Critical theory is a theory that examines, evaluates, and critiques binary power dynamics in society. It takes a Marxist perspective.
The aims of the theory are to identify, challenge, and eventually change oppressive power structures in society. A core principle is that social hierarchies are not natural but created and maintained through oppression and domination.
Summary: Critical Theory in Sociology
- 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.
Overview of Critical Theory
Critical theory is primarily associated with the Marxist-oriented Frankfurt School of social theory and philosophy.
Its origin is in the Institute for Social Research established in 1923 at Goethe University in Frankfurt. Famous sociologists from this school of though include Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Carl Grünberg, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, and Walter Benjamin. This was the first research center with a Marxist focus in a German university.
In addition to focusing on the current power structures and questioning the existing order, critical theory also identifies oppressive regulations, laws, and ideologies that have been embedded in a given society.
It is a method of assessing the world with skepticism; fully conscious of the power dynamics that exist in it. As Paradis et al. (2020) explains:
“Critical theory assumes an ontological position in which reality is shaped over time by structures such as social, political, cultural, economic, ethnic, and gender constructs.6 These structures, and other institutional and cultural forces, interact dynamically to form the tapestry of social life. Social structures are elaborate and can determine one’s thinking and behavior, often unconsciously” (p. 842).
Critical Theory Examples
The following perspectives have each extensively been examined from a critical theory perspective. Note, however, that they can also be seen from competing paradigms, such as postmodernism, which has a competing view of power (see later in this article for a comparison).
- Marxism – Marxist theories assert that societies are divided. The division lies between a ruling class and a working class. Using various divisive methods, the ruling class exploits the working class for their economic benefit.
- Postcolonialism – Many postcolonialists examine the lasting influences that colonialism has had on societies that were once colonized by another country.
- Feminist Critical Theory – Although it has gone through distinct phases (waves) throughout history, many feminists of the 1980s used critical theory and its methods to examine the systematic oppression of women in society.
- Intersectionality – Intersectionality is a concept used within critical theory ro identify how different forms of prejudice (e.g., gender bias, racial prejudice, homophobia, socio-economic prejudice) interconnect with one another and cross-over, often creating unexpected outcomes.
- Cultural Imperialism – This generally refers to the cultural changes, whether forced or organic, that are a result of a dominant culture imposing their values and cultural norms onto other cultures.
- Social Constructionism – This perspective sargue that natural or standard social conceptions, for instance, ideas about gender, race, class, and disability, are a product of societal influence and do not accurately reflect the truth.
- Conflict Theory – This perspective holds that social order is maintained by manipulation and control, as opposed to mutual agreement and peaceful conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power make every effort to retain it, usually at the expense of people from lower economic classes.
- Structural-Functional Theory – Functionalism contends that society as a whole is a complex structure, and the multitude of elements within it, function to meet the physical and social requirements of those living in it.
- Critical Race Theory – CRT reveals how race and advantage are incorporated into American social structures and organizations; it posits that racism is embedded in the way power and resources are distributed in society.
- Chomsky’s Critique of Imperialism – Chomsky uses critical theory to demonstrate how the United States has acted as an imperial power with the objective of oppressing weaker nations and exploiting their resources.
Critical Theory vs Postmodernism
Critical theory is not postmodernism. The two theories have tended to be wrongly associated with one another by right-wing punditry, especially in the United States.
In sociological analysis, critical theory and postmodernism have competing ideas about power and how it operates in society. In fact, the two are at loggerheads and highly critical of one another.
One could not write a PhD from a postmodernist perspective without articulating their critique of critical theory, for example.
Their differences are perhaps most notably visible in the famous Foucault vs Chomsky debate, with Foucault promoting the postmodernism perspective.
Their different views of power can be summarized as follows:
- Critical Theory’s View of Power: Power is exercised and leveraged by the powerful over the powerless. Power is held by the powerful and withheld from the weak and marginalized. It is used to set norms and values but also control who has to obey the laws (the weak) and who can evade them (the powerful).
- Postmodernism’s View of Power: Power exists in language and discourse. The way we speak about people shape their lived experiences. Power is not just oppressive but also productive – a marginalized person can use, subvert, and embrace power to make meaning in their life. For example, a drag queen may be oppressed, but she may also embrace a feminine identity and use it to talk her way into a club.
|View of truth||Truth is a social construct created and maintained by the powerful through processes such as indoctrination.||Truth a social construct, but is highly context-dependent.|
|View of power||Power is unequally distributed in society and used to maintain and reproduce social inequalities||Power is diffuse and operates at multiple levels, with no one group or individual holding ultimate power|
|View of identity||Identity is shaped by social and historical factors and can be a site of oppression,||Identity is fluid and constantly shifting, with no stable or fixed sense of self.|
|View of language||Language is a tool of power leveaged by the powerdul and used to construct and maintain dominant cultural narratives.||Language is unstable and indeterminate, with no fixed meanings or referents. Language can be used by both the powerful and powerless, and the powerless can subvert and mock the language of the powerful.|
|Political stance||Seeks to challenge and transform power structures in society in the pursuit of social justice and equality.||Rejects grand narratives and totalizing theories, emphasizing instead the value of difference and diversity.|
|Key Theorists||Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas||Michel Foucault, Jean Baurillard, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler|
Critical Theory Criticism
While being highly influential, critical theory is also probably the most heavily critiqued sociological theory. Below are just a few criticisms.
- Lack of Nuance in its Critique of Power: Critical theory tends to see power in binary terms. Power is in the hands of the dominant group and absent from the marginalized. Many of its views seem to create dualisms: powerful versus powerless, men versus women, rich versus poor. Poststructuralism (postmodernism), on the other hand, sees power as something that is diffuse and, while tending to restrain the marginalized, can be manipulated and is much more context-dependent.
- Extremely Impractical: Many critics would hold that critical theory’s logical conclusion is communism. Indeed, many critical theorists historically embraced Marx – the writer of The Communist Manifesto. As the 20th Century demonstrated, communism is highly impractical and with the aim of putting power in the hands of the working-class, ends with dictatorship and oppression.
- Subjective: Critical theory has a clear political goal. As a result, it is highly susceptible to criticisms of self-serving bias. Its focus is on finding and uprooting power structures, meaning it enters its analyses in a highly politicized way, rather than through with an intent to aproximate objectivity.
Of course, these criticisms each have their rebuttals and have varying degrees of validity – vast sociological debates about these criticisms are written into university dissertations on a daily basis.
Using Critical Theory: Key Lines of Inquiry
1. Postcolonialism from a Critical Theory Perspective
Postcolonialism examines the lasting influences that colonialism has had on societies that were once colonized by another country.
Slyvester (1999) suggests that developmental and post-colonial technique may help to uncover formerly hidden truths. She believes:
“postcolonial studies ventures into the now, thrusting its colonial history alongside its postcolonial moments, not to reject all that is European in its heritage but to insert the periphery, the marginal, the non-expert into their own destinies”(p. 704).
In reference to Japanese colonial rule over Korea in the early 20th century, Cumings (2021) explains:
“Instead of creation, the Japanese engaged in substitution after l9l0: exchanging a Japanese
ruling elite for the Korean yangban scholar-officials, most of whom were either co-opted or
dismissed; instituting colonial imperative coordination for the old central statecontrol. Its connections were only to the administration; exchanging Japanese modern education for the Confucian classics; building Japanese capital and expertise in place of the incipient Korean versions, Japanese talent for Korean talent; eventually even replacing the Korean language with Japanese”(p. 2).
Postcolonial researchers seek to uncover the overall effect of colonialism, gauge attitudes of different demographics within a society who experienced it, and analyze cultural remnants from colonizers, that have impacted fundamental areas of the colonized country in question.
2. Conflict Theory as a Critical Theory
Conflict Theory insinuates that social order is maintained by manipulation and control, as opposed to mutual agreement and peaceful conformity.
As Williams (1975) explains a strong proponent of the conflict theory was Lewis Coser, he believed that through research it could make great contributions to the avoidance of social alteration, becoming a uniting force.
According to Coser, conflict provides a way to solve tensions between groups, and helps to stabilize the conflicting parts of their relationship (p. 34).
Coser (1957) expresses it in this way:
“Conflict, though apparently dysfunctional for highly rationalized systems, may actually have im- portant latent functional consequences. By attacking and overcoming the resistance to innovation and change that seems to be an ‘occupational psychosis’ always threatening the bureaucratic office holder, it can help to insure that the system do not stifle in the deadening routine of habituation and that in the planning activity itself creativity and invention can be applied” (p. 200).
In more simple and understandable terms, through conflict comes positive change. Conflict is, by nature disruptive, and it is disrupting these static organized systems (e.g., societies, technological business sectors, laws and policies) that influences positive changes.
Coser (1957) provides a metaphoric example:
“a natural scientist, describing the function of earthquakes, recently stated admirably what could be considered the function of conflict….a quake is the earth’s way of maintaining its equilibrium, a form of adjustment that enables the crust to yield to stresses that tend to reorganize and redistribute the material of which it is composed…. the larger the shift, the more violent the quake, and the more frequent the shifts, the more frequent are the shocks….whether the quake is violent or not, it has served to maintain or re- establish the equilibrium of the earth”(p. 201).
For more from a criminology perspective, see: Conflict Theory of Deviance
3. Feminism from a Critical Theory Perspective
Feminism, although it has gone through distinct phases (waves) throughout history, critiques methods of systematic oppressed that have marginalized women in society. Many feminists use critical theory as an underlying paradigm.
A theory, or rather a long-standing movement, feminism is the belief that men and women should have both equal rights and opportunities (socialy, politicaly, and in within the economic structures of society).
Feminism has grown to encompass a broad spectrum of beliefs and initiatives, ranging from defending women’s rights to confronting gender-based violence or bias.
Leading researchers, and political leaders that strongly support feminism, maintain that gender equality is a key factor in a fair and balanced community. Rhodes (1990) succinctly states:
“What distinguishes feminist critical theories from other analysis is both the focus on gender equality and the conviction that it cannot be obtained under existing ideological and institutional structures. This theoretical approach partly overlaps, and frequently draws upon other critical approaches, including CLS and critical race scholarship. At the most general level, these traditions share a common goal: to challenge existing distributions of power. They also often employ similar deconstructive or narrative methodologies aimed at similar targets – certain organizing premises of conventional liberal legalism”(p. 619).
Critical theory was a dominant approach to sociological analysis for many decades in academia. While it lost some steam in the 1990s with the rise of postmodernism with its more nuanced analysis of power, the theory remains an extremely influential approach and knowledge of it is essential for any sociology student. It is closely tied to Marxism and social class analysis, but has also been used in the analysis of gender (through feminism) and colonialism (through postcolonial theory).
Cumings, B. (2021). Korea, A Unique Colony: Last to be Colonized and First to Revolt. The Asia-Pacific Journal, 19(21;2). https://apjjf.org/-Bruce-Cumings/5646/article.pdf
Coser, L. A. (1957). Social Conflict and the Theory of Social Change. British Journal of Sociology, 8(3), 197. https://doi.org/10.2307/586859
Paradis, E., Nimmon, L., Wondimagegn, D., & Whitehead, C. R. (2020). Critical Theory. Academic Medicine, 95(6), 842-845. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1097/acm.0000000000003108
Rhode, D. L. (1990). Feminist Critical Theories. Stanford Law Review, 42(3), 617. https://doi.org/10.2307/1228887
Sylvester, C. (1999). Development studies and postcolonial studies: Disparate tales of the “Third World.” Third World Quarterly, 20(4), 703–721. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436599913514
Williams, J. T. (1976). Conflict Theory and Race Conflict. Social Science, 51(1), 32–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41886040