Research Paradigms: Critical Theory

EDU IMAGE 15I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This article deals with Critical Theory.

The term ‘critical’ refers to the capacity to inquire ‘against the grain’: to question the conceptual and theoretical bases of knowledge and method, to ask questions that go beyond prevailing assumptions and understandings, and to acknowledge the role of power and social position in phenomena.

Critical theory is any research that challenges those conventional knowledge bases and methodologies whether quantitative or qualitative, that makes claim to scientific objectivity. Critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledges reproduce structural relations of inequality and oppression. Critical theory is concerned with the critical meanings of experiences as they relate to gender, race, class and other kinds of social oppression.

Researchers following critical theory methods assume that social reality is historically created and that it is produced and reproduced by people. Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognise that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination. The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, whereby the restrictive and alienating conditions of the status quo are brought to light. Critical research focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in contemporary society, and seeks to be emancipatory, that is, it should help to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination.

Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge. Critical theorists argue that the attempt to dispense with values, historical circumstance and political considerations in research is misguided. Our understanding of the educational situation depends on the context within which we encounter it, and our own theoretical knowledge and assumptions influence our observation. These factors create our ideological frames of reference that act as the lenses through which we see the world. The lenses that researchers use to critically analyse a system are regarded as subjective and the observations made through such are not subject to empirical verification in the positivist sense.

Every historical period produces particular rules that dictate what counts as scientific fact. Society reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next, called “reproduction theory”, and resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices of this kind. This is called “resistance theory”. The implicit rules that guide our generation of facts about education are formed by particular world-views, values, political perspectives, conceptions of race, class, and gender relations, definitions of intelligence and many more. It is therefore the task of the critical researcher to disclose the needs and struggles of the people regardless of whether or not they are conscious of them.

Researchers using critical theory assert that what counts as valid social science knowledge arises from the critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society. The critical researcher lays bare the current discourses in society and analyses them in terms of the system within which they operate with the aim of disclosing the power relationships within the system and its structures so that the oppressive nature of the system can be revealed. Conflict (for example racial, class, religious or gender conflict) and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations.

Critical theory postulates three types of knowledge: technical interest, practical interest and emancipating interest. Technical interest is concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge. A practical interest concerned with understanding the meaning of situation, which generates hermeneutic[1] and historical knowledge. An emancipating interest concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraints and domination.


[1] Hermeneutics deals with interpretation. Originally hermeneutics referred to the study of the interpretation of written text, but now it includes the interpretation of any form of communication, including verbal, artistic, geo-political, physiological, sociological, etc.

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