10 Critical Theory Examples

critical theory in sociology key features

Critical theory is a philosophical approach to culture, literature, and society that seeks to confront and challenge the social structures and systems that enable power dynamics, oppression, and inequality.

Originating from the Frankfurt School in the early 20th century, critical theory encompasses a range of ideas and perspectives but is united by its critical examination of society and its interest in emancipation and social justice.

Kemmis (2006) defines it as:

“…a form of theorization motivated by a deep concern to overcome social injustice and the establishment of more just social conditions” (Kemmis, 2006, p. 125)

Central to critical theory is the examination of how power is distributed and maintained within societies. This includes exploring issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of identity and how these intersect to create complex systems of dominance and subordination.

While inherently interdisciplinary, drawing from sociology, psychology, philosophy, political science, cultural studies, and other fields, it’s also generally acknowledged that the theory has its roots in Marxist sociological thought.\

For a Detailed Introduction to this Theory, Read my Piece: A Guide to Critical Theory in Sociology

Critical Theory Examples

1. Frankfurt School Critical Theory

Key Theorists: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin

The Frankfurt School Critical Theory, developed by a group of scholars associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, blends Marxist thought with other theoretical perspectives to critique modern capitalist societies.

It focuses on how culture and mass media influence and reinforce societal power structures, often perpetuating social inequalities (Gartman, 2013).

The theory suggests that the capitalist system creates a ‘culture industry’ that commodifies cultural goods, leading to a passive and homogenized consumer base.

Key Concepts: The culture industry (the notion that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods that manipulate mass society), reification (the process by which social relations are perceived as natural), and critical consciousness.

2. Critical Race Theory (CRT)

Key Theorists: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado

CRT examines the intersection of race and law, emphasizing that racism is not only a matter of individual bias but deeply embedded in legal systems and policies (DiAngelo, 2018).

It challenges the ways in which race and racial inequalities are constructed and perpetuated by social structures and institutions. Embedded under this framework is also critical whiteness studies.

Key Concepts: Intersectionality (the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender), the idea of ‘whiteness’ as property, and the critique of liberalism (e.g., colorblindness, neutrality of the law).

3. Feminist Theory

Key Theorists: Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Judith Butler

This theory analyzes the ways in which gender, particularly femininity, is socially constructed and institutionalized (Epure, 2014).

It critiques the patriarchal systems that lead to gender inequality and advocates for the rights and empowerment of women and other gender minorities.

Feminism has gone through several ‘waves’ over time, with each wave focusing on progressively different and new areas of analysis.

Key Concepts: Patriarchy, gender roles and stereotypes, intersectionality (highlighting how gender intersects with other identities like race and class), and the advocacy for women’s rights.

Read More: My Guide to Feminism

4. Queer Theory

Key Theorists: Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky, Sedgwick Michael Warner

Queer theory questions the fixed categories of gender and sexual identity. It challenges the normative ideas of sexuality and gender, arguing that these concepts are fluid and socially constructed (Butler, 1993).

In addition to challenging the binary views of gender and sexuality, queer theory also critiques the societal norms that define and constrain individual identities (see for a transformative book Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble). It encourages the exploration and acceptance of diverse expressions of identity, emphasizing that these should not be limited by traditional or mainstream understandings of gender and sexuality.

Key Concepts: The deconstruction of fixed categories (like ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’), the critique of heteronormativity (the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm), and the exploration of the politics of sexuality.

5. Postcolonial Theory

Key Theorists: Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Frantz Fanon

Postcolonial theory critically examines the legacy of colonialism and its ongoing impacts on former colonies and colonized peoples.

It analyzes how Western imperialism has shaped the social, cultural, and political structures of colonized regions, often leading to the marginalization and oppression of their cultures and identities (Said, 1979). Said’s Orientalism, which talks about the white man’s romanticization of non-white people, is a particularly good introduction to this topic.

This theory challenges Eurocentric perspectives, advocating for the recognition and valorization of indigenous knowledge and cultural practices.

Key Concepts: Orientalism (how the West perceives and represents the East), subaltern studies (focused on the perspectives of colonized people), and the critique of Eurocentrism.

See More: My Guide to Postcolonial Theory

6. Critical Pedagogy

Key Theorists: Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks

Critical Pedagogy is an educational approach that emphasizes the role of teaching in challenging social injustices and empowering students to critically engage with and transform their world (Friere, 2018; Giroux, 2011).

It critiques traditional education systems as perpetuating societal inequalities and seeks to create a more dialogic and democratic educational experience.

The quintessential text in this area is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a fascinating text I read in my undergraduate time, that highlights an alternative way of educating children that doesn’t simply focus on preparing them to be workers for the capitalist class.

Proponents of Critical Pedagogy argue that education should not just be about transmitting knowledge, but also about developing critical consciousness in students, enabling them to question and challenge dominant power structures.

Key Concepts: The teacher-student relationship as a dialogic and democratic process, education as a tool for social change, and the critique of the ‘banking model’ of education (where students are seen as empty accounts to be filled by the teacher).

7. Marxism

Key Theorists: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Antonio Gramsci

As both a social theory and a political movement, Marxism analyzes the effects of capitalism on labor, productivity, and economic development (Claeys, 2018).

Founded by Karl Marx, this theory critiques the capitalist system for creating class struggles due to the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. Marx’s theories, including his concept of communism were later embraced by various far-left political movements and implemented in many societies in the 20th Century, including Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, and China.

Key Concepts: Class struggle, the means of production, historical materialism (the idea that material conditions fundamentally shape society), and the vision of a classless society.

Read More: My Guide to Marxism

8. Cultural Imperialism

Key Theorists: Edward Said, Herbert Schiller, John Tomlinson

Critical theory’s critique of Cultural Imperialism focuses on how the dominant cultures, particularly those of Western countries, impose their values, ideologies, and lifestyles on other, less dominant cultures (Said, 1979).

This process often leads to the marginalization or erasure of local and indigenous cultures and languages. The critique emphasizes that Cultural Imperialism is not just a matter of cultural exchange but is deeply intertwined with economic and political power dynamics.

It can manifest through media, where Western films, television, and music become dominant worldwide, shaping global tastes and perceptions often at the expense of local cultural expressions.

Key Concepts: Media imperialism (the dominance of Western media products in other cultures), the export of consumer culture, and the imposition of foreign values and lifestyles on local cultures.

See More: My Guide to Cultural Imperialism

9. Intersectionality

Key Theorists: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill, Collins Angela Davis

Developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw (2013), intersectionality examines how different aspects of a person’s social and political identities (e.g., race, gender, class, sexuality) combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.

This concept is widely used in postmodern and post-structural research fields, which attempt to explore how marginalization compounds itself when people belong to multiple marginalized identities, and attempt to draw together the research from various fields of research on marginalization (Marxism for class, feminism for gender, critical race theory for race) to explore how this research overlaps.

Key Concepts: Overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage, the idea that an individual’s experience of disadvantage is not simply the sum of its parts, but a unique combination shaped by the intersections of various social categories.

See More: My Guide to Intersectionality

10. Critical Urban Theory

Key Theorists: David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells

This theory explores the city as a space of social struggle, focusing on issues such as urban redevelopment, gentrification, and the role of public space.

It critiques how urban spaces are developed and controlled, often in ways that benefit the wealthy at the expense of lower-income residents (Lefebvre, 1991). I particularly enjoyed reading Lefebvre’s The Production of Space as a graduate student, where he explores how we create meaning through spatial design.

Key Concepts: The right to the city, the impact of globalization on urban spaces, and the critique of neoliberal urban policies.

Summary of Critical Theory

  • Critical theory’s core focus of inquiry is power and how it produces social inequality.
  • It believes that power is unfairly distributed and is wielded by the powerful to maintain their power while oppressing the marginalized.
  • It aims to call into question dominant cultural narratives by promoting marginalized voices and highlighting their oppression.
  • It believes that power structures need to be upended for justice and equality to be achieved.

Further Reading

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex”. Routledge.

Claeys, G. (2018). Marx and Marxism. Penguin Books Limited.

Crenshaw, K. W. (2013). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. In Crenshaw, K. The public nature of private violence (pp. 93-118). Routledge.

DiAngelo, R. J. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press.

Epure, M. (2014). Critically assess: The relative merits of liberal, socialist and radical feminism. J. Res. Gender Stud.4, 514.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (50th Anniversary ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gartman, D. (2013). Culture, Class, and Critical Theory: Between Bourdieu and the Frankfurt School. Routledge.

Giroux, H. A. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Bloomsbury Academic.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Wiley.

Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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