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Explanations > Social Research > Philosophies of Social Research > Conventionalism

Principle | Discussion | See also


We tend to conform to conventions, remaining within canonized paradigms.


The notion of science as an objective process of steady progress was challenged by Thomas Kuhn, who showed how it progresses more in fits and starts. He noted that scientific research and ideas are defined by paradigms, dominant frameworks that include formal theories, classic experiments, and trusted methods.

Paradigms are incommensurable, in that the criteria of one cannot be used to judge the truth of another.

Paradigms also can be used more loosely to refer to a 'school of thought'.

Normal science

Normal science accepts a prevailing paradigm as a given and seek to extend its scope by refining theories, explaining puzzling data, and establishing more precise measures of standards and phenomena.

Eventually, however, research generates insoluble theoretical problems or experimental anomalies that expose a paradigm's inadequacies or even contradict it altogether. This leads to a period of uncertainty and challenge, culminating in the replacement of the old paradigm with a new one.

Developing the paradigm

In the pre-paradigmatic stage, anomalies in the current paradigm increasingly show that it is inadequate in the light of newer discoveries. Competing ideas fight for dominance (much as Dawkins' memes) and a Gestalt shift is needed to stabilize understanding of the new paradigm.

Defending the paradigm

A paradigm, once established, becomes like a religion, with professors and learned scientists as its priesthood. Systems such as peer-reviewed journals encompass and promote it. Whole careers are founded on it, and any challenges are vigorously fended off. Conventions arise around the paradigm and it can be a career-limiting decision to challenge these.

Bedrock assumptions about the paradigm that cannot be challenged appear and specific works of literature become canonized, such that they are assumed to contain critical truths. In effect, they become the equivalent of Bibles.

Such systems protect themselves from falsification by including 'escape clauses' into their theoretical frameworks and using closed systems and limiting assumptions that exclude damaging exceptions.

Lakatos noted that research programmes are governed by rules for what may and may not be researched.

Hence Merton's constraints on what constituted 'civilization' allowed him to 'prove' lack of civilization in certain races.

Behaviorism places attention on stimulus and response, and Skinner's focus on disproving autonomy led to an automatic dismissal of ideas, wants, etc. as internal effects of the external and more important stimuli.

Good theory

Kuhn defined five characteristics of a good scientific theory:


Characteristic Description
Accuracy A theory is accurate within its bounds of inquiry.
Consistency A theory is internally consistent as well of consistent with other theories.
Broad scope A theory explains more than it sets out to explain.
Simplicity A theory provides a clear and simple account of complex objects.
Fruitfulness A theory should identify new phenomena or previously unnoticed relationships between such phenomena.

Messiness of science

Paul Feyerabend was less charitable than Kuhn, and his Principle of Proliferation proposed a more open process of competing ideas. He was relativist, but anti-rationalist.


See also

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, (1975)

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