Shifting the paradigm: Kuhn, Chambers and the future of international development

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn introduced a remarkable idea with a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued against the simple narrative that scientific progresses occurs through the gradual accumulation of knowledge about the natural world. In place of this narrative, Kuhn put forward the concept of paradigms: past scientific achievements that provide the founding assumptions for a community of researchers. Normal science proceeds in the form of puzzle-solving, as scientists answer the questions provided by the paradigm with ever greater precision. However, scientists occasionally encounter anomalies — instances where nature violates the paradigm. This may eventually lead to a crisis in the community and the emergence of a new paradigm. The success of a new paradigm occurs through a scientific revolution — leading to a paradigm shift.

The archetype for a paradigm shift was the rejection of the geocentric Ptolemaic model of the universe in favor of the heliocentric Copernican model. Other examples include Einstein’s theories of relativity (displacing Newtonian physics) and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. These achievements were more than mere theories. Each of these shifts dictated the re-thinking of everything that had come before, guiding generations of practitioners and students.

Kuhn restricted his analysis to the natural sciences. He even implied that the concept of a paradigm does not apply to social sciences, after observing how social scientists (even within a given field) have no universal agreement on what constitutes legitimate problems and methods. But Kuhn’s own analysis has not stopped anyone from expanding use of the phrase “paradigm shift”.

The phrase gave us a new way to think about how change happens — not gradually and cumulatively, but in a sharp revolution — and we’ve applied it to a range of fields. The phrase moved from history of science into culture, sports, business and more. By the late-1990s, it had become so overused by marketers and Silicon Valley types that it earned the number 4 spot on a C-NET list of top buzzwords.

Of course, the phrase is such a part of our language that it shows up regularly in the world of international development. A quick search in my Google Reader subscriptions turned up dozens of examples. Here are a few:

  • “Africa has never had good PR, but for the first time we are witnessing a paradigm shift in narratives about the continent.” (Marieme Jamme)
  • “It was the first time UK charities, working with others across the world, had gathered en masse to fight against global unfairness. It was a paradigm shift.” (Jonathan Glennie)
  • “…the need for a paradigm shift among development actors in favor of CBOs [community based organizations]…” (Jennifer Lentfer)
  • “…the Ushahidi Haiti Project was far from perfect… Yet, this project is significant in that it is one small part of a paradigm shift.” (Chrissy Martin)
  • “This currently unfolding paradigm shift has led to the increased recognition that effective pro-poor social and political change requires multiple sources of development knowledge and multiple sources of collaborative action.” (Anne-Katrin Arnold)

What would Kuhn think of such phrases? They clearly go beyond his own usage. Kuhn was concerned with how scientific paradigms guide research and what a shift in paradigms means for the history of science. Our common usage has nothing to do with the natural sciences, and barely anything to do with research. While Kuhn articulated the dynamics of research paradigms, the quotes above (and international development practitioners generally) are concerned with something more aptly called paradigms of practice.

A paradigm of practice contains many of the same elements as a research paradigm. Both involve assumptions that dictate the relevant problems and the appropriate methods for tackling them.

The international development industry has had evolving paradigms of practice since World War II. The first few decades saw a focus on economic growth led by central state action and spending, taking the Marshall Plan as a guide. By the 1980s, international donors and multilateral institutions started promoting privatization of state assets and liberalization of markets — a.k.a. the Washington Consensus. The failures of the Washington Consensus led to a new focus on institutions (often ill-defined) and governance (often narrowly defined as elections).

It’s unclear whether anything has fully replaced the Washington Consensus. Jonathan Glennie recently described the slow death of the Washington Consensus in terms of hubris giving way to humility. He quoted Joseph Stiglitz, speaking in 2004: “If there is consensus today about what strategies are likely to help the development of the poorest countries, it is this: there is no consensus except that the Washington Consensus did not provide the answer.” Alternative proposals exist, but none have stuck.

International development today looks similar to how Kuhn describes a scientific community in crisis: too many anomalies have arisen in the paradigm to be ignored, and the ad hoc adjustments made are no longer satisfactory, yet a dominant alternative has failed to emerge. Dani Rodrik’s new book includes a critique of the Washington Consensus, leading Duncan Green to channel Kuhn in commenting: “A paradigm shift would seem imminent, but the old ways linger on partly for lack of a clear alternative.” Green noted that Rodrik was trying to fill that gap. However, Kuhn emphasizes that simply proposing an alternative paradigm is not enough to create a shift. In fact, even proposing a better paradigm is insufficient. Paradigms are neither better nor worse on their own merits. A paradigm shift occurs after a scientific revolution, which Kuhn describes as analogous to a political revolution: a majority of the relevant community must decide that the new paradigm does a better job of solving the most important problems.

Why does a revolution in a paradigm of practice require more than just a paradigm that solves problems better? Because power matters too. As Glennie noted, the Washington Consensus was good for the most powerful countries, and so it was in their interests to promote it. This points us to the major difference between paradigms of practice and paradigms of research: external forces have a much greater interest in which paradigm of practice we use, but they don’t care as much about whether physicists operate in a relativistic paradigm or a quantum mechanical one. (The major historical counter example I can think of being Galileo‘s house arrest by the Church; the contemporary example might be oil companies funding research to refute climate change.) While physicists alone get to decide among physics paradigms, the international development industry must answer to a much broader range of stakeholders. And as should be obvious, some of the people whose lives are most impacted — the supposed beneficiaries — don’t have much say. Paradigms are defined by the communities that use them.

If we look for potential replacement paradigms, we find two major candidates. Robert Chambers laid them out in a recent guest post on the excellent Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. He classified the competing paradigms as:

  • things: centralized, top-down, planning, log frames, RCTs, metrics
  • people: decentralized, participatory, evolving, diverse, empowering

These paradigms of practice even have research paradigms embedded within them. The “things” paradigm puts its trust in countable metrics, while the “people” paradigm comes with a more holistic and qualitative approach.

In a follow up post, Chambers described how to bridge these two paradigms with a complexity lens. He re-framed them in terms of Neo-Newtonian practices that emphasize standardization, routines, and regularity…

Elements in a Paradigm of Neo-Newtonian Practice

And adaptive pluralism that emphasizes creativity, invention, and ambiguity…

Elements in a Paradigm of Adaptive Pluralism

Chambers emphasizes that this is not an either-or choice. The two must co-exist. However, the Neo-Newtonian paradigm has become too dominant, and a re-balancing is needed. This new balance should be grounded in the industry’s present challenges. Possibilities include using participation and local ownership in support of the results agenda, or incorporating uncertainty and context into aid agency planning frameworks.

I would piggy back on Chambers’ comments by noting that these are not competing paradigms. Rather, they are two components of an emerging paradigm that is working to displace the lame duck Washington Consensus. Both of these address different failings of the incumbent paradigm.

When will the new paradigm finally emerge? Two issues need to be addressed. First, the new paradigm (composed of the two frameworks above) must fully cohere in the minds of development practitioners and advocates. If it ever seems like the Neo-Newtonian and adaptive pluralism sides are at loggerheads, it is because one has moved further forward than the other. Some catch up is needed.

Second, the issue of power remains troubling here. Domestic politics in the wealthy countries still promote particular methods and lenses, even if the Washington Consensus paradigm has lost its grip. Bringing in voices that have typically been left out (a component of the adaptive pluralism paradigm) can help to counterbalance those powers.

I’ll conclude by revisiting Glennie’s point about humility. We should be wary of thinking we’ve ever found the answer. Coming back to Kuhn’s point about how research paradigms don’t exist in the social sciences: practice paradigms don’t really exist in an endeavor that is inherently as complex as development. The aspirations that people have for their lives will never be reducible to one set of methods. Nevertheless, these two frameworks can be useful guides for how we conduct our work and for how we educate future practitioners.