A Brief Overview of Critical Theory

A Brief Overview of Critical Theory

Critical Thinking and Critical Theory

“Everyone has a right to their opinion.”

This chapter explains what it means to think critically about social justice. We explain the theoretical perspective known as “Critical Theory” and provide a brief overview of key ideas relevant to our approach.

Vocabulary to practice using: ideology; critical theory; social stratification; positionality; socially constructed; Enlightenment; positivism

Many of the concepts we present in this book are politically and emotionally charged. In order to help readers engage with these concepts most effectively, this chapter will review what it means to take a critical (as opposed to layperson’s) perspective.

The term critical has several meanings. The most common meaning is to find fault, to judge, or to criticize. However, this is not the way we use the term here. When we use critical, we refer to an intellectual skill of analysis—critical thinking—as well as to a body of scholarship—Critical Theory. Critical thinking is a general approach, which means to think with complexity, to go below the surface when considering an issue and explore its multiple dimensions and nuances. Critical Theory is a scholarly approach that analyzes social conditions within their historical, cultural, and ideological contexts. Critical Theory is a complex theoretical perspective, and mastery requires ongoing study and practice. However, even a preliminary understanding of its principles can offer tools for thinking critically about knowledge.

Two Dimensions of Thinking Critically About Knowledge

One of the persistent myths of mainstream society is that the knowledge we study in schools is factual and neutral. Yet we know that knowledge evolves over time and is dependent on the moment in history and the


cultural reference point of the society that accepts it. Thinking critically involves more than just acquiring new information in order to determine which facts are true and which false. It also involves determining the social, historical, and political meaning given to those facts. This determination includes assessing the investment various groups may have in furthering or challenging those meanings in any particular historical moment. For example, there was a time when it was not widely understood that the Earth is round. Common sense might tell us that it is flat, and anyone looking out over a vast landscape would have this sense confirmed. Yet when scientific reasoning and more accurate technological methods for measuring the Earth emerged, the knowledge or “fact” that the Earth is flat was rewritten so that now we teach students that the Earth is spherical —or round.

Thus one dimension of thinking critically about knowledge is the acquisition of new information that may challenge our common sense (such as looking out the window and seeing what we believe is a flat landscape). In other words, to think critically means to continuously seek out the information that lies beyond our commonsense ideas about the world. Yet knowledge also involves understanding the meaning given to information (such as the meaning given to the journeys of explorers such as Columbus that are presumed to have debunked the idea of a flat Earth). We must understand what the political investments are in that meaning— in other words, who benefits from that knowledge claim and whose lives are limited by it?

Thus, thinking critically not only requires constantly seeking out new knowledge, but also understanding the historical and cultural context in which knowledge is produced, validated, and circulated. For example, while many might believe (and were perhaps taught in school) that people thought the Earth was flat until Columbus set sail for India, the reality is that many civilizations knew the Earth was round prior to Columbus. These civilizations included the ancient Greeks, Muslim astronomers, early Christian theologians, ancient Indian scholars, and Maya, Aztec, and Inca Indigenous peoples of what is today known as North, Central, and South America. Why, then, are we so familiar with the idea that everyone believed in a flat Earth until Columbus set sail? What are the cultural, political, and social investments in fostering this idea?

Considering the first dimension of thinking critically (acquisition of new information), we would first seek new knowledge about other societies and their contributions (such as ancient Indigenous, Indian, and Islamic scientists). Now considering the second dimension of thinking critically (the meaning given to that “flat Earth until Columbus”


knowledge), we would ask questions about the social and historical context of that knowledge. For example, in what contexts has the knowledge of societies other than European been hidden? Critical thinkers might argue that obscuring this knowledge promotes the idea of progress as a line moving from ancient and non-European societies (Indigenous, Indian, Islamic) to European and then to North American societies.

Practicing thinking critically helps us see the role of ideology in the construction of knowledge about progress. It challenges the belief that knowledge is simply the result of a rational, objective, and value-neutral process, one that is removed from any political agenda. The notion of value-free (or objective) knowledge was central to rationalizing the colonization of other lands and peoples that began in the 15th century. For example, if we believe that Columbus was simply an explorer and trader, we reinforce the idea of discovery as outside of political and ideological interests. The promotion of this idea has allowed dominant culture to ignore the genocide of Indigenous peoples and the transatlantic slave trade that his “discoveries” set in motion.

Just as our commonsense understanding would have had us convinced that the Earth is flat (validated by looking out our windows), many of the arguments that we make in this book may also counter commonsense understandings. For example, common sense would tell us that because we do not believe in discrimination, we do not engage in it. However, most discrimination is unconscious and takes place whether we intend to discriminate or not, despite genuinely held beliefs in fairness and equity. If we think critically about this idea that we do not discriminate, we would discover that this belief is inaccurate. There is a great deal of research in the dynamics of discrimination that demonstrates again and again the power of discrimination to elude conscious awareness (Dovidio, Glick, & Rudman, 2005; Greenwald & Krieger, 2006). Were we to consider the impact of the idea that we do not discriminate, we might discover that this idea actually allows discrimination to continue. Thus those who benefit from societal patterns of discrimination may be invested in not understanding the actual nature of discrimination.

Thinking critically requires the ability to recognize and analyze how knowledge is socially constructed and infused with ideology. Critical thinking is not just acquiring new knowledge (today we know the Earth is round and not flat), it is also understanding the social meaning given to that knowledge (our social and political investment in the idea that before the Age of Discovery all people believed the Earth was flat).

A Brief Overview of Critical Theory

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A Brief Overview of Critical Theory
A Brief Overview of Critical Theory

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