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What Would Kuhn Say?

by Prof. Joseph A. Edelheit


In 1963, the University of Chicago published Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argued persuasively that some intellectual changes are not merely disruptive and dynamic. His classic example charts the substitution of the Copernican model of the solar system for the development of Newtonian physics. Kuhn, the historian and philosopher of science, thrusts a then new idiom into the academic glossary, paradigm shift. He reviews that such changes are initially experienced as controversial because the experience of such unexpected change comes with increased insecurity and conflict within the community. Kuhn could not have imagined that his insights created a paradigm shift in academic discourse. It is ironic that we use this idiom, "paradigm shift", without any recognition how disruptive his scholarship was less than sixty years ago.


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How quickly can we determine a Kuhnian paradigm shift? COVID-19 was defined genetically on January 14, 2020; has the global coronavirus pandemic created incommensurate change in less than six months? One category of intellectual concern that may have been transformed permanently is "work". As I write this reflection there are globally tens of millions of people who have suddenly lost their jobs because the pandemic has devastated the global economy. Even as unemployment is now a global crisis, we have also be required to consider the description of some as "essential workers". Beyond the obvious who are doctors, nurses, and anyone engaged in the health-care system, the pandemic requires that we acknowledge many more as essential.


Prior to the immediate public health demands of quarantine, who might have imagined those in the "gig" economy to deliver food as essential? Those who provide basic forms of mass-transit, those who pick up garbage, especially from hospitals, funeral and cemetery workers suddenly became heroic. Who would have said that people who made sure that every ATM was filled with money, so there would be no panic as the global stock markets fell, were absolutely essential? Is this change in our discourse about work and workers, a temporary emergency glossary adaptation or indication of Kuhnian change?


The immediate emphasis on essential workers reminds me that in the Hebrew Bible there is a similar value described to those who maintain our infra-structure. In Deuteronomy 29:9-10 the text provides a singular listing of the community, "…all of you, tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men…your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to water drawer." In the biblical world view, these final examples of workers are the ancient essential workers. Maybe this pandemic has required that we acknowledge that the value of work and workers cannot be evaluated by titles and size of salary?


COVID-19 has stripped celebrities of their stages and playing fields regardless of their fame and power. The billion-dollar global sports entertainment system was shut down by the virus. When will we feel safe to spend an afternoon in a stadium sharing the unique communal event of professional sports; are we prepared to cheer to "our" team in an empty stadium? How will professional athletes compete with each other without the risk of transmitting the virus? We need to go out to experience many forms of entertainment, movies, concerts, ballets, operas, and plays but will these venues and their professionals whose careers depend on spectators be safe until we have a vaccine? Are we asking painful questions about only an immediate crisis or are we beginning to consider a shift inside our culture itself?

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In the last ninety days, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our basic discourse and our understanding of work itself. Without any warning, the vast majority of people in the world stopped "going-to-work". We were required to shelter-in-place or self-isolate, some places even put law-enforcement or military to sustain strict quarantine measures.


Yet, many employers found ways to perform their business "digitally" asking their employees to work from home. Without any training or transition, people were forced to work outside their offices, using computers and cellphones as the source of all communications, meetings, information and storage. People began joking about what they wore at meetings beyond the angle of the camera. Court proceedings were transferred to the digital realm, including the U.S. Supreme Court. We learned that regardless of any previous experiences, we could complete most tasks by ourselves using only our digital resources.


We began using Zoom, a free app in the Google family, and before we ever talked about the meaning of it, Zoom went from an app to a commonly used verb! Zoom has gone from unknown and unused to the must have resource of gathering and participation, stimulated by the coronavirus pandemic, are we ready to integrate all digital gathering as required, has their been a paradigm shift?


As people return to work, they will be required to wear masks and integrate social distancing in all shared work spaces which might require entirely new conceptions. Factories might now require testing in order to make work areas safe places. Will we require hire health workers and fully integrated them into the work force. Who will implement and enforce the new roles and responsibilities of health and safety that mean testing and tracking among workers? Will all employees assume that any and all COVID-19 related issues are part of their health care?

The pandemic data is constant, confusing and sometimes contentious, but it confirms the need for a worker’s autonomy. If and when a business re-opens, will everyone return as if nothing happened? The questions relating to our work and the coronavirus prior to access to a vaccine are far too numerous and complex for a blog post. Maybe this realization alone confirms our ‘sense’ that this crisis event has precipitated changes far greater and more permanent than we can understand at this moment. We cannot know when Thomas Kuhn acknowledged that his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was itself a paradigm shift.


We will all return to what we once understood to be work, but few of us will actually go back to be the same workers.


About the Author

Joseph A. Edelheit is Emeritus Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies, St. Cloud State University. He is author of What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human (Wipf and Stock 2020).

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