Critical Theory Paradigms

Assumptions of Critical Theory Paradigms

Critical Theory is a theoretical tradition developed most notably by Horkeimer, Adorno, Marcuse at the Frankfort School.  Their work is a critical response to the works of Marx, Kant, Hegel and Weber.    

  • Historical ontology - assumes that there is a 'reality' that is apprehendable.  This is a reality created and shaped by social, political, cultural, economic, ethnic and gender-based forces that have been reified or crystallized over time into social structures that are taken to be natural or real.  People, including researchers, function under the assumption that for all practical purposes these structures are real.  Critical theorist believe this assumption is inappropriate.
  • Modified transactional or subjectivist epistemology - we cannot separate ourselves from what we know and this inevitably influences inquiry. What can be known is inextricably tied to the interaction between a particular investigator and a particular object or group.

Other assumptions about the research enterprise:

  • Critical theorists mark the 'linguistic turn' (associated with Wittgenstein) as a moment in history where we could begin to see how our reality was interactively constructed through language.  Our conceptual system and how things are defined in society are created through language.  Language guides and limits the observational process.  The stability of the language system produces the stability of a shared reality.
  • Critical theorists believe the perpetuation of the subjective-objective controversy is problematic.  The objective-subjective label is socially contrived and not a natural fact.  Critical theorists have shown that 'objective' practices are those that have been shown to be the most 'subjective.'
  • When it comes to the research enterprise, critical theorists recognize the positive association of 'objectivity' to natural sciences and less positive association of 'subjectivity' to interpretive sciences.  This is seen as an artifact of a system defined to privilege the 'objective' label and the natural sciences.  This is recognized as a linguistic construction.
  • The subject-object distinction affords identity protection and privileges for powerful groups both in the academy and in other organization.  This has led to misleading beliefs about the presumed relation between qualitative and quantitative research.
  • If we elimininate the subject-object dualism, we see that objects in both quantitative and qualitative research methods are socially shared, historically produced and general to a social group. 


  • Critical theoretical approaches tend to rely on dialogic methods; methods combining observation and interviewing with approaches that foster conversation and reflection.  This reflective dialogic allows the researcher and the participants to question the 'natural' state and challenge the mechanisms for order maintenance.  This is a way to to reclaim conflict and tension.
  • Rather than naming and describing, the critical theorist tries to challenging guiding assumptions.
  • Critical theorists usually do this by beginning with an assumption about what is good (e.g. autonomy, democracy) and asking people in a social group, culture or organization to reflect on and question their current experience with regard to the values identified (e.g. To what extent are they an autonomous worker?) 
  • Critical theorists are not just trying to describe a situation from a particular vantage point or set of values (e.g. the need for greater autonomy or democracy in a particular setting), but that are trying to change the situation.

Views on Criteria for 'Good' Research

Researchers need to discuss the meaning and implications of the concepts developed

Researchers need to attend to tensions in competitive research orientations

Criteria for research should be based on community agreement, and researchers have the responsibility to justify their work and address and answer to any tension that manifests itself in the research endeavor.

Generally, the complete philosophical grounds for the research decisions made during a research project cannot be articulated in a manuscript, but some attempt should be make to articulate these briefly.

Some general description of alternative research orientations, approaches or ways of seeing should be discussed to foster accountability.

The research endeavor should have social import.  This may include social change, expanding people's discourses, ways of seeing and understanding the world (these are not mutually exclusive).


Deetz, SA. (1996). "Differences in approaches to organizational science: Rethinking Burrell and Morgan and their legacy." Organization Science. 7 (2) pp. 191-207.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings (C. Gordon ed). New York: Pantheon.

Gadamer, HG. (1975). Truth and Method. Edited and translated by G. Barden and J. Cumming. New York: Seabury Press.

Giroux, H. (1988). "Critical theory and the politics of culture and voice: Rethinking the discourse of educational research."  In Sherman & R. Webb (Eds.) Qualitative Research in Education: Focus and Methods (pp. 190-210). New York: Falmer.

Guba, EG and Lincoln, YS. (1994). "Competing paradigms in qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 105-117.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, transl). New York: International.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and Human Interests (J. Shapiro transl). Boston: Beacon.

Habermas, J. (1973). Theory and Practice (T. McCarthy transl). Boston: Beacon.

Kincheloe, JL & McLaren, PL. (1994). "Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research."  In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. pp. 138-157.

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