in Education

Methodology section: Critical Theory

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog)


Critical Theory is a complex fusion of two different schools of thought. Although based upon a critique of society and culture, Critical Theory remains an umbrella term within which are found Marxist theory and the ideas of the ‘Frankfurt School’. Whilst the former has a normative dimension (there is a way that the world ‘ought’ to be) the latter is more of a hermeneutic approach (gaining knowledge through interpretation of ‘texts’).

These two distinct streams are merged by Postmodern Critical Theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard in the sense that everything is considered to be a ‘text’ and therefore open to multiple (and potentially infinite) interpretations. In addition, a ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences from the 1960s onwards led to theorists such as Saussure, Derrida, Chomsky and Barthes redefining the social sciences as dealing with symbolic representations of the world. The fusion of the two streams became complete when, from the 1980s onwards, Habermas redefined Critical Theory as a theory of communication.

In the 1990s, Horkheimer defined a ‘critical theory’ as adequate only if it is simultaneously explanatory, practical and normative. “That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation” (Bohman, 2010). Critical Theory undoubtedly fulfils the third of the criteria set out as necessary for a methodology underpinning Digital Literacies. If Critical Theory were successful, society would be transformed. However, as Bohman goes on to elaborate, Critical Theory is “rife with tensions” because of its ambition to transform capitalism into ‘real democracy’ (Bohman, 2010).

The failure of Critical Theory to revolutionise society is a result, claim Blake & Masschelein (2010), of “the failure to overlook the most serious motive behind Critical Theory, its negative aspect and messianic impulse” (in Blake, et al., 2003, p.55). To respond to this negative aspect, continue the authors, “is to accept as valid the cry, “I don’t know what, but not this!” – and thus to repudiate the fatalism of a seemingly compulsory acceptance of the present” (ibid.).

A second phase of Critical Theory, led by one of the leading intellectuals of our time (in the shape of Jürgen Habermas), seeks to transform it into “the mode of inquiry that participants may adopt in their social relations to others” (Bohman, 2010). Habermas combines the transcendental idealism evident in the first phase of Critical Theory with a selection of ideas from the American Pragmatist tradition (Shalin, 1992, p.253). The latter is evident in Habermas’ claim that universal consensus is the ultimate goal of communicative action – with anything short of this evidence of our commitment to the process. As Shalin points out, this differs (as we shall see) with Pragmatism as, in the latter, a dissenting attitude is “imminently rational in that it points to conflicting potentialities of being,” alerting us to the “risks and uncertainties inherent in alternative lines of action” (Shalin, 1992, p.258).

Through the work of Habermas, Critical Theory (as defined in its second phase) is a recognised and respected methodology. It is an established and active research area with journals, professorships and many books dedicated to debates and developments. In this sense, Critical Theory not only meets the third of the aims of a methodology, but also the first (being recognised and respected as sound). It is only with the second criterion that issues emerge: Critical Theory’s suitability to the research area of Digital and New Literacies.

There are three main issues with Critical Theory that I shall outline here that make it unsuitable as a methodology within the area of Digital and New Literacies. First, there is the difficulty of a theory which is general and universal in outlook, but which depends upon subjective experiences. It leaves the individual in an epistemological dilemma: either their choice of approach seems arbitrary, or the Critical Theorist has a ‘special ability’ to make correct choices. Neither is satisfactory. The way out of this dilemma explained by Bohman (2010) – to treat the subjects of inquiry as ‘knowledgeable social agents’ and to focus on the goal of “initiat[ing] public processes of self-reflection” – seems to beg the question when it comes to fostering digital literacies. One cannot assume competencies and behaviours that one is hoping to instil.

Secondly, Critical Theorists conceptualise praxis (the enactment of a theory) almost solely in terms of work. Whilst Critical Theorists set their targets against the ’scientification’ and ‘technologization’ of society, they often fall back onto instrumentalist thinking. Even Habermas, claim Blake & Masschelein (2010), strips individuals of the ‘humanness’ of their interaction, conceptualising communication in terms of “the economic and rational logic of performance and counterperformance” (Blake & Masschelein, 2010, p.54). A methodology suitable for understanding and putting into practice work around Digital and New Literacies should not be continually reduced (or necessarily even reducible) to purely economic considerations.

Thirdly, and briefly, there is no genuine direct connection between Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy in the English-speaking world. This, allied with the concerns about the instrumental understanding of communication, concerns Blake & Masschelein (2010, p.50-1). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a methodology should help make clear the path from theory to practice for a research area. Critical Theory does the opposite of this, adding a layer of complexity to an already confusing and contested field. Using Critical Theory as a methodology for research into Digital and New Literacies would be to multiply uncertainty and confusion.


Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R. & Standish, P. (eds.) (2003) The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education (Oxford)

Bohman, J. (2010) ‘Critical Theory’ (in Zalta, E.N. (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Shalin, D.N. (1992) ‘Introduction: Habermas, Pragmatism, Interactionism’ (Symbolic Interaction – Special Feature: Habermas, Pragmatism and Critical Theory, Vol.15(3), 1992)

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