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Podcast Article November 15th, 2023

What on earth is a paradigm anyway?

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🤔 So, what on earth is a paradigm? "They are the water 🏊🏽 we swim in, the unseen structure 👁️that holds our beliefs, and our actions 💪🏼in place." 💬 🪐 @tobyjlowe explores paradigms in the first of our two-part blog on paradigm shift.

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In Season 2, episode 3 of the 🎙️ #ReimaginingGovernment podcast, we discuss what on earth a paradigm is, and how we can shift paradigms in public service.

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🎙️ Have you listened to S2E3 of @CPI_foundation's #ReimaginingGovernment? @jesstud & @Henk_JanDekker discuss 🏘️💪🏼community-powered public services and the move from 🚗 to 🚴‍♂️people-centred cities, two examples of paradigm shift in practice.

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🎙️ Reimagining Government

In our podcast, we talk a lot about change. We don't just want to change policies or attitudes, but the whole paradigm. But what on earth is a paradigm? Listen to our latest podcast episode where we explore this and more.

Listen now
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Paradigm is one of those words that many of us pretend to understand. It feels like smart, radical talk. Or, dare we say it… a little bit like jargon.

We’ve often tried to think of a better, more accessible word. After all, most people aren’t discussing paradigm shift at the pub (unless they’re trying very hard to impress someone).

But try as we might, nothing quite fits.

Radical idea shift?

Underpinning story change?

Fundamental revolution in understanding?

You see what we mean. It all starts to feel like word salad and gets us further from an accessible understanding of a really important concept in systems change.

In our latest blog, CPI's Toby Lowe (Visiting Professor in Public Management) and Rosie McIntosh (Global Director, Storytelling and Communications) sit down to discuss paradigm shift and more.


Rosie: What is a paradigm?

A paradigm is a particular way of seeing an aspect of the world. It is a grand organising story about how a bit of the world works. It affects how we understand our world, ourselves and our ability to change things. 

Understanding how human knowledge exists within paradigms helps us to get to grips with how change - and in particular, radical change - happens in the world.

It’s often easier to start by discussing how paradigms apply in science. The concept of a “paradigm” was first described by Thomas Kuhn in his incredible book - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

His idea is that scientific knowledge isn’t just about finding out more stuff to create an ever-growing mound of truth. Instead, scientific knowledge exists within a shared understanding of the world, a grand organising narrative which tells a story about the basic assumptions on which knowledge rests. He called this a “paradigm”.

An example is the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe. For millennia, this was viewed as ‘the truth’ about how the cosmos worked, and this story shaped human beliefs and scientific observation.

People observing the skies made observations and created theories about the movements of celestial bodies, all based within this paradigm.

It affected how we understood the universe and our place in it, and reinforced power structures. When scientists challenged this belief, they faced strong opposition from their peers and those in power. The church accused scientists like Galileo of heresy and forced him to disavow his research on the matter.

Rosie: But now, every school kid knows how the solar system works. It’s hard to imagine that people ever believed that we were the centre of the universe (insert joke about your old boss or your ex here).

Toby: That’s because it wasn’t just a new idea. It changed everything. It opened up new ways of thinking, allowing us to ask different questions and enabling scientists to stop suppressing ideas that didn’t fit within the existing story. It shifted our relationship with the universe. When we look up at the stars today, most of us feel a sense of awe at our own insignificance.

Rosie: That makes sense. So, now we are in a new paradigm, but what is it?

Toby: The thing about paradigms is that we often don’t notice them until they shift. They are the water we swim in, the unseen structure that holds our beliefs, and our actions in place. But once we notice they exist, we have a choice: stick with the status quo or shift things. Either way, it’s a choice that we get to make.

Margaret Masterman’s brilliant work helps refine Kuhn’s original definition of a paradigm. She describes paradigms as “a way of seeing” - a picture that explains how the world works.

This way of seeing has:

  • A metaphysical level: foundational beliefs about how the world works and what is important

  • A sociological level: principles and processes which enact the paradigm, controlled by particular people

  • Exemplars - practices which act as reference points for the paradigm

Crucially, Masterman’s work helps us see that a paradigm is a mutually supporting set of beliefs and practices. You can’t change the practices without challenging the fundamental beliefs on which they rest.

And you can’t change just some of the practices because they are part of an interdependent whole. If you change some of the practices, all the others they are linked to suddenly don’t make sense or can’t work.

Rosie: So, when Galileo challenged the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe, he wasn’t just making statements about the movements of things in the sky, he challenged the foundational beliefs of the place of humanity in the cosmos. He challenged those in the church who enforced rules about knowledge creation. He challenged power?

Toby: Yes, and this is why an understanding of paradigms is helpful for those seeking radical change. Being ‘right’ about the problem, even right about the nature of the change that needs to happen, is only a small part of the challenge. You also have to build a movement capable of talking about the value of different fundamental beliefs and of subverting the power structures which hold them in place.

These days, inquisitions are fortunately rare. However, the mechanisms for holding paradigms in place are still alive: to get published in particular journals, you need to agree with the professors who edit those journals and the reviewers they choose. To get research funded, your proposal needs to be reviewed by other researchers who have particular sets of beliefs.

At a sociological level, the level at which paradigms are enacted, we find that power structures are wedded to the existing way of doing things. In any organisation, the most senior staff are likely in that position because they can play the existing game well. It is a rare leader who will challenge the game that put them in power.

Rosie: How do paradigms change, and how can this help us to create radical change in public service?

Toby: Kuhn used historical evidence to construct this circular model for how paradigms change.

It begins (and ends) with people doing ‘normal science’ - creating questions and doing research which answers those questions. Some of this research generates anomalies - observations that the existing paradigm can’t explain. When that happens, the current paradigm will explain away the findings as ‘not important’ or ‘exceptions’.

However, if the anomalies are serious, they will start to pile up. Too many anomalies can push the paradigm into crisis, and people begin to lose faith in the overall story. (‘What if the sun doesn’t go around the earth?!’)

At this point, new stories can emerge. By offering an explanatory story that resonates most with people’s observations, one (or more) of these can emerge as the new paradigm - the new normal.

Rosie: Okay, I think I’m starting to understand. But can we do it on purpose? What does it look like to intentionally seek to create paradigm shift?

Toby: This question is of significant concern to those of us working to create radical change in how public service works. It is a question which we’ll explore in part two of this blog.

Find out more by listening to the latest episode of the Reimagining Government podcast on paradigm shift. Listen below or click here.

🎙️ Reimagining Government

In our podcast, we talk a lot about change. We don't just want to change policies or attitudes, but the whole paradigm. But what on earth is a paradigm? Listen to our latest podcast episode where we explore this and more.

Listen now

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