In a recent review of a book in the field of special education, the reviewer amusingly noted that the chapters were interesting in inverse proportion to the occurrence of the word 'paradigm' in the text. If that view is representative of potential readers of this volume then my task is indeed daunting. What I am attempting is a considered discussion of theorising in special education in terms of current debates about the emergence of a new paradigm, here typified as the holistic/constructivist paradigm. I am aware that the word has been used loosely, often as a suffix that adds nothing to what has gone before, or as a synonym for words that we already have, such as theory. I will attempt to sketch out the conditions under which the use of the notion of a paradigm is both helpful and productive. In so doing I will clarify what I understand the word paradigm to mean, suggest ways in which theorising in special education may be seen as an example of paradigmatic theorising, claim that there is available a new paradigm that would be helpful to theorists in special education, and examine some of the consequences of adopting the paradigm, especially in the face of the post-modern challenge to theorising of all kinds.
A productive point of entry for this discussion is the problem of attempting to describe a single theoretical basis for the study and practice of special education. Whilst it is clear that those engaged in theorising special education see themselves as engaged in a sufficiently distinct area of human enterprise, difficult questions arise about how far it is actually distinct. Research groups, delegations to conferences in the field and contributors to volumes of the present type seem to form in predictable and conventional ways, and do not often include practitioners from other forms of educational research, let alone non-educational exponents of theorising the human condition. This may be an