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What Is Critical About Critical Theory?

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Critical Theory was born in between the two world wars in the light of the Frankfurt School (1923) but it became influential during mid-1980s when Marxism fell out of favor due to its economic and structuralist bigotries. It was a period which the dominance of positivism existed and the scholars of the Frankfurt School developed these ideas to overcome this dominance of positivism and its related theories. There were so many important scholars who wrote about Critical Theory and they did not only criticize the orthodox theories, they also gave new insights of research and theory. One of the most important scholars of this time, Robert Cox, did not only criticize the mainstream theories, but also he used Antonio Gramsci’s work to create a world order as an alternative to the neo-realist state system and anarchy (Steans, Pettiford, Diez, El-Anis & , 2010). Critical Theory is mainly influenced by Marxist thought as in the case of Structuralism but it differs from Marxism and Structuralism in some respects. From Karl Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach; unlike traditional theory, the aim of Critical Theory was defined not only as understanding society, but as criticizing and transforming society as a whole.

Critical Theory requires being reflective and critical about our daily practices and the relationship between theories and the way we behave. These emphasizes on our daily practices and the theories and our behaviours put importance to the role of ideas, culture, communication and dialogue (Steans et al., 2010). This relationship shows us the close bond between theories or ideas and actual social practices and understanding this bond is important for us to explore Marx’s ideology and perspective.

With the emergence of Liberalism, the inequality among the society was growing fast and this was a result of a choice, according to Liberals. In Liberalist thought, individuals are separate from society and they are taken into account one by one, not as a society because society is created through a contract among people – like marriage. So, they say that economy is also a result of the choice that individuals made on some basis and as a result of this choice they may either be rich, or be poor; any choice is a result of their free will. In the light of this new perspective, there was a growing inequality among the society as it is mentioned above. The new emerging middle class was enjoying the benefits of freedom, but a huge population of workers were selling their labour daily in order to survive. This had created two dimensional realities. One of them belonged to the new bourgeoisie that was “enjoying their freedom” – what Liberalism suggested, and the other one belonged to the workers who would describe their reality as oppression and exploitation, so they had almost no control over their lives. It can be said that Liberalism did not explain the human nature and its truth, it just reflected the perspective of the dominant class.

Critical Theory emerged in such period and as it is mentioned above it had some distinctions when we consider both orthodox Marxists and Critical Theorists. One difference between structuralists (or orthodox Marxists) was that the structuralists, as we can understand from the name, focused on the structure or the mechanism of the existing capitalist system. However, the Critical Theorists said that it is needed to be focused on social relations, culture and ideology, not only the mechanism itself. It is also needed to challenge and eventually change them from the bottom to the top.

Another difference of Critical Realists from the Marxists was that the Marxism said that society can be understood scientifically since there is a clear observation in capitalism on the basis of exploitation and expropriation and it is easy to objectively measure the inequalities among the society through the distribution of wealth. On contrary, Critical Theorists say that all knowledge is ideological and connected with social routines and interests, so we cannot say that scientific understanding works in full accordance. Steans et al. (2010) says that “We can only evaluate theories according to how far they capture the mood of the times and the configuration of forces at work in any given society and historical period, and whether they support or challenge the status quo.” So, I think we can say that this is the main opposition of Critical Theory to the mainstream theories. It tries to challenge the existing conditions, not tries to protect the status quo. They try to provide alternatives to the existing conditions, unlike mainstreams’ aim to problematize them.

The third difference of Critical Theory from the orthodox Marxists and in my opinion from the other mainstream theories is the way they see theory and the practices separately. In positivism for example, the object of the theory and the one who observes it is separate. But Critical Theorists say that these two cannot be separated from each other since it would become meaningless if we do so. They say that we first make sense of our world with our critical capacities, we then act in accordance with our knowledge, and at the end our behaviours confirm the correctness of our theory (Steans et al., 2010).

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Another difference between Critical Theory and the mainstream theories is the issue of change. In the mainstream theories like realism, change is not something that is predicted. Relations between economic and social entities do not change according to them. But this is not the case for Critical Theory. Critical Theorists’ main focus is the human emancipation from the oppression of economic structures. But since the economic, social and political structures are tied closely, the change and the emancipation of people are prevented in the existing system. Critical Theorists opposes that and says that people and the state have a kind of autonomy on change that reflects the forces in society. So, one important criticism about Liberalism from the perspective of Critical Theorists is on this issue. Liberals, supposedly, argues and supports individual freedom and thus freedom; they prevent the change and freedom for the whole society via existing economic and class system.

Another point that Critical Theorists differ from the Marxism is that criticals say that the only group that has been oppressed is not the classes among the society; minorities are also oppressed according to their gender, religion, race, and ethnic origin. Marxism mainly concentrates on the class struggle and the oppression of classes in the society, but there are no signs for the oppression of other minorities in a society. This is a big difference in my opinion, because one thing that mainstream theories do is that they generally focus on one main group or one main point and that point would not be an inclusionary point or group.

As it was mentioned before, one main point for Critical Theorists is the understanding of reality. In mainstream theories like Realism, reality consists of what is out there, what is observable and the change of the reality is not possible so much. But for Criticals, change may occur with the change in ideas of people, change in concepts, and change in theories and I think this is a very important point for Critical Theory.

Another important difference of Criticals from Realists is about the agent-structure debate. In Realist perspective, the relation between agent and structure had explained the deficiencies of Realism with the relationship between the international system and concepts like anarchy, and the main agents like states or what they would call as units. But in the minds of Critical Theorists, states are not the only agents that have the privilege and priority, or they are not the only important actors of international system. As they believe in change, they also suggested that change may come with the help of Non-Governmental Organisations or social movements. Steans et al. (2010) said that “Societies are always to some extent undergoing forms of change and transition. If these tendencies are correctly understood, it is possible to intervene and influence, to some extent, the direction of change. Human beings, then, become conscious agents of social change.” So, this is a big opposition to Realist perspective of state-centrism. It can be said that Critical Theorists, at this international actors point, became closer to Liberalism, because in Liberalist thought there are attributions to international cooperation through NGOs and attributions to social movements – even their cooperation idea is not the same with Criticals.

They also criticized the alienation of human beings in the capitalist system. As in Marx’s thought, people in the capitalist system become alienated to their work and to their everyday life after some time. Even what is proposed by Liberalism is the freedom and liberty; workers are not free to choose what they do or what they buy and how they spend their leisure time. Even sometimes they do not have a leisure time. So, after a while they become alienated from their ideas, their path to human happiness and they cannot achieve satisfaction. The Frankfurt School was born in such a condition that the capitalist system was in a big crisis (The Great Depression of 1930s). They have seen the unhappiness of people and the nearly collapse of the capitalism and they thought that the revolution of the proletariat would come but it did not happen, on contrary, people had supported right-wing populist or fascist politicians.

As we can see, the Critical Theory came into being in the 1930s, but we can see its effects in the International Relations after 1980s. It had affected by the Marxism like structuralism or neo-Marxism, but it had many differences and many criticisms to it and to the other mainstream theories of International Relations. One of the biggest arguments of Critical Theory is that the knowledge and the reality is not all about science or not all about the existing; but rather, they are related to the ideas, culture, and other conditions that people’s characteristics are born within. Also, they suggested that there is a close relation between theory and daily practice as oppose to the positivists’ sharp distinction between the theory and its object. They also criticized the two different reality understanding of Liberalism, especially because Liberalism’s main point was to provide the individual liberty and freedom of choice but the inequality among the society had sharply grown and people who had to sell their labour became desperate to survive and so they became alienated from their jobs, their theories and their ideas. Also, the Criticals differed from the Marxists on the basis of structure. Marxism was so focused on the mechanism of the capitalism and they forgot about the other struggles of the people. They said that it is needed to be focused on ideologies; culture and these are needed to be challenged in order to change. From this sentence, we can understand that the Criticals believed the change unlike the mainstream theories like Realism. Realism’s and other mainstream International Relations theories’ effort to preserve the status quo that exists is another thing for Criticals to criticize. The mainstream theories are the problem-solving theories that try only to point the problem and try to solve it, they severely propose an alternative to it and this is what Criticals criticized. Criticals try to produce alternatives to the existing problem. As it is mentioned above, Criticals have believed in change among the system and the structure, unlike mainstream theorists. They believe in the emancipation of people and the emancipation of people would bring the change in the system because states and people have some power on their lives to fight for change, even though there are limitations due to the economic and political system in international and domestic arenas. Another point that they made was about the main topics of Realism. In Realist perspective, the only and most important actors in international realm are the states and nothing more. But critical theorists say that through Non-Governmental Organisations and through social movements people might bring the emancipation and eventually the change. At this point, I think Criticals come closer to Liberals on the basis of NGOs and social movements – if we think them as groups of cooperation. They also criticized the Liberalism on the basis of their argument of individual liberty and freedom. Liberals suggested that the liberty of individuals will be provided through the choices of people’s own, but in the end it brought the alienation of the working class and imprisoned them into a struggle of survival.

To conclude, the Critical Theory had made a difference and brought a multidimensional perspective to the International Relations, in my opinion. What we call mainstream theories have always focused on one main point and left the other issues of society and people aside. Realists have focused on state and its priority in the domestic and the international realm, Liberals have focused on the individual liberty and Marxism has focused on the class struggle. But what Criticals have tried to do was to bring more than one focus and said that there is a relationship between all of them; society, individuals, theories, classes and international society are all tied and we cannot focus one of them and leave others aside. So, I think Critical Theory have brought some very valid criticisms to the mainstream theories and I think this is what all theorists should do; focusing on one main point would not bring the success, considering all dimensions may bring the success.

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