable, of course, but none of these appears to be paradigmatic in stature.
A paradigm can also be conceived, outside Kuhn’s original formulation, as a descriptor for a community of scholarship with the background knowledge, research practices, and emblematic claims that are the signature of that community. Each such community has its rules of membership, requirements for good practice, warrants for claim and evidence, criteria of excellence, and increasingly its own divisional home in the associations and journal outlets of communication. Within a given community’s boundaries, paradigmatic characteristics can appear, but they do not reach across the discipline.
- P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Hall, S. (1980). Cultural studies: Two paradigms. Media, Culture, Society 2, 57–72.
- Kuhn, T. S. (1962, 2nd edn 1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory life: The social construction of scientific facts. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
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