What Is Paradigm? - Definition, Development & Examples

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  • 0:01 Defining Paradigms
  • 1:10 Where Do Paradigms Come From?
  • 1:43 Theoretical Paradigms…
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
In this lesson, you will learn what paradigms are and gain insight into how paradigms are used as an approach to sociological research. When you are through with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with the supplemental quiz.

Defining Paradigms

Have you ever stopped to consider all of the little pieces that make up the culture in which you live? There are, of course, many traditions and institutions, like public schools, but what about the beliefs that you share with those around you, like friends and family? These ideas, concepts, and beliefs that you and others share about religion, nationality, and other pieces of culture are probably a big part of your individual and collective identities, but how often do you consider where they came from or how they might change?

The collection of beliefs and concepts is what is known as a paradigm, which is a set of theories, assumptions, and ideas that contribute to your worldview or create the framework from which you operate every day. For example, you've probably heard the phrase 'the American way of life,' which is a paradigm because it refers to a collection of beliefs and ideas about what it means to be American. For people who find this paradigm very important, it may serve as the foundation of how they view or interact with the world around them. This emphasizes one of the most important purposes of a paradigm, which is that it is comprised of beliefs and ideas that form a framework to approach and engage with other things or people.

Where Do Paradigms Come From?

In sociology, paradigms originated in the work of some key European philosophers, like Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, during the mid-to-late 19th century. Although they may not have specifically labeled them paradigms, these thinkers constructed a number of theories to explore how certain elements of society were related or to address social problems caused by, among other things, the growing power of capitalism. Throughout the 20th century, sociologists built on these earlier concepts and theories to form the basis of modern sociological approaches and traditions.

Theoretical Paradigms in Sociology

Within sociological tradition, there are three major paradigms that researchers use as the foundation for analysis of societies:

1.) Structural Functionalism is a perspective that relates to the ways that individual pieces of a society or culture intersect and rely on each other to form a functioning whole. For example, in cities and towns, there is a formal government that exists to provide and maintain services for residents, like schools and highways, and in turn, those residents pay taxes to the government in order for them to keep operating. The functionalist perspective would view these as interdependent relationships in which each side is cooperating with the other to ensure the whole function of the city.

2.) Symbolic Interactionism is an approach used to analyze the ways that people interact with one another by applying or interpreting meanings attached to social and cultural symbols. In this case, symbols can be anything that has a meaning beyond its obvious appearance. For example, if you think about the pink ribbon used in breast cancer awareness campaigns, you probably know that the presence of such a ribbon indicates that the person is supporting breast cancer awareness, even though there is nothing inherently meaningful about a pink piece of fabric. In other fields, this type of analysis might be called semiotics, which is also the study of the meanings of social signs and symbols.

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