I’ll be honest: when I pulled my research topic out of the bucket/container/box of wonders that was passed around our class, my first reaction was self pity. “Paradigm shift?” I wondered. Just my luck that the broadest topic conceivable would be thrust upon my by my hapless plucking of a slip of paper. Still, when given the opportunity to exchange my topic for another, randomized topic, I opted to accept my fate and mush on. This was partially because I felt the odds of picking something equally vexing were quite high, but that’s neither here nor there.
Ironically, I’ve found myself rather enraptured by my paradigmatically esoteric topic, and have discovered it to be much more specific than previously thought…
A banal history of paradigms
The notion of a paradigm shift is quiet contemporary. Celebrated Harvard science historian and philosopher Thomas Kuhn first coined the phrase in his seminal 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In that book, Kuhn posited that scientific revolutions follow a cycle, starting with initial research, that leads to a fundamental understanding, that is then upset by more research and eventually leads to a radical change in how we understand a scientific concept. This change, Kuhn asserted, amounts to a paradigm shift, wherein the established way of thinking or doing research —the current paradigm— shifts to an entirely new one. This giant leap in understanding is eventually becomes cannon (normal science in Kuhn’s world) and the cycles starts anew.
As a contemporary graduate student accustomed to overuse of the term “paradigm shift” to describe everything from search engines to mayonnaise startups, Kuhn’s perspective doesn’t quite have the same “wowf’ actor it once did, but at the time it was quite a revolutionary way of thinking about science. Prior to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific progress was seen as a linear contribution of new ideas to old ones, layered in through the scientific method. In this view, new research built on previous research, leading to a greater understanding of truth. But for Kuhn, revolution came out of discontinuity through periods of crisis and upheaval. His cycle looked like this:
Pre-science describes ideas the predate and ultimately lead to ideas that are taken as truth, also known as normal science.
Over time, conflicting ideas begin to emerge that cause the accepted model of thinking to shift from its base, leading to a model drift.
Model drift begets a crisis of thinking as practitioners and the general public begin to question accepted truth. This gives rise to an upheaval in thinking, causing a revolt against the established model of thinking, which in turn brings about a paradigm shift.
I found this evolution of the paradigm shift intriguing. For my physical exploration of my research topic, I sought to build something that would allow a user to literally build a Kuhn Cycle as a means of augmenting research into paradigm shifts, or to explore what could lead to a paradigm shift in the first place.
I thought a simple worksheet would suffice and designed the following:
That was cool and all, but I had to print out a bunch of copies for it to be useful to anyone. Then I had the idea for a stencil that would allow anyone to create a Kuhn Cycle anywhere. I had been meaning to make something on the laser since the beginning of the semester, so I took this as the perfect opportunity:
The final product was slightly larger than my 8×11 worksheet, not great for tracing onto the whiteboard walls of ITP, but functional for spray painting.