The differences between concepts, theories and paradigms

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The differences between concepts, theories and paradigms
Linguistically the terms derive from Latin and Greek. (BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images)

The terms concept, theory and paradigm are all closely related. Often they can be conflated or used synonymously to express certain ideas. However, they are independent terms with distinct (although linked) meanings and characteristics. Each is used in a variety of ways in everyday speech, but their meaning is more fixed in academic terms

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In everyday speech, a theory can refer to a very abstract notion, not predicated on any concrete basis. 'I have a theory...' often precedes mere speculation. In academic and scientific terms, the element of speculation exists in the word '"theory," but with the expectation that a theory can be explained with reference to elements outside the thing being discussed. A theory is a set of ideas that explain something, but is yet to be proved correct or otherwise. It is a hypothesis that requires work to prove or disprove.

Theory example

An example of a theory would be "I have a theory that there is a link between poverty and birth rates." the theory is not true or false, but experiments and research could be undertaken to prove if it holds true or not.


A concept is more abstract than a theory. It does not necessarily refer to anything outside of itself. It serves as a mental conception. In philosophy, concepts are defined either as mental representations, cognitive abilities or a sense of an abstract object.

Concept example

One example of a concept is the mental category you have for a particular object. Take the word "cat." The word prompts a mental image of a cat. Regardless of how this particular image looks, it serves as your concept of what constitutes a cat. A concept is also applicable to the mental conception of abstract notions, such as a concept of beauty.


A paradigm often arises from the testing of a theory. As a theory is worked through, a paradigm may emerge that serves as a pattern or a model of that theory, or the consequences leading from it. Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of paradigms to science, noting that paradigms develop to explain things, but are susceptible to "shifts" when new knowledge requires the paradigm to be reset.

Paradigm example

Paradigms have a more concrete application than concepts and theories. In linguistics, the rules of a language provide a paradigm - - a system - - by which it functions so all users of the language can understand one another.

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