ARTICLE 46: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Critical Theory

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


Violence against women tend to increase during every type of crisis.

Reports from some countries show that the abuse of women, children and old people are much higher than normal when countries institute lockdown in an effort to gain control over the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

According to medical and psychological reports, the detrimental impact of domestic violence on the physical and mental health of the victims has increased substantially.

As people lose their jobs and resources become scarcer, women and children may be at even greater risk of experiencing abuse.

Critical theory is one of the most suitable paradigmatic approaches to follow when conducting research on violence against women, children and the elderly.

I discuss critical theory and how it should be approached in this post.

What is Critical Theory?

The term ‘critical’ refers to the capacity to question the conceptual and theoretical basis of knowledge and method.

The questions that the researcher asks should go beyond prevailing assumptions and understandings. AND

Also, it should acknowledge the role of power and social position in phenomena.

Critical theory is prescriptive, explanatory, practical and normative.

It explains what is wrong with the current social reality,

It identifies those who are responsible for change, and

It provides clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.

Its intention is not merely to give an account of society and behavior, but to realize a society that is based on equality and democracy for all the people in the society.

Conflict and inequality are crucial to understanding the dynamics of human relations.

Critical theory seeks to uncover the interests at work in particular situations and to interrogate the legitimacy of those interests.

Legitimacy implies identifying the extent to which equality and democracy are protected and promoted.

The intentions of critical theory are to transform society and individuals to social democracy.

Improving the quality of life in the workplace and in social settings focuses on the elimination or reduction of inequality, preferential treatment and discrimination.

Critical theory identifies the ‘false’ or ‘fragmented’ consciousness that has brought an individual or social group to relative powerlessness.

It questions the legitimacy of power.

It investigates issues of repression, lack of freedom of expression, ideology, participation (or not) representation (or not), inclusion or exclusion and the protection of individual and group interest.

Increasingly the multiple identities of individuals can justify an investigation.

Differences in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, skin colour, disability and minority can be grounds for discrimination and oppression.

Any such discrimination can be investigated through critical theory.

Critical theory is any research that challenges conventional knowledge and methodologies.

It can use a quantitative or qualitative research approach.

Such research will, of course, need to maintain scientific objectivity.

In this respect the purpose of the critical theory paradigm would be practical, namely, to bring about a more just, egalitarian society in which individual and collective freedom are secured.

The contribution of critical theory is often not just adding to or improving current knowledge or philosophy, but also to contribute to the physical living quality of people.

The main task of critical research is seen as being one of social critique, meaning that 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.

It seeks to be emancipatory by helping to eliminate the causes of alienation and domination in society.

Critical theory decides what counts as valid social knowledge.

This is expressed as critique of the social structure and systems as revealed through the analysis of the discourse in society.

Although people can consciously act to change their social and economic circumstances, critical researchers recognize that their ability to do so is constrained by various forms of social, cultural and political domination.

Consciousness and identity are formed within the political field of knowledge.

Critical theorists argue that values, historical circumstances and political considerations cannot be changed through research.

Therefore, efforts to eliminate or reduce inequality and discrimination should focus on managing such values, historical circumstances and political considerations in such a way that people are not discriminated against because of it.

Our understanding of the educational, political, economic or social situation depends on the context within which we encounter them.

Our own theoretical knowledge and assumptions also influence our interpretation of observations.

These factors create our ideological frames of reference that act as lenses through which we see the world.

Research making use of a critical theory paradigm should, therefore, take the context and environment into consideration when seeking theoretical and physical improvements.

You, as the researcher, should disclose the needs and struggles of the community being investigated regardless of whether the community is aware of the needs or challenges.

Critical research attempts to reveal the socio-historical specificity of knowledge and to shed light on how particular knowledge reproduces structural relations of inequality and oppression.

It is assumed that social reality is historical and that it is produced and reproduced by people.

Every historical period produces rules that dictate what counts as scientific facts.

Society reproduces inequalities from one generation to the next.

This is called “reproduction theory”.

It is necessary to study conflict and inequality and the resistance that they cause to understand the dynamics of human relations.

Resistance becomes an important part of the response to injustices towards individuals or groups in a community or society.

In this respect, critical theory is also “resistance theory”.

Critical theory investigates and uses three types of knowledge, also called “cognitive interests”.

They are technical interests, practical interests and emancipatory interests.

Technical interests are concerned with the control of the physical environment, which generates empirical and analytical knowledge.

They are concerned with “how” things are done.

Practical interests are concerned with understanding the meaning of situations, which generates hermeneutic and historical knowledge.

Practical interests are concerned with the “what”, or the ontology of phenomena.

Emancipatory interests are concerned with the provision of growth and advancement, which generates critical knowledge and is concerned with exposing conditions of constraint and domination.

The emancipatory interest deals with the human capacity to be self-reflective and self-determining.

That is to act rationally.

Technical and emancipatory interests together deal with the epistemology of knowledge.

Critical theory serves as a foundation for and can be integrated with rationalism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, humanism, and critical race theory.

Although qualitative research methods are popular, quantitative research methods can also be used.

Proponents of critical theory claim that it is a complex and intricate paradigm which requires years of intensive study to fully understand.

They, furthermore, feel that research that deals with the values and emotions of people need to take affective factors, which are difficult to quantify, into consideration.

A second school of scientists feel that regarding critical theory as complex is smugness.

Emotions, they believe, can be analyzed quantitatively by asking multiple-choice questions in a questionnaire.


Critical theory questions the conceptual and theoretical basis of current knowledge and methods.

It focuses on the contest, conflict and contradictions in society.

Valid social knowledge is expressed as critique of the social structure and systems.

Critical theory is hampered by social, cultural and political domination.

Historical as well as current own knowledge and assumptions are accepted as data for research.

Critical theory is:

  1. Prescriptive.
  2. Explanatory.
  3. Practical.
  4. Normative. AND
  5. Emancipatory.

The intention of critical theory can be:

  1. To identify who is responsible for change and who resists needed change.
  2. To realize a society based on equality and democracy for all.
  3. To uncover illegitimate practices in society.
  4. To transform society and individuals to social democracy.
  5. To improve the quality of life of a community or society in general.
  6. To identify the acts or omissions that cause inequality and injustice.
  7. To combat discrimination.
  8. To set achievable and practical goals for social transformation.
  9. To explain what is wrong with the current social reality.
  10. To add to and improve current knowledge.

Critical theory can be used with qualitative or quantitative research methods.

It investigates technical interests, practical interests and emancipatory interest.

Critical theory can be associated with rationalism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, feminism, radicalism, romanticism, humanism, and critical race theory.

Positivism opposes critical theory.

Some scientists regard critical theory as complex while others regard the perception that it is complex as smugness.

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