Wallace H. Provost Jr.


George Ritzer has attempted to apply Thomas Kuhn's concept of "Paradigms" to the organization of sociological theory. However, In choosing from among the variety of definitions Kuhn has offered for the term, he has arrived at interpretations that, though they may serve well to augment his own personal approach toward sociology, have little to do with an extension of Kuhnian concepts to social theory. I would like to make two points; one, that a paradigmatic approach that parallels the kind of structures and changes Kuhn described for the physical sciences does highlight some of the similarities between the physical and the social realms. However, it was Kuhn's thesis that the success that physical scientists have enjoyed over the past two centuries was a direct result of this paradigmatic structure. Whatever success sociologists have enjoyed, on the other hand, has been due more to freedom from the dogmatic elements of paradigmatic structure. The reason for this is that the level of complexity of simplest social structures is higher than that of the most complex physical systems.

Ritzer's division of social theories instead of describing different paradigms, in fact, avoids the paradigmatic elements that exist in social theory. I suggest that an examination of social systems as complex systems using concepts developed in the study of complexity will show that his three "paradigms" are simply three sets of tools sociologists apply to their study of human society. By the same token, while his four levels of social reality provide convenient categories within which the works of various sociologists may be interpreted, it is only when they are examined in the light of inter-level relationships that the levels themselves combine to form an integrated social theory.

The development of a clear definition of a structure called a "Paradigm" was not the purpose of Kuhn's work. His purpose was to show that science progresses by sudden revolutionary jumps followed by long periods of gradual development. Therefore, any definition of a paradigm that does not contribute to the demonstration of the existence of these kinds of change may be useful, but it will not be Kuhnian. At the beginning of Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science , he presented an interpretation of Kuhn which was particularly favorable to his own definition of a paradigm, then in a steady drift through Frederich and Masterman, he arrived at a concept uniquely his own. There are two avenues of criticism open in this case. The first is to examine his structural concept of paradigms to show how they differ from Kuhn's Dynamic version. The second is to accept his definition and examine his application of it to sociological theory.

If we take the first road, which is a comparison between his theory and Kuhn's, we need to keep in mind the two very different motivations for the application of the term paradigm. In Kuhn's case, it is generally accepted that science, at least the physical sciences that Kuhn uses for his basis, have had a long tradition of successful progress. It has been one purpose of philosophers of science to determine exactly what it is that brought about that success. One notable property of science is that it is distinctive. While it is not always possible to draw clear demarcations between what is and is not science, the great body of scientific work can nevertheless be clearly separated from other pursuits. Another property that intrigued Kuhn was that science has undergone several abrupt and drastic reorganizations yet it still maintains its hegemony. For Kuhn the paradigmatic structure of science was his way of explaining how science could undergo such total modifications as the change from Newtonian absolutism to Einsteinian relativism and still keep its credibility.

To accomplish this Kuhn began with a basic definition of a paradigm as the set of theories, attitudes, and procedures that scientists do not question. Ritzer's paradigms, on the other hand, are sets of working hypotheses that sociologists are in the process of developing. Paul Johnson, for example, more correctly refers to paradigms as the "Underlying intellectual assumptions scientists make about their subject matter." Strangely enough, though This is nearly a direct quote from Kuhn, it pinpoints one of the major points his critics attempted to use to accuse him of advocating dogmatism. But, most of this criticism is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what appears on the surface to be a clear and simple statement. While the normal subject matter of a scientist is the assemblage of theories that constitute the problems he is working on, these are neither taken for granted nor held dogmatically as Kuhn makes clear that paradigms are. The term "Underlying Assumptions" must be taken to mean something akin to what Johnson calls "Metatheories" , as such they are not part of the theory in question, but they do influence the way that theory is developed. To be part of a paradigm, a theory, attitude, or procedure must be dogmatically assumed by everyone in the field regardless of their school of thought. It can never be part of the peripheral ideas that scientists, or sociologists in this case, normally question. Exceptions to this rule occur during periods of paradigm change, or revolutionary science. This is the first major difference between Kuhn's paradigms and Ritzer's For Ritzer a paradigm is the set of theories that a sociologist works with and the assumptions on which these theories are based.

A second and equally important distinction concerns the source of these assumptions. The scientific paradigm is essentially what Lakatos calls the "hard core", it is a set of theories, attitudes and procedures that have been tested and have survived. They may date back as far as Thales of Miletus. The assumptions that underlie much of Ritzer's paradigms are positivistic in nature. They may have been borrowed from the physical sciences, or they might simply be the brain child of some earlier sociologist. They may have been subjected to Empirical verification, but for the most part they are part of what Merton calls "Theories of the middle range".