What is Critical Theory?: Its Theorists and Major Ideas Simply Explained

Max Horkheimer. Getty Images.

Critical theory is a form of social criticism that studies society. Society is put “under the microscope” through analyses of political economy, domination, exploitation, and ideologies. Critical theorists are interested in how society creates systems of domination and oppression, and they often draw insights from historical thinkers like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

Critical theory seeks human emancipation. It is not merely theoretical but also practical in its fusion of theory and action. According to James Bohman, critical theory is,

“the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.. [it is] practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression” (1).

The moral dimension is apparent in critical theory seeking to increase and maximize human happiness by establishing universal conditions allowing all people to realize their positive capacities (such as striving for freedom, sociality, cooperation). Critical theorists want to attain and maintain a better world.

Origin and the Frankfurt School

Critical theory as a tradition originates in the sociologists Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), and Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). These thinkers were a part of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, an institute founded in 1923 hoping to develop Marxist studies in Germany. The major issues engaged in the School were critiques of modernity and capitalist society, and it wanted to explain the dynamics of social change. Critical theory has since had a considerable influence on the intellectual landscape of Western Europe and North America.

There is a “broader” notion of critical theory extending beyond the Frankfurt School and its theorists. This broader critical theory includes theories not associated with the philosophical traditions of the initial generation of theorists in the School. Rather, it refers to anything “critical” of contemporary culture and society, such as post-colonialism, feminism, deconstructionism, critical race theory, media studies, queer studies, and other disciplines seeking to transform circumstances perceived to oppress human beings. 

Critical Theory’s Characteristics, Thinkers, and Goals

According to Horkheimer, critical theory must meet three standards (2):

  • It must be explanatory, practical, and normative in that it explains what is wrong with current social reality,
  • Identify the actors to change it,
  • Provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.

Critical theory wants to identify and explain what is wrong with social reality and those capable of transforming it through social transformation.

By pursuing emancipation, the critical theorist is concerned with the social struggles of exploited and oppressed groups. Emancipation (meaning “liberation from”) was central to the Frankfurt School’s political views since its beginning. Horkheimer advocated this stating critical theory to be “liberating” and seeking “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (3). Critical theory wants “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of” human beings (4). It seeks the abolition of classes, exploitation, and all forms of domination.

Critical theory is transformative because it seeks the transformation of society to one in which peace, wealth, freedom, and self-fulfillment are obtained for all. It is a combination of theory and practice, and synthesis of philosophy and social science. Any study of culture and society must be situated in concrete historical contexts where economic processes, factors, and systems affecting human thought are considered. Here Horkheimer (and Theodor Adorno) focused on commercial media arguing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) that media is a consciousness industry that easily manipulates a passive and irrational public. They focused on how media influenced the thoughts of people and encouraged them to think about their lives.

Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), an assistant to Adorno in the School, has been interested in communication and society. Society must be understood as a blend of three interests: work, interaction, and power. Work refers to efforts to create necessary material resources and is instrumental as it requires working through tasks and attaining objectives. Interaction is the use of language and symbols for communication. Power leads to distorted communication. It is by becoming aware of ideologies dominating in society, that one can become empowered to transform society. For Habermas, critical theory is emancipatory and can empower powerless groups. An emancipated society is one free from unnecessary domination and in which all have the same opportunity to take part in decision-making.

Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory explored the triumphalism of capitalism and how it eradicated any political opposition to it. The majority of people see no reason to rebel against a system that appeared to meet their material needs. People are controlled by the system and rendered incapable of carrying out a revolutionary role.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) analyzed civil society and culture. He wanted an answer as to why there was not more of a reaction against modern capitalism given the system’s exploitive and dominating features. The answer lay in the dominant ideas woven into the fabric of civil society, the family, the education system, and so on. His theory of hegemony noted how bourgeoisie ideas were ingrained within the fabric of everyday institutions. He argued that in a class-based society, dominant powers inhibit critical consciousness and offset any radical activity of the working class. Hegemony came to be seen as a process of domination where one group in society exerts leadership over others. The upper classes supplement their economic power by creating intellectual and moral leadership. 

Louis Althusser (1918-1990), the leading theorist of structural Marxism, was interested in ideology and refers to “Ideological State Apparatuses”, namely institutions such as the educational system, legal system, art, and media maintained by the “Repressive State Apparatus” (the police and army). The Ideological State Apparatuses disseminate and reinforce the values of the dominant ideology. The critical theorist wants to identify how ideas serve the cause of the ruling elite.

Critical theory concerns itself with the dynamics of power and control. Michel Foucault (1926–84) was interested in the hegemonic factor of power in creating and maintaining social systems. These systems caused the exclusion of certain social groups, which motivated Foucault to be a campaigner for the marginalized, such as homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and prisoners. Foucault described his research as “archaeologies” attempting to bring to the surface suppressed discourses. Doing this would show that cultures are founded on “legitimized” power rather than on notions of truth or justice. Foucault saw how social control is exerted over certain people. For example, the mentally ill were institutionalized in asylums and any supposed deviant behavior became subject to strict monitoring by the ruling authorities.  

Critical Theory in the Broader Sense

Critical theory is embraced in other disciples and fields of inquiry and boasts several influential thinkers.

Post-colonialism traces back to Edward Said (1935-2003) and his book Orientalism (1978). Said was foremost interested in the way the Orient (the “Middle East”) was constructed in Western culture as a mysterious “other” onto which Western fantasies are projected. Through projection, the West could exert political control over the East. In Said’s words, “Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (5). Said drew insights from the work of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) explored how black colonized races internalized the ideas of their white colonizers. The colonized came to ascribe their blackness as having almost entirely negative associations. In Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fanon defends violence as legitimate in overthrowing colonialism. 

Indian philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (b. 1941) is an influential postcolonial thinker and leading member of Subaltern Studies at Delhi University. She is concerned with how “Indian women” have occupied a “subaltern” position” in which they are oppressed by both traditional notions of patriarchy and colonialism. Spivak defines the “subaltern” as those being in an inferior position culturally and subjects to oppression by people and groups more powerfully placed within the dominant ideology. It is apparent how this applies to colonialism (the colonized oppressed by their colonizers) and feminism (women often oppressed by men).

Feminism is another area where critical theory is popular. Existentialist thinker and feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908-1986) book The Second Sex (1949) has influenced modern feminism. Her ideas challenge society which demands “feminine” behavior from women and “constructs” them in opposition to men as the assumed dominant sex. To become a woman is being indoctrinated into a certain code of behavior that, for de Beauvoir, can be resisted. The black feminist bell hooks (b. 1952) and her book Ain’t I a Woman (1981) are influential in feminism. hooks identifies how black women are discriminated against culturally. In what is similar to Spivak’s subaltern, hooks articulates,

“When black people are talked about sexism militates against the acknowledgment of the interests of black women; when women are talked about racism militates against a recognition of black female interests. When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women.”

There is, according to hooks, a double neglect and suppression. Black women are left out of the discussion when matters of racism and women’s rights are discussed. The black female experience is neglected and suppressed, which underly hooks’ advocating for a “politics of difference” in which “multiple black identities” can be allowed to express themselves” (6).

Critical theory is fundamental to queer theory addressing the nature of sexual identity. Most influential is philosopher Judith Butler (b. 1956) who wants “to destabilize the entire system of sex regulation” and “binary oppositions such as gay/straight”. One of Butler’s major ideas is that gender is a “performance” and “a kind of impersonation”. Personal identity is a fluid notion with no “centre” or “essence” to it. Butler strongly contends against “compulsory heterosexuality” in society, which accounts for her attraction to “drag” that challenges gender identity. 


Sim, Stuart. 2014. Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide. London: Icon Books Ltd.

Fuchs, Christian. Critical Theory. PDF. 

1. Bohman, James. 2005. Critical Theory. Available.

2. Bohman, James. 2005. Ibid. 

3. Horkheimer, Max. 1982. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. New York: Continuum. p. 244.

4. Horkheimer, Max. 1972. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. London: A&C Black. p. 246.

5. Said, Edward. 2014. Orientalism. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 3.

6. Randall-Tsuruta, Dorothy. 1983. “Sojourner Rhetorically Declares; Hooks Asks; Kizzy Spits in the Glass.” The Black Scholar 14(1):46-52. p. 49.

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