Paradigms, Revolutions, and International Relations: Insights from Kuhn?s Structure

Pranav Shah

It is not uncommon to hear phrase such as “the international paradigms on global relations are rapidly changing.” Generally, the term paradigm is interchangeably used with “point-of-view” or “perception.” Paradigm, as a technical term, is far more reaching and insightful term especially when applied to evolving situations. The term was brought into the academic forefront by Thomas Kuhn in 1968 with the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolution.[1] Though Structure concerns itself with the process by which a scientific revolution occurs, the basic framework of the revolution provides several insights into other types of revolutions, specifically, the geo-political type.

What is a paradigm? Kuhn states that he used “paradigm” in two different senses:

[Definition 1] “…It stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community.”

[Definition 2] “On the other hand, it [also] denotes one sort of element in that constellation, the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science” (175).     

Paradigm constitutes the fundamental assumption on which a solution to a problem is attempted, as well as the tacit means of communicating the paradigm to a new member of the community.

The process of a paradigm change is the most readily applicable to the field of international relations with a few caveats. The following is a brief discussion of the structure of scientific revolutions. The basic process can be summarized as follows: “Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science. …Assimilating a new sort of fact demands a more than additive adjustment of theory, and until that adjustment is completed – until the scientist has learned to see nature in a different way” (53). When the awareness has percolated to the members of the group, the field is in crises (81-2).

The period of crisis is very important because the “crises loosens the rules of normal puzzle-solving” and permit individuals to ask fundamental and radical questions about the existing paradigm and allow them to propose almost heretical ones without a unanimous exclusion from the group (80). The crisis ends generally in one of three ways: the existing paradigm is able to handle it; the anomaly resists even the most “out-of-the-box” approaches and is put aside for future generations; or a new paradigm emerges as a viable candidate and a battle arises over its acceptance (84). When a new paradigm emerges, it emerges as a brainchild of one individual.

There are several key points to note about emergence of a new paradigm. The paradigm is not a result of gradual work by the seminary individual – the paradigm, at least the “un-fleshed-out” version emerges suddenly in the clichéd “Aha!” moment; in other words, the new paradigm is a gestalt shift; one moment there were two faces on the piece of paper, and the next, a chalice. However, this analogy is lacking in the sense that the individual does not maintain the ability to “go back” and still recognize the faces. The result of this shift is that the basic goals, and methods guiding the field are changed; questions that were valid become invalid and so forth (85). For example, post-Einstein, the conceptual understanding of matter was changed to something that was interchangeable with energy. Newtonian physics maybe able to be derived for Einsteinian physics, however, the basic understanding of matter changed by the “conceptual transformation” still leaves the two camps speaking different languages (102). 

Paradigm change throughout the group does not occur in a methodical process where by one group “proves” that it is better than another; this does not occur because “each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigm’s defense”! (94). The practitioners of the paradigm can present the new visions, goals, questions, and methods; this can be very persuasive. Hence, in this regard the impact of the new paradigm on the community can be a powerful factor in its eventual acceptance.

Kuhn’s discussion of how scientists are brought to make this transition is the most relevant and the least relevant part to international relations.

“How, then are scientists brought to make this transposition? Part of the answer is that they are very often not. Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus’ death. … Darwin wrote [of his Origin]… ‘Although I am convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…, I by no means expect to convince experiences naturalist whose minds are stocked … from a point of view directly opposite to mine… [B]ut I with confidence to the future, -- to young and rising naturalists’ And Max Plank … sadly remarked … “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grow up that is familiar with it.” (151)

As a group, the cause of the scientist’s resistance is rooted in the fundamental beliefs of the community – with enough intellectual effort and diligence a problem can be solved according to the paradigm. Hence, many scientists continue in the older paradigm until they are able to integrate the anomaly, they see the new gestalt, or they die. At an individual level, there are myriad of different reasons for a scientist to embrace a new paradigm. Some reasons are directly related to their field – they see the new paradigm as opening up a new frontier by being able to predict previously unrecognized effects. Other reasons are merely tangential to their field. These include the new paradigm being more “elegant,” appeal to an idiosyncrasy of their personality, their nationality. In other words, the choice of a new paradigm by a scientist is statement of faith – faith that the new paradigm will succeed in the future and solve problems that are presently unsolved by either paradigm. Both professional factors and non-professional factors are essential in this decision to switch allegiances.

This terse summary of Kuhn’s Structure provides many interesting questions about the present condition of global politics. It must be noted as these questions are debated that there are several differences between the structure of scientific revolution, and of a geopolitical one. The first is the fact that members outside of the group – non-government members – have a considerable more impact on policymakers in a democratic country.

The United Nation’s Security Council “reform” is one geo-political question that can be seen in a fresh Kuhnian light. The question of reform is one of formulating a response to an anomaly that is the current geopolitical ground reality. In other words, the UNSC was created to stabilize the post WWII situation and reflected the American-Western European outlook on the world – one nation from North America, two from Europe, one from Eurasia, and one from Asia proper. The purpose of the Security Council, as stated on their website, is as follows: “The Security Council has primary responsibility, under the Charter,for the maintenance of international peace and security.” How can the Security Council do this when its membership and its operating procedure as based on the early 20th century perceptive of American-European dominance. This is the current paradigm – the world, geopolitically, lies centered in a bridge between Western Europe and United States. The current population, military, financial, and cultural situation is much more dynamic. American culture, economics, science, and military and currently are very powerful. However, there are thriving nations in Africa, South America, and Asia. Countries like Brazil , and others in South Africa , and Asia are growing in their economic, military, and cultural clout. American prestige is no longer untouchable and unblemished. The current US-West Europe dominant view of the world faces a challenge – how to deal with these upstart South American, African, and Asian upstarts. It would be naïve to think any entity with power will willingly give it up. Hence, the current paradigm, and those working under the paradigm, will do their best to assimilate the current anomaly.

From an Indian perceptive, India needs to decide whether a slightly modified version of current paradigm where United States and Western Europe are key powers, with India being recognized as a second tier power is acceptable for India, or is a new geopolitical scenario with new rules and centers of power better for India? Should India work to negotiate a solution with the current paradigm supporters that is advantageous and minimizes the “anomaly” that India causes; or is it in the better interest of India to stretch at the fabric of the paradigm so that its flaws are more exposed. Once a decision is reached, its foreign policy can be more purposefully directed to achieve its objective. Perhaps current paradigm with a special recognition of India is better for India’s security because new paradigm is not completely predictable.  Conversely, will a new reality recognize and legitimize an uber-radical Islamic terrorist state? Or is it better to boldly seek a crises state and make a calculated gamble of emerging with a new geopolitical game that gives India a stronger set of cards? Or, is it better to wait for a more opportune time to push the anomaly into crisis while currently appearing to maintain the status-quo?

Several other geo-political problems, such as the role and proliferation of both nuclear weapon, and technology can be seen in this light. What is the paradigm in nuclear technology today? What are the current problems? Are they simple problems that will be easily solved by the paradigm, or anomalies that will precipitate a crisis? Is the nuclear energy debate the anomaly that will strengthen the energy-based geopolitical reality that is slowly gaining strength?

Kuhnian ideas can provide a fresh perspective on international politics, and can be readily used as tools to more efficiently direct a nation’s foreign policy to further its own interests.

[1] Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolution. 3rd Ed. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.