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Introducing Critical Theory. ERSH 7400 Kathy Roulston The University of Georgia. Interpretivism Research to understand Read situation in terms of interaction and community Accepts the status quo . Critical theory Research to challenge

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introducing critical theory

Introducing Critical Theory

ERSH 7400

Kathy Roulston

The University of Georgia


Research to understand

Read situation in terms of interaction and community

Accepts the status quo

Critical theory

Research to challenge

Reads situation in terms of conflict and oppression

Research that seeks change

(Crotty, 1998, p.113)

Educational psychologists: What goes on inside the minds of individual learners?

Educational sociologists: What happens outside of the minds of individual learners?

sociology of education
Sociology of education
  • How are society’s ways of life, values, beliefs, norms and standards for appropriate behavior passed on from one generation to the next?
  • Social transmission
  • Social transformation
Social transmission theories

Functionalism (benign)

Reproduction (critique)

- Economic

- Cultural

- Hegemonic state

Social Transformation theories

Interpretive theory

Critical social theory

  • Society operates as does the human body: like living organisms, all societies possess basic functions which they must carry out to survive. Like living organisms, they evolve structures to carry out the functions.
  • In order to survive, societies develop specialized structures to carry out vital functions as they reproduce themselves, recruit or produce new members, distribute goods and services, and allocate power.
  • everything has a purpose or function
  • seeks stability/equilibrium
  • sees society as consensus rather than conflict
  • believes in objective social facts
  • politically conservative
  • status quo
  • ahistorical/apolitical
structural functionalism
Structural functionalism
  • Seeks to understand human phenomena, such as systems of meaning, language, and culture by identifying underlying structures and making interferences about underlying social structure based upon patterns observed in human life.
  • Conflict = illness
  • e.g. cremation of Hindu widows on the death of their husbands should not be changed, because it might harm the system.
  • Durkheim; Robert Merton; Talcott Parsons
  • Educational systems perpetuate the accepted culture
an example
An example

How are the values and behaviors of the society transmitted in a school?

  • Neatness; efficient use of time; obedience to authority are emphasized in daily routines of the classroom
  • Social transmission theories are concerned with how social structures are copied from one generation to the next; regardless of external forces such as the activities or desires of groups or individuals

- Explains how best to transmit knowledge of skills

- Does not question what or whose knowledge

an example1
An example
  • More families have both parents working; schools have taken over many of the functions formerly performed in the family
  • Rejects change and conflict as viable social processes
conflict theory
Conflict theory
  • Karl Marx, Max Weber
  • Believes functionalist explanations were inadequate to the task of explaining the dynamism of social systems.
  • Focused on the tensions and conflicts in society
  • What are the sources and the consequences of conflict in social systems?
  • How do conflicting groups organize and mobilize?
  • What are the sources of inequality in society?
  • How do societies manage themselves?
  • Organization of society is determined by its economic organization; patterns of ownership of property.
  • Inequality of property or resource distribution is a source of conflict.
reproduction theory
Reproduction theory
  • Politically left
  • Concept which conflict theorists use to explain how schools stratify or divide up opportunity.
  • Schooling reproduces ideologies of dominant groups and the hierarchy of class structure.
  • Schools serve to keep wealth and power in the hands of the white upper- and middle-class groups.
  • Sees schools as sorting machines for society
  • Studies hidden curriculum
  • Enforce language and behavior.
  • Sorting into occupational niches.
  • Dominant groups control the major social and political institutions; ensure that their power is never threatened.
explaining inequality
Explaining inequality
  • Conflict theorists have 3 models to explain how schools promote inequality and perpetuate class distinction:
  • Economic reproduction
  • Cultural reproduction
  • Hegemonic state reproduction
economic reproduction
Economic reproduction
  • Structure of society is mirrored in school system.
  • Emphasis on labor/production in society
  • Students learn skills, values and attitudes considered appropriate for their later roles in the occupational hierarchy

(Bowles & Gintis)

Critique: doesn’t explain resistance; pessimistic; doesn’t investigate domination based on ethnicity or gender

cultural reproduction
Cultural reproduction
  • (Bourdieu/Bernstein)
  • Goes beyond transmission of the class structure alone
  • Class-based differences are expressed in the political nature of curriculum content as well as cultural and linguistic practices in formal curriculum
  • Cultural capital (arts/literature/languages/middle class manners and behavior)
  • Students whose cultural and linguistic competence is congruent with school expectations will be considered academically superior
hegemonic state reproduction
Hegemonic state reproduction
  • Organizing principle or world view of state agencies is reflected in schooling through curriculum, routines, social relationships
  • Hegemony is created because schools reflect the ideologies advocated by state agencies
  • Role of state/federal governments in mandating policy
critical social theory



Language of critique


Human agency

Language of


Critical social theory
Question status quo
  • Questions inequalities in society
  • Politically left/radical
  • Views school as political sites: always conflicting ideologies
  • Hopeful: optimistic view of schools
critical theory
Critical theory
  • What are the sources of inequality and oppression in society?
  • How do individuals experience life in social organizations?
  • How can individuals achieve autonomy in the face of societal oppression?
  • How are language and communication patterns used to oppress people?
  • How do people construct positive and negative identities?
aims of critical inquiry
Aims of critical inquiry
  • Critical inquiry is engaged in an “attempt to confront the injustice of a particular society or sphere within the society”
  • (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1998:264)
  • All thought is fundamentally mediated by power relations that are social and historically constituted
  • Facts can never be isolated from the domain of ideological inscription
  • The relationship between concept and object and between signifier and signified is never stable or fixed and is often mediated by the social relations of capitalist production and consumption
Language is central to the formation of subjectivity (conscious and unconscious awareness)
  • Certain groups in society are privileged over others…oppression is most forcefully produced when subordinates accept their social status as natural, necessary or inevitable.
  • Oppression has many faces, focusing on one (e.g. class, but not race) overlooks interconnections between them
  • Mainstream research practices are generally (unwittingly?) implicated in the reproduction of systems of class, race, gender oppression
  • Frankfurt school
  • Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno
  • Gramsci (Italian)
  • Paolo Freire (Brazilian)
  • Critical ethnography
  • Participatory action research
critical ethnography
Critical ethnography
  • Asks what “could be” rather then “what is”
  • Conventional ethnography with a political purpose (Thomas, 1993, cited by Noblitt)
  • Used for social criticism
  • Studies oppression (Carspecken, 1996, cited by Noblitt)
classic critical ethnography
“Classic critical ethnography”
  • Uses ethnographic methods as part of a critique of ideology and domination
  • A critic studies how a group is oppressed by ideas, social relations, and power
  • Critic represents the story for the oppressed
  • Larger project is one of social and political emancipation
  • Focus of studies; structure; material conditions; reproduction; resistance; contradictions; power in lives of people; communities, schools & classrooms (Noblitt)
schools of thought emerging from critical inquiry
Schools of thought emerging from critical inquiry
  • Neo-Marxist traditions (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse)
  • Genealogical writings of Foucault
  • Post-structuralist deconstruction (Derrida)
  • Post modernist (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard)