The term ‘development paradigm’ refers to a meta-phenomenon: an amalgamated concept that is something fundamentally distinct from the assembly of its constituent parts (i.e. the inter-related fields of development theory, policy, and practice).

In to order contextualize how the concept of a ‘development paradigm’ factors into social science inquiry, a minor digression is in order:

The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines the term ‘paradigm’ as 1) “a typical example or pattern of something” and 2) “a world view underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject”.1 Within the social sciences, the term ‘paradigm’ usally dennotes the later definition.

Social science discourses of ‘paradigms’ also tend to draw from the critical analysis of historian of science Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn’s usage of the term ‘paradigm’ refers to not neccarily to a ‘worldview’ per se, but the salients set of beliefs and practices characteristic of foundational assumptions of a scientific discipline at a given period in time. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn describes how, in the natural sciences, paradigms emerge and shift according to “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners”.2 He further postulates that paradigms influence what scientists feel is important to be observed and scrutinized, what kinds of questions that are supposed to be asked, how findings are probed relative to a given hypothesis and interpreted, etc.3 For well-integrated members of a particular discipline, its paradigm is so convincing that it normally renders even the possibility of alternatives unconvincing and counter-intuitive. The conviction that the current paradigm is reality tends to disqualify evidence that might undermine the paradigm itself; this in turn leads to a build-up of unreconciled anomalies. It is eventually due to the inability to reconcile anomolies that leaves to revolutionary overthrow of the incumbent paradigm, and its replacement by a new one. Kuhn used the expression ‘paradigm shift’ for this process. Kuhn likens this shift to to the perceptual change that occurs when our interpretation of an ambiguous image “flips over” from one state to another.4

Like Kuhn, social scientists tend to use the term paradigm in reference to a dominent conceptual model of what is ‘real’ or ‘true’. Diverging somewhat from Kuhn’s defition, however, social scientsts’ conceptualizations of a paradigm tend to refer not necessarily to a body of experimental outcomes that re-enforce the belief in a given truth, but rather they point to a collective body of evidence suggestive of a shared system of values and beliefs. [Michel Foucault uses the terms episteme and discourse, mathesis and taxinomia to refer to modalities of thought in much the same way as paradigm used by Kuhn.]

The term ‘development paradigm’, by extension, is used in social science discourse to refer to broad array of actions, activities, and programmes based on, and extending from, salient theories and beliefs about what consitutes ‘development’.

Some individuals, institutions and agencies explictly acknowledge their guding their policy formulation and investment frameworks as their own ‘development paradigm’. For example, the City of Johannesburg, Government of South Africa, refers to its Growth and Development Strategy (GDS) as an intitutional ‘development paradigm’: “grounded in analysis… it is a strongly normative argument for how best to approach development… a statement of the core values that the City of Johannesburg will adhere to in future whenever it formulates policies, makes strategic choices and takes administrative action”.5

The ‘development paradigm’ of other institutions can also be reasonably well defined in policy documents, mission statement and the like, although the explicit recognition of such as a ‘development paradigm’ may be absent. This is somewhat of the case for most of the multilateral development banks (MDBs), which articluate clear mandates for “poverty reduction”.

Yet how the stated developmental goals any institution are manifested in practice is not always transparent, and—as complex and heterogenious entities—their approaches vary by operational division, investment, and even by individual agents.

Notably, the government of Johannesburg recognizes this complexity with respect to governance of the South African state by acknowleding how other government departments, agencies and actors many have differing conceptualization of what constitues a development paradigm (referencing in particular those of the Gauteng Provincial Government and of the the Government of South Africa’s National Spatial Development Perspective (NSDP), their Medium-Term Strategic Framework (MTSF), and their Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (ASGISA)).

Within the international community, too, are a variety of different (and sometimes competing) development paradigms. For some, the focus of ‘development’ is closely tied with effecting changes in the global economy to conserve and safeguard natural and cultural resources that underpins the creation of material wealth.6 Others measure development by social happiness, security, and human well-being. In 2011, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 65/309, Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development stating, “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”. In 2012, delegates gathered at United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss how this ‘new development paradigm’ may be used to nurture human happiness and the well-being of all life on Earth. The UN subsequently asked the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene an International Expert Working Group to elaborate the details of the new development paradigm and evaluating Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index as a potential alternative to GDP for measuring and evaluating development progress.7 8 9

Notes & Citations

  1. Oxford English Dictionary Online. “Paradigm” 

  2. Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [3rd edition]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page 10 

  3. Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [2nd edition]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Section V, pages 43-51. ISBN 0-226-45804-0. 

  4. Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [2nd edition]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Page 85. 

  5. City of Johannesburg. Johannesburg Growth and Development Strategy (GDS). “Introduction: What is the Development Paradigm” 


  7. “Growth and Development Strategy” 

  8. 31 May 2013.