Critical Theory

If you've ever questioned the role that language can play in the creation of power structures, or considered the impact school curriculums have on a student's identity formation, then you've dabbled with critical theory. 

Get started Sign up for free
Critical Theory Critical Theory

Create learning materials about Critical Theory with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    Critical theory can be a tricky concept to wrap your head around because, as the name suggests, it's pretty theoretical and very critical. Here you'll be able to find a definition and explanation of critical theory, the history behind the concept, how it can be applied to language and education, and critiques of the theory.

    Critical Theory Definition

    Critical theory is a social philosophy that aims to assess and critique embedded power structures within society.

    A distinction can be made between critical theory (uncapitalized) and Critical Theory (capitalized). Whereas Critical Theory is an established theory and school of thought from the Frankfurt School, critical theory is a broader term for any discipline taking a critical approach to research and analysis.

    Critical Theory and The Frankfurt School

    Critical Theory (capitalized) is a school of thought known as The Frankfurt School that began in the 1930s as a way to critique and dismantle the fascist ideologies presented by Nazi Germany at the time. The Frankfurt School is considered a philosophical and sociological movement and eas comprised of theorists, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and more.

    Horkheimer presented the first definition of Critical Theory in his 1937 essay entitled 'Traditional and Critical Theory.' He defined Critical Theory as being inherently different from traditional theory in that it aimed to critique and change society rather than simply explain it.

    The critical aspect of Critical Theory seeks to highlight societal power structure and injustices and "liberate individuals from the circumstances that enslave them".1

    Critical Theory has roots in Marxism and Kant's concept of Transcendental Idealism in that it critiques the unprovable social, philosophical, political, and economic ideologies that exist within society and questions the validity of ideology that cannot be proven.

    Ideology - A collection of beliefs and ideas that often serve as the basis for political or economic policy.

    Critical Theory as a Discipline

    Critical theory (uncapitalized) is a broader approach used across multiple disciplines to challenge power structures within society. The theory works on the basis that prescribed ideology, social structures, and racial and cultural assumptions play a significant role in people's lives and are the main barrier to individual liberation and true democracy.

    Social structures - The way society is grouped into related sets of roles. For example, social classes.

    Critical theorists believe it is necessary to view society as a whole in order to dismantle the 'false consciousness' created by underlying ideologies. To achieve this, critical theory encompasses psychology, sociology, politics, race theory, gender theory, language, and culture.

    Critical theory, Capitalism poster, StudySmarterFig 1. Critical theory can help us recognize and critique societal structures

    Critical theory as an approach is quite broad, so let's look at its key characteristics. Horkheimer (1972) stated that critical theory must be three things: 2

    • Explanatory

    • Practical

    • Normative

    By this, he means that the theory must explain what is wrong with society, provide a framework in which to criticize societal injustices, and offer practical ways to change them.

    Today, we can see how critical theory has developed into further theories, such as critical race theory and critical language theory.

    Critical Theory Language

    Critical theory recognizes that nothing can be understood independently and that everything must be placed within its wider socio and historical context to be properly understood. The same principle applies to language. For example, consider a political speech or a textbook; the language used will draw from and build upon preexisting ideologies and 'common knowledge.'

    Take a look at the explanation on Foucault for a deeper insight into 'common knowledge.'

    Critical Theory takes a poststructuralist view of language, seeing it as an ever-evolving 'thing' that people do rather than as a finite entity. When we view language as a social activity, we can recognize the inexorable (undeniable) link between language and social structures. Words and language can manipulate how we as a society interpret the world and the structures that exist within it. Critical theory encourages us to question that language and recognize that not everyone will make the same interpretations as us.

    Poststructuralism - A philosophical theory that moves away from the idea that things are preexisting and structured and toward the idea that most things are in a constant state of change and open to interpretation.

    To understand the role language plays in power relations and social structures, we must examine personal and public languages for dominant vocabulary, metaphors, and 'spin' that legitimizes the prominent ideology and 'status quo.'

    Spin - A form of propaganda that involves presenting an idea in the way that you wish it to be received rather than presenting the absolute truth.

    Consider for a moment the power and ideology language can carry. Think about the societal norms at the time of the creation of The Frankfurt School. How do you think the dominant ideology of fascism became normalized?

    Critical Theory in Education

    Critical theory in education focuses on the unequal access to education that certain individuals receive due to their social standing. This could apply to anything from schools in wealthier areas receiving better funding to the different language education students receive worldwide based on their ethnicity, race, or class. Critical theory in education aims to question, reveal, and remove these social barriers.

    Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a pioneer in critical pedagogy. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed 3 is widely considered one of the most influential texts in establishing critical pedagogy as a discipline.

    Pedagogy - The methodology and practices used within teaching.

    Freire took a postcolonial approach to education, stating that the historically oppressed should receive an education that acknowledges their oppression and helps them to regain their identities and voices. He also believed that, much like language, education can never be value-free and should be viewed as a political act.

    Postcolonialism - The study of the impact of colonialism on the language, culture, literature, art, education, and more of the colonized people.

    Today, many of Freire's postcolonial views can be applied to teaching English to speakers of other languages. For example, for students to receive an education free from certain ideologies, such as a native-English accent equating to intelligence, it's important to discuss the reasons why English is the current global language.

    Critical theory, students in a classroom, StudySmarterFig 2. Critical pedagogy aims to remove social barriers

    Critical Theory Example

    Let's look at an example of how critical theory can be applied in an educational setting by examining the fundamental concepts of critical pedagogy. These principles are based on the works of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. Giroux is an American scholar and critic, who is a pioneer of critical pedagogy in the United States.

    1. Pedagogy is a political practice, and the lessons students receive will shape their understanding of the world.
    2. Education can never be neutral. It can pass on knowledge that either reinforces or challenges the status quo.
    3. Democracy and social justice are the main goals of education.
    4. Students should develop their own 'critical consciousness,' i.e., become aware of their own identity within the wider context.
    5. Language, power, and legitimacy should be questioned. For example, why are certain accents associated with intelligence more than others?
    6. We should examine failings in the larger system as opposed to blaming individuals.
    7. Students should be encouraged to connect with their cultural backgrounds.

    Remember, critical theory is a lens through which to view the world and social practices.

    Problems With Critical Theory

    Critical theory has been met with several criticisms since its creation in the 1930s. Let's look at some of the main issues that have been identified over the years:

    • Although critical theory is supposed to be practical and normative, it doesn't necessarily offer any solutions for political action.

    • Critical theory predominantly exists on an abstract and theoretical level.

    • Explanations around the theory typically use overly complex and potentially confusing terminology.

    • Critical theory has been accused of being naive to the realities of capitalism.

    • Many of the key theorists are speaking from a place of privilege and may not have the 'authority' to talk on behalf of those they deem to be oppressed.

    • Critical theorists have been accused of doing the same thing as those they are criticizing and for failing to see how trying to free people from a 'false consciousness' may be a form of dominance itself (Ellsworth, 1989).4

    • The theory can be anti-individualist and essentialist in its views of groups of people, e.g., social classes.

    Essentialist - The belief that people have a shared set of characteristics that they share with others in the same social group.

    Critical Theory - Key takeaways

    • Critical theory is a social philosophy that aims to assess and critique embedded power structures within society.
    • Critical Theory (capitalized) is a school of thought known as The Frankfurt School that began in the 1930s as a way to critique and dismantle the ideologies presented by Nazi Germany at the time.
    • Critical Theory has roots in Marxism and Kant's concept of Transcendental Idealism in that it critiques the unprovable social, philosophical, political, and economic ideologies within society.
    • Critical theory views language as a social activity and a carrier of ideology. The language we consume can affect the way we interpret the world.
    • Paulo Freire was a pioneer in critical pedagogy. He believed education was a political act that could either reinforce or dismantle the accepted status quo.
    • Critical theory has been criticized for being too theoretical, overly complicated, and naive to the realities of power and capitalism.

    References

    1. M. Horkheimer. Egoism and the freedom movement: On the anthropology of the bourgeois era. Telos, 1982(54), 10-60. 1982.
    2. M. Horkheimer. Traditional and critical theory. Critical theory: Selected essays, 188(243), 1-11. 1972.
    3. P. Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1972.
    4. E. Elsworth. Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59, 297-324. 1989.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Critical Theory

    What is critical theory?

    Critical theory is a social philosophy that aims to assess and critique embedded power structures within society.

    What is the critical theory of language?

    Critical theory of language recognizes that language must be viewed within its socio-political context and is the carrier of ideology. It views language as a social practice. 

    Is critical theory relevant in education?

    Yes, critical theory in education focuses on the unequal access to education that certain individuals receive due to their social standing.

    What are the limitations of critical theory?

    Critical theory has been criticized for being too theoretical, naive, overly complex, and contradictory. 

    What is the purpose of critical theory?

    To question and reveal social injustices.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false, Critical Theory has roots in Marxism?

    Choose the statement that most closely relates to critical theory 

    Fill in the blank:Critical theory has been accused of being naive to the realities of ______.

    Next

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner