Brief Overview

Critical theory, in the sociological sense, is an umbrella term for understanding various forms of domination in terms of social and cultural factors with a view to emancipation.

Formal Definition

In “A Dictionary of Sociology” Critical Theory is defined as follows: “In sociology, critical theory is most closely associated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, although its origins can be traced back through Hegelianism and Western Marxism generally. The term now describes a very diverse strand of Marxism which, over the past fifty years or so, has drawn on a wide range of other influences including psychoanalysis and systems theory.” (Scott and Marshall 2005).

Detailed Description

(by Hermen Eutic): The term “critical theory” in the narrow sense seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” (Bohman, 2001). The goal of the Frankfurt school was the development of a “just society” to which all thought and theory were directed (Giroux 1983, p. 19). Contemporary critical theory can be traced back to Habermas who saw more hope in rationality and democracy than did the major figures of the Frankfurt school (Ray 2001). Habermas’ conception of critical theory is an emancipatory science that permits change (Scott and Marshall 2005). In the field of education, Giroux (1983) devoted a chapter to “Critical Theory and Educational Practice, in which he set about to develop, in terms of a theory of radical pedagogy, a “Critical Theory of Education”. According to Giroux (1983, p. 9), the members of the Frankfurt School wanted to “develop forms of social inquiry that analyzed the distinction between what is and what should be.” Members of the Frankfurt School felt that questioning of this kind had been stifled because, as noted by Giroux, (1983, p. 15), “…the outcome of positivist rationality and its technocratic view of science represented a threat to the notion of subjectivity and critical thinking.” In addition to Giroux, critical theory and education has been considered in the book by the same name (Gibson 1986). In terms of a theory of radical pedagogy, Giroux (1983, p. 35) proposed that “…it would be knowledge that would instruct the oppressed about their situation as a group situated within specific relations of domination and subordination.” He goes on to state (p. 38) that the effect of this kind of teaching will equip students with the tools “…to examine how this society has functioned to thwart their aspirations and goals, or prevented them from even imagining a life outside the one they presently lead.” In an article “Administration of Education: Towards a Critical Practice”, Bates (1985) argued that the culture of a school depends on how democracy, equity and cultural literature are presented, versus emphasis on the accumulation of wealth, hierarchy and domination. In this regard, a study of the novel “Underground to Canada” by Barbara Smucker, which I taught in a grade 6 class, may be considered in this category, in the sense that it considered the lives of slaves in Virginia, and their escape to Canada. Students became very engaged by the injustices of slavery, even though the story was historical fiction, not contemporary reality. Paulo Friere argued that members of the oppressed class should develop their own education in cooperation with teachers (Phillips 1985). Certainly, this argues against any standardized “global” curriculum.

Recommended Reading

Bates, R.J. 1985. Administration of Education: Towards a Critical Practice, v. 1, p. 63-73. The international encyclopedia of education : Research and studies. In Husén T., Postlethwaite T. N. (Eds.), (1st ed.). New York: Pergamon Press. Bohman, J. (2001). Critical theory: Frankfurt school. In Neil J. Smelser, & Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (pp. 2986-2990). Oxford: Pergamon. Retrieved online 23 November 2008. Gibson, R. (1986). Critical theory and education. Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton. Giroux, H. A. (1983). Theory and resistance in education : A pedagogy for the opposition. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey. Philips, D.C. 1985. Philosophy of Education, v. 7, p. 3859-3877. The international encyclopedia of education : Research and studies. In Husén T., Postlethwaite T. N. (Eds.), (1st ed.). New York: Pergamon Press. Ray, L. (2001). Critical theory: Contemporary. In Neil J. Smelser, & Paul B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (pp. 2984-2986). Oxford: Pergamon. Scott, J. and Marshall, G. “Critical Theory” in A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford University Press 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Toronto Libraries. Retrieved 23 November 2008 from <>

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