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26.1.03

Thomas Kuhn's ideas of paradigms and scientific revolutions are among the most popular concepts in modern philosophy of science. Geographers have read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions hoping to find either an explanation of our discipline's history or a roadmap for our future. And inevitably, many -- particularly those working from secondary sources (an inexplicable phenomenon, as Kuhn is remarkably readable) -- have used those ideas in ways that differ from each other and from Kuhn's usage. This misinterpretation can be pervasive, according to some self-appointed Kuhn authorities. So far, this seems like a simple problem. One need only compare geographer's use of "paradigm" to Kuhn's, checking for the fit.

The problem is that Kuhn's ideas are not isolated. The concept of paradigm as he used it has diffused within academia (and the wider society) far beyond direct citations of his theories. And to complicate matters, the general sense of "paradigm" was in the public domain long before Kuhn appropriated the word to apply to a very specific philosophical concept. So it becomes difficult to tell where "paradigm" indicates application of Kuhn's ideas, and where it indicates the author's reworking of a more general idea -- perhaps with a bit of insiration from Kuhn's followers.

This is especially an issue in the social sciences for two reasons. First is the fact that the social sciences employ public-domain concepts and words more so than the natural sciences. The history and extra-academic usage that come with these ideas means that it's harder to pin down what a Foucauldian means by "power" than it is to determine what a chemist means by "methyl isocyanate." Connected to this is the fact that the social sciences (with the possible exception of economics) lack a clear hegemonic paradigm in the strict Kuhnian sense -- an analogue to Newtonian physics, for example. This means it's harder to police the definition of words.

This kind of thing works just fine in the humanities. Humanistic endeavours are well-equipped to deal with shifting fields of meaning, where a common vocabulary links together as many conceptions as there are works of art. In fact, this playing with semantic relationships and confounding expectations is encouraged. So maybe from some humanistic perspectives in the social sciences, it's not a problem at all.

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