Paradigms in epidemiology textbooks: in the footsteps of Thomas Kuhn

Am J Public Health. 1999 Aug;89(8):1162-5. doi: 10.2105/ajph.89.8.1162.


This article attempts to contribute to the debate on the future of epidemiology by combining Thomas Kuhn's ideas on scientific paradigms with the author's observations on some epidemiology textbooks. The author's interpretations were based on his readings of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, epidemiology textbooks, and papers on the future of epidemiology. Thomas Kuhn's view is that sciences mostly work with a single paradigm driven by exemplars of successful work, and that proposals for paradigm change are resisted. Sciences that are maturing or changing do not have a dominant paradigm. Epidemiology textbooks showed diversity in their concepts, content, and approach. Most exemplars related to etiologic research rather than public health practice. One key focus of the recent controversy regarding the role of epidemiology has been the increasing inability of epidemiology to solve socially based public health problems. Kuhn's views help explain the polarization of views expressed. Kuhn's philosophy of science offers insights into controversies such as whether a paradigm shift is needed or imminent and the gap between epidemiology and public health practice. Interaction between science philosophers, epidemiologists, and public health practitioners may be valuable.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Epidemiology / education*
  • Epidemiology / history
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Public Health
  • Textbooks as Topic*

Personal name as subject

  • T Kuhn