Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Discuss some of the reasons why we include methodological theory in our research?? What purpose does it serve?? What role do inquiry paradigms play in research - EssayAbode

Discuss some of the reasons why we include methodological theory in our research?? What purpose does it serve?? What role do inquiry paradigms play in research

500 words  2 references

Discuss some of the reasons why we include methodological theory in our research?  What purpose does it serve?  What role do inquiry paradigms play in research? Your posts this week should demonstrate critical reflection upon the assigned readings. 

Critical Theory

In: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology

By: Kerry E. Howell

Pub. Date: 2015

Access Date: June 17, 2022

Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd

City: London

Print ISBN: 9781446202999

Online ISBN: 9781473957633


Print pages: 75-87

© 2013 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.

This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the

online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.

Critical Theory


On the basis of a mixture of both positivist and phenomenological perspectives, in Chapter 5 attention is

turned toward critical theory and identifies the problems post-positivism left for those social sciences that

sought to identify and challenge what was taking place in institutions from historical and mainly qualitative

perspectives. Critical theory was initiated by the Institute of Social Research (ISF) at the University of

Frankfurt in the late 1920s; consequently, most commentators argue that the critical theory position was

developed by members of the Frankfurt School. Nevertheless, when we examine the works of members of

the Frankfurt School, none claimed to have formulated a unified approach to social investigation and criticism.

Critical theory stems from a critique of German social thought and philosophy, particularly the ideas Karl

Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Erich Fromm (1900–1980),

Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Marxism is a type of critical theory

because it critiques capitalism and illustrates problems with existing institutions, as is the Weberian theory of

rationalisation and the limiting effect on the human spirit; indeed through such a critical theory perspective

the ideas of Marx and Weber may be combined. In general, Adorno, Fromm, Horkheimer and Marcuse

argued that modern society involved totalitarian regimes that negated individual liberty. In early work this

was seen as the outcome of Marxist understandings of capitalist modes of production, whereas later thinking

stressed technology and instrumental reason (these ideas and thinkers are dealt with in more detail below).

Instrumental reason argues that rationality may only be concerned with choosing effective means for attaining

arbitrary ends. Indeed, in contradiction with Weber's objective causality the Frankfurt School was based on

neo-Marxist dialectical reasoning and subjective tendencies. There existed two generations related to the

Frankfurt School: the first included Adorno, Horkheimer, Fromm and Marcuse and the second a number of

thinkers of whom Jurgen Habermas was the most distinguished. The main tenet of critical theory involved

a necessary re-interpretation of modernist positions in the aftermath of the First World War (1914–1918)

and the depression, unemployment and hyperinflation that followed during the 1920s and 1930s. It was

recognised that capitalism was changing, consequently Ardorno, Fromm, Horkheimer and Marcuse assessed

and analysed changes in power and domination that was related to this.

When the National Socialists took power, the main players from the Frankfurt School left Germany for the

USA and took up residence on the West coast. These critical theorists were shocked by the positivistic nature

of research in the USA and how this form of inquiry was taken for granted in the social sciences. Indeed,

critical theory was viewed as a means of temporarily freeing researchers from the bonds of positivism in

particular and post-enlightenment thought in general. Following the Kantian tradition Fromm considered that

even though:

Enlightenment taught man that he could trust his own reason as a guide to establishing valid ethical


2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 2 of 12 Critical Theory

norms and that he could rely on himself. The growing doubt of human autonomy and reason created

a state of moral confusion where man is left without the guidance of either revelation or reason.

(Fromm, 1997: 3)

Enlightenment had removed both spiritual and rational guidance and rendered nature an objective entity

external to human existence. ‘Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that which they

exercise their power’ (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997: 9).

Within the critical theory approach there emerged the ‘discourse of possibility’, which was intrinsically linked

with the dialectical transformations within the social sciences and the broader social changes these could

bring about. In contrast to Enlightenment, thinkers such as Hegel and Marx and their dialectical immutable

laws of spirit, history and the idea that (at least to a certain extent) human beings determined their own

destinies and existence gave an impetus to social research. Indeed, critical theory was perceived as a

generalised perspective where through education different strands of the tradition or schools of thought

provided values, understanding and knowledge that engendered empowered critical beings who questioned

the status quo. The main idea for critical theory was the formulation of social theory based on philosophical

positions and empirical studies. Horkheimer (1972) considered that research programmes should absolve

the opposition between the individual and social structures and the relationship between objectivity and

subjectivity should be embraced.

What Is Critical Theory?

So what exactly is critical theory? In general, one may argue that critical theory is ‘characterised by an

interpretive approach combined with a pronounced interest in critically disputing actual social realities …

The aim … is to serve the emancipatory project, but without making critical interpretations from rigid frames

of reference’ (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2008 144). Unfortunately, for a number of reasons this is a difficult

question to answer. As one would imagine because of its very nature there is much room for disagreement

about what critical theory entails and a definitive perspective negate the very premise of critical theory. In such

a way a number of different critical theories exist that renders it a continually evolving dialectical set of ideas.

However, certain similarities between the strands of critical theory exist in terms of criticism of occidental

complacency and that ruling elites and ideologies should be challenged as well as greater equality and liberty

sought. Furthermore, most critical theorists consider that individual assumptions are influenced by social and

historical forces and that historical realism provides a unifying ontological position.

Given these similarities it becomes possible to synthesise points of agreement and determine the basis for

a paradigm of inquiry with a specific ontology, epistemology and appropriate methodological approaches.

Such a synthesis exposes positions of power between institutions, groups and individuals as well as the role

of agency in social affairs. In addition, this synthesis identifies the rules regulations and norms that prevent

people from taking control of their own lives; the means by which they are eliminated from decision making

and consequently controlled. Through making clear the relationships between power and control, agency may


2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 3 of 12 Critical Theory

be extended and humanity emancipated. Of course, individuals are never completely free from the social and

historical structures that they both construct and from which they emanate. Through shaping consciousness,

power dominates human beings in social settings. Individual critical theorists disagree but one may argue,

that power constitutes the foundation of social existence in that it constructs social and economic relations;

that is, power is the basis of all political, social and organisational relationships.

Initial perspectives of critical theory espoused by Horkheimer considered that the paradigm of inquiry was

about connecting critical theory with everyday life in the interest of abolishing social injustice. One of the

main concerns for critical theory, as Adorno and Horkheimer argued was investigating the ultimate source

or foundation of social domination, For Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) state intervention in the economy

abolished the capitalist tension between the ‘relations of production’ and ‘material productive forces of

society’, which according to traditional critical theory, constituted the primary contradiction within capitalism.

The market (as an unconscious mechanism for the distribution of goods) and private property had been

replaced by centralised planning and socialised ownership of the means of production. However, contrary to

Marx's prediction, this did not lead to revolution but fascism and totalitarianism. As such, critical theory was

bankrupt and left without anything to which it might appeal when the forces of production synthesise with

the relations of production. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this posed the problem of how to account for the

apparent persistence of domination in the absence of the contradiction that, according to traditional critical

theory, was the very source of domination. Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Fromm rejected positivism

and attempted to build ‘social theories that were philosophically informed and (involved) practical political

significance’ (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2008: 145).

The idea of the objective observer was challenged and ‘specific methodological rules for acquiring knowledge’

disputed (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2008: 145). Knowledge recognises the opaqueness of common sense

perceptions because as with the platonic cave what we see does not correspond with reality. Most individuals

are ‘half awake or dreaming’; to know means to ‘penetrate through the surface in order to arrive at the roots,

and … knowing means to see reality in its nakedness … to penetrate the surface and to strive critically and

actively in order to approach truth ever more closely’ (Fromm, 1997: 33).

In the 1960s, Habermas raised the epistemological discussion to a new level when he identified critical

knowledge as based on principles that differentiated it either from the natural sciences or the humanities

through orientations toward self-reflection and emancipation. Adorno and Horkeimer considered that the

modern era illustrated a shift from the liberation of Enlightenment toward enslavement. Indeed the

Enlightenment equates with positivism, because for ‘the Enlightenment that which does not reduce to

numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism rights it off as literature’ (1997: 7).

‘Under the leveling domination of abstraction (which makes everything in nature repeatable) and of industry

(for which abstraction ordains repetition) the free themselves finally came to form that “herd,” which Hegel

has declared to be the result of Enlightenment’ (Adorno and Horkeimer, 1997: 13).

Hegemony and Ideology


2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 4 of 12 Critical Theory

Hegemony (see Definition Box) is an important factor for critical theorists and exists when power is exercised

through consent rather than force. People consent to their own domination through accepting notions

propagated by cultural institutions, for example, the media, family, school and so forth. Even those

researchers that comprehend hegemony are affected by it; this is because understandings of the world and

knowledge fields are structured by different and competing definitions of society. Certain social relations

are legitimised and considered the natural order of things; we give our hegemonic consent. However, this

is never total because different groups in society have different perspectives and compete for hegemony.

Critical theorists note these distinctions and utilise them in their research programmes. This given, it is

difficult to divorce the idea of hegemony from that of ideology. Hegemony indicates the means by which

powerful institutions formulate subordinate acceptance of domination through ideology. Ideology incorporates

the meanings, norms, values and rituals that facilitate the acceptance of the social situations and the place

of the individual within this. Hegemonic ideology allows critical theorists to understand the complex nature

of domination and move beyond the idea that power is simply about coercion. Individuals are manipulated

through media, education and politics to accept oppression as normal and the only situation that could exist;

change is unthinkable and utopian.

Critical theorists comprehend hegemonic ideology as a means by which ideology and discourse construct

our ontological positions or notion of reality. Consequently, different ideological positions exist at different

points in time and provide the basis for a historical reality and that this reality changes through dialectical

transformation. Indeed, the epistemological position places the researcher in the world that is constructed

through people manipulated by power. Such identifies on-going struggles between and among individuals,

groups and classes within society. Through their understanding of hegemonic ideology critical theorists

investigate the relationships between classes and groups and the different values, agendas and visions they

portray and adhere too. Furthermore, discourse is seen as historical and not a clear reflection of society but

an unstable practice with meanings that shift in relation to the context within which it is used. Discourse does

not provide a neutral objective description of an external world but incorporates the very building blocks we

use to construct it.

The concentration on hegemonic ideology has implications for economic determinism and Enlightenment

thinking some commentators consider was displayed by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels in the Communist

Manifesto (1849). Certain thinkers interpreted Marx and Engels as concentrating solely on the economic base

rather than the social and political dynamisms of dialectical change. For Marx, economic base determined

superstructure or economic factors determine all other elements of social life. Following the death of Marx,

Engels did deny this but in works such as the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, this does seem to

be the case. Engels stated that historical materialism involved the production and reproduction of reality

and that neither, he nor Marx had ever inferred more than this. Indeed Engels indicated that economic

determinism was senseless and that numerous variables relating to superstructure (ideology, politics, culture)

were also part of the dialectical process. Neo-Marxists, such as Antonio Gramsci, accepted this position and

further argued that through hegemony and ideology there existed interaction between base (economics) and

superstructure. Indeed, based on neo-Marxist thought, the Frankfurt School accepted that many forms of


2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 5 of 12 Critical Theory

power existed, for example, racial, gender, class.

Definition Box: Hegemony

This involves the means by which ruling elites obtain consent to dominate subordinates

within their dominion. The worldviews of the rulers is diffused throughout society so as

these become common sense; to question such norms appears to be nonsensical. The

exercise of hegemonic subordination involves a combination of ‘force and consent which

balance each other reciprocally without force predominating excessively over consent’

(Gramsci, 2005: 80). Attempts are made to ensure that force is supported or consented

by the majority and this is expressed through the ‘so-called organs of public opinion

– newspapers and association – which therefore in certain situations are artificially

multiplied’ (Gramsci, 2005: 80). Hegemony illustrates how ruling elites perpetuate their

rule and domination through consent rather than coercion. Contending groups in any

society must aim to control ideas in civil society; ‘a social group must, already exercise

leadership before winning governmental power’ (Gramsci, 2005: 57). Leadership is a

precondition of winning power and the consequent exercise of power; domination can only

be legitimised and continued through hegemonic consent.

Critical Theory as a Critique of Instrumental Rationality and Positivism

As noted above, critical theorists also question the idea of instrumental rationality that is closely linked

with Enlightenment thought. Such an understanding of rationality concentrates on a positivistic methodology

and simplification. Research is limited to questions regarding ‘how’ or ‘how to’ rather than ‘why’ or ‘why

should’. Critical theorists argue that such a positivistic approach directs the researcher toward procedure and

method rather than the more humanistic elements of the research process. Instrumental rationality is mainly

concerned with objectivity and separates values and facts, which loses the interactive and iterative nature

between values and facts in interpretation and understanding.

Critical theory accepts certain assumptions, these include:

• social and historical constituted power relations affect and mediate all ideas and thinking;

• values and facts can never be separated;

• facts always contain an ideological dimension;

• ideas and objects are mediated through social relations;

• relationships between signifier and signified are continually in flux;

• relations of capitalist production and consumption affect relationships between individuals and



2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 6 of 12 Critical Theory

• subjectivity is determined by discourse;

• privilege and oppression characterises social relations;

• oppression is more endemic when subordinates accept the hegemonic inevitability of their position

in society;

• oppression is multi-faceted;

• positivistic research is elitist and unwittingly reproduces existing social power relations.

Critical theory involves ideas relating to empowerment of the people; it should challenge injustice in social

relations and social existence. Whereas, for more traditional research approaches the objectives involve

attempts at description, understanding and explanation, for critical theory transformational conscious

emancipation is central and involves initial moves toward political activity. Research is not about the

accumulation of knowledge but political activity and social transformation.

Reflexivity is a central mechanism for critical theory; or self conscious criticism. Underlying ideological

perspectives are made explicit in relation to self-conscious subjectivity, inter-subjectivity, normative morality

and epistemological precepts. Subjective pre-conceptions in terms of epistemological and political positions

are incorporated with the research process. These are reflected upon and analysed in relation to the research

and may change as this process progresses (for further on reflexivity see Chapter 13).

Reflection Box: Reconnecting Meaning

Bullying in the workplace may not be interpreted as isolated action pursued by socially

pathological individuals but narratives of transgression and resistance identified by

unconscious political perspectives underlying everyday interactions and related to power

relations in terms of race, class and gender oppression.

Consider how bullying may be identified as a social phenomenon and assess its

relationship with power.

Change in assumptions may emanate from a realisation of emancipator actions, which are revealed through

interaction between the researcher and researched and the realisation that the dominant culture is not a

natural state of affairs. This involves understanding both ‘self’ and society or ‘other’ in greater detail so

inequality, exploitation and injustice are rendered explicit. Critical theory requires reconstruction of worldviews

in ways that challenge and undermine what appears normal or natural. Research needs re-location toward

transformative practice that pursues the alleviation of oppression and autocracy (see Reflection Box above).

Questions regarding how things have become are paramount and link closely with the phenomenological

position. Critical theorists challenge positivistic positions and traditions and questions whose interests are

served by institutional arrangements. Correspondence theory is challenged and it is argued that facts are

constructed in relation to values and meaning. Engagement in critical research involves formulating a critical


2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 7 of 12 Critical Theory

world in relation to a faint idealised world conditioned by equality, liberty and justice; critical theory is about

hope in a cynical world.

Critical theory involved a critique of the dominant position of positivism. Positivism had provided the basis for

scientific study and knowledge accumulation during the rise of capitalism but by the 20th century incorporated

endorsement of the status quo. In his essay ‘Traditional and critical theory’ Horkheimer asks ‘what is theory?’

He considered that for most individual researchers ‘theory … is the sum total of propositions about a subject,

the propositions being so linked with each other that a few are basis and the rest derive from these’ (1972:

188). In social research, basis propositions can be arrived at either inductively or deductively, then the

researcher attempts a ‘laborious ascent from the description of social phenomena to detailed comparisons

and only then to the formation of general concepts’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 192). How the primary principles were

arrived at is secondary as the important element is that division exists between conceptual knowledge and the

facts from which this was derived; or those facts to be subsumed under this framework. Indeed for traditional

theory the ‘genesis of particular objective facts, the practical application of the conceptual systems by which

it grasps the facts and the role of such systems in action, are all taken to be external to the theoretical

thinking itself’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 208). Conversely, critical theory argued that such were false separations

or alienation and the researcher was always part of the object under study so that object and subject were

inextricably linked. The researcher is neither embedded in society nor abstraction from it; values, action,

knowledge and theory generation were inseparable. Critical theory pursued change and liberation whereas

traditional theory thought the ‘individual as a rule must simply accept the basic conditions his existence as

given and strive to fulfil them’ (Horkheimer, 1972: 207).

Adorno and Horkheimer (1997) considered this issue further and examined two types of reason:

• pursuit of liberation from external constraints and compulsion;

• instrumental reason and technical control.

The former was linked to critical theory and the latter related to Enlightenment thought and during the early

20th century became the basis of totalitarianism, fascism and National Socialism. Positivism equated with

Enlightenment as for each ‘whatever does not conform to the rule of computation and utility is suspect’

(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997: 6). Indeed, like Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World, they argue

that the culmination of Enlightenment involves non-thinking pleasure and limited analytic capability. ‘Pleasure

always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even when it is shown. It is flight: not as

is asserted flight from wretched reality, but the last remaining thought of resistance. The liberation that

amusement promises is freedom from thought and negation’ (Ardono and Horkheimer, 1997: 144). ‘The

power to respond to reason and truth exists in all of us.’ However so too does the ‘tendency to … unreason

and falsehood – particularly … where the falsehood evokes some enjoyable emotion (and) primitive sub

human depths of our being’ (Huxley, 1994: 47). Critical theory perspectives accept our ability to reason and

truth challenges negation and promotes resistance. Furthermore, Marcuse (2004) identifies how marketing

and mass media achieves control and standardisation of expectations and needs. Marketing and mass media

enables social control and develops individuals into malleable and predictable people who without critical


2013 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SAGE Research Methods

Page 8 of 12 Critical Theory

analysis accept social situations and consumerism. He argued that in contemporary society under the rule

of repression freedom and liberation could be used as a ‘powerful instrument of domination’ (2004: 9). The

choices available do not determine the ‘degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is

chosen by the individual. Free elections of masters does not abolish masters or slaves’ (Marcuse, 2004:

9–10). Overall, critical theory challenged acceptance and wished to develop individual antipathy.

Critical Theory and Habermas

Habermas argued that control and understanding should be subordinate to emancipation and liberation. That

social science should initially comprehend the ‘ideologically distorted subjective situation of some individual

or group … explore the forces that have caused that situation and … show that these forces can be overcome

through awareness of them on the part of the oppressed individual or group in question’ (Dryzeck, 1995: 99).

The shift is one that challenges post-positivism through an interpretive, phenomenological approach to social

science. Verification, in this context, is not achieved through experimentation but the action of those involved

in the research process, who on reflection decide on a perspective based on their suffering and means

of relief. In this way, post-positivism itself could be seen as a dominant form of reasoning which distorted

reality in relation to liberal ideals and progress. Critical theory should initially ‘understand the ideologically

distorted subjective situation of some individual or group, second … explore the forces that have caused

that situation and third to show that the forces that have caused this situation can be overcome’ through

making these forces clear to those groups or individuals that exist within these situations (Dryzeck, 1995: 99).

Consequently, critical theory involves reflective action, specifically the reflective action of those individuals

and groups involved in the research programme.

Critical theory illuminated the very basis and ‘truth content’ of liberal ideals such as freedom truth and

justice and used them in its pursuit of an improved existence for humanity. In introducing his critical theory,

Habermas (2004) identified the need for a fundamental paradigm shift. Understandings of theory needed to

be moved from intellectual situations in which the ends justify the means or instrumentalism to one where

communicative rationality took centre stage. Post-positivist pursuits of objectivity that ignored the worldviews,

values and norms through which the world is structured failed to fully comprehend social phenomenon.

‘Habermas was able to draw on developments in the phenomenological, ethnomethodological and linguistic

traditions and thus … anticipate the decline of positivism and rise of interpretivism’ (McCarthy, 1999: 400).

However, he argued that it would not be helpful to reduce social research to the interpretation of meaning

because such meaning may conceal or distort as well as reveal and express human conditions. Habermas

attempted to identify the main difficulties with positivism through a historical analysis of its early proponents

and its links with Enlightenment.

In place of controlled observation … there arises participatory relation of the understanding subject

to the subject confronting him. The paradigm is no longer the observation but the dialogue-thus, a


Related Tags

Academic APA Assignment Business Capstone College Conclusion Course Day Discussion Double Spaced Essay English Finance General Graduate History Information Justify Literature Management Market Masters Math Minimum MLA Nursing Organizational Outline Pages Paper Presentation Questions Questionnaire Reference Response Response School Subject Slides Sources Student Support Times New Roman Title Topics Word Write Writing