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Critical Theory

The term critical theory was used originally by members of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, after they emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, following the rise of Hitler. The term served as a code word for their version of Marxist social theory and research (Kellner 1990a). The term now refers primarily to Marxist studies done or inspired by this so-called Frankfurt School and its contemporary representatives such as Jurgen Habermas. Critical sociologists working in this tradition share several common tenets including a rejection of sociological positivism and its separation of facts from values; a commitment to the emancipation of humanity from all forms of exploitation, domination, or oppression; and a stress on the importance of human agency in social relations.

The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

The Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923 as a center for Marxist studies and was loosely affiliated with the university at Frankfurt, Germany. It remained independent of political party ties. Max Horkheimer became its director in 1931. Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and, more distantly, Karl Korsch and Walter Benjamin were among the prominent theorists and researchers associated with the institute (Jay 1973). Initially, institute scholars sought to update Marxist theory by studying new social developments such as the expanding role of the state in social planning and control. The rise of fascism and the collapse of effective opposition by workers’ parties, however, prompted them to investigate new sources and forms of authoritarianism in culture, ideology, and personality development and to search for new oppositional forces. By stressing the importance and semiautonomy of culture, consciousness, and activism, they developed an innovative, humanistic, and open-ended version of Marxist theory that avoided the determinism and class reductionism of much of the Marxist theory that characterized their era (Held 1980).

‘‘Immanent critique,’’ a method of description and evaluation derived from Karl Marx and Georg W. F. Hegel, formed the core of the Frankfurt School’s interdisciplinary approach to social research (Antonio 1981). As Marxists, members of the Frankfurt School were committed to a revolutionary project of human emancipation. Rather than critique existing social arrangements in terms of a set of ethical values imposed from ‘‘outside,’’ however, they sought to judge social institutions by those institutions’ own internal (i.e., ‘‘immanent’’) values and self-espoused ideological claims. (An example of the practical application of such an approach is the southern civil rights movement of the 1960s, which judged the South’s racial caste system in light of professed American values of democracy, equality, and justice.) Immanent critique thus provided members of the Frankfurt School with a nonarbitrary standpoint for the critical examination of social institutions while it sensitized them to contradictions between social appearances and the deeper levels of social reality.

Immanent critique, or what Adorno (1973) termed ‘‘non-identity thinking,’’ is possible because, as Horkheimer (1972, p. 27) put it, there is always ‘‘an irreducible tension between concept and being.’’ That is, in any social organization, contradictions inevitably exist between what social practices are called—for example, ‘‘democracy’’ or ‘‘freedom’’ or ‘‘workers’ parties’’—and what, in their full complexity, they really are. This gap between existence and essence or appearance and reality, according to Adorno (1973, p. 5), ‘‘indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived.’’ The point of immanent critique is thus to probe empirically whether a given social reality negates its own claims—as, for example, to represent a ‘‘just’’ or ‘‘equal’’ situation—aswell as to uncover internal tendencies with a potential for change including new sources of resistance and opposition to repressive institutions.

Frankfurt School theorists found a paradigmatic example of immanent critique in the works of Karl Marx, including both his early writings on alienation and his later analyses of industrial capitalism. Best articulated by Marcuse (1941), their reading of Capital interpreted Marx’s text as operating on two levels. On one level, Capital was read as a historical analysis of social institutions’ progressive evolution, which resulted from conflicts between ‘‘forces’’ (such as technology) and ‘‘relations’’ (such as class conflicts) in economic production. Scientistic readings of Marx, however—especially by the generation of Marxist theorists immediately after the death of Marx—essentialized this dimension into a dogma that tended to neglect the role of human agency and stressed economic determinism in social history. But the Frankfurt School also read Capital as a ‘‘negative’’ or‘‘immanent’’ critique of an important form of ideology, the bourgeois pseudo-science of economics. Here, Marx showed that the essence of capitalism as the exploitation of wage slavery contradicts its ideological representation or appearance as being a free exchange among equal parties (e.g., laborers and employers).

Members of the Frankfurt School interpreted the efforts that Marx devoted to the critique of ideology as an indication of his belief that freeing the consciousness of social actors from ideological illusion is an important form of political practice that potentially contributes to the expansion of human agency. Thus, they interpreted Marx’s theory of the production and exploitation of economic values as an empirical effort to understand the historically specific ‘‘laws of motion’’ of marketdriven, capitalist societies. At the same time, however, it was also interpreted as an effort—motivated by faith in the potential efficacy of active opposition— to see through capitalism’s objectified processes that made a humanly created social world appear to be the product of inevitable, autonomous, and ‘‘natural’’ forces and to call for forms of revolutionary activism to defeat such forces of ‘‘alienation.’’

Members of the Frankfurt School attempted to honor both dimensions of the Marxian legacy. On the one hand, they sought to understand diverse social phenomena holistically as parts of an innerconnected ‘‘totality’’ structured primarily by such capitalistic principles as the commodity form of exchange relations and bureaucratic rationality. On the other hand, they avoided reducing complex social factors to a predetermined existence as shadowlike reflections of these basic tendencies (Jay 1984). Thus, the methodology of immanent critique propelled a provisional, antifoundationalist, and inductive approach to ‘‘truth’’ that allowed for the open-endedness of social action and referred the ultimate verification of sociological insights to the efficacy of historical struggles rather than to the immediate observation of empirical facts (Horkheimer 1972). In effect, they were saying that social ‘‘facts’’ are never fixed once and for all, as in the world of nature, but rather are subject to constant revisions by both the conscious aims and unintended consequences of collective action.

In their concrete studies, members of the Frankfurt School concentrated on the sources of social conformism that, by the 1930s, had undermined the Left’s faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class. They were among the first Marxists to relate Freud’s insights into personality development to widespread changes in family and socialization patterns that they believed had weakened the ego boundary between self and society and reduced personal autonomy (Fromm 1941). After they emigrated to the United States, these studies culminated in a series of survey research efforts, directed by Adorno and carried out by social scientists at the University of California, that investigated the relation between prejudice, especially anti-Semitism, and ‘‘the authoritarian personality’’ (Adorno et al. 1950). Later, in a more radical interpretation of Freud, Marcuse (1955) questioned whether conflicts between social constraints and bodily needs and desires might provide an impetus for revolt against capitalist repression if such conflicts were mediated by progressively oriented politics.

Once in the United States, members of the Frankfurt School emphasized another important source of conformism, the mass media. Holding that the best of ‘‘authentic art’’ contains a critical dimension that negates the status quo by pointing in utopian directions, they argued that commercialized and popular culture, shaped predominantly by market and bureaucratic imperatives, is merely ‘‘mimetic’’ or imitative of the surrounding world of appearances. Making no demands on its audience to think for itself, the highly standardized products of the ‘‘culture industry’’ reinforce conformism by presenting idealized and reified images of contemporary society as the best of all possible worlds (see Kellner 1984–1985).

The most important contribution of the Frankfurt School was its investigation of the ‘‘dialectic of enlightenment’’ (Horkheimer and Adorno [1947] 1972). During the European Enlightenment, scientific reason had played a partisan role in the advance of freedom by challenging religious dogmatism and political absolutism. But according to the Frankfurt School, a particular form of reason, the instrumental rationality of efficiency and technology, has become a source of unfreedom in both capitalist and socialist societies during the modern era. Science and technology no longer play a liberating role in the critique of social institutions but have become new forms of domination. Dogmatic ideologies of scientism and operationalism absolutize the status quo and treat the social world as a ‘‘second nature’’ composed of law-governed facts, subject to manipulation but not to revolutionary transformation. Thus, under the sway of positivism, social thought becomes increasingly ‘‘onedimensional’’ (Marcuse 1964). Consequently, the dimension of critique, the rational reflection on societal values and directions, and the ability to see alternative possibilities and new sources of opposition are increasingly suppressed by the hegemony of an eviscerated form of thinking. One-dimensional thinking, as an instrument of the totally‘‘administered society,’’ thus reinforces the conformist tendencies promoted by family socialization and the culture industry and threatens both to close off and absorb dissent.

The Frankfurt School’s interpretation of the domination of culture by instrumental reason was indebted to Georg Lukacs’s ([1923] 1971) theory of reification and to Max Weber’s theory of rationalization. In the case of Lukacs, ‘‘reification’’ was understood to be the principal manifestation of the ‘‘commodity form’’ of social life whereby human activities, such as labor, are bought and sold as objects. Under such circumstances, social actors come to view the world of their own making as an objectified entity beyond their control at the same time that they attribute human powers to things. For Lukacs, however, this form of life was historically unique to the capitalist mode of production and would be abolished with socialism.

In the 1950s, as they grew more pessimistic about the prospects for change, Horkheimer and Adorno, especially, came to accept Weber’s belief that rationalization was more fundamental than capitalism as the primary source of human oppression. Thus, they located the roots of instrumental rationality in a drive to dominate nature that they traced back to the origins of Western thought in Greek and Hebrew myths. This historical drive toward destructive domination extended from nature to society and the self. At the same time, Horkheimer and Adorno moved closer to Weber’s pessimistic depiction of the modern world as one of no exit from the ‘‘iron cage’’ of rationalization. In the context of this totalizing view of the destructive tendencies of Western culture—the images for which were Auschwitz and Hiroshima—the only acts of defiance that seemed feasible were purely intellectual ‘‘negations,’’ or what Marcuse (1964) termed ‘‘the great refusal’’ of intellectuals to go along with the one-dimensional society. Consequently, their interest in empirical sociological investigations, along with their faith in the efficacy of mass political movements, withdrew to a distant horizon of their concerns. Marcuse, like Benjamin before him, remained somewhat optimistic. Marcuse continuted to investigate and support sources of opposition in racial, sexual, and Third World liberation movements.

Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk (Arcades project), originally titled Dialectical Fairy Scene, was an unfinished project of the 1930s that culminated in a collection of notes on nineteenth-century industrial culture in Paris. The Paris Arcade was an early precursor to the modern department store, a structure of passages displaying commodities in window showcases; it reached its height in the world expositions (e.g., the Paris Exposition in 1900). Through an interpretation of Benjamin’s notes, Susan Buck-Morss (1995) has brought this unfinished project to life. Benjamin drew on allegory as a method for analyzing the content and form of cultural images. In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘‘iron cage’’ view of mass culture, his dialectical approach held out hope for the revolutionary potential of mass-produced culture. Anticipating aspects of Symbolic Interactionism and feminist theories of performativity, Benjamin explored the relationship between mass production as form (e.g., montage as a form of film production) and political subversion. In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno who lamented the loss of authority in art and the family, Benjamin welcomed the abolition of traditional sources of authority and hailed the rapidity of technological change in mass production as potentially positive. He interpreted mass production as a form of mimicry that reproduced existing relations of authority and domination while lending itself to potentially subversive reinterpretations and reenactments of existing social relations and social meanings (Buck-Morss 1995).

While retaining an analysis of instrumental reason as a source of domination, Benjamin’s allegorical approach worked to unveil the forces of contradiction that were crystallized as promise, progress, and ruin in mythical modern images. These images bore the revolutionary potential of the new to fulfill collective wishes for an unrealized social utopia contained in a more distant past. At the same time, they represented progress as the unrealized potential of capitalism to satisfy material needs and desires. For Benjamin, images of ruin represented the transitoriness, fragility, and destructiveness of capitalism as well as the potential for reawakening and a critical retelling of history (Buck-Morss 1995).

Even though some of the most prominent founders of the Frankfurt School abandoned radical social research in favor of an immanent critique of philosophy (as in Adorno 1973), the legacy of their sociological thought has inspired a vigorous tradition of empirical research among contemporary American social scientists. In large measure, this trend can be seen as a result of the popularization of Frankfurt School themes in the 1960s, when the New Left stressed liberation and consciousness raising, themes that continue to influence sociological practice. Stanley Aronowitz (1973), for example, along with Richard Sennet and Jonathan Cobb (1973), have rekindled the Frankfurt School’s original interests in workingclass culture in the context of consumer society. Henry Braverman (1974) has directed attention to processes of reification in work settings by focusing on scientific management and the separation of conception from labor in modern industry. Penetrating analyses also have been made of the impact of commodification and instrumental rationalization on the family and socialization (Lasch 1977), law (Balbus 1977), education (Giroux 1988), advertising culture (Haug 1986), and mass media (Kellner 1990b), as well as other institutional areas. Feminist theorists have contributed a ‘‘doubled vision’’ to critical theory by showing the ‘‘systematic connectedness’’ of gender, class, and race relations (Kelly 1979) and by criticizing critical theory itself for its neglect of gender as a fundamental category of social analysis (Benjamin 1978; Fraser 1989). Among the most far-reaching and innovative contemporary studies are those of the contemporary German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas

Perhaps no social theorist since Max Weber has combined as comprehensive an understanding of modern social life with as deeply reflective an approach to the implications of theory and methods as Jurgen Habermas. Habermas has attempted to further the emancipatory project of the Frankfurt School by steering critical theory away from the pessimism that characterized the closing decades of Frankfurt School thought. At the same time, he has resumed the dialogue between empirical social science and critical theory to the mutual benefit of both. Further, he has given critical theory a new ethical and empirical grounding by moving its focus away from the relationship between consciousness and society and toward the philosophical and sociological implications of a critical theory of communicative action.

In sharp contrast to the Frankfurt School’s increasing pessimism about the ‘‘dialectic of enlightenment,’’ Habermas has attempted to defend the liberative potential of reason in the continuing struggle for freedom. While agreeing with the Frankfurt School’s assessment of the destruction caused by instrumental rationality’s unbridled domination of social life, he nonetheless recognizes the potential benefits of modern science and technology. The solution he offers to one-dimensional thought is thus not to abandon the ‘‘project of modernity’’ but rather to expand rational discourse about the ends of modern society. In order to further this goal, he has tried to unite science and ethics (fact and values) by recovering the inherently rational component in symbolic interaction as well as developing an empirical political sociology that helps to critique the political effects of positivism as well as to identify the progressive potential of contemporary social movements.

From the beginning, Habermas (1970) has agreed with the classical Frankfurt School’s contention that science and technology have become legitimating rhetorics for domination in modern society. At the same time, he has argued that alternative ways of knowing are mutually legitimate by showing that they have complementary roles to play in human affairs, even though their forms of validity and realms of appropriate application are distinct. That is, plural forms of knowledge represent different but complementary ‘‘knowledge interests’’ (Habermas 1971).

‘‘Instrumental knowledge,’’ based on the ability to predict, represents an interest in the technical control or mastery of nature. ‘‘Hermeneutical knowledge’’ represents an interest in the clarification of intersubjective understanding. Finally, ‘‘emancipatory knowledge’’ is best typified in the self-clarification that occurs freely in the nondirective communicative context provided by psychoanalysis. In the context of a democratic ‘‘public sphere,’’ such self-clarification would have a macro-social parallel in the form of ideology critique had this space not been severely eroded by elite domination and technocratic decision making (Habermas 1989). Emancipatory knowledge thus has an interest in overcoming the illusions of reification, whether in the form of neurosis at the level of psychology or ideology at the level of society. In contrast to testable empirical hypotheses about objectified processes, the validity of emancipatory knowledge can be determined only by its beneficiaries. Its validity rests on the extent to which its subjects find themselves increasingly free from compulsion. Thus, a central problem of modern society is the hegemony of instrumental knowledge that, though appropriate in the realm of nature, is used to objectify and manipulate social relations. Instrumental knowledge thus eclipses the interpretive and emancipatory forms of knowledge that are also essential for guiding social life.

When sufficient attention is paid to interpersonal communication, Habermas (1979) contends that every act of speech can be seen as implying a universal demand that interpersonal understanding be based on the free exchange and clarification of meanings. In other words, an immanent critique of language performance (which Habermas terms ‘‘universal pragmatics’’) reveals the presumption that communication not be distorted by differences in power between speakers. Thus, human communication is implicitly a demand for freedom and equality. By this form of immanent critique— consistent with the methodological standards of the Frankfurt School—Habermas attempts to demonstrate the potential validity of emancipatory knowledge so that it can be seen as a compelling challenge to the hegemony of instrumental knowledge. The purpose of Habermas’s communication theory is thus highly partisan. By showing that no forms of knowledge are ‘‘value free’’ but always ‘‘interested,’’ and that human communication inherently demands to occur freely without distortions caused by social power differentials, Habermas seeks politically to delegitimate conventions that confine social science to investigations of the means rather than the rational ends of social life.

In his subsequent works, Habermas has tried to reformulate this philosophical position in terms of a political sociology. To do so, he has profoundly redirected ‘‘historical materialism,’’ the Marxist project to which he remains committed (see Habermas 1979). Habermas contends that Marx gave insufficient attention to communicative action by restricting it to the social class relations of work. This restriction, he argues, inclined the Marxist tradition toward an uncritical attitude toward technological domination as well as toward forms of scientism that contribute to the suppression of critique in regimes legitimated by Marxist ideology. Habermas relates his immanent critique of language performance to historical materialism by showing that sociocultural evolution occurs not only through the increasing rationality of technical control over nature (as Marx recognized) but also through advances in communicative rationality, that is, nondistorted communication. Thus, instrumental rationality and communicative rationality are complementary forms of societal ‘‘learning mechanisms.’’ The problem of modernity is not science and technology in and of themselves, because they promise increased control over the environment, but rather the fact that instrumental rationality has eclipsed communicative rationality in social life. In other words, in advanced industrial society, technical forms of control are no longer guided by consensually derived societal values. Democratic decision making is diminished under circumstances in which technical experts manipulate an objectified world, in which citizens are displaced from political decision making, and in which ‘‘reason’’—identified exclusively with the ‘‘value free’’ prediction of isolated ‘‘facts’’—is disqualified from reflection about the ends of social life.

More recently, Habermas (1987) has restated this theory sociologically to describe an uneven process of institutional development governed by opposing principles of ‘‘system’’ and ‘‘lifeworld.’’ In this formulation, the cultural lifeworld—the source of cultural meanings, social solidarity, and personal identity—is increasingly subject to ‘‘colonization’’ by the objectivistic ‘‘steering mechanisms’’ of the marketplace (money) and bureaucracy (power). On the levels of culture, society, and personality, such colonization tends to produce political crises resulting from the loss of meaning, increase of anomie, and loss of motivation. At the same time, however, objectivistic steering mechanisms remain indispensable because large-scale social systems cannot be guided by the face-to-face interactions that characterize the lifeworld. Thus, the state becomes a battleground for struggles involving the balance between the structuring principles of systems and lifeworlds. Habermas contends that it is in response to such crises that the forces of conservatism and the ‘‘new social movements’’ such as feminism and ecology are embattled and that it is here that the struggle for human liberation at present is being contested most directly. As formulated by Habermas, a critical theory of society aims at clarifying such struggles in order to contribute to the progressive democratization of modern society.

Current Debates: Critical Theory and Poststructuralism

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the heightened influence of poststructuralism sparked intense debate between critical theorists and poststructuralists. Theorists staked out positions that tended to collapse distinct theories into oppositional categories (critical theory or poststructuralism) yet they agreed on several points. Both critical and poststructural theorists critiqued the transcendental claims of Enlightenment thought (e.g., that truth transcends the particular and exists ‘‘out there’’ in its universality), understood knowledge and consciousness to be shaped by culture and history, and attacked disciplinary boundaries by calling for supra-disciplinary approaches to knowledge construction. Polarization, nonetheless, worked to emphasize differences, underplay points of agreement, and restrict awareness of how these approaches might complement one another (Best and Kellner 1991; Fraser 1997).

Because critical theory aspires to understand semiautonomous social systems (e.g., capital, science and technology, the state, and the family) as interconnected in an overarching matrix of domination (Best and Kellner 1991, p. 220), poststructuralists charge that it is a ‘‘grand theory’’ still mired in Enlightenment traditions that seek to understand society as a totality. In viewing the path to emancipation as the recovery of reason through a critical analysis of instrumentalism, scientism, and late capitalism, critical theory is seen as promoting a centralized view of power as emitting from a macro-system of domination. That is, by promoting a view of social subjects as overdetermined by class, critical theory is said to reduce subjectivity to social relations of domination that hover in an orbit of capitalist imperatives. By theorizing that subjectivity is formed through social interaction (e.g., intersubjectivity), Habermas departs from Horkheimer and Adorno’s view of the social subject as ego centered—as a self-reflexive critical subject (Best and Kellner 1991). Nonetheless, poststructuralists contend that Habermas, like his predecessors, essentializes knowledge. In other words, the capacity to recover reason either through critical reflexivity (Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse) or through a form of communicative action that appeals to a normative order (Habermas) promotes a false understanding ofsubjectivity as ‘‘quasi-transcendental.’’

In rebuttal, critical theorists argue that poststructuralist views of power as decentralized and diffuse uncouple power from systems of domination (Best and Kellner 1991). Poststructuralists view social subjectivity as a cultural construction that is formed in, and through, multiple and diffuse webs of language and power. Critics charge that such a diffuse understanding of power promotes a vision of society as a ‘‘view from everywhere’’ (Bordo 1993). Social identities are seen as indeterminate and social differences as differences of equivalency (Flax 1990). This perspective results in analyses that focus on identity to the exclusion of systemic forms of domination. Thus, for example, while feminists who adhere to critical theory tend to analyze gender as a system of patriarchal domination, poststructuralist feminists, by contrast, tend to focus on the cultural production of gendered subjects, that is, on representation and identity. Habermas ([1980] 1997) and others argue that the avoidance of analyses of systems in favor of more fragmentary micro-analyses of discrete institutions, discourses, or practices is an antimodern movement that obscures the emancipatory potential of modernity (Best and Kellner 1991).

Although this debate is still stirring, some scholars are moving away from oppositional positions in favor of more complex readings of both traditions in order to synthesize or forge alliances between approaches (Best and Kellner 1991; Kellner 1995; Fraser 1997). Thus poststructuralism may serve as a corrective to the totalizing tendencies in critical theory while the latter prevents the neglect of social systems and calls attention to the relationship between multiple systems of domination and social subjectivities. In other words, critical theory points to the need to understand systemic forms of domination while poststructuralism warns against the reduction of social subjectivity to macro-overarching systems of domination. Thus drawing on both traditions, Nancy Fraser (1997, p. 219) suggests that a more accurate picture of social complexity ‘‘might conceive subjectivity as endowed with critical capacities and as culturally constructed’’ while viewing ‘‘critique as simultaneously situated and amenable to self-reflection.’’

Theoretical and empirical applications of such a ‘‘both/and approach’’ abound. For instance, in recognizing that all knowledge is partial, black feminist theorists such as Patricia Hill Collins (1990) articulate both critical theoretical tenets and poststructuralist sensibilities by conceptualizing identity as socially constructed, historically specific, and culturally located while stressing systemic forms of domination without reducing identities to single systems of oppression (also see Agger 1998). Postcolonial theories likewise draw on both traditions in order to understand the fluid relationships among culture, systems of domination, social subjectivity, the process of ‘‘othering,’’ and identity formation (see Williams and Chrisman 1993). Douglas Kellner’s (1997) empirical work on media culture likewise employs a multiperspectival approach that combines insights from cultural studies and poststructuralism with critical theory in order to understand mass media as a source of both domination and resistance, and as a way to account for the formation and communicative positionality of social subjects constituted through multiple systems of race, class, and gender. Habermas’s (1996) current theorizing on procedural democracy reflects a move toward the poststructuralism of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s (1985) theory of radical democracy that stresses the potential collaboration of diverse agents in progressive social movements that aim at defending and expanding citizen participation in public life.

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This Aricle was Written by
DWIGHT B. BILLINGS
PATRICIA JENNINGS

This Article was Published in
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOCIOLOGY
Second Edition
A Book by

EDGAR F BORGATTA
Editor-in-Chief
University of Washington, Seattle

AND

RHONDA J. V. MONTGOMERY
Managing Editor
University of Kansas, Lawrence

 

 
 
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