Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Essential Tension I: social construction and racial reconciliation

When reading the Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), as an undergraduate in the history of science, I stumbled upon a term—paradigm—that has been encroaching on my thinking about community development, diversity, multiculturalism, and reconciliation. Back then, after encountering what had become a “cocktail party” word, I began to rethink my understanding of the human mind, the growth of knowledge, and Christianity in general. Of late, I’m finding that Thomas S. Kuhn’s “paradigm" concept is informing my formative thoughts about the challenges that the John Perkins Center (JPC) and Seattle Pacific University (SPU) will face in walking out our commitment to “engage the culture, change the world.”

Kuhn, a historian of science at MIT, first appropriated the word “paradigm” in the 1960s. As a doctoral student in physics and Harvard Fellow, he became engrossed in Aristotle's work. Kuhn was helping James Conant develop a course on the history of science. During this period, Aristotle provided a conundrum for Kuhn. He was puzzled by how someone so brilliant could be so stupid when it came to physics. After thinking about the question for awhile, the young scholar had an amazing epiphany: Aristotelian physics made perfect sense for someone who had been born in Greece during Aristotle's lifetime.

Stated differently, Aristotle was operating under a paradigm that had been replaced with the emergence of modern physics. Kuhn's attempt to understand Aristotle, in absence of Aristotle's context, had led to his experiencing what he later would describe as "incommensurability." Kuhn was operating under a different "paradigm."

Questions:

Is Kuhn's experience useful for thinking about community development and religious issues? Why? Why not?

How would you define the term paradigm in Christian Community Development context?

Read more on tomorrow

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Max,

thanks for the interesting post.

are you suggesting that, since John Perkins returned to Mississippi to begin doing community development, a new paradigm in emerging in the reconciliation/community development movement?

i am going need to know what you mean by "paradigm" before i can fully answer any questions. but it's interesting to think about reconciliation and community development being socially constructed. your approach suggest that we have to read perkins closely to understand how his worldview and historical context influenced his theological and political commitments.

Bill

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

In short, I'm using Kuhn's paradigm framework as a metaphor. While I don't want to get ahead of myself, you've hit the nail right on the head, so to speak.

I'm interested in understanding how the early waves in CCD were influenced by a particular context and personalities. If we admit, and I think that we have to, that CCD is socially constructed, then we must begin to analyze its origins, efficacy, stakeholders, and issues of power.

Dan said...

Sooo...i'm on the really practical road here, how often does the paradigm shift? More importantly, how often do we take time away from carrying out a vision to reexamine the vision? If the CCD movement has been effective, but around 10 years? 20 years? 30 yrs? do we wait until we notice ineffectiveness? A change in leadership? I think i'm asking because i'm in awe of how increasingly quickly self-proclaimed shifts are occuring. ie, "generations" are re-examining and re-naming themselves- from boomers...to gen x to millenial etc etc, the shelf life gets shorter and shorter until
it seems the re-examination of the paradigm works against it actually being helpful.

Anonymous said...

Read your article and the questions attached.Thought you had written the article in simpler language and so I enjoyed it and do agree that paradigms do shift and we need to re-evaluate that shift as we deal with different issues relative to the paradigm that is presently in place. One of my questions is how do we know when a paradigm does in fact shift? What are the signs that it is happening? Who are the people or what could be some of the factors that force or present a shift? Do double paradigms exist on the same issue?

I'm not a scholar so these questions may seem like a no brainer ....Just a bit of feedback and it would be helpful as you talk about this idea to give several examples in a short concise form to promote thinking.

AB

John Perkins Center said...

Dan and AB,

Unfortunately, I had to chop this post up, which means your questions are foreshadowing some the issues that I'm going to discuss. To begin with, I will have give a quick and dirty description of Kuhn's use of the term paradigm in order to get things started.

Paradigms exist because they provide answers to important questions or describe aspects of reality in such a way that implies a comprehensive understanding of the world. However, it might not really explain the world at all. In the case of the Copernican Revolution based on a heliocentric solar system, the geo-centric model didn't really work and the new heliocentric model had lots of problems as well. However, both problematic paradigms offered ways to understand the cosmos as well as function on a day to day, year to year basis. Over time, the latter proved to be the best answer to astronomical questions.

Two or more paradigms may exist at once, especially pertaining to social issues, the meaning of race. But your question about when do we know when it shifts is an interesting one. In my mind, on some level, Obama or Hillary as the president demonstrates a real shift in the thinking of a substantial amount of people. In other words, paradigm shift=revolution. Revolutions are destabilizing and disturbing.

Like with Obama and Hillary as viable candidates for president, the cultural shift isn't always apparent on the surface. A shift in a paradigm may be the result of an open call for an answer to a persistent problem. Or the silent strategizing of individuals trying to solve an important issue.

John Perkins Center said...

Dan-I'm isolating your questions.

"how often does the paradigm shift?"

I'm sure that people have written on this issue, and I'm sure that each field may have its uniqueness, but I don't think that there is a pat answer. More importantly, I don't think that there is a predictable intellectual gestation period. As you have noted, and Jesus predicted, change is happening at a much faster rate as modern or postmodern civilization evolves.

"More importantly, how often do we take time away from carrying out a vision to reexamine the vision?"

In my thinking, in terms of ministry, we should constantly be reflecting on the vision; always critical. For me, conversion seems to have repercussions for one's ability to be critical. Especially, when dealing of issues of race and power.

Racial ideas are quite promiscuous and polyvalent, and human beings--black and white--have ways of configuring systems to serve their personal needs and interests (power).


"If the CCD movement has been effective, but around 10 years? 20 years? 30 yrs? do we wait until we notice ineffectiveness?"

I guess that I would ask what do you mean by "effective"? Who is judging? The people doing the ministry? The people being "served" by the ministry? The people financing the ministry? What is the barometer?

As an urban youth, who lived in three urban settings, I never knowingly encountered the movement. And surely our urban/suburban communities have not been transformed by these ministries or its theology. So, what do you mean by ineffective? In Kuhnian terms, I would say that if we see persistent problems that can't be resolved by thinking within the current paradigm. Surely, we can find them in our target communities and within our society.

"I think i'm asking because i'm in awe of how increasingly quickly self-proclaimed shifts are occuring. ie, "generations" are re-examining and re-naming themselves- from boomers...to gen x to millenial etc etc, the shelf life gets shorter and shorter until it seems the re-examination of the paradigm works against it actually being helpful.

I would need another example here. This pop-culture renaming thing is pretty superficial. It probably carries more weight in America and in the western states. It's probably more common among whites and the middle-class, though we have a hip hop generation. In the last case, it's just a new name for the codes of the streets or street culture, however, it might be a better expression of a paradigm shift in black culture.

Real paradigm shifts are like the earth shifting, it's not a superficial event. A paradigm shift is a radical transformation in the way that we view and act in the world. It states that the former way is no longer valid, though it worked, it has become incommensurable to think both ways.

In the case of many evangelical movements, we are simply re-articulating our theology with new language, but not dealing with issues of justice, power, and resource in a meaningful way. I'm thinking about imperialistic missions efforts, the social gospel, the prosperity gospel and new thought. These streams of thought have all been re-articulated without real shifts or social change.

From my perspective, CCD, in its origins, did not call for a real social shift. In many ways, it's quite conservative. Maybe I'm being anachronistic.