Concepts of Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy Analysis

2555 words (10 pages) Essay in Sociology

23/09/19 Sociology Reference this

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In this assignment, the concepts of critical theory and critical pedagogy will be explained through literature and research. The research that has been conducted in inclusive practice, alongside the research methods that was used, will be analysed. Finally, the concepts of critical theory and the knowledge that has been gained from undertaking this task, will then be applied to the professional context in which I work.

Critical theory

McKernan (2013) states that critical theory is used to describe the social criticism that was originally introduced by the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt school is a collective of theorists based in Germany who developed the concept of critical theory. Key thinkers include; Weil, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Their beliefs were grounded in Marxist-Leninist thinking. Critical theory is a broad tradition which considers critique as a method of investigation to rid society of social inequality. This was influenced by the work of Marx and his concept of ‘kritik’. This is through the means of challenging political, social and economic policies. McLaren (2012) expands on this by suggesting that as individuals, we are surrounded by power and privilege in every sense. It is dominant groups that exercises oppression over subordinate groups through force and social practices, implemented by institutions such as education. However, education does not just entail indoctrination of knowledge and social practices, but it also has the power to empower and transform its’ learners. McLaren usefully notes that education dominates learners in that education reproduces social class and capitalism but, education can liberate learners if educators transfer the knowledge to help students understand, recognise and examine the political, social and economic foundations of a capitalist society.

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Pollock and Cox (1991) discusses that the purpose of critical theory is to make sense of and respond to the problems of society. Critical theorists do this by questioning power relations about their origins and how they may be changing. For Pollock and Cox, critical theory recognises that knowledge represents certain values which need to be questioned, examined and changed. They explain that critical theory however, is a debate which is shaped by a historical context and its’ own historical values. Pollock and Cox write that a new generation of critical theorists such as Apel, Habermas and Wellmer had sought to integrate communication theory with traditional critical theory. This suggests that in order to be critical, the original concept of critical theory needed to be examined itself with regards to its’ origins and the values which were represented by the Frankfurt School.

Consequently, Alexander (1985) outlines Habermas’ new critical theory; a theory of communicative action. This theory was influenced partly from Habermas’ work with Parsons and Piaget. Habermas’ new ideas of critical theory founded a ‘speech act theory’ derived from language philosophy. His aim was to analyse rationality. Alexander notes that his definition of rationality was the ‘quality that makes action defendable against criticism’ (p. 404). In order to be rational, action must be valid rather than uncontested. This is explained further in that whoever is rational, when questioned, would present justified and valid statements or actions, to support or criticise their claims. This is called argumentation. These validity claims can be moral, cognitive and expressive. Therefore, rationality forms the structure of action, towards gaining deeper understanding. Habermas believes that rational is part of everyday speech, but this has not always been the case. Thus, Alexander states that the cultural and historical processes that contribute to rationalisation describes the movement towards communicative action. This presents a new facet of critical theory.

Another branch of critical theory is critical race theory (CRT). This is an inter-disciplinary approach to studying racial oppression which is still being developed today. The foundations of this theory lies in the 1970s and 1980s America and is now established in the UK. CRT considers white people as implicated in racial domination. CRT theorists are concerned about how various dimensions of oppression work together. For example, how race and class intersect. Gillborn (2010) explores CRT and suggests that white middle class interests oppress minority groups. Gillborn explains that white supremacy is a term referring to a regime of assumptions and practices that privilege white people, which are ingrained in society and appears to be normal practice. Gillborn also introduces the term ‘interest-convergence principle’. This refers to the changes to race equality as a result of privileged white people seeing these changes as supporting their own interests. Historically, race equality is achieved through protest and so taking supportive action becomes the moral option for the interests of the privileged whites. The concept of interest-convergence is useful because it helps explain the discourses that support white supremacy.

Critical pedagogy

Giroux (2010) comments that critical pedagogy is an educational movement, based on the principle to help students develop an awareness of freedom, authoritarianism and to take constructive action. Simply, this concept involves the teaching and learning of students to become critical and to take action against oppressive forces. When referencing Freire, Giroux explains that pedagogy does not entail training, teaching methods, or political indoctrination but it is a political and moral practice that provides the knowledge and skills that enable students to explore how to be critical citizens while expanding and deepening their participation in a democratic society. Thus, critical pedagogy is not about attainment and grade-based outcomes, but is a tool for ‘self-determination and civic engagement’ (p. 716). When explaining the concept of critical pedagogy, the economic models of pedagogy that supports consumerism and economic profit are rejected. Critical pedagogy attempts to understand how power works through the passing on of knowledge within education and seeks to view students as informed subjects and social agents. Critical pedagogy therefore, contributes to the practice of self-criticism about the values that inform teaching and a teaching students a critical self-consciousness with the analytical skills to be self-reflective about the knowledge and values in classrooms. Critical pedagogy insists that a fundamental purpose of educators is to make sure that the future represents a socially just world. This means that critical pedagogy ensures that education has valued purpose and meaning which encourages human agency.

McLaren (2012) states that critical pedagogy aims to understand the relationship between power and knowledge. It is suggested that education both dominates and liberates individuals. For example, the educational system reproduces social class and capitalism but this can be contested by students. Critical pedagogy seeks the transferring of knowledge from educators to help students understand, recognise and examine the political, social and economic foundations of a capitalist society. Within education, the notion of dominant cultures and groups exercising domination and oppression over subordinate groups is referred to as hegemony. This discourse is prevalent in education as dominant discourses determine the approaches and pedagogy teachers’ use and the values and beliefs that educators convey. McLaren notes that knowledge in education is historically and socially rooted and is interest-bound by dominant groups. Knowledge acquired is structured in particular ways and socially constructed within education. This means that knowledge is ‘the product of agreement or consent’ (p. 6) between individuals. McLaren discusses Habermas’ argument of the different types of knowledge. Firstly, there is the knowledge which can be measured and quantified. Knowledge like this is presented through the taking of examinations and being awarded a grade as a result of that knowledge. Secondly, students will acquire practical knowledge which can shape their everyday lives. This could reference the skills that students learn regarding interpersonal skills. Thirdly, there is emancipatory knowledge. This is the knowledge passed to students to allow them to understand how social relationships are distorted by power and privilege. This provides the foundation for critical pedagogy. McLaren argues that education is not just about indoctrination of knowledge and socialisation but also that it has the power to empower and transform. Therefore, critical pedagogy is a way of understanding, negotiating, and transforming relationships, knowledge and societies structures in order to create a more just, and fairer society.


Green (2012) seeks to examine the religious assumptions of Christian academies in order to analyse their cultural practices, impact and policies. Green undertook a six month ethnographic study of a city technology college and two two-week study visits to Christian academies. The ethos of these institutions were faith-based encompassing bible teaching in assemblies, in tutor times and in Religious Education.

Green uses Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, cultural capital and symbolic power to explore religion and education in Christian academies. Green applied these tools to investigate the religious ethos of the academies and how it authorised religious habitus. Habitus is the way that individuals are disposed, trained and structured in their abilities to think, feel and act, as a result of social processes. Habitus is not fixed or permanent but can change over time. Cultural capital plays a key role in power relations, as it results in a form of domination and hierarchy that is not based on economy. This effectively hides the causes of inequality. Green defines symbolic power as an exercise of power to legitimate practices of habitus to validate cultural capital for social advantage. These sociological concepts were used to explore what was viewed as privileged within this religious habitus and to reflect what legitimises religious and educational beliefs and practices within these institutions. Findings concluded that those who shared the religious habitus, who had access to cultural capital, were placed in a symbolically powerful relationship when they taught from the Bible. However, the discrepancy between the religious habitus and student culture undermined this relationship.

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Green highlights the process prior to undertaking her ethnographic study. Importantly, Green had no prior connections to any of the sites. This meant that Green was able to study the context objectively, without being influenced by emotions or opinions. Green explains that access was acquired through letters and meetings with principals across the different sites. Green also discusses the ethical guidelines associated with carrying out research and clarifies that all participants were informed of the aims of the research study and were made aware of how data would be collected and stored. Participants were told that participation was voluntary and that they had the right to withdraw from the research study. This was distributed to parents, students and staff through leaflets. Personal consent was obtained by those who took part and parental or guardian consent was obtained for all participants under the age of 18. Any data obtained by interview and observation were also anonymised to prevent any identification of participants.

Ethnography is a study of culture which uses multiple research methods to observe and reflect upon the everyday lives of participants over a period of time. This is used to make sense of their ‘social worlds’ (p. 394). Green was on site five days a week for the whole school day and attended after school events and meetings during evenings and weekends. As an ethnographer, Green aimed to collect data with as little structure as possible and in order to do so, Green wished to be subjective in a natural context to gain knowledge. To engage in an ethnographic study, Green adopted research methods such as observation of formal and informal settings and in-depth interviews with students and staff.

Milligan (2014) highlights the situational complexity of gender and the rural-urban divide. Milligan analyses dominant discourses of rurality and identifies that rurality is associated with isolation, and communities are viewed as backwards and traditional. Milligan states that western society views rurality as idyllic and community-focused which are predominantly inhabited by the white middle-class. Milligan considers that it is rurality which presents unique challenges to individuals in those communities yet due to globalisation, the focus has shifted to analysing urban environments. This has resulted in little policy or research being conducted in rural environments. Milligan views rurality as an active agent which is central to the lived experiences of individuals.

Milligan states that previous research into gender inequality typically focuses on using quantified data such as statistic whereas Milligan has chosen to use a variety of qualitative research methods as she suggests that girls face multiple challenges which are not necessarily considered by statistics. Milligan used many research methods which would produce qualitative data. Staff were used in semi-structured interviews, cameras and diaries were given to older students and younger students participated in essay-writing and producing posters.

Milligan’s research highlighted that rural contexts in Kenya presented many challenges for girls and that education is often too isolated from the wider social context that students come from. Challenges included the need for girls to fulfil gender stereotypes such as having to do chores after school and also the issues of ‘patronage sexuality’ (p. 470). This refers to girls participating in sexual activity for money or essential items alongside typically rural issues such as teenage pregnancy and early marriage. Further challenges for girls were the gendered attitudes of their teachers. The challenges that these girls face were seen as problems by the teachers in which girls were tended to be blamed for such problems. Teachers also viewed girls as not being serious about their education and are far more interested in sexual relationships compared to their education. These views by the teachers not only influenced other students’ views of girls but the girls themselves had a negative influence on their self-worth and well-being as a result of these gendered views.

To conclude, Milligan articulates that gender equality in classrooms and equal access to education is promoted through policies and procedures in education but the language used by teachers in this research remains derogatory. Therefore, policies may aim to change perspectives but policy and pedagogy is not enough to reform this issue. Milligan argues that more research needs to be conducted and analysed which combines the issues of race, gender and poverty, not considering them as separate issues.


  • Alexander, J. (1985) Habermas’s New Critical Theory: Its Promise and Problems, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 91, no. 2, pp. 400–424.
  • Gillborn, D. (2010) ‘The White working class, racism and respectability: victims, degenerates and interest-convergence’, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 3–25.
  • Giroux, H. (2010) Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy, Policy Futures in Education, vol. 8, no. 6, pp. 715-721
  • Green, E. (2012) ‘Analysing religion and education in Christian academies’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 391–407.
  • McLaren, P. (2012)Critical pedagogy. In: Soler, J., Walsh, C., Craft, A., Rix, J., and Simmons, K. (eds) Transforming Practice: Critical issues in equity, diversity and education, Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham Books Ltd, pp. 3-18.
  • McKernan, J. (2013) ‘The origins of critical theory in education: Fabian socialism as social reconstructionism in nineteenth-century Britain’, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 61, no. 4, pp. 417–33.
  • Milligan, L. (2014) ‘“They are not serious like the boys”: gender norms and contradictions for girls in rural Kenya’, Gender and Education, vol. 26, no. 5, pp. 465–76.
  • Pollock, D. & Cox, R. (1991) Historicizing “reason”: Critical theory, practice, and postmodernity, Communication Monographs, vol. 58, no. 2, pp.170–178.


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