You Can’t Make Critical Theory Without Marx

Critical theory is a form of sociological theory.  It’s not my chosen theory – I’m pretty much a positivist, the kind of guy who likes numbers to support his hypothesis.  The basic premise of critical theory is that it isn’t enough to research dispassionately, the researcher must work to change society. 

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.  Karl Marx, Eleven Theses on Feuerbach

My goal has been to describe what I studied, possibly to infer causality when I could, but not to change the world.  I have worked with people who want to change the social institutions they study – but despite whatever intellectual arrogance I have, I’m not so confident that my way is the best way for everyone.  I guess that engaging in critical theory just takes more confidence and ego than I have.

There are aspects of critical theory that I accept – Horkheimer wrote of liberating people “from the circumstances that enslave them.”  Critical theory looks at ideology as causing the problems that call for liberation.  I’m not a fan of any particular ideology – I believe that scientific method offers the best way to study the world around me.  I believe I can learn from my students, and I have.  But even the Special Services motto – de oppresso libre – fits in with critical theory.  It’s not a bad approach – it just isn’t the one that best fits me.

Feminism is critical theory – it’s just over a century ago that the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote.  My grandmother would have been past 30 before that happened.  In Marx’ words, “the purpose is to change it.”  I’m not particularly convinced that Karl Marx was much of a feminist – but I can see where my preferred methodology of looking for numbers didn’t provide such solid answers.  Leaving women as second-class citizens was simply wrong – any man who has raised a daughter knows that.  If you look at the war between the states – the historical record pretty much implies that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both recognized the wrongs of slavery, yet fought for a system, an ideology if you like, that wanted to perpetuate the institution.   I’m not a critical theorist – but there are aspects to critical theory that I cannot reject – despite the fact that the numbers aren’t there.

Pablo Freiere in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed brought critical theory into teaching – traditionally, teaching is done with the teacher front and center, treated as the authority.  Pablo thought that there were times when the teacher should learn from the students – and I have learned a lot from mine. 

Critical theory starts with the assumption that systems produce an unsatisfactory quality of life, and that the masses are the victims of oppression.  If the masses are happy, it’s because the system has deluded them.  The masses are assumed to be the helpless victims of the system.  The elite are viewed as so powerful that they are responsible for all the social problems. 

Power structures are seen as systems of control.  The dominant ideology is seen as causing all social problems (I can’t really tell how critical theory is distinct from an ideology – it seems to have the same characteristics.

If I look at critical race theory, it assumes that racism is normal and needs to be called out, to be noticed.  As I commented earlier –  if I can’t use numbers, I’m not comfortable using the theory.  I’m not really sure how this theory applies on other continents.  I do believe I could find data to test the theory in the US – taking South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Montana data regarding American Indian/Police encounters and contrasting the Black American/Police encounters in other parts of the nation (in Montana, for example, American Indians are a higher percentage of the population than Blacks are in California – the data that can test the theory exists. 

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